Roots Five Miles Deep

A friend, Julene Bair, just posted a moving article about selling the family farm in Kansas.

 Out in the Cold at High Country News

Knowing she had no choice didn’t help. The fact that her mother and brother supported her decision didn’t help. Hang onto the land, was her father’s oft repeated advice–words that haunted her and continue to haunt her. She still feels like her roots were severed. Roots becomes a theme.

Buffalo Grass, An American Native

Buffalo Grass, An American Native

She talks about buffalo grass, a Kansas native with a root system five miles deep. She notes that only a fraction of any living thing meets the eye. We all have roots, a subterranean life that is deep, immense and often invisible, even to us. 

I know what she means. A hundred years ago, there was a legendary “tie yourself down” stretch of railroad along Beaver Canyon, one of the places my great grandmother worked as a cook. The road was so rough, a crew was stationed there with the sole purpose of cleaning up the box cars that tipped over and smashed on the rocks below. “Tie yourself down,” meaning prepare for a rough ride, is a phrase I whisper, whenever I need to give myself courage. I did that long before I understood the term probably originated with my family’s railroad background.

 Most of us have no idea how deep the stories go. Most of the time, we never pause long enough to question our family’s way of describing the world. “Tie yourself down” or “Hang onto the land,” we say and go on like that’s the only way. 

Buffalo grass is popular in the suburbs these days. Because it needs little water (those deep roots) it has become part of the ornamental grasses landscaping movement. Wonder if we appreciate how deep and how native that choice is?




Filed under Family Stories

3 responses to “Roots Five Miles Deep

  1. Jerrie, I got notice through my Google alerts this a.m. that you’d posted this blog about my HCN story. Thanks so much for drawing attention to it and for your own moving reflections on the subject of roots. That there can be five miles of roots in one square meter of soil beneath buffalo grass totally amazed me, and amazes me still. We now learn that, because of all that biomass, those short-grass steppes were also sequestering a whole lot of carbon that we released into the atmosphere by farming them. See page 84 of this Sci. American article for some neat pictures and a discussion of prairie grass’s root systems. Thanks again for your great blog!

  2. Jerrie, I’ve been thinking a lot about my own roots, growing up in Oklahoma, and I’m amazed at how many long-forgotten phrases echo. Aphorisms from childhood remain and still motivate today’s actions. I’m mining those lessons for a memoir and really appreciate reading your stories too. Wonderful blog!
    Carol Grever

  3. Thanks, Carol, that’s the idea. Share stories, think about our stories, grow with our stories.

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