Drought grass

School’s back. Here’s a story The Age ran five years ago, when the weather was dry. Very dry.

THE DROUGHT is over at our school. The grass is greener now, brighter and softer than anything that rain and sunshine and soil could ever bring. Children play happily before, during and after school. And neighbours play there too, as early as seven in the morning, as late as nine in the evening.

Everything has changed since the September school holidays last year when two play areas were transformed from barren dustbowls to dream-like fields of green.

It was a sign of the times, of an over-crowded playground and of not enough rain. Real grass couldn’t possibly grow under several hundred pairs of feet, so the school invested in artificial turf. Drought grass, I call it. Lawn that has no seeds, no roots, no seasons. Grass that never grows.

In a way it is a shame it has come to this,  that we have to resort to trying to imitate nature. But the schoolchildren and the neighbourhood have taken to it, like ducks to water.

The larger play area, 50 metres by 25 metres and long-nicknamed The Nullabor, has become a soccer pitch. It used to be a footy ground of sorts. The kids would improvise and create their own oval: the two poplars at one end were goal posts and the space between the gum tree and the brick barbecue were the other goal posts. In summer the barbecue became cricket stumps and the poplars were part of the boundary.

There was even a grandstand, if you let your imagination take over: a small amphitheatre of old telephone poles on the ground and lovely big ancient rocks.

But that’s all gone now, replaced by a smooth, neat rectangular soccer pitch. It’s an arresting sight, there’s no doubt about that. A surprise to the eyes. And there are no poplar shoots to trip over. No poplars at all. (The local magpies looked lost for a while, waiting for the new peppercorns to grow.)

The smaller play area is almost triangular in shape, with the three points of the triangle softened and curved. This area is also green, but blue and tan and white as well. There’s a two-lane 100 metre running track, markings for games like handball, and a white diamond for your choice of rounders, t-ball, softball or baseball.

This smaller area used to be a bit of a footy ground too but it was also hard and rough and dusty. And it had a steel grate right in the middle of it.

The schoolchildren flock to these areas now, these oases. They love the softness and the safety, the colour and the novelty of it all. They do handstands and cartwheels. They play soccer and cricket. Some even sit and talk.

And the neighbours play here as well. On two Sunday mornings I’ve seen a group of twenty-year olds from up the street playing lawn bowls at seven o’clock.

On weekends I’ve seen toddlers on training wheels riding across the smooth grass, knowing it won’t hurt if they fall.

I’ve seen teenagers sprinting around the tan track, resting and sprinting again. Smiling and filming each other with their mobile phones, and saying Let’s put this on YouTube! (And they did.)

I’ve seen two blokes in their forties kicking a footy around after work. In the heart of summer. Their ageing knees and ankles can relax on this turf. Their footsteps find a certainty that cannot be found at the parched local footy ground.

Kids play soccer there, seemingly all weekend, dreaming of playing for Manchester United or Melbourne Victory. They kick off their runners and play barefoot, their soles blackened by the plastic dirt between the plastic blades of grass. As the sun sets they finally go home.

When the fields are empty I take more notice of the young peppercorns and the native shrubs that border half of the soccer pitch. These plants, along with the native grasses by the grade six classroom and the hedge by the school’s front entrance are still crying for water. No plastic leaves, no artificial branches, no polystyrene roots will replace these plants if the drought goes on and on and on.

And I wonder: if the drought really does break – across Melbourne, across Victoria, across Australia – will the burst of greenery bring out the people, bring out the neighbours?  Will people flock to parks and ovals and play, just as so many have been drawn like a magnet to our school’s fake fields of green?

Will the falling rain bring us out of our homes, out of our shells, out of our selves? Will people want to play and laugh and run and do cartwheels as they smell and feel the real green grass, as they come and see the real thing?

May we happily play on the drought grass but may we not forget the need for rain, for dark brown soil, for wet green blades. The need for roots that hold onto the earth. The need for puddles in the goal-square and mud in the middle of the ground. May the rain waken us from the green dream and remind us what it’s like to have real dirt and real grass between our toes.

The Age 3 March 2007

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