Sunday, January 27, 2008

Cheat Grass

What’s still green: Conifers, rose stems, yuccas, coral bell, sea pink, Saint John’s wort, yellow evening primrose, Mount Atlas daisy, some grasses
What’s gray or gray-green: Salt bush, winterfat, snow-in-summer, some pinks.
What’s red: Cholla, some pinks, small-leaved soapwort, coral and purple beardtongues, purple aster.
What’s blooming inside: Aptenia, geranium, kalanchoë.
Animal sightings: Bird heard chirping Thursday morning when storm preparing to come through.Weather: Ice remains in drip lines, including over the bulb bed by the garage; sprinkling of snow pellets Friday; 10:19 hours of daylight today.
Weekly update: Madeline Bassett pops up in Wodehouse novels to bedevil Bertie Wooster and declaim anthropomorphic images of nature. Everything she sees represents some aspect of the domestic life of the wee folk or God’s wonder-working ways.
Ironically, we use the terms we reserve for successful, if unscrupulous, businessmen for the plants we hate: aggressive, unfair competitive advantage, adaptable to deteriorating conditions, opportunistic. It’s as if plants, like women and Blacks, violate the natural order if they exhibit any of the competitive characteristics of men and large mammals.
Take cheat grass. Mine started growing late last fall, and now it’s green along the western faces of my fence and garage. Even though some is still buried in ice, it can resume growing as soon temperatures reach 37 degrees. People whose hobbies have been shaped by Hollywood’s world of perpetual sunshine find such as ability to thrive in winter abnormal.
Come spring, the annual will be the first green grass, almost dense enough to pass as a lawn. Then, in May, it turns red with seed and soon after dies. The drooping seeds attach themselves to socks and fall apart when touched, so every thin, brittle beard of every spikelet has to be removed individually. It becomes an eyesore just when city folks are ready to visit national parks.
Worse, Bromus tectorum, is not a native. It evolved in arid Asia before herbivores and has spread through overgrazed lands, especially in the Great Basin, as a mute reminder of our love for beef. Further, it spread when fire was used to eliminate unpalatable scrub. It also expands when grazing is stopped to restore the range because cattle and sheep controlled it by eating it before it sets seed.
While cheat grass didn’t create the situation, it’s blamed for perpetuating it. The stalks are curing just as fire season begins and its dead litter feeds wildfires that destroy other more desirable vegetation. In many drier areas, the native plants weren’t adapted to fire, and failed to recover, leaving cheat grass to hold the soil, at least against severe spring winds.
Some ecologists think it may be impossible to restore areas of the more arid intermountain west to their pristine pre-Columbian condition because too much damage has been done to the structure of the soil crust itself. In those areas, cheat grass may be an inescapable, permanent feature of the landscape.
None of this makes the grass welcome in my yard. I leave it along the drive where my tires keep it in check, and it prevents worse plants, like Russian thistle, from germinating. There I can enjoy it as it turns from bright green to a silvery haze of waving stalks to deep red patches, before dying tan and sere. But, I could just as easily enjoy it along the road.
When it gets near my garden, I pull it whenever I happen to be weeding the neighboring sunflowers and marigolds. It comes out with a ball of relatively short, fibrous, dirt-holding roots, that leave enough of a hole to cause problems if they had been pulled before the plant produced seed, when winds were high and nearby plants not yet established.
If I were a mule deer or bighorn sheep, I might think differently. I certainly would appreciate it right now, when its crude protein is about 20% and it’s all that’s green. But then, come April when the plants are ripening and the nutrients declining, I would have to roam elsewhere.
In this area, I wouldn’t have to go far, but in the more arid west where it’s the only plant that grows for acres, I might be reduced to a starvation diet of rain sopped stalks with 2% crude protein. Populations of black-tailed jack rabbits decline in those conditions, as do the numbers of birds that prey on them and other small mammals.
So why do people who eschew the sentimentalism of Madeline Bassett revert to anthropomorphic terms for cheat grass? When something lives on a different biological clock and uses our best management weapons against us, we have few words to describe it and nothing but metaphors to vent our frustration and helplessness.
Wodehouse, P. G. For instance, Right Ho, Jeeves, 1934, and Jeeves and the Tie that Binds, 1971.

Zouhar, Kris. "Bromus tectorum," 2003, in United States Forest Service, Fire Effects Information System, available on-line.

Photograph: Cheat grass growing around remains of perennial four o’clock near water frozen in garage drip line; dead grasses are needle, cheat and three awn.

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