Though I open this essay by giving you the Dickens, you will find my subject matter is quite a bit more broad. It won’t surprise you to learn that Charles Dickens has been called the greatest descriptive artist in the history of the novel. But he did have one whopping deficiency. He was at a loss when it came to describing most plants and flowers. We are told that his favorite flower was the geranium, and it has thus become the cheery symbol for the World Dickens Fellowship today.
But probably it was his favorite because it was one of the very few he could always recognize. Geraniums blossom throughout his novels: when brides walk down Dickens’ aisles, they carry geraniums; when bodies are displayed at his funerals, they’re buried with geraniums. Had he written the following famous phrase rather than Shakespeare, it would have read: “A rose by any other name would … be a geranium.”
I sympathize with Dickens. I can ask the name of a particular plant or shrub ten times in as many months and yet the next time I see it, the name utterly escapes me. You too, maybe? But even with this mental block against many blooms I have always been proud of my intimate relationship with — grass.
I’m quite sure why grass has always held a powerful mystique for me. When I was no more than six, my father, who was born and reared in Hungary, told me that at the end of World War I — when he too was six — Hungary suffered such a severe famine that he remembered my grandmother having to prepare an occasional meal with grass, which he vividly recalled eating.
My father eating grass. The thought of it helped make me that rare child with catholic tastes for food and not one finicky aversion, not even for spinach since at least it wasn’t quite grass.
But then in fifth grade, my awful feelings about grass turned into pure awe, thanks to a wonderful teacher who liked literature but loved science. This was Miss Walls. First, she taught us that my two favorite foods — steak and whipped cream (I said my tastes were catholic, not sophisticated) — were both created because cows ate grass and converted it into the most unlikely foods.
But what really impressed me was her lesson on wheat. Who would have guessed that it too is just a humble grass and, as with the cow, it can be converted into the most unlikely and most essential food of all — bread? Within our bread, Miss Walls taught us, is protein which we humans convert to protoplasm, the essence of life. And when humans die, she reassuringly continued, that protoplasm reverts back to protein in the ground which is picked up by the grass, causing it to grow, and starting the whole process of life all over again. For a fifth-grader who was just coming to grips with the fact that I too would one day die, this was most consoling to me.
From that day on, I had a new appreciation for every lawn in my neighborhood. Grass was no longer merely an outdoor carpet which created fragrant stains on my play clothes. Even during my teenage summers, when I was forced to mow a hot, sweaty acre of grass each weekend before I had a prayer of using the family car on Saturday night, I still retained the respect that Miss Walls had instilled in me years before.
Thanks to her, I still see grass as an amazing mediator between we humans who hurriedly walk over it with our immortal souls and finite lives and the rocks and stones (scattered among the blades) which seem infinite but sadly insensate. Like all great teachers, Miss Walls had given my outward eye new sights by inspiring my inner eye’s new insights.
“All flesh is grass,” St. Peter said, a thought quite ominous if we only discern the parallel with youth and growth followed by the inevitable mowing down of death. But the organic and cyclical connection between us and the most common growths in nature brings solace as well.
I also prefer to see grass as it was presented in the most famous work of literature which mentions grass in its title: Walt Whitman’s monumental Leaves of Grass. In it, Whitman defines grass as “a handkerchief of the Lord, a scented gift designedly dropped by Him, bearing the Owner’s name somewhere in the corner so that we may see, and remark, and say ‘whose?’” Not even Charles Dickens could have described grass as brilliantly as Whitman did when he dubbed it God’s monogrammed handkerchief.