In talking about grassroots with people, I discovered that there is a broad way of defining what this term means. Due to the diversity of associations, I will provide a clearer definition in what I intend when talking about grassroots in my blogs.
Grass looks like like tiny individual plants from the surface. This is really only a part of the picture. The grass underneath is a single enormous structure of plants all connected by a common root system, called rhizomes. These rhizomes are amazing things – if you yank out the grass and leave even just a rhizome in, a whole new grass structure will regrow from that one amazing little root. Conversely, you can pull out just a rhizome, plant it, and it will also produce a whole new structure of interconnected individual plants. The rhizome is also the bit of a plant that allows it come back after a die back. So, when grass turns brown and goes dormant from either heat, drought or cold, the rhizome holds all the starches and proteins that the plant needs to spring back to life as soon as the weather changes. When you think about it, this is the aspect of certain plants that makes them really tenacious against adversity. A good drought and your hardy tomatoes are gone. The quackgrass, however, is alive and kicking, and taking over the whole garden.
It’s another amazing aspect of grass: if it is natural to the area, it will quickly grow, spread and take over an area with beautiful greeness. If it isn’t, it will cost you a tonne of money to fertilise, water and protect from the natural aspects of the environment. The latter is not at all hardy.
Really strong communities have a rhizomatic quality. They cherish each part, and are strengthened through the individual. They sprawl and yet have common threads that bind them. They are resilient to harm: if you remove one plant, the structure will work to fill in the hole. And the likelihood of that removed plant taking root and growing elsewhere is really pretty good. You can watch the whole scene whither, and seemingly die, but when the weather changes, it is as green and healthy as ever.
Some things can kill rhizomes. It’s pretty extreme. Anyone who has tried to convert a lawn to a garden knows just how tenacious the grass roots can really be.
- Starve it of light, covering it with a black tarpaulin for a couple of years (yes… a couple of years).
- Dig, and then weed and weed and weed for several years.
- Use Round-up and ensure that nothing will grow there again for a very long time.
- Grab a blow torch and let’er have it.
When this term is applied to culture and cultural practice, the full intent is really quite powerful. A rhizomatic structure that self spawns, propagates, is drought, cold and heat resistant, is transportable by the replanting of the most insignificant seeming part of the structure, and is only killed by very severe measures. A grassroot culture is natural to the area it is from. It requires little maintenance to spread and build an amazing scene. It does, however, still need fertile soil, sun, rain and dormancy all in equal measure. And for heaven sake’s keep away the Round-up.
We all sorta know this. We know that strong communities are connected and can do great things. We also all sorta know that killing it isn’t out of the question either.