By Sarah Jane Hash

Do you have a point you’d like to make or an issue you feel strongly about? Submit a letter to the editor or a guest column.

I read the Jan. 23 editorial lambasting the potential designation of a state grass and state dog with much amusement.

First, while the editorial initially correctly gives the grass’ common name as basin wildrye, it goes on to misidentify it twice as both “basin ryegrass” and “basin wildgrass.”

Perhaps this is a conscious stylistic choice by the editorial staff — meant to highlight the perceived inconsequentiality of the proposal — or maybe it’s an editorial blunder that should’ve been caught.

Secondly, the whole conversation reminds me of a fray back in 2011 over a state House resolution to adopt the Jory series as Oregon’s State Soil. Arguments against the state soil designation were similar to those raised with regard to the grass and the dog.

I’ve been a professional soil scientist for 13 years, and though many in the general public didn’t appreciate its significance at the time, the designation of the state soil was quite meaningful for those of us who work in natural resources management and outreach.

The Jory soil is a symbol that unites east and west — found in the foothills of the Coast Range and Cascade Mountains, it formed in basaltic rocks that erupted from ancient vents in Eastern Oregon.

It is economically significant, as much of the pinot noir grapes in the Willamette Valley are grown on this soil, and the wines take on the “terroir” (or taste-of-place) from their soils.

It is ecologically significant, because Jory soils support Douglas-fir forests that are emblematic of our state, and provide the substrate for many of the west-side watersheds that support our large population centers.

And, it is a beautifully-developed soil that lends itself to teaching about the physical, chemical and ecological processes that give rise to individual soil types on Oregon’s diverse landscapes (there are thousands of unique soil types in our state!).

It’s not just A soil, it’s THE state soil — and that carries some weight.

We’ve used this state soil designation to our advantage in growing a sense of shared responsibility for and understanding of this resource that is mostly unseen and rarely pondered, yet absolutely foundational to every aspect of our existence (and hugely vulnerable to our individual and collective actions).

While I can speak less directly to the significance of the border collie, basin wildrye is a worthy symbol for Oregon.

This native perennial bunchgrass is a crucial player in the Great Basin ecosystems that comprise vast swaths of Eastern Oregon. The below-ground rooting depth may match its above-ground height — reaching 6 feet or more — which puts a tremendous amount of carbon into the ground and fosters healthy microbial communities.

It stabilizes soils, provides forage for wildlife and nesting/hiding cover for birds, and is a culturally-significant plant for indigenous tribes. It is a beautiful, valuable and easily recognizable plant — all emblematic characteristics.

In short, state symbols may carry utility and significance far beyond their face value. State symbols should also serve to foster a sense of shared culture and heritage.

As a native Virginian, the cardinal (state bird), flowering dogwood (state tree), eastern garter snake (state reptile), and even the Virginia big-eared bat (state bat) conjure a sense of pride and place for where I came from.

Basin wildrye and the border collie can join the beaver, the western meadowlark, and Jory soil to do the same for Oregonians.

Maybe learning about the significance of basin wildrye in Oregon’s sagebrush country will inspire a young person to pursue a career in rangeland management, or will at least create some space for consideration of the complex web of interrelationships among organisms big and small in the above- and below-ground spheres.

I think our legislators can afford a brief pause from their significant legislative workload to consider these potential designations.

— Sarah Jane Hash lives in Bend.

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