This post is being shared from my new site, Woodrisebooks.com, the site meant to accompany my forthcoming Woodrise book series. During 2023, Woodrisebooks.com will become the primary source for all of my writing and thedyingfish.com will disappear by year’s end. Thanks to my long time followers for staying abreast of my writing and adventures.
I support myself not through writing but through working various blue-collar jobs in the Pittsburgh area. This is alright with me; my work keeps me from getting fat or lazy. And would I feel more constrained in my writing if I relied on it to feed myself? Could I be as honest if I needed to sell everything I put in print?
I took a job this spring in landscaping work, something I’d dabbled in when I was younger and something that at least keeps me outdoors. The position I accepted as a laborer paid more than enough to meet my needs and the work was local – no morning commute into distant parts of the Pittsburgh metropolis.
Among the things I enjoyed about the job was the variety. We’re not doing the same thing day after day, the way I might in a factory or warehouse. I run the mowers and weed-whackers. I prepare beds for mulch and I wheelbarrow the mulch to the beds and place it when it arrives. I pick up branches and out-of-place things in yards and trim the shrubs. I also weed, pulling up all the green things growing in places they weren’t intended to grow.
I’ve often heard “weed” defined simply as any plant growing where it’s not supposed to. Hence, weeds cut across lines of species, genera and families to take in potentially all of the plants. Their intrinsic characteristics don’t matter in this less-than-Linnean system, only our wants and intentions do. I’m paid to yank dandelion, burdock, smartweed, crabgrass and jewelweed all with equal vigor. I just need to pay very close attention to discriminating which plants the garden owner really intended to be there, often recognizable by their placement in neat rows or by the residual signs of having been popped out of a tray and dropped there.
Only the things that the home owner wants can stay. Everything else is garbage. We strive to achieve perfection, every shrub and flower in its assigned place, looking its best, and nothing else crowding things and making a mess, nothing interfering with appearances or first impressions. Barberries stay while the wild grape vines winding through them go. The neat rows of impatients hold their ground while the invading clover is rooted out. The terrible milkweed is uprooted to avoid overshadowing the marigolds.
The unwanted spring into being from the soil, with no-one’s plan or direction while we carefully cultivate the “right” shrubs and perennials and place annuals that are already mature with a flower or two already showing on the day they go in the ground. Once upon a time packets of flower seeds were popular, seeds that required some time and attention to bring to fruition. Now we stop by Lowe’s to buy trays of ready-to-plant flowers, those that go to work keeping up appearances from the moment they’re dropped into the soil.
This says much about our patience and our values. It’s no wonder that our modern environmentalism centers on aesthetics too; this ethos shows up everywhere from our cars to our Facebook pages to our gardens. We do this because we value appearances and conformity. We wouldn’t want to be the oddballs on the block with tangled hedges and who-knows-what weeds emerging from every corner. We do this because aesthetics are so much more immediate, so much more easily apprised than the purposes or the ecology of things. We flee from the organic to things that are cheap and colorful and lend to the impressions we want others to have of us. We do it in our gardens and in our lives. We lack the patience of nature.
How much do people value their appearances? Well, how much do you think Lowe’s makes annually from roses, annuals, and shrubs alone? Throw in Home Depot as well along with the innumerable smaller greenhouses and garden centers here in western Pennsylvania. How much is being spent by homeowners once we throw in lawn care products such as pesticides and herbicides? Then, if you’re among the ultra-affluent of suburbia, maybe you can hire us, a crew of guys to put it all together for you and keep it maintained. We’re not cheap but we can keep it all looking pristine: shapely shrubs to golf course grass.
All of these expenditures seem a pretty good measure of how much folks value their images, once we also add in what they spent for their luxury homes, luxury vehicles, luxury clothing, luxury shoes, etc. Where you’re willing to spend your money seems always a better indication of values than answers on surveys about such things.
So, what’s so wrong with any of that? This is the way people live in modernity or, surely, what they aspire to. What’s wrong with looking good? Maybe nothing; but while thinking about how to look even better tomorrow, what are people not thinking of?
Well, we’re not thinking of the organic. We’re not thinking about the functions of things or the interconnectedness of living things – even the things in your flower beds. We lose sight of the good that comes from “unkept” things. We don’t know what the animals value because we’re consumed with appearances and we’re the only creatures capable of this. We devalue the organic, wanting only the planned, because it looks good. Because it conforms.
I wonder though whether weeding is simply carried over from the rest of our modern American lifestyle. We weed to rid our acreage of plants that seem useless to us. We disdain the “varmints” among the animals and the “junk fish” in our streams, perhaps also wishing to dispense with these. We set aside the thoughts of the “lesser” philosophers so that we can say we’ve read Hegel, Hume and Montaigne or at least they have a place on our conspicuous shelves. We don’t have any use for time spent in Wilpen, Pennsylvania or Covington, Virginia but we’re happy to talk a lot about our time in New York City, in L.A. or in Brussels. We’re happy to toss out books and notebooks in favor of smartphones, like everyone else. In so many ways, we weed our lives of the things that aren’t immediately gratifying, the things that won’t impact our status or bring us the kind of short-term returns we really are looking for. We want all sorts of things that signal how much we care about the environment while making ecological wastelands of our own soil.
But out in the garden at night, a star-nosed mole pushes through the turf, just an inch below the surface, feeling with his unique proboscis for earthworm vibrations. Though silent to us, he hasn’t escaped the attention of an attentive great-horned owl in the beech tree just out back. At the base of this tree, one of the first hen of the woods mushrooms appeared just yesterday and is already the size of a fist. The fungus has been at work on this old tree for a decade, helping with the breakdown that has allowed termites to infest. This hasn’t gone unnoticed by the woodpeckers from downy to pileated. They’ve not only fed here but they’ve moved in and they’ve cut holes that smaller denizens such as the nuthatches now occupy as well. The great old tree will fall in time, offering more homes to even more animals within the void of its smooth trunk. It will open a hole in the canopy allowing sunlight to reach an array of shrubs that have found themselves suppressed for the last seventy years or so by the beech’s shade. Deer will browse here and deer mice will find seeds.
All of these create things that we feel the need to “fix” but to the biome in which we dwell, these are the important things. How much damage do we do when we cut away the unwanted blackberry tangles at the back of the property, when we apply insecticide to kill grubs in the lawn, when we mix herbicides that all too often find their way down drains and into the nearest flowages? How much damage when we work to enforce uniformity on places that long to run wild? When we fail to realize that the “worst” looking places are usually the best places for all the creatures besides ourselves?
Or can we simply not deal with organic variation because we can’t deal with risk in modernity? Everything for our children is super safe from scissors to playgrounds. We want assurances of returns from our brokers, we invest only in startups already following strong market trends and we want every kind of insurance (even underinsured motorist insurance!) so that someone has to pay us if things ever go terribly wrong. We crave security in our homes, workplaces and schools. We want to live a life of predictable experiences instead of exposing ourselves to the life-altering viscissitudes or a world of chaos. Safety first! is the battle cry of our men who also fish places where a government truck put trout for us to catch – ah! the sporting life! Our women take pride in knowing and conforming to all the protocols of ten thousand corportate workplaces. Compliance keeps everyone accountable and everyone safe! We want to know outcomes before we ever roll the dice.
All of this flies in the face of the workings of nature, separates us from us, keeps us from thinking the long thoughts of the earth.
How then can we tolerate the possibilities that might arise from wildness invading our properties, from wild things running loose at night, from nutrients cycling and producing random growing things in random places next year? What if some of the out-of-control things deface our property or, somehow, make us look odd?
It’s easy to see the problems wild things create, especially for the all important appearances we work so hard to maintain. It’s so much harder to see the potential.
If you can begin to see things through the eyes of the wild creatures, it will necessarily shift the way you see everything in your garden. I was sent to a property last week in which the mulch beds had become overrun with thistles to a point that must have been alarming to the local homeowner’s association (incidentally, when did we begin to feel the necessity of a micro-government in every cul de sac?). Bumblebees, honey bees and an array of other flying insects happily worked over the tall purple flowers. I had no trouble from any of them as I filled bucket after bucket with the spiny weeds, carrying them to a dump pile out back. As the mass of weeds shrank, the congregation of bees became more and more compact, working faster, it seemed to sip nectar from what remained. None of them gave me any trouble as I continued following orders, making the bastion of bee food disappear. Finally, the last of the “weeds” protruded from my bucket, the last of the bumblebees still hanging on even as the bucket was emptied in the weeds out back.
And I wondered how much better I’d really made things.
One thought on “Weeding”
This is a remarkable essay, one of your best yet. It ought to grace the pages of the country’s largest circulation magazines and best-selling coffee table book. Really… it is Thoreau-esques.
“We devalue the organic, wanting only the planned, because it looks good. Because it conforms.” As Diane and I walk through neighborhoods of our small city, commenting on pretty flowers, plantings overrun with weeds, and porches in need of a coat of new paint, I often pause and wonder at my intolerance of the natural, of what must be personal taste over my own unnatural preferences for symmetry, geometry, and order. You capture the roots and consequences of all that so very well in this essay.