“The life of mortals is like grass.” Psalm 103:15a
My first experience with bamboo was when I learned to fish as a child using a long cane pole. I will probably continue to associate bamboo with happy memories of fishing, but the Japanese have many more applications for this unusual plant. Called “ta-ke” (竹) in Japanese, bamboo was traditionally used for housing construction, weapons, utensils, musical instruments, various handicrafts, charms, furniture and food (the bamboo shoot, takenoko, serves as a staple in the Japanese diet).
There are approximately 1,400 species of bamboo in the world and although many varieties can grow as tall as a tree, it is actually classified as a grass. Bamboo is among the fastest growing plants on Earth and some species may grow as much as a yard (meter) within a 24-hour period, depending on local soil and climate conditions. The taller versions of ta-ke may reach thirty yards in height, with a diameter of eight inches. The stem of the bamboo, known as a culm, begins as a shoot from an underground network of roots that can be quite aggressive and difficult to control. This is why bamboo is considered an unwanted invasive plant in many parts of the world and measures are often taken to restrict its cultivation. However, the tensile strength of bamboo, combined with its light weight, makes it a popular building material throughout Asia. Although bamboo is a common and well-known plant, scientists remain baffled by its unique flowering patterns. The flowering intervals of bamboo are very unpredictable, occurring anywhere from every 60 to 130 years, which is usually followed by a massive die off of that particular bamboo grove.
There are many religious overtones to ta-ke in Japan and it is quite common for bamboo forests to be located near Shinto shrines, as they superstitiously serve as a barrier against evil. Bamboo is widely utilized in various religious festivals as it represents prosperity and good fortune. At the annual summer Tanabata festival, many Japanese write prayers on strips of paper and attach them to bamboo.
Grass is often used in the Old Testament as a sign of God’s blessing or on other occasions, to depict the temporal nature of life. For example, an abundance of grass to feed cattle and sheep is evidence of God’s blessing upon those who worship Him and follow His ways (Deuteronomy 11:15). Sometimes grass is used symbolically to represent God’s promise to an individual to bless him with many descendants like the grass of the field (Job 5:25), or more commonly, like sand on a seashore. Conversely, a shortage of grass or the withering of grass can be interpreted as a sign of God’s judgment or punishment (Isaiah 40:7).
Perhaps the most graphic and startling allusion to grass in the Bible centers on the temporary nature of man, and his life on earth, when compared to eternity. Like bamboo that can grow at phenomenal rates but eventually dies and rots, man’s physical existence is short-lived. Wise is the person who keeps this reality in mind. In the eternal scheme of things, we are like grass, which should prompt us to turn our thoughts to the unchanging God of eternity. “The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever.”