A small, but remarkable potrero in the Los Padres National Forest that is a short distance away from Mollisol Meadow.
“But it is upon the grass, mediator of soil and sun, that the human gaze has always tended to settle, and not just our gaze, either. A great many animals, too, are drawn to grass, which partly accounts for our own deep attraction to it: We come here to eat the animals that ate the grass that we (lacking rumens) can’t eat ourselves. ‘All flesh is grass.’ The Old Testament’s earthy equation reflects a pastoral culture’s appreciation of the food chain that sustained it, though the hunter-gatherers living in the African savanna thousands of years earlier would have understood the flesh-grass connection just as well.”
—Michael Pollan, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”
“It seems likely that the Santa Barbara coast in pre-European times was dominated by grassland and oak savanna. … Indian burning may also have been an important factor in maintaining the openness of oak savanna in coastal areas.”
The historic population of Chumash in the Santa Barbara area would have well-understood the flesh-grass connection mentioned by Pollan, as they routinely burned the landscape to encourage new plant growth, fresh green shoots and seeds, and thus increase their available food supply. While it is speculative, as per what little we know from historical sources, perhaps they also burned the forest to spur fresh plant growth to attract game to hunt.
But what is the appeal of grass for a modern day urbanite like myself? Few other features of the Los Padres landscape capture my attention like an open patch of grass, the potrero as they’re commonly called.
There is aesthetic value. I enjoy looking at a potrero, the golden brown hue of dry grass set against a dark green, shadowy backdrop of oaks or chaparral carpeted hills and a clear blue sky above. In other ways, as well, fields of grass are instantly pleasing to gaze upon.
Grassy flats serve a utilitarian purpose, too, providing uncommon open and level spaces for ancient habitation, early American homesteading and modern-day camping in a forest that is often densely covered in impenetrable chaparral and folded about by inhospitable mountain slopes. The role potreros have played in shaping the human condition fascinates me.
I like to analyze the character of potreros in this context. Consider their particular components—gnarled old oaks providing shade there, a creek running along the fringe here, an exceptional view of nearby sandstone crags over there—and decide on the best place to locate a campsite. I choose plots where I’d build a cabin and consider where the garden and orchard would go. I wonder about past peoples that have lived, camped and hunted in the potreros 100 years ago or 500 or 1000 years and more. I consider grass gazing a legitimate form of recreation, to relax in the shade of a tree on the edge of a quiet backcountry potrero and watch it lie there. And ponder.
Yet while I have an aesthetic as well as utilitarian interest to these swaths of grass surrounded by trees and brush, sometimes it seems there may be something far more to it than mere superficial attraction and historical curiosity. There is no doubt that I like to go sit around in a potrero for no particular reason.
Matias Potrero, Santa Ynez River environs.
Pollan suggests a far deeper connection to grassland habitat stemming from humanity’s prehistoric roots as hunter-gatherers. He notes that people’s appreciation for grass is often cited as an example of biophilia, the theory posited by E. O. Wilson, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winning evolutionary biologist at Harvard. Wilson’s hypothesis holds that humanity possesses, as a legacy of evolution, an innate bond or instinctual attraction to nature.
Wilson was recently featured in a Washington Times article mentioning biophilia and, specifically, his belief that grassland ecosystems are particularly attractive to humanity:
“Wilson believes that there is an innate tendency to want, as a human, to be in certain types of natural environments — particularly, he says, those that mimic African savannahs where we evolved. ‘People say, ‘I go there and in a short while, I feel somehow completely at home,’ Wilson says of traveling to the savannah.”
I first came across bear sign on the creek bank under the oaks, along the shadowy fringe of the potrero shown in the first snapshot above. A few yards away a large oval patch of the deep grass was pressed flat to the soil where the bear had been laying. Funny I should have happened upon a bear’s bed when looking myself for a place to nap. Just a few feet away lay a huge wad of bear scat, gut-processed grass in this case.
For whatever reasons the bear and I were drawn to this small and remote parcel of grass. It seems reasonable that something instinctual led or at least nudged the bear to walk there. I would not be surprised and I don’t think anybody else would be either.
“For the most part we still, somewhat awkwardly, occupy the bodies of foragers and look out at the world through the hunter’s eye.”
—Michael Pollan, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”
“We don’t have to go back to the Pleistocene, because our bodies never left.”
If we are in many ways still the ancient hunter-gatherers from which we evolved, then it does not seem far-fetched to think that I, too, the human animal, am subconsciously motivated by prehistoric instincts or atavistic impulses, which compel me to venture into the wilderness for reasons I am not aware of and will never understand.
Searching For Soul Outside the Cage
Jack; Yes, perhaps there is a bio-genetic connection to grasslands. But lets not ignore our natural psycho-spiritual connection to Nature. We are moved by natural beauty, be it grassland, mountain peaks or the shore of the sea. Let us remember that we are not apart from but part of Nature. Human and Nature can be understood from both a scientific perspective and an aesthetic perspective. Both are necessary for a more complete understanding; they are not in conflict. Thank you. I always enjoy your writings and photographs.
Indeed, Allan. And, I wonder why we find such views beautiful. Why are we humans hardwired like that to appreciate nature in such a way. In other words, it seems there must be a utility to that attraction, that it has been selected through the millennia for a purpose rather than just an arbitrary trait we animals have come to possess.
Similar to grass, we tend to feel the same way about running water, for sure.
Funny you should mention that. Last March I went to Yosemite. After the last four years of epic drought around here with so little water anywhere, it was extraordinary to see and hear the raging waterfalls and feel the misty blast of air coming from them. I’ve been there a number of times and seen the falls, but this time was like no other.
“Fire is a cultural phenomenon. It is among man’s oldest tools, the first product of the natural world he learned to domesticate.” -Stephen J. Pyne, “Fire In America”
I just was just reading this book and came across this quote. Might that fact be the explanation behind why we find fire so mesmerizing, like nothing else in nature. It’s among the very oldest and most important elements we’ve evolved with.
I think I must have evolved from desert-dwellers as I am most drawn to hot, sandy deserts.
That’s funny, Carol. You’re sure living in the wrong place for that sort of climate now, huh? heheh. You might like it here right now, as it’s 80 degrees at 9:25 pm. A hot blast of wind swept over the city just before sundown and spiked the temperature. Some really odd weather.
I’d love the climate where you are! the droughts must be worrying though