Words by William Bond
We love fire. But our fires are not like this. We, the grasses of the world, do not burn this way. Our grassland and savanna fires are smaller, too puny to climb the trees to light their crowns. We grasses look delicate and seemingly insignificant. No strong tree trunks for us. But you would be unwise not to understand our impact. Millions of years ago, when we first began to spread, forests covered most of the land. They were our main adversaries, blocking out the sunlight.
Have you ever wondered how we, who cannot tolerate shade (even our own shade) can compete with towering trees? Well, we depend on powerful allies.
Our first ally is fire! Without fire, we have a problem. The more we grow, the more leaves we make, but the more leaves we make the more we shade our own new growth. That’s where fire comes to our rescue. We offer ourselves up to fire - it devours our dry fuel. Grassland fires aren’t hot enough to burn down those giant trees, but they can burn their seedlings and that makes space for us to multiply. We resprout very fast after fire and regrow faster than anyone else. In a healthy grassy ecosystem, fires burn us every few years.
Fire was not our only ally. We offered ourselves up as food to animals, drawing them out of the forests to discover the joys of light, infinite food and the space to see and flee from predators. While herbivores ate us, they also ate our adversaries, and trampled the tender tree saplings. Animals began to multiply and congregate in great herds, preferring our habitat and helping us to spread.
Together with the fires and the herd animals, we created a new and marvellous environment, with wildflowers such as the world has never seen before, and a great diversity of creatures that love our open habitats, mammals, birds, reptiles, butterflies, ants, termites, grasshoppers thriving in the sunlight. We even allowed trees into our savannas. Compatible trees, which follow our rules, letting the light through and able to cope with fire and herbivores.
But what of our forest adversaries? Well, over time, we pushed them back, and they pushed us back. Forest margin trees evolved that protect the forests from our grassland fires. So we began to reach a kind of natural balance, a mosaic of our sunlit world and their shaded one.
But now you have plans to plant a trillion trees to offset your carbon footprint, seemingly unaware of the threat to our ancient grasslands. Have you forgotten that we nurtured your ancestors, when they began to stand upright to see the view? Without us, there would be no herds of horses, cattle, sheep to feed and clothe you, nor the grains, the cereals, that feed your cities. Have you forgotten the diversity of sun-loving life in our open landscapes? Do you realize that our grasslands also store carbon in our soils and reflect more sunlight back into space than forests, helping to cool the earth?
Perhaps through understanding, through wise stewardship, you will help both grasslands and forests to coexist, and appreciate the unique environments and rich ecosystems both have to offer.