The Karma of Cheatgrass

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.



Up close, cheatgrass is best understood in religious terms. If you are a Christian, think of hair shirts and the mortification of the flesh. If you a Shiite, recall self-flagellation to commemorate the martyrdom of Husayn, the first leader of the Shiites. If you are a Hindu, then cheatgrass is the very personification of Kharma at work, since cheatgrass is an introduced species of little value to livestock, but one that it has taken advantage of the over-grazing of traditional grasses by livestock to take over the range throughout the Southwest.


Cheatgrass does not overtly resemble an infernal invention of the devil, but if there is a Satan, then cheatgrass is certainly an example of his work at its diabolical best. The design of cheatgrass is disarmingly simple, but its execution is devilish, and inspires the use of words that would certainly bring a smile to the dark lord’s lips.


To be more specific, the wheat-like, drooping head of a cheatgrass plant looks not unlike that of many other grasses, and culminates in a number of seeds, each with a fine strand at its end. If you look more closely, you will see that each seed incorporates a barbed structure. Of course, so do the seeds of various other plants, for the purpose of attaching themselves to a passing animal (such as you) in order to hitch a ride to a likely place to germinate and perpetuate the species.


Cheatgrass, however, possesses several unique characteristics not displayed by other similar plants, such as the *censored*lebur. True, *censored*leburs seem to have a magnetic attraction to the ears of my *censored*er spaniel, and seemingly possess a dervish like power to twirl themselves into a cocoon of dog hair. But while most plant seeds that rely on the hitchhiking strategy also have an affinity for wool socks, they generally travel peacefully and surrender gracefully when detected.


Not so with cheatgrass. Cheatgrass should perhaps be classified as a parasite, rather than a plant, since upon contact, its seeds immediately begin burrowing, not unlike a shipworm, in parallel fashion between the inner and the outer layer of a sock, with the exception of an exquisitely sharp and painful tip, which propels itself immediately into the ankle.


Cheatgrass is not only diabolical, but also insidious: if you look at your sock and see a fuzz of cheatgrass seeds, you can be sure that if you pluck out every single one that you can see, that you will have picked out every seed other than the one that is torturing you. Moreover, it will have taken you ten minutes to remove the decoy seeds, since the only way to remove many seeds (due to the barb) is to remove your shoe and your sock, and then pull the seeds through from the inside.


Even after you return home, there will be other cheatgrass seeds, not unlike the members of an Al Qaeda terror sleeper cell, that will quietly hide within those same socks. Even after you have worn them many times, periodically some mysterious signal, perhaps on the evening news, will activate another seed, which will gleefully implant itself in your ankle with religious zeal. Burning your socks after a trip to the Southwest is not an unreasonable practice, and may perhaps provide you with a certain catharsis, particularly if you are an animist that believes that all living things have souls, and that (hopefully) cheatgrass seeds can feel agony equal to your own as they are consumed by the flames.


So it is that cowboy boots have a very serious purpose. If you don’t happen to own a pair of this manly footwear, then a cheaper alternative is to purchase a pair of gaiters. Outfitters sell them for cross-country skiing, but the same products will work just as well to foil cheatgrass. Basically, gaiters are an ankle wrap, with Velcro and/or snaps to attach them around your calf, and a bit of bungee cord that goes under your boot ahead of the heel, to prevent the gaiter from hiking upwards and leaving your ankle defenseless.


I highly recommend that you purchase a pair of gaiters if you plan to hike in the Southwest and don’t own a pair of cowboy boots. That is, unless you have ever had anything to do with introducing an invasive, foreign species. If that’s the case, you’ve got some serious atonement to do, and cheatgrass should serve that purpose nicely.