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The Forgiveness of Nature: The Story of Grass

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The author explores the world of grass from every possible perspective. He explains its role in history, and elaborates on the botany of a grass field or lawn in fascinating detail.

384 pages, Paperback

First published September 1, 2001

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Graham Harvey

51 books13 followers

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Displaying 1 - 4 of 4 reviews
Profile Image for Richard Reese.
Author 3 books152 followers
February 9, 2018
I grew up in the battered remains of a once vast hardwood forest in Michigan. I was lucky to spend my childhood wandering in a small surviving remnant. My forest was a sacred place. To me, the western plains felt dry, empty, bleak. But my oldest ancestors evolved on the arid savannahs of Mother Africa — grassland with scattered brush and trees. Grassland was where the big game hung out, and they were good to eat. Recently, I studied horse history, and learned a lot about the vast steppe grasslands of Eurasia. They were also home to big game and nomadic hunters.

I began to get curious about grass. There are maybe 12,000 species of grass, and they inhabit climates between the arctic and equator. More than half of the calories consumed by humankind come from three grasses: rice, wheat, and corn (maize). Others include oats, barley, millet, sorghum, sugar cane, and bamboo.

Clive Ponting noted that in the last 300 years, the world’s grassland has increased 680 percent. The forests of the U.S. Midwest were destroyed to grow corn, wheat, and livestock. The Amazon rainforest is being destroyed to create cattle pasture. So were the rainforests of Britain and Ireland. The list is incredibly long. I discovered that a British grass worshipper, Graham Harvey, had written a passionate book, The Forgiveness of Nature: The Story of Grass.

Nature “forgives” humankind’s tireless vandalism — deserted roads, villages, and battlefields are eventually covered with a healthy carpet of greenery. “Like the horse and hyena, Homo sapiens is first and foremost a creature of the grass,” wrote Harvey. The Bible says “All flesh is grass,” because all flesh is mortal: green today, brown tomorrow; but God is eternal. In 1872, John James Ingalls of Kansas offered a different interpretation. “The primary form of food is grass. Grass feeds the ox: the ox nourishes man: man dies and goes to grass again; and so the tide of life with everlasting repetition, in continuous circles, moves endlessly on and upward, and in more senses than one, all flesh is grass.”

Harvey described the heartbreaking story of the American prairies. Farmers first arrived during an unusually rainy period. They plowed under lots of turf, tapped the fantastic fertility of the rich black soil, and had fantastic harvests for a while, until drought returned, and the Dust Bowl blew away millions of tons of degraded soil. Within 50 years, the party was over. Farming continues today, with significant yields, but the heavily diminished soil is kept on life support by fertilizer, pesticides, irrigation, and fossil fuel.

Native Americans enjoyed the abundance of the prairie for free, hunting herds of 50 million bison. Observers described one herd that was 50 miles (80 km) long and 25 miles (40 km) wide, maybe 480,000 animals. American colonists now use the prairie to raise 45 million cattle, in a capital intensive, fossil fuel powered enterprise that degrades the grassland. Bison evolved on the plains; they grazed and then moved on, allowing the grass to recover. Cattle moved too little, and they were heavily overstocked. Regions of the once-rich ancient turf was “grazed practically to dirt.”

Montana writer Richard Manning summed it up. “Seventy per cent of the grain crop of American agriculture goes to the livestock that replaced the bison that ate no grain, and one wonders, what is agriculture for?” Cattle don’t need grain, but farmers are subsidized to grow enormous surpluses. Harvey lamented the rape of the prairie, “It was a biological powerhouse, rich in wildlife and with a productivity no modern farming system could match. Yet Americans waged a ceaseless war on this priceless asset, and now it has all but disappeared, its life snatched by the quick cut of steel or slowly sapped by overgrazing.”

Harvey carefully described the many ways in which evolution ingeniously created grasslands that could survive almost any challenge — except civilization. They created soil-building humus, which retained moisture and accumulated nutrients. Many plants have very deep roots, up to 32 feet (10 m), which bring up nutrients. They can tolerate fire, drought, and grazing. In fact, they need grazing, to nip off the first shoots of woody shrubs and trees that would compete for sunlight.

Back in the good old days, on the steppe and prairies, the bison and other grazers manicured the turf, and the wooly mammoths controlled the woody plants. With the mammoths and mastodons gone, and elephants fading, humans in many regions around the world have adapted “firestick farming” to expand grassland area, control woody vegetation, improve the vitality of the forage, and attract game. Burning off the dry grasses eliminates hiding places for game, and provides a banquet of roasted grasshoppers and other delicacies.

Grasslands are arid, receiving just 10 to 30 inches (25-50 cm) of rain per year. In wetter prairies, grass can grow tall enough to hide a horse. Lands getting less than 10 inches are desert. More than 30 enables forest. Britain is wet, not arid. Its grasslands are manmade. The land was once largely a rainforest. Over the centuries, nomadic pastoralists gradually cleared trees to expand meadows for their cattle, sheep, and pigs.

In Harvey’s mind, this was the golden age, an era of wonderful freedom and easy living — before the arrival of farming, drudgery, serfdom, and oppressive nobility. It doesn’t occur to him that wild Britain was even freer, when the ancient forest thrived, home to red deer, wild boar, wolves, and aurochs, and the Thames was loaded with salmon. Tragically, agriculture displaced the nomadic herders, “setting Britain on its momentous path to ownership and exclusion, enclosure and dispossession, industrialization and urban living, to factory farming and genetically modified foods.” Harvey screams “Why?”

Sheep sped the Brits down the road to ruin, a sheepwreck. The climate was ideal for producing wool of exceptional quality, which became a major industry, and made many people very rich. This led to the enclosure movement, during which peasant farmers were evicted from the land, so their fields could be converted into valuable sheep pasture. The wool gold rush generated much of the capital needed to launch the industrial revolution.

Many of the evicted farmers migrated into rapidly growing urban slums that were crowded, filthy, and disease ridden. They were joined by hordes of desperate refugees from the Irish Famine. This generated widespread discontent that could not by soothed in gin palaces. The fat cats got nervous, fearing unrest and revolution. Grass came to the rescue. Liverpool, New York, and other cities began building parks, providing islands of green sanity amidst the industrial nightmare world.

Delirious from perpetual growth fever, Brits joined the Americans in racing down the dead-end road of industrial agriculture — synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, big machines, fossil fuel, monocultures, feedlots, mega-farms. Maximum yields were the goal, the topsoil, the ecosystem, the grandchildren. This explosion of pure idiocy drove poor Harvey bonkers. He goes to great lengths to enthusiastically educate readers on the magnificence of healthy topsoil, and the many ways that spectacularly stupid people foolishly destroy it.

His grand vision is a wise transition to organic mixed farming, a three-year rotation of winter grain, spring grain, and a fallow of grasses and red clover — combined with regular application of all available manure. While this is better than the current norm, there are some important drawbacks. Every trainload of wheat shipped away to London includes essential nonrenewable nutrients that will never be returned to the farm. The soil nutrients sent to London stay in London, where they are mixed into toxic sludge. Anything less than 100 percent nutrient recycling is an enterprise with an expiration date.

Britain usually has gentle rains, so less soil is washed away than in the U.S., where torrential downpours are common, and soil erosion is a huge problem. Harvey asserts that mixed farming can heal the wrecked soil, rebuild the humus, and restore the millions of tiny creatures that thrive in healthy soil. If people did this everywhere, enough carbon could be sequestered in the soil to snuff climate change. Listen to this: “A return to sound husbandry in agriculture would end global warming without the need for motoring cuts.” Oy!

When my Norwegian ancestors settled in Iowa in 1879, folks were astonished by the coal black topsoil that could be up to 12 feet (3.6 m) deep. This super-fertile soil was created by thousands of years of healthy tall grass prairie. Today, this treasure is nearly gone. Plows are turning up yellow patches of subsoil. A wise elder once concluded that the plow has caused more harm to future generations than the sword.

Harvey explores many other subjects. His book is easy to read, and out of print. It will inspire you to psychoanalyze the suburbanites who spend thousands of dollars obsessively maintaining spooky freakshow lawns that look as natural as Astroturf. They must spend their nights having sweet dreams of chasing antelopes across the endless prairies.
Profile Image for Stephen.
641 reviews14 followers
December 11, 2017
This splendid book combines botany, soil science, sports, agricultural history, social history, livestock-rearing, the significance of urban parks and even a history of the lawnmower. The author is not a stylist like Henry Beston or Aldo Leopold but has a poet’s touch and a scholar’s memory. Though published in 2001, the book is relevant to today’s keen interest in regenerative agriculture as one way to mitigate climate change. The dominant theme of regenerative agriculture is reducing the excess of carbon in the atmosphere by sequestering the element in soil at the same time as releases of greenhouse gases from agriculture are sternly reined in. Sequestering carbon in soil is done through growing plants in that soil, grasses being the most widespread and adaptable for the task. Through the forgiveness of nature, this process heals soils damaged by loss of their organic matter content from plowing and erosion.

I especially liked the life and career stories of Robert Elliott, Sir R. George Stapledon and Sir Albert Howard. These said (not heeded by many) that humankind should nurture soil. Most sentient persons these days think about air and water as precious resources but don’t realize that soil is as precious and as much in jeopardy as the other two. My wife’s late father would have loved this book. He was a member of the Soil Association and pioneered important soil conservation methods in New York State.

One complaint is that the paper quality is poor, already yellowing.

“A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child?. . . .I do not know what it is any more than he.
I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.
Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropped,
Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we may see and remark, and say Whose?”
Whitman, Leaves of Grass
Profile Image for Juliet Wilson.
Author 15 books42 followers
September 2, 2019
Subtitled The Story of Grass, this is a fascinating account of how grasses have evolved with humans and the role they have played in agriculture, gardens and sports.

The book looks at how nomadic people have depended on grasslands for their livestock and modern forms of pastoral farming, including the best ways of looking after pasture to ensure the health of both animals and soil. It looks at how science now helps groundskeepers look after the grasses that form the pitches for football and tennis and which grass species to choose and why. The author looks at the history of gardening and the changing fashions around lawns in suburban gardens and extensive grasslands in country estates. There's also a section on the history of the lawn mower.

Everything you want to know about the human relationship with grass is probably covered in this book.
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