Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Bray and Brie, Brio, and Clio

The child said:

What is grass? fetching it onto me
with gracile beatific hands.

How could I answer the child? Why?

A leaf is a photosynthetic organ, attached
to a plant's stem, that has its own internal
vascular system connected to that of the stem.
The earliest leaves were awl- or strap-
shaped; they are called microphylls. There
are two schools of thought regarding the
evolution of the earliest leaves. One idea,
the telomic theory, sees leaves as developing
by the reduction, called overtopping, and
fusion of lateral branch systems or telomes.
Overtopping means that the elongation of
branch tips is limited. This keeps the tips
close together, allowing them to be connected
by webbing that forms, together with the
shortened branches, leaflike organs. No
discussion of grass, or leaves, for that matter,
can begin without an understanding of
the common interaction of plants and fungi,
for instance, between various fungal symbionts
and the vigorous tall fescue, or common pasture
grass. Perhaps we should begin with a discussion
of the most famous case, that of Acremonium
coenophialum. The genus name reflects the
acrimonius effect of the endophytic fungus
on mammalian herbivores and the farmers
who depend on them.

Bucolic landscapes of many parts of eastern
and central North America have a rich green
hue due in large part to the tall fescue grass
(Festuca arundinacea) so common in these
regions. Tall fescue comes in a number of
varieties, the most vigorous of which was widely
planted throughout the eastern half of the
United States from about 1943 to 1960. The
variety known as vigrous tall fescue (VTF)
was first discovered in 1931 by E.N. Fergus
of the University of Tennessee. Fergus found
the grass on a hillside on the Menifee County,
Kentucky, farm of William O. Suiter. Fergus
noted that Menifee ecotype of fescue was
particularly vigorous, and after seed was
evaluated and passed as suitable for agri-
cultural purposes, Fergus released it to the
farming community as the fescue cultivar
Kentucky 31.

VTF is today, by an overwhelming margin,
the most common type of tall fescue; the grass
now covers about 35 million acres of the
United States. VTF is amazingly hardy and
drought resistant. VTF grows in areas where
other strains of tall fescue cannot, and it even
seems to be able to grow in areas where no
other types of agricultural grasses can survive.
After its release by the University of Tennesee,
it appeared to be a "wonder grass", a uniform
hieroglyphic of fruitful function, a triumph
of American ingenuity and agricultural research.

A child said:

But, but, what is grass? fetching it onto me
with gracile beatific hands.

How could I answer the child? Why?

No rescue? Well... Troubling reports
soon began to surface regarding the dangers
that this tall fescue posed for livestock. Three
very unpleasant livestock disorders, reminiscent
of ergotism, came to be associated with animals
using VTF for forage. One symptom is called
fescue foot. In fescue foot, the animal's ex-
tremities, including hooves, feet, and the tips
of tails and ears, become gangrenous and may
actually fall off. Fescue foot is worst in cold
weather. A second symptom is bovine fat
necrosis. This disease is manifest as lumps of
hard fat in the abdominal cavities of cows,
bulls, and steers. Third is fescue toxicity,
characterized by symptoms such as reduced
reproductive capacity, spontaneous abortions
or prolonged pregnancy, drop in milk production,
slow weight gains, and poor apetite.

It is odd, child, and the insects don't touch it.
The fungus is carried from generation to generation
of fescue by a tiny mycelium. As a lichen propagule,
the threadlike hypha wraps around the grass embryo
while it is still completely within the seed coat.
Later the seed germinates with both embryo and
fungus intact, some kind of weird mold
called american idiom.

Then Peter Moses, Mossy, we called him, came up 
to us, a little, old, apple-cheeked man who odd-jobbed 
and claimed to be the most patriotic man in the 
Yewnited States of America. Look at them goddamned mountains!
Look at them goddamned trees! Look at them goddamned
birds! Look at that goddamned water! Every sonofabitchin
thing in this whole goddamned country is purty, he 
told us with tears in his eyes.

Now nobody would argue with that!

But sweetheart, I haven't the bloody
vaguest idea what grass might be,
perhaps a tress of hair kept covetously
in a lovely 17th century escritoire
as in that macabre, grotesque
tale by Guy de Maupassant.