Imagine if all plants of the Gramineae (or Poaceae) family in the world turned brown, rotted and died, falling victim to a virus that scientists failed to curb.
No wheat, barley, rice or maize, no grass for grazing so no cattle or sheep – just potatoes, vegetables and fish left to feed a global population. No lawns, parks, football pitches, verges – well not as we know them now.
Our reliance on one group of plants is scary. Its decimation would have catastrophic consequences – too far-reaching to contemplate for long. Yet in 1956, English author John Christopher did just that in ‘The Death of Grass’, the first of many visionary science-fiction novels he penned.
A decade after WW2 there are 50 million people in Britain and the country is getting back on its feet. That is until the Chung-Li virus arrives from China, killing all grain-bearing plants on its way, causing mass starvation across the world.
Early on, two of the book’s protagonists talk about photos they have seen of affected areas in China:
“What were they like?”
“They were in colour. Tasteful compositions in browns and greys and yellows. All that bare earth and clay.
“They frightened me. I hadn’t understood properly before quite what a clean sweep the virus makes of a place. Automatically, you think of it as leaving some grass growing, if only a few tufts here and there. But it doesn’t leave anything. It’s only the grasses that have gone of course, but it’s surprising to realise what a large amount of territory is covered with grasses of one kind or another.”
In denial for weeks, the plan of those left running the country was to drop atom bombs on Britain’s major cities to reduce the number of mouths to feed, giving those left a chance. Royalty and the Cabinet had already been shipped off to America where grain stocks were healthier.
The story follows the plight of a family trying to escape London before the bombs are dropped, to reach their family’s potato farm in an isolated Westmorland valley.
Desperate times and hunger call for desperate measures. In an over-crowded island, competition for resources quickly leads to social collapse, looting, shooting, murder and rape – the outlook is bleak.
As the battle-weary group of family and hangers on, crossed the Yorkshire Dales they saw:
“… the valley, which had been so green in the old days, now showed predominantly black against the browner hills beyond. The stone walls wound their way up hillsides, marking boundaries grown meaningless. Once John thought he saw sheep on the hillside, and jumped to his feet to make sure. But they were only white boulders. There could be no sheep here now. The Chung-Li virus has done its work with all embracing thoroughness.”
The Death of Grass (made into a film in 1970 called Not a Blade of Grass) is acknowledged as a science-fiction classic – and highlights just how close we could be to global environmental catastrophe.
Sixty years on, one passage in particular echoes sentiments we are hearing more and more right now:
“For years now, we’ve treated the land as though it were a piggy-bank, to be raided. And the land, after all, is life itself.”
It also re-affirms in me the importance of grasses in our lives. It really is a set of plants we just cannot live without
Footnote: I bought my copy of ‘The Death of Grass’ some years ago when it was out of print for some extortionate price! It was reprinted by Penguin Modern Classics in 2009 and you can now buy it online for £8.99!