Sunday, December 20, 2009

Things We Do On Grass

“The green grass grows all around” is the title of a well-known children’s song, and in fact as a declarative utterance the lyric is quite true, as some form of grass is known all around the world, to all human cultures. For centuries certain grasses, when cut and dried and called “straw,” have been mixed with adobe to form bricks. Hence grasses, while a major source of food around the world, have many other uses, such as feeding animals—it has been estimated that grasses have been grown as food for domesticated animals for close to 10,000 years—and, of course, for lawns. In early twentieth-century jazz culture, a "joint" (a marijuana cigarette) was referred to as a “viper.” I cannot say precisely when, but at some point marijuana, or “Mary Jane,” become known as “grass,” which is how I remember it being called in the 60s. But marijuana was also referred to as “weed” as well, so marijuana, a plant which contains a pleasure-inducing drug, seems to elude conventional nomenclature. It is known as both “grass” and “weed.”

While grass is the name for marijuana (cannabis sativa or cannabis indica) in the drug culture, grass is also the plant used for lawns, that most coveted of American possessions, a sign of invidious distinction. In Arthur Miller’s masterful Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman laments he has no lawn, for in the crowded neighborhood where he lives, there isn’t enough sunlight for things to grow. Grass needs sunlight like rivers need rain. Willy’s desire to have a green lawn, and to raise a garden, isn’t simply a desire to belong to the middle class, but also expresses a desire to return to an idealized past (although for Willy that past is fictive, but he’s convinced himself otherwise). Grass is used in this way, as a metaphor for home but also a highly idealized past, in the song, “Green, Green Grass of Home,” a hit for Tom Jones in the mid-60s. The singer sees his childhood home, which he has not seen for a very long time. His parents, as well as his beloved, Mary, greet him as he steps from the train—they have come to meet him. He sees again the landscape of his childhood, including the old oak tree that he once played on. It is “good to touch the green, green grass of home.” But the green grass of home is only a dream: he has not returned home, but awakens in prison. He sees the four drab walls surrounding him and realizes that he was only dreaming. In fact, he is on so-called “Death Row,” and it is the day of his execution. His dream has foreshadowed his fate: he shall return home, but only to be buried. “Yes, they’ll all come to see me in the shade of that old oak tree, as they lay me ‘neath the green, green grass of home.” Green lawns also cover the dead. To quote Emily Dickinson, “Safe in their alabaster chambers, / Untouched by morning and untouched by noon, / Sleep the meek members of the resurrection, / Rafter of satin, and roof of stone.”

Green Grass And High Times:
Animal Collective – Grass
The Friends of Distinction – Grazin’ in the Grass
George Jones – When the Grass Grows Over Me
Tom Jones – Green, Green Grass of Home
Gary Lewis and the Playboys – Green Grass
Tim McGraw – Where the Green Grass Grows
The Outlaws – Green Grass And High Tides
The Pretty Things – Grass
Steppenwolf – Don’t Step on the Grass, Sam
XTC – Grass