Friday, March 12, 2010

Are Grasses Sexy?

Grasses, as viewed from a modern perspective, are not very sexy.  Their value increases when they are viewed in a monoculture, appear lush and green, and are consistently cut to a smooth surface. The desire to trim acres of grass around a dwelling is known in our family as OCMD (Obsessive Compulsive Mowing Disorder).
Wildlife in general doesn't thrive in the monotony we call a well trimmed lawn.  Certainly there are exceptions.  Grubs seem to thrive there, and are followed by moles and sporadically by an invasive armored mammal known as Texas speed bumps or armadillos.  Some flowers have the audacity to expand in the sunlight exposed by mowing, thriving until attacked. These are addressed with the derisive term of dandelions.
Birds such as robins enjoy the easy foot travel over the smooth surface.  The development of lawns and their close kin, golf courses, have encouraged cowbirds to expand their range to the entire continental United States, no longer tied to the fate of the buffalo and its replacement, cattle.  Cowbird's spread exposed a wide range of birds to their predatory nesting habits.  All this will be saved for a future rant.
So why has Olivia Judson in the New York Times nominated them for plant of the month?  Well we wouldn't be "us" if it weren't for grasses.  Considering the following.
More than fifty percent of our diet comes directly from grasses such as wheat, rye, maize, sugar cane and barley.  And we haven't even talked about meat.  As a carnivore in Missouri, I am dependent on grass burners such as cows and chickens.  I would never make it on catfish and tilapia alone.
It is unlikely that we would have ever developed a civilization (such as it is) without grass.  Until we domesticated grass, we were dependent on hunting and gathering which required constant movement.  Planting and harvesting grasses allowed us to develop cities, a way of life that evolved into lawn mowers and golf!
Judson's article Evolution by the Grassroots should be  required reading to understand the evolution of grass, and as a byproduct, humans.  I will save my cowbird rant for later.  Remember, no grasses means no bread or beer.  Maybe they are sexy after all.
Olivia Judson writes a column in the New York Times.  She is the author of Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation, The Definitive Guide to the Evolutionary Biology of SEX, which is quite sexy if you are a bird or insect, but is a great read for humans.

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