Shhhhhhhh. The wind is given voice by the grass. The wind has no sound if not for the things it passes through, around, within. It is not the sound of the wind, but of the grass.
The wind does not scream in the lines. The wind allows the lines to speak their sound. Shhhhhhh…. Blades twisting. Hissing. The softer the wind, the softer the sound, asking more of our attention. A mother to a child. A reminder to be still. It is the sound of the grass that tells us to be quiet. To listen. Listen.
Fall is the season of the grasses. They have grown as tall as they will. They have put their roots as deep into the earth as they will ever reach. And now they turn color. Stains of purple run through slender blades. Gold stalks and bronze seed heads. Movement. They are nearly always moving. The grasses are the first the wind speaks to. They hear each other’s whispers first. The wind trusts the grasses the most. Perhaps only the water knows the wind better.
Grasses are the paintbrush strokes of our landscape, the movement in the painting. Banks of upward motion on hillsides, fields, dunes, and roadways. They push through the cracks in sidewalks, fill marshes, and are a soft understory of our forests. They are so constant it is easy to overlook them. Then one September day you notice the golden-purple seed heads of the switch grass on the side of a back road and it stops you. They seem to contain space without ever defining its edges. The sound of a mother’s voice stills you. Shhhhh. And suddenly there is a whole world of grasses all around you.
They are everywhere and you love them. You stop mid-conversation as you pass a field of little bluestem and look. Annealed copper stems reach up from the ground, holding seed tufts for the wind to carry away, little cotton puffs held like downy fluff in the beaks of tiny birds. All you can do is sigh.
The hair grass in the pine woods reveals its network of spider webs in the fall dew and you see the golden stems bend in the breeze as if of one mind. You apologize when you pluck a stem to set between your teeth. Your attention is drawn, as you drive up the highway, to the median, where the seed clusters of the purple love grass have become a haze of purple smoke low to the ground. The compass drawn in the sand by the beach grass guides your wanderings in the dunes. And your memories of walks in the woods are tinted the vibrant green of the Pennsylvania sedge, clinging to the eroding edges of dirt roads, masses of glowing life tickling your hands as you move along.
Woven hills of grass and fields mean possibility. To our animal brain, it is safety: wild, but not untamable. It can be turned under. It is not the unknowable darkness of a forest and all that hides there. It is not the barren expanse of hot, dry dirt that spells thirst and death. It is green, soft, alive. It can be walked on, or through. It can be seen over. It feeds the animals, which in turn feed us. It is a pastoral ideal that has settled comfortably into our meaning-seeking brains. Grasses have a deeply rooted place in our minds.
Grasses are wonderful plants for the garden. In our gardens, we seek to bring the natural world into our own sphere. We aim to create a space where we can borrow the textures and feelings of the woods, the fields, the dunes.
One could build a garden entirely of grasses. It would be a space of subtle yet deep color. It would be a feast of textures. Their lines draw the eyes upward. They bring movement and sound. Fall color and the rustle of drying blades tell of the passage into winter. Just as their leaves are a stage for the wind, so too are the seed heads a stage for the light. They seem to glow in the low angle of an early fall sun. The silver sprays of the miscanthus seem to wear a halo of their own light, ocean water sent up into the air.
Grasses require little maintenance aside from an annual cutting of their dead. My mom burns them in late winter on a still day when the ground is frozen.
And they rise again. Like a fire slowed down. Growing unnoticed until one day the wind blows and you hear it. Or see the wind made visible as it swoops across a marsh. The grackles rise, pulling all the sound from the world with black wings. When they have gone, only the wind remains, giving voice to the grass. Shhhhhhh. Reminding us to listen.