As Hurricane Harvey curved east and north, away from its landfall near Rockport, its rampage through Houston, and its nearly total immersion of the Texas Golden Triangle, families and businesses focused their attention on immediate needs: shelter, drywall removal, mold remediation, and the complications of living without electicity or water.
More than homes and businesses had been damaged, of course. Hospitals and medical centers, recreational facilities, and schools also faced substantial challenges. Entire school districts, poised to begin a new year of classes, were forced to delay their openings for as much as two weeks.
Under normal circumstances, school days missed because of weather would be cause for celebration. But as delay followed delay, more than a few astonished parents and grandparents heard children asking some very unusual questions.
“It was odd,” said one friend. “I was watching the kids, and the youngest one kept asking when he could go back to school. I was surprised by his enthusiasm, so I asked why he was eager to go back. I was even more surprised when he told me, ‘School’s fun. We learn stuff.'”
Listening to her, I couldn’t help remembering my own school experiences. They weren’t always fun — there were those times tables to be memorized, after all — but they were filled with the excitement of discovery, and a sense of achievement. We did have a good bit of fun, and we learned stuff.
My first day of first grade came after weeks of preparation. My mother made a new dress for the occasion, and I filled my new pencil box with #2 pencils, a small plastic sharpener, an Eberhard Faber “Pink Pearl” eraser, a 6″ wooden ruler, colored pencils, and a pair of blunt-nosed scissors.
When the great day arrived, my parents and I already had visited the school to meet my teacher, tuck my pencil box into my assigned desk, and make the name tag I’d wear during the first week.
Eventually I carried my lunch, but like most of my friends I found the thought of eating a hot lunch at school exciting, so I had nothing but myself to take across the street on that first day of first grade: a very small girl who felt impossibly grown up, entering a world she scarcely could imagine.
In 1956, my fifth grade year, Rachel Carson wrote an essay titled, “Help Your Child to Wonder.” In that essay, she asserted:
A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement.
And so it was, through the whole of my grade school years. Despite the inevitable frustrations and failures that accompany the learning process, and despite a natural shyness that sometimes made trying new things difficult, I loved my teachers and was well-served by them.
Step by step, curiosity and a challenging curriculum expanded my world beyond the boundaries of our small Iowa town. To be fair, the world my classmates and I encountered wasn’t always fresh, new, and beautiful — though often enough it was — but time in the classroom helped us begin to sort through the complexities and ambiguities of life.
Neither naive nor unobservant, Carson understood that children’s views of the world necessarily would be tempered by time and shaped by experience. In her essay, she added this:
It is our misfortune that, for most of us, that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood.
On the other hand, she also believed that our best experiences of childhood — the simple joys of curiosity satisfied, of discoveries made, of knowledge gained — could be reclaimed. As she put it:
If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow.
Once the emotions have been aroused — a sense of the beautiful, the excitement of the new and the unknown, a feeling of sympathy, pity, admiration or love — then we wish for knowledge about the object of our emotional response. Once found, it has lasting meaning.
True as that may be for children, it’s no less true for adults.
My relationship with Andropogon gerardii, a grass commonly known as big bluestem, could serve as an example.
Known as “The King of the Prairie,” big bluestem was one of four grasses which dominated the great American plains. In combination with little bluestem, Indian grass, and switchgrass, it provided forage for herds of buffalo, deer, and elk; today, the species still provide excellent forage for cattle and wildlife.
When I first encountered big bluestem in the Flint Hills of Kansas, I recognized it both by its height and also by its “turkey foot” shaped seedhead. I was so taken with its beauty, I began looking at other grasses more closely. Eventually, little bluestem and bushy bluestem became familiar, but other grasses remained a mystery.
On impulse, I gathered a clutch of grasses during a day’s wandering, and brought them back to Texas. For nearly a year they languished in a floor vase, while I made vague promises to myself that “someday” I would learn their names.
Finally, an opportunity arose. Tom Adams, the botanist who confirmed my recent identification of swamp milkweed, was holding a workshop designed to be “an introduction to the basic identification of grasses, using hands-on dissection of diverse species.” I decided to sign up, despite some puzzlement over “dissection.” Who in the world dissects grass? I wondered. And what is there to dissect?
In the first five minutes of the workshop, I got my answers. People who want to identify grasses dissect grasses, and we were going to dissect the spikelets of fifteen native grass samples, using the needles, tweezers, scalpels, and loupes laid out before us.
To say I was overwhelmed would be an understatement. I might as well have been back in first grade.
Still, as the day progressed, I became less awkward with the dissecting tools, and more comfortable with the vocabulary. When I discovered the word ligule lurking in the midst of the lemmas, glumes, paleas, and culms, it was like finding an old friend in a crowd.
I recognized the word from a song written and performed by a favorite Kansas group, the Tallgrass Express. Titled “The King of the Prairie,” it always had amused me that someone would write a paean to a grass. Still, it was a nice tune. Perhaps, I thought, I’ll finally learn what “ligule” means.
And so I did. Like spikelets, ligules differ from grass to grass, making them one of the most dependable ways to identify a species. Whether I’ll be able to identify all the grasses in my floor vase with certainty, I can’t say — but I know where to find their ligules, and I have a song to enjoy while I work.
The King Of The Prairie
Oh the Big Bluestem grows on the prairie’s Great Plains
He can handle the heat and a month without rain
He blankets the pastures with tall purple stems
In the warm summer evenings they dance in the wind
In the warm days of April his first blades will show
And start drinking in sun to send carbon below
The roots take that energy to make the grass grow
In the cycle of life the Big Bluestem knows
He’s the King of the Prairie; he’s the tallest of all
He’s green in the summer and red in the fall
He grows high on the ridge and in the meadows supreme
The cows and the calves love his kingdom of green
He’s the cattleman’s favorite with his bushy green leaves
Those heifers and steers he surely can please
His roots go down twelve feet, his stems reach up nine
When they burn off the prairie, he grows back just fine
He has riches of rhizomes and ligules and blades
And he wears his crown low by the soil for shade
A turkey foot serves as his scepter so high
To carry his seeds for the next summertime
His roots are a fact’ry ‘neath the ground of the plain
They build up the soil and drink up the rain
Those roots grip the ground in the flood and the storm
And hold the grass up to the sunshine so warm
Every time I listen, I smile a little more, and I’ve listened so often in recent days I nearly have the words memorized. “The King Of the Prairie” is botany with a beat: a fun song that’s filled with information, easy to sing, and perfectly fitted for first-graders of any age.
Comments always are welcome.