It was such a pleasure spending some quality time in Tamara’s My Botanical Garden on Monday. Thanks, everyone, for welcoming me with such enthusiasm. It’s fine to share stories of the gardens of this earth. It’s a double pleasure to come back with another story of ancient gardens. This one extends my story about lichens that we posted a couple days ago. Let’s set the scene by stepping back to the lichens again, where they live in a garden billions of years old yet just hours new. They have, I’d like to suggest, effectively stopped time. And that’s a good thing!
Marmot, Peshastin Pinnacles, Washington
Because of the lichens on these rocks (and the blue skies they created), the inevitable decline of Earth into a kind of Martian desert was slowed and even reversed, creating time for creatures like this to evolve and to prosper. Those are some of the old, uplifted volcanic plutons of the Cascade Mountains in the background.
Neat trick! Here’s how it’s done…
Lichen Demonstrating How to Keep a Planet from Losing its Atmosphere
The secret? Be like the rock, but … instead of crumbling away, crumble onto something. This turns the crumbling energy inside out.
Billions of years is a long time — time enough for other plants to thrive in the lichen garden called Earth. Of course, if lichens were the only plant blooming in town, the earth might look like this:
Kind of Looks like a Photo Taken by a Mars Rover, Doesn’t it.
Well, except for the highway and the car. (See it?) Actually, it’s the volcanic wasteland of South Iceland, covered with grey lichen about 15 centimetres thick. It extends for hundreds of kilometres, just like this.
This was all rich farmland before the Lakagígar volcanic eruptions of 1783 that reduced the Icelandic population to 20,000 starving, choking, poisoned souls. Here’s a view of the disaster, looking over it to the upland pastures that are all that are left of the farms of the region …
Iceland’s Grey Lichen
Those are some of Iceland’s green, grassy hills in the back — as well as the catastrophic paraglacial flood gorge of Fjaðrárgljúfur.
Grass, tiny trees and flowers are lodging in the lichen now and setting down roots. It’s not volcanic rock that provides them with a foundation, but the lichens. The way I see it, the newcomers aren’t growing so much in earth as in lichen. Life roots in life. Like this, sort of:
Moss Making A Home in an Old Lichen, Bella Vista Hills
Mosses are algae that figured out how to survive on dry land. It took them almost 3 billion years longer than the lichens, but they made it, too. Sometimes in the spring it’s all too good to be true: a lichen can sometimes look exactly like a miniature, landlocked sea.
In terms of the Okanagan and the other volcanic regions of western North America (where this blog has its home), this story is especially resonant: both grasses and this region came to life between 50 and 65 million years ago. Back then, the area was covered in volcanoes (as the coast still is today.) Grass and the Okanagan are sisters. As a hint towards what they found here, here’s the remnants of one of those volcanoes:
Giant’s Head Mountain, Summerland
The original stratovolcano was likely some 3,000 metres high, before multiple continental glaciers carried all its rubble away, leaving its frozen core. The name, Giant’s Head, comes from the shape of the mountain from the lakeside (behind and below the mountain). It is one of the traditional landforms of Plateau culture.
Likely, it was lichens that first grew on the new volcanic slopes here, as they do in Iceland today. The first grasses to root in those lichens were likely some of the first grasses anywhere. Maybe they looked a bit like this…
Blue-Bunched Wheatgrass in the Floor of the Flood Basalts, Dry Falls State Park, Washington
Those are the old ones, the yellow lichens, spilling down the cliffs like the sun. Photograph made at 45 degrees Celsius in late July. What a beautiful day that was!
Not only did the new grasses of the hot, dry new lands of the North American West (and the Asian Steppes, African Savannahs, South American Pampas and the Australian Outback) replace lichen (just as they are doing in South Iceland now), they evolved from lichens in the first place. In other words, the grasses are a stage in the blooming of lichens into full expression of their identity. Things work both ways in this story: to understand grass (and humans), understand lichen; to understand lichen, understand grass. Here’s the grass that got me to thinking of all this:
It’s rather like a crocus, isn’t it! In case you were wondering, all that bare glacial till is a road cut that the grass is moving into.
There’s a story in the grass. It’s not quite like the story of the lichens, that are powered by the earth’s annual trip around the sun just as they have been for a fifth of the age of the universe. It’s more that the grasses are powered by cycles of heat and dryness, caused in part by carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere and in part by the atmospheric influence of the grasses themselves. Grasses, that like heat, heat things up, which leads to hotter grasses and increasing atmospheric change.
Junction Sheep Range, Cariboo-Chilcotin Grassland
It was on grass like this that humans became human. This is our native habitat. Let’s take a minute to honour our sisters, the grasses, as the wind blows through them and they carry it in waves, like water.
The soft contours of the hills in the above image are created by the winds falling off of the depressurized eastern slopes of the Coast Mountains — winds created on the open Pacific by the rotation of the Earth. They never stop (That’s a good thing!) The contours above are beach dunes — two hundred kilometres from the ocean and across an almost impenetrable barrier of mountains, glaciers, and volcanoes. They’re not new, though. This is the way they were 10,000 years ago, when the continental glaciers melted away and the fine silt of these post-glacial lake bottoms dried in the dessicated, re-pressurized wind — the winds, we might say, blowing off of the sun. The deeper the valleys, the hotter and windier it gets, as if the winds were rushing to the centre of the earth.
Richter Pass and Chopaka
According to the elder and storyteller Mourning Dove, this was the Traditional Centre of the Syilx World. The light-coloured fields in the middle ground of the photograph host a species of miniature, desert shrew — an isolated population surviving here hundreds of miles north of its relatives in the hot country to the south. That’s what deep valleys in the lee of coastal mountains can do. (By the way, I was raised by the valley a few kilometres to the right, and north, of this mountain. It’s the centre of my world, too.)
Bunch grasses survive in this extreme climate that would draw eleven times as much water out of the soil as falls in snowfall and rainfall if it were not for the crust of lichen acting as a skin on the earth. One technique they use is to harvest water from an area far greater than their small, living hearts.
They are the dominant creatures in the landscape. Each lives on its own, precisely spaced from her sisters. They do not make sods.
Bunchgrass harvests extra water by the trick of maintaining its stalks for multiple seasons. The growth of past years harvest waters for the present and for the year to come. Here’s a picture taken at dusk with a flash, to highlight the stalks, after a year of failing to get a decent picture because the grass just blends in so well…
Blue-Bunched Wheat Grass in Its Winter Plumage
There is a small green clump of grass at the base of these outstretched old stalks. Water from dew and rain collects on the stalks, then runs down to nourish the plant at its base — leaving too little water between plants for much else except for flowers and lilies, which show themselves aboveground for just a few weeks a year and then wait it out in the dark. Like the lichens, the bunchgrass is buying time. It is doing it by buying water.
It’s not the only way to be a grass. Here’s another dryland North American grass that buys time by changing its supply of light.
Corn under the Harvest Moon
Corn is one of many grasses that utilize a specialized form of photosynthesis that reuses air until it is completely harvested of its carbon dioxide, then it breathes it out. This efficiency allows it to mature in areas otherwise too harsh for a full season.
Like all daughters of the lichens, the grasses are used to pretty extreme conditions — the kind you might expect to find on a planet in open space. Planets like that sometimes dry out, especially when the waste breath of the grasses tends to heat things up. Here’s a grass that has embraced the whole scenario, with style …
Needle and Thread Grass, Bella Vista Hills
Needle and thread grass seeds are attached to long threads, which curl when dry, hook on the long, overhanging stalks, and hang just above the lichen crust on the soil. The daily heating of the sun causes the threads to flex and then unflex daily. The seeds have a drill point on their tips. Day by day in this way, they drill themselves down into the lichen, where they sprout. Here’s my earlier post on these beautiful grasses.
Grasses are all about buying time. Here’s one that buys time from everyone around it: the lichen, the grasses, the flowering plants: everybody. It’s called cheatgrass, it’s invasive, it has destroyed most of the grasslands of the West, its sharp seeds stick in your socks and drives you nuts, and it’s a survivor:
Cheatgrass in its Happy Time
It takes all the water, before any native plants are ready to use it, it replaces the macrobiotic crust, it extirpates flowering plants and butterflies, and it dries up into explosive tinder by mid-summer. Give it a match and it goes up to gasoline — just in time for its 900 pounds of seed per acre to choke out anything else trying to reestablish itself in the ash.
Cheatgrass is also ready to photosynthesize the instant it comes out of the snow. It buys time by using everyone’s at once. And now, here’s one more way in which the grasses of our botanical garden here in the old volcanic country in the mountains skirting the North East Pacific Coast buy time:
I just love this stuff. It has yet another way to buy time: store lots of food in its underground rhizomes, spread throughout the late fall and late winter, when the soil is soft and cool, and sprout early, with vigour, to get above anything else that might be there. Forget about photosynthesizing. You can do that later.
The red pigment indicates that no green chloroplasts, the little cyanobacteria traps within grasses, are present. Whereas many lichens are unions of cyanobacteria and fungus, in grasses, the cyanobacteria are trapped by the grasses’ DNA and replicated over and over again. It’s like this stuff is going through the whole process of evolution all in one season, over and over again, year by year by year. As the air warms up and photosynthesis becomes possible, the first green appears in the leaves (This year, about two weeks after the shoots appeared.) …
Notice the bright green cheatgrass making its move at the bottom of the image.
It won’t be long before these grass blades are fully green and towering over everything else in sight — even the cheatgrass. On these intricate, self-replicating chemical structures drawn out of the earth by the energy of the sun, and on their mothers, the lichens, and the mothers of them all, the light-eating cyanobacteria, all life depends. Each form of life has its own niche. Lichens reverse the flow of time. Grasses manipulate it and concentrate it, and make it possible for creatures to live within the energy fields that they create …
Kind of asking if we would just remove that wire so they could visit the fillies in the pasture across the road… pllllllleeeaasssseeeee?
And what do humans do with this amazing gift of the grass? Ah, landscape (a verb.)
Mountains nicely-eroded by sheep in the background.
The harvesting that was once done with the energy created by grass, harnessed by grass-like human ingenuity to horses, the animal most perfectly the spirit of grass, is now performed with large machines powered by dead plants compressed under heat and pressure deep underground — plants from an age long before there were grasses of any kind. The effect is increased carbon dioxide in the air and a younger, hotter earth — one not suitable for a multitude of other species that came to life in the webs that grasses made of the sun, or like horses and humans who came to life in the grasslands and remain dependent upon it.
The Grasses of the Okanagan Indian Band Walk Home on an April Afternoon
If you want to see what a master photographer can do with grass, why not have a look at the book I wrote with the photographer Chris Harris: Spirit in the Grass. It has 300 photographs and was a labour of love.
Thanks for walking in the grass with me today.