In Praise of Grass

“I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars.” — Walt Whitman

Grasslands and prairies are some of the most imperiled natural systems in the world, says The Nature Conservancy. With this idea tucked into the back of my mind, I left the Midwestern tallgrass prairie this week for my first taste of New Mexico’s grasslands.

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At first glance, the Southwest grasslands seem completely unrelated to the Midwest prairies I know so intimately.  Yin and yang. The plants, birds, and even the animals kept me reaching for my field guides to try and ID them.

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Different birds. Different mammals. And what are these thousands of electrified false eyelashes?

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Ahhh. Blue grama grass. Got it.

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This grass? Native? or invasive?

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Love this golden grass– but what is it?

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I asked the rangers and staff at various nature centers and National Parks we hiked through about my “mystery grasses,” but they seemed surprised at the question. Birds? Here’s a field guide. Mammals? Let me give you a checklist for our site. Grasses? Ummmm. Even here — in these dedicated natural places — grasses are overshadowed by their more charismatic botanical companions.

Although many of the grass ID’s remain a puzzle (I’ve got some ID work to do when I return home), I discovered a few familiar tallgrass prairie friends. Canada wild rye bristles its way through the mountains just outside Santa Fe.

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Little bluestem, a stalwart of the Illinois tallgrass prairies…IMG_0358 2

… brushes color into the mountains around Bandelier National Monument…

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…and paints the Santa Fe National Forest grasslands with scarlet.

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Hello, old friends. Good to see you here.

It’s almost 1,500 miles from Chicago to Santa Fe, New Mexico. Despite some similar grasses, the Southwest landscape could not be more different. Mountains, mesas, and plateaus instead of flat fields of corn and soybeans. Elk, instead of bison. Mule deer, rather than white-tails. The grasslands here, however, share the same status as our Midwestern prairies.  In need of protection.

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In the northern part of New Mexico —at Valles Caldera National Preserve — the grasses fill an ancient crater of a volcano. Elk bend their heads to drink from this stream winding through the fields of short grasses, quenching their thirst.

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In the southern part of the state, November paints the marsh grasses at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in dazzling rusts, tans, and golds. Together, the grasses weave a colorful carpet that underlies deep blue skies brimming with migratory birds. Hundreds of thousands of them — ducks, snow geese, sandhill cranes — use this refuge as a corridor each fall.

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Perhaps learning to love something as seemingly simple as leaves of grass comes from seeing grasses in all their variety. Knowing some of their names. Spending time and work to name those new to us.  Feeling grateful when we find similarities. Exploring the differences.

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Realizing that blades of grass — so often overlooked — stitch together a rich tapestry of colors, shapes, and smells.  A backdrop that creates context for the world we live in.

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How, then, can we not pay attention?

All photos by Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Wilderness trail, Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge, San Antonio, New Mexico; snow geese at BDAWR; blue grama grass (Bouteloua gracilis), Randall Davey Audubon Center, Santa Fe, NM; blue grama grass, Bandelier National Monument, Los Alamos, NM; unknown grass, RDAC;  unknown grass, RDAC; Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis glaucifolius) BNM; little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) , Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; little bluestem, BNM; little bluestem, Santa Fe National Forest, Los Alamos, NM; grasslands, Valles Caldera National Preserve, Jemez Springs, NM; grasslands, VCNP; marsh grasses, BDAWR; sandhill crane, BDAWR; mule deer, BDAWR.

The quote, “I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars” by  Walt Whitman is from “Song of Myself” from Leaves of Grass.

8 responses to “In Praise of Grass

  1. Wow, Cindy– you were out in my neighborhood! I’m volunteering at Bosque Del Apache this winter. Coincidentally, another volunteer naturalist and I were out doing a survey of the grass species along one of our trails yesterday and I thought about my Illinois prairies. Will enjoy seeing them again next summer!

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    • Such a beautiful place to volunteer! Good for you on the grass species survey. Loved seeing the colors and hearing the sounds of the refuge in November — I will never forget my brief time there. Thanks for commenting!

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  2. New Mexico is one of our favorite states. Your photos and prose made me want to return soon. Thank you. Safe travels.

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  3. It was my first trip there and I loved it! So different and yet some touchstones to the Midwest. I can see why you feel such an affinity for it.

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  4. Beautifully done, as usual! In the 6th grade, I wrote a report about ancient Greece from the perspective of – yes, a blade of grass!

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  5. Wow Cindy– you were in my neighborhood! I’m currently a resident volunteer at Bosque del Apache this winter (http://winnieviews.blogspot.com). While the habitat is quite different here, there are certainly a few things that remind me of Illinois prairies– little bluestem, sunflowers, red winged blackbirds, and song sparrows to name a few! Hope you enjoyed your visit to the Refuge. I’ll be looking forward to returning to our Illinois prairies next summer!

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  6. So glad to hear from you Lynne! What a beautiful place Bosque del Apache is in November. Enjoyed seeing the migration in progress while we were there. Thanks for taking time to comment!

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