Monday, July 11, 2011
THE CASE OF THE PURLOINED PAMPAS GRASS
The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (7/11/2011)
A clump of pampas grass was purloined from the Olivia White Hospice Gardens. So far, the usual suspects deny any participation in or knowledge of the theft.
One thing is known. The theft was accomplished by sophisticated botanists. The pampas grass was removed with surgical skill. The hole left by the death of the pampas grass was expertly filled, and a buried drip line was carefully restored. Thus, the search is focused on horticulturally trained thieves, botanical burglars adept at theft in the dark of night.
One thing is certain. The purloined pampas grass was not an inside job since all of the volunteer gardeners at the Olivia White Hospice Gardens have expressed dismay and disappointment at its removal. One person, at one time active in the gardens who previously expressed displeasure with the pampas grass, has been questioned but has firmly denied knowledge of or connection with the theft.
The issue of the pampas grass gets to the heart of one of the vexing questions about gardening in Flagstaff and the high country: invasive, exotic species. Was it, to quote Asa Gray, the famous American botanist of the 19th century and friend of Charles Darwin, one of those “intrusive, pretentious and self-asserting foreigners?” Was the pampas grass a magnificent, toxic weed?
It fits the definition of weed. It’s invasive. It sucks up scare water. It overtakes defenseless native plants and grasses. It is a threat. Richard Mabey, the English botanist calls weeds: “Shape-shifters” with speed, ingenuity, and “almost supernatural resourcefulness.”
However, it’s alleged that this particular pampas grass wasn’t guilty of any of these crimes. Several horticultural experts claim that this particular pampas grass was sterile. Sitting in its corner of the garden, it is claimed that it was much like a castrated male lion lounging in the shade of a tree on the veldt sporting his splendid plumage. Was it such a clear and present danger to the gardens of Flagstaff that immediate covert action was required by horticultural “black ops”? Many think so.
Like many clandestine black operations, these “black ops” may have been ignorant of the alleged impotence. They clearly thought that the pampas grass was an immediate threat, especially now that Flagstaff is overwhelmed by toxic, invasive, exotics. If people dig up plants at will, chaos will ensue. No gardens or gardeners would be safe. Gardeners would have to ride shotgun on their gardens.
The case of the purloined pampas grass raises the issue of non-native plants and grasses. Do people have a right to grow toxic weeds? Apparently, they do. The City is seemingly impotent, claming that people are free to do what they like in their yards, except growing very high weeds. How about marijuana? HOA’s seem more concerned about derelict garbage cans than they do toxic weeds. Does the list of targets include water hogging grass lawns, such as at City Hall, NAU, or the golf courses in sequestered communities of the rich?
Since black operations presuppose deniability, there is a long list of denials and know-nothings. A person who wasn’t authorized to speak but spoke, nevertheless, on condition of anonymity said that there must be a vast horticultural conspiracy of silence, reaching to the highest places. The culprits may never be identified.
The “black ops” apparently took to heart Barry Goldwater’s famous nostrum: “Extremism is the defense of liberty is no vice, and moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” So, is botanical theft a moderate virtue or an extreme vice?
Martin Luther King, Jr., said that if people choose to disobey an unjust law, they should own up to it. One of his great pieces is a “Letter Written from Birmingham Jail.” Since the perpetrators already covered themselves in darkness, it is unlikely they will come into the light. If they do, they can publish a manifesto, but it must be well-written, not a self-righteous farrago.
So far no one has. We are left with a missing clump of pampas grass, the threat of “intrusive, pretentious and self-asserting foreigners,” and the possibility of botanical “black ops” digging up plants wherever and whenever their fancy suits.
Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2011
Dana Prom Smith whose email address is firstname.lastname@example.org edits the column GARDENING ETCETERA in The Arizona Daily Sun.