By and large, people have forgotten wiregrass. Time was, it occupied the forest floor where longleaf pines grew. Sadly, most of the longleaf pine forest is gone as well.
The deep South is wiregrass country and for those who remember, there’s a lot of folklore in and around those old woods. “Progress” killed the longleaf pines. And, wiregrass, too. (Some people call it “Pineland Three-awn.”)
Like longleaf pines, wiregrass needs fire to prosper. Native Americans in the Florida Panhandle and south Georgia knew this and so did incoming settlers. They burned off the grass yearly. This helped the forest by clearing out all the understory clutter of brush that choked pines and pine seedlings. The grass, which returned soon after the burns, came up fresh and new and was succulent enough for cattle for a while before getting wiry and inedible.
In some ways, Smoky the Bear helped kill off our wiregrass and longleaf pine forests because he kept brainwashing us with the phrase “Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires.”
But here’s the thing: forest fires are a natural part of environmental renewal. Preventing them where they are needed harms the forest. In the 1940s, the forest service banned controlled burning and we have been paying for that mistake ever since even though the practice is now more in favor.
In Wiregrass Country, one of my favorite folklore books about the world where I grew up, Jerrilyn McGregory writes that “Wiregrass (Aristida stricta) depends on fire ecology to germinate. Its fire ecosystem created a unique set of circumstances, tied closely to a way of life…Although it was once the most significant associate in a community of species that formed the piney woods, many human inhabitants of the region have lived and died without knowing the plant.”
I grew up with wiregrass and longleaf pines and miss them. Perhaps that’s why I’m working on another novel set in “Wiregrass Country.” Maybe talking about wiregrass and pines will remind people what we once had and will help garner support for restoration efforts.
Traditions in Wiregrass Country run deep even though they often seem out of place in an increasingly “citified” world. If you grew up there, you probably ate mullet, went to peanut festivals and rattlesnake roundups, knew well the “shape note” old-style hymns of Sacred Harp music, fished or played a rousing game of fireball and loved storytellers.
If you didn’t grow up there, you missed a lot. Same goes if you grew up there in a suburban neighborhood and never ventured out into the piney woods and small towns.
Maybe it’s time to go see what it’s all about.