by Tom Lee
In Bill Gammage’s remarkable book on the land care practices of the first Australians, The Biggest Estate on Earth,‘grass’ is among the most frequently indexed words. It’s up there with ‘Europeans’, ‘animals’, and ‘forest’. In the ‘grass’ entry in the index the reader is told to see also “clearings; fire; grass names; plains”, and the subcategories include: introduced, native, beside water, corridors (see also belts, paths), and on good soil. The word’s semantic reach includes more than half the book. Why is this word so central to Gammage’s thesis? Because the first Australians were experts at caring for land that was a subtly designed mosaic of grass and forest. As Gammage systematically argues in the first part of the book, earlier settlers frequently described the landscape they confronted as “park-like”, in the sense that it combined seemingly purposeful arrangements of open and closed spaces, albeit with no groundskeepers’ cottages. In the descriptions of the early colonists that Gammage cites, grassland and forest were said to merge such that fields of grass would grow amongst sparse woodland, without the dense undergrowth common to scrublands and bush.
Unsurprisingly the kinds of grassy landscapes Gammage describes tend not to go together with the probable living spaces of modern Australians, especially those who live in cities. I’m reminded of this fact whenever I walk past Prince Alfred Park on Cleveland Street and admire the “Indigenous Grassland”, implemented as part of the City of Sydney Urban Ecology Strategic Action Plan. It’s a particularly favoured vantage of mine across the city, with the silhouettes of the skyscrapers in the distance foregrounded by the park and what is usually a pleasing variety of outdoor sporting activities, including tennis, basketball, soccer, Frisbee and the more esoteric exercise routines adopted by those on the outdoor gyms.
Looking across at the city from this spot, I realised some time ago how resoundingly unfamiliar it was to see the iconic skyline of a modern city in the proximity of messy, lank grass—especially the motley, almost fleshy coloured reddy-green-pale yellow mass of kangaroo grass here. From the right perspective the kangaroo grass forms its own silhouette against the sky, and it’s easy to imagine that its tall stems would be a CDB of sorts to an insect.
Lawns are the kind of grass I expect to find in modern cities, characterised by homogeneity of colour, blade length and species. And while lawns no doubt offer far less to bugs and critters, I do have a soft spot for them also, perhaps not to the extent that would justify their current abundance.
Lawns seem the product of a highly regulated, geometric understanding of space, with definite edges, evenness and flatness prioritised. Lawns don’t hide anything. They facilitate the symmetry required for games. The messy kangaroo grass in Prince Alfred Park does not belong to the same spatial paradigm. Indeed such messiness is antagonistic to the smooth space of lawns. I’m tempted to assert here that one grassy paradigm belongs to a topographical understanding of space and the other a topological. What I mean by this distinction is that one model is about bringing a certain area under control through mapping, whereas the other is about interrelational possibilities of different spaces and shapes. The plastic systems of burrows supported by tall grass isn’t the kind of environment suited to topographical mapping, where everything is either an inside or an outside, not both at the same time.
In 2012 I touched on the subject of grass in a paper I wrote for the first issue of the Environmental humanities Journal. I quoted from a poem by Martin Harrison titled “A Patch of Grass”, in which the poet focuses on a “Small patch of earth” and from that seemingly humble demarcation of space strings together a cascade of glimpses, directed both outward and inward, such that at the poem’s conclusion there is a sense of having learnt something, albeit difficult to articulate, about the way perception works as part of a broader ecology. Harrison’s patch of grass is a buzzing, networked space that appears to deepen as the poet looks into it, telling stories of the longer journeys that have led to particular arrangements of rock, slope and species. It certainly suggests a topological rather than topographical understanding of space, as different surfaces and observations seem to curl and deform into each other, in a manner not unlike the Mobius strip, which is an emblem of topological thought.
Grass can seem like chaos or noise, and even the perceptual lie of perfect flatness, as seen in golf greens and cricket pitches, hides a buzzing profusion of networked layers that offered the French philosophers Deleuze and Guattari a perfect alternative to the organized, hierarchical form of the tree. Here I’m also reminded of that classic scene toward the beginning of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, where the camera zooms into the vague, darkened, mulchy disarray of what previously seemed to be a perfectly kempt suburban front lawn. All the while the fuzzy, granular spray of the garden hose augments the move away from clear and distinct perception witnessed in the visuals with a similar sense of impossible to differentiate multiplicity and the feeling of being overwhelmed that sometimes goes with it.
While previously grass in the tradition of European landscape gardening has perhaps been associated exclusively with horizontal space, the trend now seems at least in part to be tending towards the vertical, with grass walls not an uncommon feature of green architecture. But in a sense this is simply the flatlands of horizontal grass reappropriated on another dimension.
Grass is something of a formless form, and this is perhaps why in Gammage’s index we see it shaped into corridors, belts and paths. Unlike trees that seem to have a slightly more hardened form, grass flows, sprays and bends in a chaos of directions that warrant comparison with liquid, as the expression ‘sea of grass’ attests. Perhaps tall fields of grass would have also provided Leibniz with a good analogy for the microperceptions he described as crowding in on the edges of clear and distinct consciousness (Deleuze 1993, 86). His ‘go to’ example was the noise of the ocean, in which one can hear lots of sounds going together without being able to distinguish them as such. The same goes for a field of grass, we know it is composed of many stems and blades, but we have no hope of perceiving each of those blades in a clear and distinct fashion. Instead we view the grass as a fuzzy mass.
Readers please include references to other grass poems in the comments if you know of any, would be most grateful.
List of works cited
Deleuze, Gilles. The Fold: Leibniz and The Baroque. Trans. Tom Conley. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.
Gammage, Bill. The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2011.
Harrison, Martin. Wild Bees: New and Selected Poems. Crawley: Western Australia, 2008.