Cheatgrass is an innocuous looking grass up to 18 inches foot high that is omnipresent in the Great Basin, in particular, and in the Southwest in general. At higher elevations, it is a wispy occasional presence, while in the wide valleys between the mountain ranges it predominates, either filling in between the sagebrush, or forming wide homogenous meadows, often commanding all available space as far as the eye can see.
Yesterday, I drove the 118 miles from Battle Mountain south to Austin (both in Nevada), which prides itself on being the most isolated town in the lower forty-eight, with 100 miles, more or less, separating it from the closest towns at each of the cardinal points of the compass. Most of the time, I saw an endless carpet of golden cheatgrass, sweeping up to, and over, the mountains to either side. From the inside of a car, it looked attractive. But in fact, cheatgrass sucks the moisture from the soil, wiping out all other species, and forming vast, sterile monocultural deserts where little native wildlife can thrive. These vast savannahs of dried grass also become a fire hazard that ignites like a match upon any random lighting strike. Today, I drove through a modest thunderstorm that touched off five fires within sight that spewed huge clouds of opalescent smoke into the sky.