by Lynda Goetz
‘The Death of Grass’ is a post-apocalyptic novel written in 1956 by English novelist Samuel Youd under the pen name John Christopher. It is about a virus, originating in Asia, which initially destroys the rice crop, causing famine and mayhem. For a while the West looks on from a distance, uninvolved, unaffected. However, the Chung-Li virus mutates, enabling it to destroy grasses (Gramineae or Poaceae), including, therefore, the cereals upon which the West relies for much of its food supply. The Western governments play their cards close to their chests. As lawns and pastures turn brown, crops wither and grazing animals die, society starts to break down.
This piece of 1950s science fiction was out of print for many years but is now generally regarded as one of the great works of the post-apocalyptic genre. Whether or not you like the characters or agree with the way the author sees societal breakdown happening, the premise upon which this novel is founded is by no means beyond the bounds of possibility. Grasses and the related crops are one of the foundations of our civilization (as indeed Yuval Harari noted in ‘Sapiens’). There is no doubt that those who have lived through Covid and are increasingly aware of the damage mankind causes to his environment can at least begin to see how little it takes for the civilization and natural world we have taken for granted to be reduced to nothing.
Until this summer, apart from contemplating the scenario of Mr Christopher’s novel, I had never really thought a great deal about grass, or should I say grasses, because it is the many variety of meadow grasses which I have really noticed this year. For different reasons, the fields of Devon in which I frequently walk my dogs have, this year, been left uncut for longer than usual. Instead of walking across a sward of short green stuff, with huge rolls of baled hay stacked by the hedges, we have watched as week by week the grasses have grown up and changed their appearance. They are now at least waist high so that the dogs leap through them like small springbok, bouncing above the fronds so that they can see what lies ahead. I wade, hoping that the ground underfoot does not contain the equivalent of potholes, created by rabbit diggings or any other earthworks of animal origin. The butterflies rise up in front of me.
To my shame, I had no real idea how many varieties of grass there can be in just one field. Worldwide, there are apparently over 10,000 species (12,000 according to some sources) distributed among over 600 genera. There are just 160 species commonly found in the UK but it is not always easy to identify them! The Woodland Trust website has some excellent photos and identification for four of the most common grasses: Meadow foxtail, Yorkshire fog, Cocksfoot and Timothy. The pictures show the grasses pre-flowering and in flower and also gives their Latin names. As the Forest Stewardship council (FSC) says on its website, “Grasses form the matrix of a wide range of habitats in Britain and Ireland”. Given their importance to habitat and habitat management, the FSC produced ‘A New Guide to Identifying Grasses’, by Hilary Wallace in 2021. It seems I am not alone in having difficulty identifying them.
So, apart from their beauty, which I and perhaps many others have overlooked in favour of the more colourful wild flowers, grasses can form an important part in habitat creation. In sand dune systems, grasses with extensive rhizome systems play an important role in stabilising the dunes, preventing erosion from wind and human footfall. Similarly in areas of mud flats. Meadows, apart from providing farmers with a cash crop of hay, are also important ecosystems in their own right and worldwide, excluding Greenland and Antarctica, grasslands (such as savannah and prairie where grasses are dominant) are estimated to constitute 40.5% of the land area of the Earth. In many continents grazing animals like buffalo, the various antelopes and other ungulates shape the landscape, as well as providing sustenance for the far fewer predator animals. In the UK meadows and other grassland areas provide homes for creatures such as rabbits, mice and other small rodents, as well as cover for larger mammals like deer which lay up in the denser grass. Should you have the chance to walk in meadow grass, you will almost certainly come across flattened areas where one or more deer have spent some part of the day or night.
For insects and birds too, grasslands provide both sustenance and cover. The Wildlife trusts website provides information and explanations of the various different grasslands in the UK from ‘Lowland meadow and pasture’ to ‘Coastal Floodplain and grazing marsh’ and ‘Upland calcareous grassland’ with references to the history and geology as well as the flora and fauna to be found. Although it is not always easy to access these different types of landscapes, for many of us some time spent in our own country appreciating the things around us, which it is so easy to ignore or take for granted, may perhaps be time well spent before we dash off on a plane to our next foreign holiday destination.
Grass may for many people just be the green swathe between flowerbeds in parks or gardens or the stuff growing on the edge of roads and motorways. For others it may be the area where sporting events take place: cricket pitches; the parade ring or indeed the course for Ascot and other horse-racing events; the courts at Wimbledon; the rugby pitch at Twickenham or football pitches around the country (although many of these now contain at least a proportion of artificial grass), but it is a great deal more than that, and in an age when the environment is so often talked about, this is one aspect of the environment the importance of which to our whole way of life should not be overlooked. Nor should its inherent beauty.
(All photos courtesy of Lynda - Ed)