SunSpecial: Amber Waves of Grain   Leave a comment

America’s national anthem, the “Star Spangled Banner”, is actually a narration of the sights and sounds of a battle during the War of 1812. Which, besides being patriotic and familiar (everyone knows to stand when they hear the first few notes), it’s not as spirited or stimulating as, say, the team song of your favorite college or high school. “Star Spangled” is a song that few people actually know the lyrics; yet most everyone tries to sing – badly – because it’s written with a challenging range and difficult melody (based on an old English drinking song. Isn’t that ironic). For decades there has been a small, but resolute, voice (probably singing), encouraging the United States make an official change from “Star Spangled” to “America the Beautiful”, a song which, they believe, speaks for the highest values and aspirations of America; describes the natural wonders and richness of the land; is easier to remember and sing (as long as you stick with the first verse or two); and doesn’t mention any war, particularly one that the United States almost lost.

Actually, “America the Beautiful” covers a wide range of ‘Americanisms’: From fruited plains to waves of grain; cities that gleam and patriots dreams; shining seas to pilgrims knees. (The song was written in 1893 when speech was more fanciful, no one thought twice about poetic lyrics and ending a song with “Thy whiter jubilee”, which today sounds more like a dental care slogan). But, aside from imaginative word choices in a song that could use some updating, the first three lines:

O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!”

Depicts the America most of us want to live in; but even in 1893 was already changing to the modern world we know today. While we can still view the purple mountains (actually green, grey and brown, but appearing purple in the distance); spacious skies (watch out for the drones!); fruited plains and waves of grain (now mostly corporate-owned megafarms), it’s still true that the the United States grows about 25% of the worlds wheat crops on 63 million acres of land, producing over 2.25 billion bushels a year. And about 800,000 of those acres are in California – resulting in more than 32,000,000 bushels used for human and animal food. Wheat has been a California staple for over 250 years (sorry, raisins) and is among the few crops historically native to the state. (To be absolutely correct, there are hundreds of varieties of wheat, only a few which are natively found as small, scattered plants which were harvested by early native peoples. To strengthen and diversify stocks for commercial farming, all varieties but one have been transplanted and are now grown within California).

And while deliciously baked into breads, pasta, and dessert treats; along with grain-based diets for domestic animals and livestock; tons of wheat straw (the remaining dry stalks left over after harvest) are used for livestock bedding, particularly for horses that need cushioned stalls to stand on. Later the straw, now enriched with added ‘by products’ from the animals that used the bedding, is mixed into compost which, in turn, can be used by mushroom farmers as rich soil additives mushrooms thrive upon. Although with this knowledge, at dinner we may not want to think about in what soil these mushrooms have been growing.

“These waving amber grains are fine, but I think the fruited plains would taste better.”

“These waving amber grains are fine, but I think the fruited plains would taste better.”


But the ‘amber waves of grain’ highest purpose might be the unique environment that growing, healthy fields create for wildlife and water management: As a crop that grows during the winter, in normal years (unfortunately, not during a drought) wheat relies on rainfall and uses very little surface or sub-surface (aquifer) water; at the same time it acts as a deterrent to soil erosion and deep-spreading roots increase the amount of water that can soak underground. This rich landscape is the home to helpful insects, like the ladybird beetle (ladybug) and lacewings; as well as tricolored blackbirds and pocket mice, both endangered species (grow it, and they will come!). While “America the Beautiful’ contains no direct mention of the complexity of healthy ecosystems – we think the song can use a few lines about raccoons and prairie chickens – its lyrics can help us recognize and appreciate the rich land we all share.

Posted July 5, 2015 by ECOVIA eco-adventure® in SunSpecial

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