"Praised be my Lord for our mother the earth, the which doth sustain us, and keep us, and bringeth forth divers fruits, and flowers of many colors and grass." - Song of the Creatures, by Francis of Assist.
The late Oliver Wendell Holmes, in one of the most exquisite passages of all his work, has suggested that homesick longings for earth may come over unreasonable human nature even in the courts of heaven itself, and that eyes may turn from all the glory and the glow, with reminiscent craving for the cool color and graceful billowing of blowing grass, starred with daisies and with dew.
To one who has seen a region, however beautiful, which lacked grass, the sentences in which the author has expressed his feeling come with peculiar force. For no splendor of semi-tropic sunshine, no blue of water and sky, no grace of palms, can compensate to the landscape for the loss of the humble plants, constantly trodden under foot of man, and chiefly valued for their utility as fodder.
Fig. 36. - Some familiar grasses.
In fact, as Mrs. Stowe wrote in one of her Florida letters, "You never realize what grass is - till you have to do without it".
But in temperate regions grasses give character to the whole landscape. They foster the wild life of the fields, forming sheltering bowers in which small animals hide from their enemies, and ground-nesting birds rear their broods.
Grasses are the basis of a large proportion of the higher life of the globe, for no family of plants equals them in usefulness as food for man and beast. They give us corn, oats, wheat, barley, rye, rice, and sugar. Our bread comes directly from grasses, and, as they feed the flocks and herds, our milk, cheese, butter, meat, and leather come from them indirectly.
So they enter into close business relations with the farmer, the stock-raiser, the miller, the baker, the shoemaker, the saddler, and the exporter. After the grain has been gathered, the stems which upbore it are peculiarly adapted for use in many industries. And, lastly, the grasses are doing, slowly and continuously, what the world's great soldiers have sometimes done in a single battle, for they are determining boundary lines.
Most grasses have a strong rootstock, often called a root - really an underground stem. It creeps horizontally beneath the surface of the soil, sending fibrous roots downward and leaves and stems upward. It survives severe winters and parching droughts, and young blades grow up from it in spring, or on the return of rainy weather.
To this family habit we owe, in great measure, the beauty of the fields and the life of grazing animals, for if all grasses grew from seed each year cattle would soon exterminate the very sorts which they like best.
And the subterranean rootstocks of grasses are extremely useful as soil and sand-binders for wave-beaten and wind-swept regions.
All down the sandy ocean coasts a war is waged, unceasingly, between the sea and the land. The robber-waves, like an attacking army, seem forever trying to overwhelm or to carry off the land. The land tries to withstand and repel them.
Each of the principal combatants has formed an alliance. The waves are helped by the wind.
The land has its assistants, too, - a humble host, - whose work is done quietly, and chiefly underground, but whose combined aid is invaluable. These are the coast-grasses, whose stems bend to the winds, but whose widely-penetrating roots bind the sands in a network of tough fibres, and defy the encroachments of the waves.
On the Atlantic seaboard, from Canada to Virginia, the coastwise sand-dunes are overgrown with the "marram-grass" or "sea sand-reed" (Fig. 37).
Its strong rootstocks often attain a length of twenty feet or more, and become closely interwoven, forming a netlike mass which is very resistant to the force of wind and sea. Further south the "little panic-grass" takes up the good work, and gives permanence to the coast-lines of Florida and the Gulf States. The running mes-quit of Arizona and the alkali-grass of the plains help to hold in place the shifting soils of the great thirst-lands. Several species of mud-binding grasses give solidity to the shores of the great lakes and render the banks of the Mississippi and its tributaries more permanent than they would otherwise be.
The public services of such grasses as these have been acknowledged in high places. During the reign of William the Third the English Parliament passed laws to preserve two species of grass which act as sand-binders along the storm-beaten Scottish coast. Severe punishment was to be inflicted upon whomsoever should destroy these good friends of the nation, and even the possession of any of their stalks, within eight miles of the coast, was a penal offence.
Fig. 37. - "Marram-grass," "beach-grass," or "sea-sand reed" (Ammophila arundinacea of Gray).
(From Bulletin No. 7 of the U. S. Department of Agriculture, "American Grasses").
In Holland like laws protected the grasses which have made it possible for the little country to hold the lands so laboriously wrested from the North Sea.
Cape Cod folks, once upon a time, were legally compelled to turn out every April and plant marram grass, - much as the inhabitants of some rural districts must give a certain number of days' labor, each spring, to the work of road-mending. "Town and harbor of Provincetown owe their preservation to this grass," says Lamson-Scribner.
At one time Provincetown had a "beach grass committee," whose duty it was to enter any man's enclosure, summer or winter, and set out marram, or "beach-grass" as it was called, "if the sand were uncovered or movable".