The Family of Grass
Children love going barefoot. I was no exception while growing up and, despite my parents' best efforts, I constantly went without shoes in our family home in Sylhet. It felt light and nimble. A special thrill came from running barefoot in the grass of our lawn – a lawn which separated the two bungalows that comprised our home. Whenever I walked there, its thick, coarse grass with pointed tips, feeling moist and clammy under my feet, tickled and poked my sole. The tantalizing sensation of grass under my bare feet is one of my first ever tactile memories.
For most urban people, grass remains a symbol of nature, a convenient if minimal way to connect with mother earth without the hassle of trees, mud, bugs and rocks. Once, many homes in Dhaka and other towns of Bangladesh were adorned with grassy front lawns. But today, skyrocketing land prices have made lawns unaffordable, and with them, the grass children once grew up with.
Grass that beautifies lawns is part of a large and varied plant family called Poacae, the fifth largest family of plants with over 12,000 species in it. Poacae has impacted human civilisation perhaps more than any other group of plants. Domesticating certain grass species with edible seeds was an important step in the transition of Homo Sapiens from hunter-gatherer to agricultural man, the beginning of our march to civilisation.
Today, the grass family exerts an overarching influence over human civilisation in diverse ways.
Take food, for example. Our important cereals include rice, wheat, barley and corn. Together, these constitute the prime source of carbohydrate in the human diet. We all know the importance of rice in the Asian diet. But did you know the role of corn in the American diet? In his book The Omnivore's Dilemma, author Michael Pollan shows the uses of corn, both as food and fodder. Corn grown in American fields – millions of tons of it – is harvested, processed, deconstructed and reassembled into numerous food items from chicken nuggets to salad dressing to sweeteners. And of course corn is fed to cattle and poultry which feeds Americans.
The grass family gives us virtually all our sweets. In addition to corn sweeteners, note that sugarcane is a member of this family.
Beyond human food, grass is also important for cattle. If you visit the haors in winter, you can see droves of cattle – cows and buffaloes – which are grazed there for fattening.
A surprising member of the grass family is bamboo. Its strength and flexibility make it useful in many ways: construction, fencing, scaffolding, roadbuilding, even clothing. But did you know that some varieties of bamboo are among the fastest growing plants on earth, growing as much as two inches in 24 hours?
Beyond the practical, the grass family also enhances our aesthetic pleasure. Take the Kash flower, for example, which blooms during autumn. Whose heart is not moved watching a field full of dazzling white Kash, set against the sky full of autumn clouds? Kash belongs to the grass family.
In the fields of Purbachol, I have lost count of the hours I have been held spellbound by birds, dragonflies, bees and butterflies flying, feeding and playing in the grass, tall and short, that they call home.
Grass may be far from our urban high-rise flat, but it remains close to our heart, like an umbilical cord connecting us to nature. That's why we talk about our grass roots and sing about the green grass of home.