Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Gulf muhly on a breezy day

with 35 comments

On October 29th, when I drove up to the adjacent Austin suburb of Cedar Park looking for poverty weed at its fluffy best, I also came across some gulf muhly (Muhlenbergia capillaris) that looked good enough for me to get on the ground and aim up toward the clear blue sky. The top left portion of the photograph confirms the breeze I had to contend with that morning. Note the moon.

☒       ☒

The technical definition of a word sometimes differs from the common one. For example, most English speakers use the word bug to refer to insects in general or even other little critters like spiders. In contrast, etymologists use the term bug only for members of a certain order of insects, the Hemiptera; some sources say true bug to indicate the restricted scope.

That kind of difference between a technical definition and a common one came up recently in reference to some incidents this past week that you may have heard about in which organized “smash and grab” groups in the San Francisco Bay area stole lots of merchandise from high-end stores. In connection with that, I came across a report from station KABC with the headline “Experts caution use of ‘looting’ in describing rash of Bay Area smash and grabs.” The report notes that “The [California] penal code defines looting as ‘theft or burglary…during a ‘state of emergency’, ‘local emergency’, or ‘evacuation order’ resulting from an earthquake, fire, flood, riot or other natural or manmade disaster.” Because authorities hadn’t declared any state of emergency or issued any evacuation orders before the thefts, the argument goes, the stealing at the high-end stores shouldn’t be called looting.

Some would say that that’s just quibbling. It got me wondering how the average person uses the verb loot, so I checked a few online dictionaries:


1a: to plunder or sack in war
b: to rob especially on a large scale and usually by violence or corruption
2: to seize and carry away by force especially in war

Oxford Dictionaries:

Steal goods from (a place), typically during a war or riot. ‘desperate residents looted shops for food and water’
1.1 Steal (goods) in a war, riot, etc.

American Heritage Dictionary:

1. To take goods from (a place) by force or without right, especially in time of war or lawlessness; plunder: The rebels looted the city. Rioters looted the downtown stores.
2. To take by force or without right; steal: broke into the tomb and looted the grave goods.
v.intr. To take goods by force or through lawless behavior.

So yes, the verb has a historical connection to war and rioting and natural disasters. At the same time, definition 1b in Merriam-Webster and definition 2 in the American Heritage Dictionary show that people have also been using loot more loosely. It’s a truism of linguistics that words often change, both in how they’re pronounced and what they mean.

In looking up loot, I found that the word came into English from Hindi, presumably as a result of British colonialism in India. For a list of other English words borrowed from languages spoken in India, you can check out a Wikipedia article. You may be surprised that some very common English words make the list.

© 2021 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

November 27, 2021 at 4:28 AM

Posted in nature photography

Tagged with , , , ,

35 Responses

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  1. It’s hard for me to name a favorite among our grasses, but when the muhly is doing its thing, it certainly tops the list, and your photo shows why. Of course, little bluestem and bushy bluestem have their time to shine, and I can’t resist their airiness, either, but the color of Gulf muhly is so pretty.

    Out of curiosity, was this part of some landscaping? It has a different feel to it than the muhly I found at the Attwater preserve. It may be due to the fact that the Attwater muhly was surrounded by so many other plants, and difficult to get to.


    November 27, 2021 at 6:21 AM

    • You guessed it: this was part of landscaping along a street that marked one boundary of a subdivision. In fact the proximity of a fence and houses complicated my work as a photographer, and I struggled to get “clean” shots of the gulf muhly. The regular watering that the plants in the strip get probably accounts for the difference you saw between this specimen and the ones at Attwater. It’s getting ever more common in the Austin area for landscapers to plant gulf muhly for the attractiveness of its ripe seed heads.

      Steve Schwartzman

      November 27, 2021 at 7:07 AM

    • I just found out that the USDA map has gulf muhly marked for Bastrop County but not Travis County. That implies that all the specimens I see around Austin are cultivated.

      Steve Schwartzman

      November 28, 2021 at 6:01 AM

  2. That’s the way to fill a frame. Lovely color.

    Steve Gingold

    November 27, 2021 at 7:10 AM

  3. Such a beautiful grass, I wish I could grow it, but it is too cold here, alas.

    Eliza Waters

    November 27, 2021 at 8:28 AM

  4. I can see how the breeze makes the muhly bend to the right. Great capture, Steve!

    Peter Klopp

    November 27, 2021 at 8:42 AM

  5. Muhly Grass! A favorite of mine.
    As to the smash and grabs, sadly that is happening here in Chicago as well. It is as though a certain sector of society is fed up with the over-priced elitist stores and the overall arrogance of the rich and are storming the gates. Car theft is really rampant in my area as well. Since I drive a car that is over a decade old I don’t worry all that much but still.
    As to the nuances of the word “looting”, judging by the dimwits on that video you shared with me of college students, I haven’t much hope.
    And speaking of looting, Kenosha is not rebuilding. The last time I was there the piles of rubble were still there. So sad. I don’t believe there was rioting after the Kyle trial. Armed rightists were there, and I am quite sure there would have been rioting and violence if the verdict had gone the way it should have. The kid murdered two people, and now he is the toast of the town.


    November 27, 2021 at 8:48 AM

    • We have various muhly species here, this one being the most colorful.

      I doubt that the people doing smash-and-grabs are making a statement about elitism and the arrogance of the rich. I think they’re just out to get free stuff.

      A few days ago I zoomed in on Kenosha on Google Maps because I couldn’t remember the name of the cafe you took us to. I figured out it was Harborside Common Grounds.

      Steve Schwartzman

      November 27, 2021 at 11:03 AM

      • You are right. Most of those buildings were still boarded up the last time I went there, but the damage was done mostly in the central part of downtown. Thankfully the cafe was unharmed. Everyone I have spoken to there has made a point of saying they are NOT afraid, and there is a strong feeling of love and forgiveness in the air. Business people and neighbors seem to be making a real point to be positive. So, it surprises me that no rebuilding is happening. I suppose there isn’t the money to do so.


        December 1, 2021 at 8:49 AM

        • I’ve heard that at least some of the businesses were underinsured, so the owners wouldn’t have had the money to rebuild. Even with adequate insurance, there’s still always a deductible, and given the hard economic times imposed by the pandemic, the deductible might be enough to keep owners from rebuilding.

          Steve Schwartzman

          December 1, 2021 at 10:42 AM

          • Indeed. Hard to imagine insuring for an uprising.


            December 2, 2021 at 7:29 AM

            • At https://www.iii.org/article/civil-disorders-and-insurance I found this:

              “Property damage caused by riot, civil commotion and vandalism are generally covered under standard auto, business, and homeowners insurance policies. ”

              I wonder if any insurance companies did or will sell extra coverage for damage specifically caused by rioting.

              Steve Schwartzman

              December 2, 2021 at 7:38 AM

              • Sobering. Also a story on NPR about a kindergarten class having active shooter drills.


                December 3, 2021 at 9:29 AM

                • Reminds me of the “duck and cover” drills we had as elementary school students during the Cold War in the 1950s.

                  Steve Schwartzman

                  December 3, 2021 at 9:51 AM

                • Actually, we had them too, through the 70’s.


                  December 4, 2021 at 8:19 AM

                • I didn’t know they continued that long in some places. In New York we didn’t have them in secondary school in the ’60s.

                  Steve Schwartzman

                  December 4, 2021 at 9:13 AM

  6. That is a very beautiful composition, Steve. Thanks for the view up through the pink into blue sky on a grey and soon to be rainy Saturday.

    Lavinia Ross

    November 27, 2021 at 10:44 AM

    • I was happy for the blue sky that morning so I could play the pink of the muhly off against it.
      Austin today has dropped the soon-to-be part; we’ve already had light rain on and off this morning.

      Steve Schwartzman

      November 27, 2021 at 11:05 AM

  7. Lovely photo–it does the muhly justice, highlighting that beautiful pink, airy form, and with the backdrop of blue sky. I’m tickled to now have 6 Gulf muhlies in my re-done front garden! I’ve never had success because of the shade, but there’s little shade now in that garden. As well, I have several Little Blue Stems, too–another winner of a grass.


    November 27, 2021 at 10:56 AM

    • I thought so as well ❤


      November 27, 2021 at 10:57 AM

    • Pink and blue sure make for a pretty combination. With your six new gulf muhlies you should be seeing a lot of that combination next fall. I know you were sorry to lose your tree but the grasses, including little bluestem, will be a pleasant compensation

      Steve Schwartzman

      November 27, 2021 at 11:08 AM

  8. What a lovely colour those seed heads are, especially against the blue sky. I like that bit of blur in the top corner – it captures the movement so well and makes the image feel alive.

    Ann Mackay

    November 27, 2021 at 11:29 AM

    • Let’s hear it for aliveness! And yes, sometimes blur can be a good element in a picture, as much as photographers normally try to avoid it.

      Steve Schwartzman

      November 27, 2021 at 12:09 PM

  9. Oh how I wish I could grow muhly grass! I’ve tried several times but just don’t have the right conditions. Loot as a noun – an unexpected bonanza 🙂


    November 27, 2021 at 1:57 PM

    • I’m sorry to hear your soil isn’t right for this ornamental grass.
      You know me with language: I’m always willing to see what linguistic loot I can come away with.

      Steve Schwartzman

      November 27, 2021 at 5:44 PM

  10. Such a sweet portrait. We had a nice little stand of muhly grass in Omaha (https://krikitarts.wordpress.com/2016/08/30/green-on-green-2/), and I’m grateful for the reminder.


    November 28, 2021 at 12:44 AM

    • As you indicated in your linked post, various species of muhly grass exist, including several in my area. Gulf muhly is the most colorful. Let’s hope you get to see some muhly grass next summer.

      Steve Schwartzman

      November 28, 2021 at 5:58 AM

  11. Fun to see some motion here. I wonder what it would look like with even more blur. I suppose you’ve done that kind of thing … yes?


    November 28, 2021 at 2:51 PM

  12. In Brazil we call this “saqueamento”. It is very sad what’s happening in San Francisco. Very concerning.

    Alessandra Chaves

    November 28, 2021 at 7:50 PM

    • I’d not come across the word saqueamento but I understand it because saquear is the cognate of the English verb to sack. Plunderers used to put their loot in sacks, and I imagine some still do. The breakdown of civil order in some parts of California is appalling.

      Steve Schwartzman

      November 28, 2021 at 8:16 PM

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