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California Grasses: Poetry of Form

Photos © 2000 Mark Oatney, text © 2000 Clara Weygandt. All rights reserved. No photograph or text may be reproduced, stored, transmitted, or used in any way - via any electronic or printed medium - without written permission from copyright owner.

Photographs by Mark Oatney
Text by Clara Weygandt

As a child wild grasses were magic. A mysterious, rustling world. I tasted it, rolled on it, laid back in it when it grew tall; and looked up through it to the sky.

In California, grass defines our seasons. Instead of being gray and white, winter becomes the overlap of fall and spring. With the return of rain, new grass sprouts through a fallen maple leaf.  In spring, the hillsides become vibrant green, and in summer gold and silver heads catch the light and cast it back in opulent waves.

Where I live, naturalized grasses like common velvet grass cover the hills. Less vigorous natives like Agrostis pallens are in small evidence: the heads dainty above delicate blades. Why isn't it  more common? I wonder. But neither Agrostis, nor Bromus carinatus -- California Brome -- wispy and straggling, can compete with the more robust invasives.

These invasives affect the land in less subtle ways as well. Driving north on the coast road I see hills scarred with erosion. Shouldn't grass prevent that? A soil scientist tells me how saline soils repel each other; they don't clump when they're wet. This forms hollow piping underground. Eventually these pipes collapse, and the erosion accelerates. He says there's a theory that native perennials with long roots would better hold the soils in place. I realize there is more going on than meets my eye, that the roots hold on to what otherwise would wash away.

Next time I drive the coast, I stop by a meadow, walk away from the road, and lie in the grass. I see the heads above me, feel the blades tickling my
face. What success. What an extraordinary beautiful design. I know certain bunch grasses are over 200 years old, and seeds have been found floating in air currents 5,000 feet up.

I think about grass spreading across the landscape like cloth. How below ground, roots trickle down, curl into cracks in the bedrock, reaching deep, anchoring the earth.


About the Photographer

MARK OATNEY has a BA in biology from UCSC, and has propagated rare plants and tracked Spotted Owls throughout the northwest. Field biology led naturally to nature photography, which allows him to focus more directly on the beauty and mystery of nature.  For more information, or to see a much broader selection of his photographs, visit his website at

About the Author

CLARA WEYGANDT has spent five summers monitoring the revegetation of plants along a pipeline in eastern California. She has published poetry and essays in various small presses, as well as natural history articles in a national dive magazine.  She has a BA in environmental studies from the University of Santa Cruz, California, and is currently working on a Masters in environmental writing at the University of Montana, Missoula.


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