Tag Archives: Whitman

The smallest sprouts show there is really no death


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
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:

Diagram of grass parts.  (HowStuffWorks.com)

Diagram of grass parts. (HowStuffWorks.com)

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
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

 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.


“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.

Ever unreeling


Few creatures inspire so much instinctive fear as the spider.  Perhaps it is the number of legs.  Or the rotund, hairy bodies.  Or the knowledge that some are poisonous to us, without the understanding of which species pose a threat.  Perhaps it is simply the alien nature of their existence: how they can be unseen and everywhere, so different from us, so impossible.

In the first stanza of Walt Whitman’s poem, “A noiseless patient spider,” the author observes the behavior of a spider as it throws out one silken thread after another:

“A noiseless patient spider,
I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.”

We’ve all seen a spider dangling inexplicably from the ceiling, or watched it escape on its line of filament.  But how does a spider create silk?  Where does this material come from, and why is it so strong?

As it turns out, spiders have seven different kinds of silk, produced by seven silk glands.  One spider cannot make all seven types of silk; instead, males have at least three different types, and females have at least four.  These glands secrete silk proteins (made of strings of amino acids) dissolved in solution.  Liquid silk is pushed through internal ducts and emerges from microscopic spigots on the spider’s spinnerets (organs at the rear of the spider’s abdomen, designed for just this purpose).  This electron micrograph shows the silk spigots in operation:

Image by MicroAngela

Image by MicroAngela

There is a valve on every spigot that controls the speed and thickness of the silk.  As the spigots exude silk, they pull fibroin protein molecules from the ducts.  With the addition of these protein molecules, the silk becomes stretched out and the molecules link in the air.  The spinnerets wind the strands together to become a silk fiber.  Spider silk is incredibly tough and is stronger by weight than steel.  Some varieties are twice as strong by weight than Kevlar, the toughest man-made polymer.

So what have we done to harness this natural resource?  As early as 1710, a Frenchman, François Xavier Bon de Saint Hilaire, showed Europeans how garments could be made from spider silk.  Recently, an entire golden cape (the natural color of the silk) has been created…with the help of 1.2 million spiders.  Companies have also tried to harness the almost supernatural strength of spider silk, though the problem has always been producing enough in quantity.  A company called Nexia successfully created transgenic goats that could produce spider silk proteins in their milk.  Even that wasn’t enough for mass production, and the company went bankrupt in 2009.  Most recently, in 2012, Dr. Craig Vierra demonstrated techniques to develop and process synthetic spider silk from bacteria.  So the search goes on.

Was Whitman thinking about any of this when he wrote “A noiseless patient spider”?  I doubt it.  But he was, apparently, thinking of how humans are not so different from spiders after all.  Spiders spin their tenuous thread to find their way in “the vacant vast surrounding.”  Whitman recognizes this behavior in his second stanza:

“And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.”

In a literal sense, humans build bridges to get from one place to another, planes and cars and buses to carry us there.  But do we not all seek a place?  Do we not seek knowledge and experience and try to understand our surroundings?  Whitman’s soul is doing its best to find a place where he can anchor.  He is casting out his “gossamer thread” and praying it will catch, hoping to be no longer lost in “measureless oceans of space.”  It seems we have much to learn from spiders, perhaps more than we knew.


Harris, Tom. 2002. “How Spiders Work”  HowStuffWorks.com. Link.

Jones, Denna.  2012.  “The gossamer cape: spun by a million spiders.” The Guardian.  Link.

The Journal of Visualized Experiments. “The future of biomaterial manufacturing: Spider silk production from bacteria.” ScienceDaily, 18 Jul. 2012. Link.

“A noiseless patient spider,” by Walt Whitman.  Read it here.

O’Brien, Miles and Marsha Walton.  2010. “Got Silk?”  NSF Science Nation.  Link.