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In This Place

Light Grass of the Mid-Summer Woods

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For the past week or so I’ve become aware of the tall grass growing in the woods, which now has reached its maximum height of about three feet. It is the common forest grass hereabouts, growing most abundantly beneath open pine woods. It’s very different from the thicker-stemmed, broad-bladed rye-like grass with thick seed heads that lines the roadsides.

This grass is so thin and delicate that it seems incorporeal. One moves through it with no sense of resistance or even awareness. My dog, walking through it, seems to take no more notice of it than gossamer; it is, in fact, vegetable gossamer.

In early June the grass’s emerald stems, barely a foot tall, bend over the diminutive star flowers, like green glass coffins. In autumn, its slender, desiccated stalks fall to the ground, creating remarkably geometric forms: triangles, polygons, lattices and grids.

But now, in late summer, it commands attention, having branched into a multitude of light, delicate panicles that hold clusters of straw-white, miniscule seed-heads. The grass stems are nearly invisible, tapering from 1/16” in diameter at the base to barely a hair’s width at the tip. The seed heads, waving slightly in the breeze, resemble dry, airy, floating constellations of diminutive stars, star mobiles.

I like to draw my hand, palm down, over their barely palpable seed heads. They tickle or scratch, lightly. On the more shaded dry banks of the roadside, they grow high enough that I can caress them out the windows of the car as I pass. They give, how shall I say it, a wonderful light champagne tactility to these dry woods, and in their height they seem sociable, as if asking to be petted.

I feel ignorant not knowing the name of this common grass that I have enjoyed for so many years. But on the other hand, names seem so beside the point to describe such fragile, intricate beauty. I prefer just to call it The Light Grass of the Mid-Summer Woods. I do a few hasty sketches to bring home with me, perhaps to see if I can identify it.

Yet inadequate as my renderings of it are in words or sketches, something in me is pleased to have described this grass so intimately without knowing its official name. It’s like spending an evening with a lovely woman whose name I do not know, seeking no formal identity to impose upon the mystery of the body.

“Identity” — from the Latin, idem, meaning “the same.” In other words, that which has a given identity is always the same, whereas that which has no identity is never the same. For without a name or label, the identity of a plant, a person, or a planet keeps changing with our repeated encounters with it. This is the irony, or ambivalence of formal names: they may initially serve to call our attention to things, but at the same time they shut out perception.