For Massey, like other southern agricultural reformers, the stakes were high. The agricultural New South depended on making a break with the wasteful past of staple crop farming, characterized by skimming the soil of its nutrients during a few years of tobacco or cotton production, and then abandoning it for “virgin” lands further west. Massey drew on a southern agricultural reform tradition that was already nearly a century old by 1892. Cattle represented one way to make such a break, since they needed pasture, unplowed and hence less erosion-prone, and because they produced manure. There were other reform possibilities in play, too—apples, wine grapes, peaches, tomatoes, and timber—but in each case would-be improvers were looking for a way to reshape the slave-powered plantation system that had dominated the South since the 1850s. The emancipation of those enslaved peoples in 1863 had done little to change the basic staple-crop framework.
Broomsedge did not, in the end, live up to this promise. Cattle can eat the tufts of grass in the early spring while it is still green and tender, but they don’t prefer it. For this reason, it is generally considered to be a pasture weed, albeit easily managed. According to one study, a little bit of fertilization, to increase the density of legumes and other grasses, along with some well-timed mowing or grazing, to keep it from going to seed, was enough to nearly eliminate broomsedge from a field. For all its apparent vigor and indomitability, in other words, broomsedge is actually quite fragile. One researcher discovered that even without competition, half of a test plot of broomsedge seedlings had died after three years, with the remaining dead by year seven. Broomsedge apparently relies upon prolific reseeding on unoccupied land in order to dominate the landscape in amber waves.6
But broomsedge’s uselessness did not translate into meaninglessness. Massey’s depiction of broomsedge both as a “badge” of exhaustion and as a merciful covering of the South’s various sins—like God clothing Adam and Eve in the skins of animals in the wake of their own postlapsarian expulsion from the Garden of Eden—would be taken up by several novelists of the 1920s and 1930s. Like Massey, Ellen Anderson Gholson Glasgow had seen southern fields waving with broomsedge during summers in the Virginia Piedmont; she, too, viewed those fields with a certain ambivalence. And in the 1920s, she was one of several fiction writers to cast a jaundiced eye on the grass.
Broomsedge’s uselessness did not translate into meaninglessness.
In 1925, Glasgow published what would become her most famous novel, Barren Ground, which made her, among other things, a kind of poet laureate of broomsedge. The novel chronicled the life of Dorinda Oakley, a rural southern woman who transformed a worked-out Virginia farm into a successful dairy operation, and who married only late in life, and then more for comfort than for love. Glasgow divided the book into three parts, each named for a common resident of the old fields of the Virginia Piedmont: Broomsedge, Pine (Pinus taeda), and Life-everlasting (Pseudognaphalium obtusifolium).
Broomsedge is ubiquitous in the story. All across post-Civil War rural Virginia, Glasgow wrote, “broomsedge was spreading in a smothered fire over the melancholy brown of the landscape.” The grass changed with the weather and season. It was “cinnamon-red in the sunshine,” ivory under “scudding clouds,” yellow-green in the spring rains, a “splendour of colour” in autumn sunsets, sea-like during a storm: “Then the quivering would become a ripple and the ripple would swell presently into rolling waves. The straw would darken as the gust swooped down, and brighten as it sped on to the shelter of scrub pine and sassafras.” Amber waves indeed.7
It was a harsh beauty, though: broomsedge remained an indication of Virginia agriculture in decline. Confined to the borders of a well-tended farm, broomsedge marked the wild edge, the “not-farm” of southern wilderness. Overtaking an entire field, broomsedge suggested ill health. As the aging carpenter Matthew Fairlamb of Glasgow’s novel puts it: “Broomsage ain’t jest wild stuff. It’s a kind of fate.” Later in the novel, Jason Greylock, a young doctor and one-time-beau of Oakley, attributes to broomsedge a kind of personhood. “No, I want to get away, not to spend my life as a missionary to the broomsedge,” he confides to Oakley. “I feel already as if it were growing over me and strangling the little energy I ever had. That’s the worst of it. If you stay here long enough, the broomsedge claims you, and you get so lazy you cease to care what becomes of you.”8