CONTEMPLATING CRABGRASS

Crabgrass 3

CONTEMPLATING CRABGRASS

            Yesterday the sun beat down with the peculiar yellowness that seems to go along with a heat wave.  It is as if you are seeing the world through sunflower-colored glasses.  The yellowness is more than a tint; it is a stain, and the process of staining is ongoing, drenching the green leaves, the wavering asphalt of the potholed country road, and the madman out there jogging doggedly down the side of that road under the lead-like weight of the heat. Even the spots of shade seem yellowed, as if seen through a honeyed haze, or as if the shadows existed in a photograph fading before your eyes.

The golden oppression was also drenching me, another madman with a big straw hat, walking very slowly out into the garden to contemplate the crabgrass, amazed at how a plant as big around as a teacup can spring out to larger around than a dinner plate, seemingly overnight  To add insult to injury, each leaf on a growing stem forms a joint on the round stem, such as you see on round stems of bamboo or corn, but where bamboo stays straight and forms a useful stick, and where corn has a nice ear of yellow kernels to munch at upper leaf joints, crab grass simply produces another stem at each joint, so one stem becomes two, and two becomes four.  What was as in innocuous weed with five legs like a starfish becomes a ten-legged and then twenty-legged creature as it sprawls sideways like a crab, but, unlike a crab, in all directions at once. To make matters worse, at each joint it also can start a new system of roots.  This means if you rip a big plant up, you may leave the tip of one stem behind, and it is rooted and ready to ramble, as soon as you turn your back.

The plant is amazingly good at sucking water from soil you would swear is bone dry. Two days ago there were thunderstorms rumbling all around us, however all we got was a misting that didn’t even drop the temperatures. Other plants, wilting in the heat, didn’t revive, but crabgrass guzzles such slight mists and drinks deeply of dew, looking lush and vigorous and vividly green, even as other plants fade.  Even when you rip them up, when you return to the pile of uprooted weeds a week later you find several crabgrass plants survived, and re-rooted, and are enjoying the compost made by former neighbors decomposing.

What is particularly annoying is that they are perfectly capable of growing straight and tall like other, more well-behaved grasses.  When they are warring other weeds a single root may form five stems, but they all shoot straight up without any dividing at leaf joints, marshaling all energy to escape the shade and pop above all other plants and catch the sun. I’ve seen stems six feet tall. Even in a well-weeded pumpkin patch, where the established plants create such a shade weeds can’t thrive, you will see a crabgrass stalk or two sticking up like little flags a midst the squashes’ thick and overlapping umbrellas. Therefore, considering they are perfectly able to be upright and civilized members of the vegetable kingdom, it seems sheer greediness that, given the slightest chance, they sprawl, and are like hogs or like dogs-in-the-manger, sucking every bit of dew and nutrients from an ever expanding circle. If they had voices they’d likely crackle like crazed misers hugging their heaps of coins, “Mine! All mine!”

Of course I am not all that spiritual myself, when I see one of these twenty-legged spiders exploding green a midst my pepper plants. I am supposed to love my enemies, but when I drop to my knees it isn’t to worship. It is to grab that sucker by his neck, and rip him up, to shake him savagely until his roots are gasping for dirt, and then to sadistically lay him roots up, so he can only wither in the burning sun. And then, down on my knees, I look ahead, and see another, and another.  One I get started I don’t care that the temperature’s ninety and my skin is a shiny, slick sheen that catches the shaken dirt and dust and makes me look very tanned until I shower.  I just go crawling forward like some primitive ground sloth, rooting and ripping and shaking pattering showers of dirt.

After a while the motion develops a tempo, much like the plodding motion of jogging, though it strengthens the upper body more than the legs. Weeding is good exercise. Furthermore, it occurs outside, and blue skies and bird songs are more beautiful than machines at a gym, and rather than costing you anything it pays you with bigger vegetables. Much like jogging, as you rip up weeds you hit walls of exhaustion and then get second winds, and as you plod along you watch your moods go through a kaleidoscope.

Today my mood spun off onto an interesting tangent as I contemplated the crabgrass. It was based upon an interesting tangent I had a long time ago, when I contemplated how much better life would be if I was trying to grow crabgrass.  It is such a sprawling, greedy, spreading plant that the only competitors that stand a chance are the plants that start earlier. (Clover, vetch, lamb’s quarters, pig weed, ragweed and many grasses germinate at colder temperatures.) If you tilled the garden once the weather was warm, and planted crabgrass seed, it would basically overwhelm all other plants, and you could sit back and never need to weed.  You’d have to go to a gym for exercise.

Therefore, some time ago, I decided to see if crabgrass has any use, and what I did was to check to see what Indians did with it, for it had been my experience that if a plant had any use, Indians made use of it. To my surprise I discovered Indians made no use of crabgrass, because it didn’t exist in North America until it was introduced. Furthermore, it wasn’t introduced by accident. It was an actual grain crop, promoted by the USDA in the 1800’s. (You can still buy seed, but only to seed pastures, to create rich forage for cattle.)

Crabgrass  is a type of millet, called Fonio in Africa. One plant can make 150,000 seeds. (I’m glad I wasn’t the guy who had to count them.)  However it is a bit of a bother to husk the tiny seeds. (See  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fonio ) In Africa they pound the seeds with sand.  Then what?  I don’t know; perhaps mix it with water and the sand sinks?

In any case, Corn and wheat had bigger seeds and replaced crabgrass as a crop in the USA.

However, as I weeded in the hot sun my brains began to fry, and I began to imagine plots for disaster movies. After all, that is one reason to grow a garden. You imagine some event occurs, and the supermarkets are empty, and your broccoli, carrots, potatoes and corn save the children, and you are a hero for weeding.

The plot that went traipsing through my imagination involved something you often come across when roaming the internet: The fact corn is genetically modified and the modifications may at some point cause corn become susceptible to some smut or corn virus we don’t know about, and in a single year vast crops could vanish world wide. Vast populations would then be in shoes of the Irish, when their entire crops of potatoes abruptly turned to inedible slime in 1848.  The face of famine would loom and leer across lands where people can’t imagine such a thing.

And what might save the day?  What could we eat with corn withered away? Crabgrass. Crops of crabgrass with itty bitty seeds. Cotton picking Crabgrass!  My worst enemy might become my best friend!

Oh! The irony of it all! However at least I’d be learning to love my enemy.

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