Within Walt Whitman’s poem “Song of Myself” is a section known as “A child said, what is the grass?” The narrator has been asked the question, and, after admitting that he does not know himself, attempts to answer anyway.“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 remembrance designedly dropped, Bearing the owner’s name somewhere in the corners, that we may see and remark and say Whose? Or I guess the grass is itself a child…the produced babe of the vegetation. Or I guess it is a uniform heiroglyphic, And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones. Growing among black folks as among white, Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressmen, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive them the same. And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.”
It’s as if, through presenting these guesses, the narrator is working through his thoughts out loud until arriving at the final line, the assertion that grass seems to be “the uncut hair of graves.” He is no longer guessing; and this confident decision leads into the second half of this section, in which the link between the living and the dead is examined.
But let us go back and examine the original question for ourselves: what is grass? What is so special about it that it is cultivated and pampered for our lawns and landscaping, and yes, our graveyards?
This nearly ubiquitous plant belongs to the Gramineae family, which contains more than 9,000 species that are the dominant vegetation in many habitats, from grassland to saltmarsh, reedswamp and steppe. In addition, grasses have adapted to thrive in rain forests, deserts, mountains, and intertidal zones. Humans depend on grasses for an incredible number of things: for clothes, food, beer and whiskey, paper, sugar, plastics, and food for our livestock.
The grass plant itself can be annual (living only one year), biennial (two years), or perennial (comes back every year). Most varieties are herbaceous, with a soft stem, though some are woody, possessing a permanent hard stem. Leaves are always basal, which means they grow directly from the bottom of the stem, which is why the grass of your lawn grows back so efficiently after being cut. See below for a diagram of the parts of a grass plant:
So what’s so great about grasses? For one thing, they’re a main part of many people’s diet worldwide. Grasses provide our cereal crops as well as sugar, rice, corn, and feed for both wild and domestic animals (which we eat!) Grass also cleans the air and conserves water. Due to its sheer volume, grass traps more than 12 million tons of dust and dirt and to absorbs hundreds of pounds of sulfur dioxide each year. This plant also traps water in its roots and prevents soil erosion; the average grassy yard can absorb more than 6,000 gallons of rainwater. As an added bonus, the grass in your yard helps to keep you cool: according to Oregon State University, yards with grass lower the surface temperature of the ground 30-40 degrees when compared with bare soil.
So now we can think about the function of grass, and about its parts and its uses, but do these answer Whitman’s question? After his initial musings, Whitman decides he knows what the grass is. The poem changes at this point to be a tender meditation on the people who have gone before us, those unknown who have left only their names on a slab, or perhaps nothing at all but the uncut hair of their graves.“What do you think has become of the young and old men? What do you think has become of the women and children? They are alive and well somewhere; The smallest sprouts show there is really no death, And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it, And ceased the moment life appeared. All goes onward and outward…and nothing collapses, And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.”
In this poem the existence of the grass gives Whitman hope about what happens at the end of our lives. The people we loved are alive and well somewhere, maybe not as something we would recognize, maybe transformed by the magic of biology into something else, but not gone forever. What I take from this poem is a reminder that life goes on, that though one’s physical body may decay, nature allows beautiful life to go on all around us every day, drawing strength and sustenance from those who have gone before. And so birds keep singing, flowers bloom, and grass sprouts anew from a fresh-dug grave.REFERENCES:
“Family Poaceae: Grass Family.” GoBotany.NewEnglandWild.org. Link.
Harris, Tom. 2002. “How Grass Works.” Howstuffworks.com. Link.
Henderson, Desiree. 2008. “”What is the Grass?” The roots of Walt Whitman’s cemetary meditation.” Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 25(3): 89-107. Link.
Whitman, Walt. “A child said, what is the grass?” Read it here.