My yard is a mess. A few weeks ago, I spent several hours pulling out thistles as tall as I am from one of the flower beds, and yesterday, my daughter squealed with delight when she found a nearly-one-foot-tall dandelion (one of many) about to bloom. Crabgrass, purslane, and foxtail are attempting to colonize our driveway. Wild violets are everywhere.
There are many reasons why my yard has so many varieties of weeds. Or so I tell myself. The neighborhood rabbits, for example, benefit from the diversity and the absence of pesticides (especially since most of our neighbors are quite vigilant in maintaining their yards). The groundwater is cleaner as a result of the absence of pesticides (particularly important given the large amount of fracking that goes on in our county). This has been an unusually rainy spring and summer, so chances are that as soon as I sprayed the yard, the rain would wash away the pesticides and the effort would be waster. And it takes time and money to maintain a weed-free yard–time and money that honestly, I’d rather spend elsewhere–in the mountains, at museums, on books, et cetera. And besides, the violets are very pretty in the spring; I’ve always loved those delicate bursts of purple. But is my reluctance to weed my yard merely a product of laziness (or an attempt to get back at the neighbors who constantly allow their dog to use my yard as a bathroom?), or might there be more to it?
There’s a bit in my lease that indicates we are obligated to maintain a weed-free yard. And so the weeds must go. But why?
Right now, I’ve been working through Val Plumwood’s Feminism and the Mastery of Nature (1993) in preparation to finish an article on ecofeminism in Layamon’s thirteenth-century Brut, and the third chapter discusses the ways in which we as humans tend to “background” nature–a process that she calls a “common kind of insensitivity to the incredible diversity and richness of nature, treating beings in nature as all alike in their defectiveness, their lack of human qualities” (70). And this is what I (and others) do to my yard.
Weed is a word that has been around in English for a long time. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest recorded usage came from Alfred the Great’s translation of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy in the late 9th century. The Old English is given below the definition:
Here’s the modern English translation:
“Whoever would sow fertile land, must first pluck up the thorns,
and furze, and fern, and all the weeds that he seeth infesting the field,
so that the wheat may grow the better.” (trans. Walter John Sedgefield)
Per Boethius (via Alfred), weeds clearly have no use–they “infest” and prevent more valuable plants, such as wheat, from flourishing. Yet this is a very anthropocentric view. I think I prefer Ralph Waldo Emerson’s definition: “What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.”
I do not directly have any use for the weeds in my yard; in fact, I’m sure the dandelions contribute greatly to my seasonal allergies. The crabgrass and the dandelions do not strike me as particularly beautiful (although the violets do). But at the same time, my sense of beauty is socially constructed. My daughter finds dandelions to be some of the most lovely flowers (sometimes I recruit her to help weed–she thinks she’s picking dandelions to decorate the house, but I know better). I dimly recall a meadow behind a childhood home. The hours I spent as a child making chains from the stems, weaving them together to make golden crowns. The hours I spent blowing on seed heads, delighting in watching each seed dance upon the wind.
What virtues do weeds have?
This last semester, my university hosted Ava Chin, author of Eating Wildly. You can check out her website here: http://www.avachin.com/eating-wildly/.
Chin shared her experiences foraging in New York City, finding edible plants nearly everywhere she went–plants that others viewed as weeds, if they saw them at all. I picked up a copy of her book, although I’ve not looked through it yet–but I’m intrigued by the idea. After all, I did discover earlier this summer that the rhubarb growing in my backyard was great for making jams and pies. What other virtues might these “weeds” have?
But of course, it’s not truly my yard, is it? A yard full of weeds–edible or flowering or not–does not attract potential buyers or renters, and we’ll be leaving this home for another soon enough. In our consumer-driven world, foxtail and purslane and other weeds are the inferior, the other. Why do we insist on such carefully manicured lawns? Why do weeds threaten us so? Do we yearn for conformity and shy away from the individuality that weeds can offer? Are we driven to exert (however futilely) our domination over those plants labelled as weeds? Do we fear that unweeded yards will attract more of nature’s inhabitants, thus reminding us of our close affinity to the rabbits and foxes that often dwell alongside us?
I don’t know. But in the meanwhile, the weeds will go. Sorry, rabbits.