A well-organized, intelligently written, amply illustrated field guide rivals a good dictionary for compulsive readability. The primal appeal of such books, as with dictionaries, is their implied comprehensiveness, the sense they impart of being the definitive statement on some microcosmic sample of creation. I seldom take a field guide into the field, where they get in the way. Perhaps, as I use them, they ought to be called arm-chair or couch guides. With one exception, that’s how I’ve used Field Guide to the Sedges of the Pacific Northwest, published last year by Oregon State University Press and written by botanists with the Carex Working Group. Carex is the genus name of plants in the family Cyperaceae – known familiarly as sedges.
About 20 years ago I spent a day in the bogs around Oneonta, N.Y., in the company of a botanist. I was writing about the threats faced by these delicate ecosystems but the sedges are what I remember best. The botanist asked if I could distinguish sedges, grasses and rushes. I couldn’t, so he taught me a rhyme: “Sedges have edges. / Rushes are round. / Grasses have nodes from the top to the ground.” Most of us, if we pay attention at all, look at a plot of sedge and dismiss it as mere grass. Cut a stem in half and look at the cross-section. If it’s solid, not hollow, and roughly triangular (“edges”), it’s probably sedge. Grasses are hollow and usually round.
The book is simple to use once you’ve mastered basic terminology – and that’s part of the attractiveness of a good field guide. You learn new words and experience a new connectedness with previously blank, undefined pieces of the natural world. The common and ignorable take on the glow of significance. Most sedges are so undistinguished and indistinguishable they have no common names. The editors write in their introduction:
“Sedges have a reputation for being devilishly difficult to identify. Much of the challenge comes from the fact that the plant parts used to identify most sedges are tiny, show great similarity between different species, and have unfamiliar names such as `perigynium’ [`a specialized bract that surrounds the achene, characteristic of Carex and Kobresia’].”
The field guide carries three epigraphs, the first by Annie Dillard:
“I would like to know the grasses and sedges – and care. Then my least journey into the world would be a field trip, a series of happy recognitions.”
“I would like to [interesting to note that both passages begin with the same four words, and that Dillard’s husband, Robert D. Richardson, is Thoreau’s biographer] go into perfectly new and wild country. I wish to lose myself amid reeds and sedges and wild grasses that have not been touched.”
The third is by ever-reliable “Anon.”:
“Botanically, where there’s sedge, there’s confusion.”
The Dillard, which I like for “happy recognitions," is from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. The Thoreau is taken from an Aug. 31, 1852, journal entry. With the anonymous line, all three epigraphs suggest the unfamiliar familiarity of sedges, and the first and third emphasize the difficulty of identifying them. Sedges show up five times in Walden, never to great effect. In the “Sounds” chapter Thoreau points out “the sedge is bending under the weight of the reed-birds flitting hither and thither…”
“Sedge” is an attractive word, more pleasurable to say than mere “grass.” It echoes with said, hedge and sedulous, and is rooted in the Old English secg, meaning sword. One can’t imagine Whitman writing Leaves of Sedge. Go here to visit the Carex Working Group website, which includes a page devoted to “Sedges in Literature.” Among the finds are Keats’ “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” Yeats’ “He Hears the Cry of the Sedge” and four Shakespeare citations.
I’ve made one reasonably positive identification with the assistance of the field guide. Our backyard is a permeable membrane of wild and domestic plant species, and the boundary is an irregular wooden fence. Along its length grow a big-leaf maple, a shrub-like magnolia, several sprawling hostas and a small ornamental cherry tree. Most of the soil along the base of the fence is shaded for more than half the day, covered with last year’s leaves and always moist. In a particularly sunny spot grow several bunches of elegant yellowish-green “grass,” with an inflorescence (the stubby flowering portion) that lends each stem the appearance of a small bottle brush.
A little leafing about in the field guide has convinced me I share space with Carex arcta Boott, which actually has a common name: Northern clustered sedge. A digression in the “Comments” section notes that Carex have been reported to have 54, 58 or 60 chromosomes per cell. This irregularity is attributed to “diffuse centromeric activity,” a trait sedges share only with wood thrushes, bees and wasps:
“If their chromosomes break, the pieces need not be lost during cell division. Rather, each piece can function as a chromosome. In contrast, broken human chromosomes result in loss of part of the DNA, often causing birth defects.”
One of many advantages sedges and bumblebees have over us.