So my friend Jeannie, who works in land conservation, reminded me last week:
A long time ago, you and I had a conversation about cheatgrass. I maintained that it was noxious and provided no nourishment while depleting scarce water resources and taking over where native plants would have thrived. You said that all plants have a purpose. What did you find out about the purpose of cheatgrass, one of the most widely disliked and dangerous plants in all of the fire-sensitive world?
What a great question! It sent me back to living in Santa Fe some years ago, pulling cheatgrass out of my yard daily, and writing a blog post about it.
Here’s my answer: I don’t know! I don’t know the purpose of any living being, to tell the truth. We living beings aren’t like mops or brooms, made for a specific use. Living purposes are inscrutable. We might, after a lifetime of watching, be able to say one or two things about the purpose of our own life, for starters, but a fuller picture about purpose lies way beyond the scope of human understanding.
Dislike prevents us from seeing clearly
Yet here’s one thing I do know: that when universal dislike gets heaped on one being or one form of life, it is hiding something. Dislike is a strong emotion, and it will get in the way—every time—of seeing a fuller, truer picture. Hate prevents us from seeing clearly.
A bigger picture
And the research does suggest there is a bigger picture. For instance, there’s finally some research being done on the nutritional value of cheatgrass. For decades everyone believed—without actually studying it—that cows won’t eat cheatgrass once it’s dry, and dry grasses don’t have any nourishment. (Call it an old husbandman’s tale?)
But a study in 2001 showed that if cheatgrass gets a little late-summer rain, it’s great for fall grazing. And another study from a few years later showed that not only do cows eat it in the fall, but that sending animals to graze on it in the fall and winter actually reduces the spread of cheatgrass. After winter grazing for a few years, cheatgrass was diminished and more native plants could take root.
Fighting doesn’t work
And here’s another thing that nature teaches: Fighting it doesn’t work. Cheatgrass itself is a good teacher on this one. Large-scale wars have been waged on cheatgrass with pesticides or by introducing other non-native grasses to keep it in check. Pesticides just poison land and water. Introducing new grasses tends to introduce new problems. The “waging war” mentality simply doesn’t work.
Much better is what one rangeland manager from Reno wrote: “Make peace not war,” he said.
We need to change our perception of cheatgrass and look at it as a resource—something to use and reap economic benefit from. Use it to our advantage instead of spending billions trying to eradicate it.
He practiced what he preached by experimenting on his ranch with grazing the animals on cheatgrass during the fall and winter—with good success.
Cheatgrass and climate change
I’m also intrigued by how cheatgrass might figure into a bigger picture of climate change. As the Earth warms and the amount of carbon dioxide in the air increases, plant varieties may change. Many native plants may not do well on a hotter, higher-carbon environment. Cheatgrass, by contrast, will be happy and hardy on a hot Earth, as this experiment at Colorado State showed. We may need cheatgrass in coming decades to feed grazing animals during fall and winter. Wouldn’t it be something if this hated and reviled invader turned out to be a life saver?
Weeding a garden
If I still lived in cheatgrass country, I would likely continue to weed it from my garden or yard. I’m not likely to cultivate its seeds for a kind of coffee, though some people have used it for this. The seeds are way too tiny to provide much protein, which is why the gruel that can be made from them is called “famine food.” I still get more pleasure out of bending to the earth to weed it than I do from watching it grow. On the small scale of one garden, cheatgrass can be discouraged completely if it’s weeded out carefully over several years. If I’d rather look at other kinds of plants and wildflowers, I would feel free to take out the cheatgrass.
Yet even as I weeded it those years ago, I had to think of that quiet little voice inside raising its pesky little question:
Does cheatgrass know something you don’t?
Perhaps its wisdom will become visible only decades or centuries from now, long after my lifetime is over.
So I clearly don’t know the purpose of cheatgrass. But I’d like to remain open to what it has to teach. And I’d like to be guided by an ethic of living in partnership with other species rather than being at war with them. War on nature is costly, and we never win. Pulling in the opposite direction from the one that forces way bigger than us are pulling is a losing proposition.
Like it or not, people in the American West are now yoked with cheatgrass. And cheatgrass is a powerful force. Wouldn’t it be great if we could learn to pull in the same direction?