August 2009


Grass, Man…

This summer I’ve started walking in different directions.

For most of my time in Weimar, when I’ve taken leisure walks I seem to find myself in the city center, wandering amongst the building that Goethe once tread between. Some how this often leads to a stop for “Kaffee und Kuchen” –perhaps a short stop, sometimes a long one– in neither case particularly healthy.

Instead I now walk different directions, often right past my old flat and into some of the fields that surround Weimar, fields that earlier were growing rapeseed earlier this summer. Now the fields feature wheat.

Unsurprisingly I’ve found myself reflecting back to my days at the University of Wyoming.

Back at UW (or U-Dub), I’d managed to complete most of the requirements for the general “university studies” and my major fairly early in my undergraduate career—I’d fixated on the requirements for graduation with an eagle eye, taking courses that I might not have otherwise taken because they fulfilled multiple requirements in one swoop. This explains my Classical Islam class as well as my year spent with engineering students taking an architectural history class from Jim Rose—who has since moved on from UW, a significant and tragic loss for the university, but ultimately a gain for the Wyoming Community College Commission.

At some point I’d taken all the required classes, but I still needed to take classes—I needed more credit hours in order to reach the number of credits needed for graduation—and so I looked around and decided to pursue a concentration in Environment and Natural Resources (ENR). The program was brand spanking new and I was a willing guinea pig.

There were a number of areas that I needed to take classes in, and I attacked the list methodically, checking off classes I’d already taken and reviewing what was left to take. I believe this is how I ended up taking “Symbolic Logic”, a class whose TA wisely scheduled his office hours so that they were as inconvenient as possible—the professor was known for wrecking perfect GPAs. (I did poorly in the class, although I might note that less than a week after completing the course, I took the GRE and missed exactly one question in the analytical portion of the exam, earning a 790/99th+ percentile. I took the GRE on the computer and as soon as I clicked next, I realized that I’d gotten the previous question wrong, but I couldn’t go back.)

I also found myself taking “Introduction to Range Management”. On the first day of class the teacher took a survey asking people to raise their hands in response to a series of questions. The first question was about the population of our hometown—he started with an impossibly low number and worked his way up: well over half the students raised their hand before he got to 5,000. By the time he got to 100,000, I was the last one left: Denver’s population of 500,000 (and over 1,000,000 in the metro area) left everybody else in the dust—or, rather, making me an extreme outlier. I was also the only person in the room whose major wasn’t in the College of Ag—it was political science, which prompted the teacher to ask if I was planning on going to law school.

For ENR I also took a class on soils from George Vance, another excellent teacher. I was, again, an outlier. Early that semester I was taking notes when I realized that I did not understanding everything. Looking around I decided against immediately embarrassing myself by asking questions, so I wrote an email asking what he meant by “Fido”. He didn’t answer my question via email, instead, without identifying me, in the next class he explained that “phyto” referred to plants. He was an amazing instructor and patient enough to answer my never ending supply stupid questions.

I felt a bit like Richard Feynman asking for a map of a cat, but if you are studying something you’ve never thought about before, you’re bound to ask a lot of stupid questions. That said, the only thing stupider than a stupid question is not asking the stupid question in the first place. (Once, after a long presentation I didn’t understand in a field I’d never heard of before that day, I asked a series of stupid questions of the professor. After 10 minutes of questions, I got her to admit that there was a huge false, probably fatal, assumption underlying her work.)

My ultimate favorite disaster in pursuit of my ENR concentration was the class entitled “Range Grasses”. I call this class a disaster because it turns out that I am a really bad student in two things—both of which require an eye to a type of detail that I lack: foreign languages (which makes my German life all the more ironic) and grass identification.

Professor Quentin Skinner, an authentic Wyomingite who believed in ranching, eating beef, and all things Cowboy, understood that there were students like me—people who were so far out of their comfort zone that they might never actually understand the subject. Strangely enough, in my work with the student newspaper, the Branding Iron, I’d interviewed the man before, so I had inkling what he would be like in the classroom.

He was awesome: He talked about how he’d been given a bread maker as a present and that now he found himself down at the Laramie Co-Op buying different kinds of flour to see what the resulting bread would taste like. He was also patient—working with idiots like me. In the laboratory portion of the class we had to dissect grasses to see the internal structures. The lab final portion of the class involved a large number of stations with different grasses, which we were required to identify—including one station that was a painting and we had to identify the grasses in the painting.

Realistically I remember only one key piece of information from this class: there is a difference between a grass and a sedge—and you can tell the two because “sedges have edges.”

The day we discussed this, Quinton talked about ranching and that cows do not eat sedges—there was some speculation about cows and if they have feelings—that is do they not eat sedges because they have edges and are uncomfortable to chew. Quinton was skeptical that cows had feelings about the shape of what they ate, but was willing to listen to debate. This was an issue that had never come up in any of my classes before—and I might note that I’ve rarely found a reason to bring this up in casual conversation but it is nice knowing it.

The wheat in the fields surrounding Weimar is pretty—I like the color of it at this stage, the way it is shaped, and the amber waves resulting from gentle breezes. The grasses in Wyoming are similarly hypnotic and engaging.

I know this puts me in a distinct minority, but I can honestly say that I like grassland scenery.

Amber Waves are Beautiful

Amber Waves are Beautiful

7 comments to Grass, Man…

  • I know there are different types of grass, but I’d be hard-pressed to know the difference.

  • koko

    for some reason i really like this particular post.

  • Reko

    Hi, Adam! How are you?

  • @starman1695: Lots of different grasses–and in wild prairie, you can have multiple native species within a square foot.

    @koko: Danke!

    @Reko: I’m swell. Why aren’t you here? There’s a convention for people of your ilk in Weimar this week.

  • […] happened after I left when I could, instead, focus on things that happened while I was there: my Range Management classes, the class I took in the history department prompted a conversation between me and my […]

  • Ginny

    I totally know what you are talking about. I’m a Wyoming native, and spent some of my undergraduate time at UW studying range science. The rest was spent in the similar state of Montana. I know I drive my friends crazy because many of them are computer science majors and business students and don’t understand my excitement when I see a particularly good specimen of blue bunch wheatgrass or such. I know since it wasn’t your major you don’t probably completely feel the same way I do, but I like to think you understand at least a little.

    • I am entirely sympathetic… It’s not something I can personally do, but after having taken the grass class I can see why people fall in love with the subject. And, to be honest, I find grasslands pretty–its watching the effect of wind rippling the grass… it’s hard to explain, but I like it. In many ways it is just as nice as the most dramatic mountains.