The Virtue of Weeds - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
The Virtue of Weeds
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If you don’t understand the virtue of weeds, you will not understand the mind of nature.

Weeds grasp their own essence and express its truth.

— Taneda Santōka, “Diary of the One-Grass Hut” (1940)

There is no such thing as a weed, strictly speaking, any more than there is such a thing as vermin. Flora or fauna can only be considered weedy or verminous in the presence of situational constructs. It is hard to imagine nowadays, but Tudor, Stuart, Georgian, and Victorian landowners deemed hedgehogs and weasels, owls and hawks, jays and magpies all to be vermin alongside cockroaches, lice, rats, and mice, and these landowners tirelessly pursued their extermination, thereby inflicting irreparable damage on the ecosystem around them. The same scattershot approach was applied to the plant kingdom. Walter Blith, author of The English Improver, or, A New Survey of Husbandry (1649), characterized ferns, rushes, and gorse as “such filth,” while William Ellis, writing a century later, dismissed honeysuckles, wild irises, marigolds, and even water lilies as unseemly weeds. Not everyone agreed with Blith and Ellis. Samuel Pegge, in his Curialia Miscellanea, or, Anecdotes of Old Times (1818), countered that “botanists allow nothing to be weeds,” and the herbalist William Gerard urged his readers to “feast themselves with varieties of those things the vulgar call weeds,” but it was a losing battle, and the category of “weed” or “pest plant” would come to include strangling not just vines and aggressive thistles but everything from white clover and buttercups to lesser celandine and yarrow, from cranesbill geranium and black-eyed Susan to tansy and mallow, from wood sorrel and pitseed goosefoot to bedstraw and gill-over-the-ground, many of which are edible or even medicinal. This unjustified weed maximalism has hardly been to the benefit of the human race.

Japanese farmers once relied on horsetail, bracken, mugwort, osmunda, nori, rockweed, watercress, shepherd’s purse, creeping strawberry geranium, and chickweed to supplement their diet. The Tollund Man, whose Iron Age bog body was discovered in a Jutland peat layer in 1950, was found to have eaten a last meal of porridge prepared with barley, flax, and false flax flavored with goosefoot and knotweed. The modern diet, on the other hand, is a circumscribed and impoverished thing — the morbid abundance of foodstuffs in the developed world notwithstanding — almost completely disconnected from the natural world and its cycles and as harmful to the human microbiome as it is to the human spirit. “By following a humble diet,” wrote Masanobu Fukuoka (1913–2008) in The One-Straw Revolution: An Introduction to Natural Farming, “gathering the foods of the various seasons from close at hand, and savoring their wholesome and nourishing flavor, the local villagers [in Shikoku] accept what nature provides. The villagers know the delicious flavor of the food, but they cannot taste the mysterious flavor of nature. No, it is rather that they taste it, but cannot express it with words. A natural diet lies right at one’s feet.” We can abandon these age-old practices, the better to feed our teeming billions, but it comes at a cost.

Eleanor Perényi, a garden writer of profound sensibilities, cautioned against excessive antagonism toward so-called weeds. She explained:

[O]rganic theory does in fact hold that they constitute a mini-ecology that should be respected. They put nutrients in the soil as well as taking them out, preserve tilth, and some are useful in insect control. The green lacewing, for example, whose larvae devour many pests, itself feeds on the nectar of nettles, lamb’s-quarters, and dandelions — all of which happen to make delicious soups and salads as well. The distinction between weeds and wildings is therefore far from clear, and in some countries is scarcely made.

Earlier in her gardening days, Perényi deployed “an appalling assortment of weedkillers” in a failed effort to control some unwelcome flora — “my one and only betrayal of organic principles,” she later admitted — only to find that “the following year the weeds returned in redoubled numbers and the grass was in such a terrible state that compost had to be applied like compresses on an open wound.” Our collective faith in herbicides and pesticides, some 400 varieties of which are to be found on the American market, remains unshaken, however, as evidenced by the nearly 300 million pounds of glyphosate and the nearly 100 million pounds of endocrine-disrupting atrazine (banned in most halfway-sensible countries) that are slathered over our terrain on a yearly basis.

Homeowners and landscapers, armed with liquid herbicides and other synthetic compounds, wage a sustained, though inevitably quixotic, war of annihilation against dandelions, those indomitable members of the daisy family whose plunging and branching taproots efficiently aerate the soil and pull much-needed calcium and other nutrients toward the surface for the benefit of nearby plants; whose jagged leaves are even more nutritious than spinach, full of beta-carotene, protein, vitamins C and D, organic sodium, fiber, potassium, iron, zinc, magnesium, calcium, and phosphorus; whose flower heads can be made into tea and wine and can infuse vinegar and honey; and whose flower buds can be pickled and eaten like capers. In our communal bid to turn suburban lawns into ecological dead zones — witness the ubiquitous lawn chemical-application warning signs informing children and pets to stay away, even though children and pets are presumably the very reason one wants a sprawling lawn in the first place — we strive to eliminate clover, which, as Fukuoka demonstrated, actually keeps other invasive plants under control when judiciously combined with straw ground cover. Vita Sackville-West, in her beautiful book-length narrative poem The Land, described the month the Anglo-Saxons called Weod-monath, the month of weeds, herbs, and grass, which we now, in misconceived deference to Rome’s first emperor, call August:

This is the month of weeds.

Kex, charlock, thistle,

Among the shorn bristle

Of stubble drop seeds.

This is the month of weeds.

 

Spurry, pimpernel, quitch,

Twine in the stubble,

Making for trouble;

With nettle in ditch,

Spurry, pimpernel, quitch.

 

Yet the field has a friend,

The nimble clover,

Custodian, lover,

Yare to defend.

The field has a friend.

 

Humble-bees boldly reach

Red clover’s honey,

Paid in sweet money.

Hive-bees in vain beseech:

Honey is out of reach.

 

Now let the clover spread;

Nature it craveth;

Foemen it braveth,

Strangling them dead.

So let the clover spread.

And it seems worth noting that lawns, in Tudor times, were dominated not yet by insipid clipped grasses but rather by chamomile flowers, presumably Chamaemelum nobile English or Roman chamomile — which clings low to the ground with a creeping habit ideal for one’s yard. Just imagine an expanse of chamomile instead of ryegrass or fescue, a lush carpet of emerald green, ivory, and gold releasing the sweet smell of apples when trod upon, attracting instead of repelling pollinators and other beneficial insects, and providing never-ending cups of anti-inflammatory, immune-boosting herbal tisane. Yet in these unenlightened times, prairie farmers and gardeners alike tend to regard chamomile as a noxious weed, and one suspects that the average homeowners association would react with horror and crippling fines to any experiments in authentic, eco-friendly Tudor-style landscaping.

All this puts me in mind of Albrecht Dürer’s 1503 watercolor painting Das große Rasenstück, usually translated somewhat clumsily as The Large Piece of Turf, which hangs in the Grafischen Sammlung of the Vienna Albertina. It is an absolute marvel of nature observation, rivaled only by the same artist’s better-known illustration of a Feldhase, or young hare, executed the previous year. It is Dürer’s only pure plant study, and it depicts with characteristic sensitivity a patch of swampy meadow positively teeming with orchard grass, germander speedwell, dandelion, hound’s-tongue, waybread, creeping bentgrass, and yarrow, the likes of which could be found in the extensive meadows that surrounded the painter’s native Nuremberg. As Dürer himself put it: “Life in nature manifests the truth. Therefore observe it diligently, go by it and do not depart from nature arbitrarily, imagining to find the better by thyself, for thou wouldst be misled. For verily, art is embedded in nature; he who can extract it has it.” Through Das große Rasenstück, Dürer succeeded admirably in embedding himself in nature, providing an insect’s-eye view of the meadow, just as George Sand would in her Intimate Journal, in which she described resting in the fields near the château of Coudray, the high grass all around her, as she gradually lost “all sense of dimension.” The “weeds took on enormous proportions,” and, as she describes:

As I looked at those weeds, which a hot breeze stirred feebly, they seemed to me an immeasurable forest which bent beneath the force of a powerful storm. Its heavy branches were shattered by the tempest and the lofty tree-tops crashed with a terrifying noise. In the midst of this tumult a dull roaring came to my ears. Gripped by terror at the approach of a lion, I leaped to my feet — and it was well that I did, for a big hornet was buzzing under my nose. But alas, the virgin forest and the mighty exotic trees had disappeared. I found myself surrounded by nothing more intimidating than clover, alfalfa, grass and other kinds of fodder.

By learning to appreciate the subtle charm of the herbs, weeds, and other wildings around us, an attribute traditional Chinese poets and painters called p’ing-tan, or “that ineffable quality of understatement,” we can shift our perspectives. Indeed, “if we could bring ourselves to see weeds like this,” as Perényi wrote in relation to Sand’s vision, “we might be in less of a rush to get rid of them.”

*****

Stereotypical suburban gardens and lawns, meanwhile, have rather less allure, and at their worst they represent unmitigated aesthetic catastrophes. John Ruskin, in The Poetry of Architecture (1837), expressed righteous, almost biblical disgust at Victorian floral gardens:

A flower-garden is an ugly thing, even when best managed: it is an assembly of unfortunate beings, pampered and bloated above their natural size, stewed and heated into diseased growth; corrupted by evil communication into speckled and inharmonious colours; torn from the soil which they loved, and of which they were the spirit and the glory, to glare away their term of tormented life among the mixed and incongruous essences of each other, in earth that they know not, and in air that is poison to them.

The florist may delight in this: the true lover of flowers never will. He who has taken lessons from nature … will never take away the beauty of their being to mix into meretricious glare, or to feed into an existence of disease.

Imagine the revulsion he might have felt if confronted with the most unnatural horticultural form of all: a rectangular patch of closely shorn grass and nothing more. Something like a quarter of urbanized land in the United States is given over to these excruciatingly boring monoculture lawns, which are not just dull but detrimental. They are biological deserts, prone to disease and intolerant of drought, and require enormous amounts of precious potable water for their survival. Whereas native prairie grasses have deep root systems that loosen and aerate the soil, allowing for the ready absorption of fallen rainwater, the shallow roots of turf grasses all but ensure that excess rainwater will promptly run off into catchment systems and, thereupon, into streams, rivers, lakes, and oceans, leading to flooding, and leaching pernicious pesticides and herbicides into the wider world.

We take the soil beneath us for granted. Another great garden writer, the Czech novelist Karel Čapek, observed in The Gardener’s Year (1929) how so often “one does not care what one is treading on; one rushes somewhere like mad, and at most one notices what beautiful clouds there are, or what a beautiful horizon it is, or beautifully blue the hills are; but one does not look under one’s feet to note and praise the beautiful soil that is there.” The attentive gardener, on the other hand, knows that “not even clouds are so diverse, so beautiful, and terrible as the soil under your feet. You will know the soil as sour, tough, clayey, cold, stony, and rotten; you will recognize the mould puffy like pastry, warm, light, and good like bread, and you will say of this that it is beautiful, just as you say so of women or of clouds.” Čapek was in awe of the soil; he understood:

… the animosity and callousness of dead and sterile matter which ever did defend itself, and still does, against becoming a soil of life; and you will realize what a terrible fight life must have undergone, inch by inch, to take root in the soil of the earth, whether that life be called vegetation or man. And then you will know that you must give more to the soil than you take away; you must make it friable and fertile with lime, and temper it with warm manure, lighten it with ashes, and saturate it with air and sunshine.

A recent review in Nature, “Soil microbiomes and one health,” authored by Samiran Banerjee and Marcel van der Heijden, identified 40 different soil microbiome functions that “either directly or indirectly contribute to soil, plant, animal and human health.” It is this “one health” concept that Čapek was getting at, and that explains how the “health and well-being of humans are inseparably linked to the health of other ecosystem components such as soil, plants and animals.” Indeed, an impressive array of soil microorganisms participate in crucial functions ranging from nutrient recycling and enhanced water uptake to hormone regulation and pathogen suppression. The natural farmer Fukuoka had cause to look upon his neighbors’ industrial farms with unease. He had sought to create a “balanced rice field ecosystem” and had planted orchards where “insect and plant communities maintain a stable relationship,” where “it is not uncommon for a plant disease to sweep through this area, leaving the crops in these fields unaffected”; but, as he writes:

Look over at the neighbor’s field for a moment. The weeds have all been wiped out by herbicides and cultivation. The soil animals and insects have been exterminated by poison. The soil has been burned clean of organic matter and microorganisms by chemical fertilizers. In the summer you see farmers at work in the fields, wearing gas masks and long rubber gloves. These rice fields, which have been farmed continuously for over 1,500 years, have now been laid waste by the exploitive farming practices of a single generation.

It will be the work of future generations to undo the widespread degradation of the soil caused by unthinking or short-sighted practices that contribute to erosion, compaction, and contamination.

Fukuoka was not the first to sound the warning about our cavalier treatment of the soil upon which our very existence depends. The American agriculturalist John Lorain, whose Nature and Reason Harmonized in the Practice of Husbandry, published posthumously in 1825, describes his pioneering experiment in corn hybridization, presciently grasped the fundamental importance of “animalcules” (microbes) and decaying plant matter: “The fertilizing effects of the perfect system of economy is equally clearly seen in our glades, as in our forests, where nature is suffered to pursue her own course … the same may be said of weeds, notwithstanding slovenly farmers complain still more loudly of the injury done by them.” Neil Clayton, in his 2003 Environment and History analysis of “Weeds, People and Contested Places,” summarizes Lorain’s sensible approach thusly: “He doubted the notion that soil impoverishment is the result of some biblical curse. Weeds were not the cause, although perhaps an effect. He saw soil impoverishment as an even greater curse.” Fukuoka, like Lorain, understood the “perfect system of economy” governing the life of the forest:

If you want to get an idea of the natural fertility of the earth, take a walk to the wild mountainside sometime and look at the giant trees that grow without fertilizer and without cultivation. The fertility of nature, as it is, is beyond reach of the imagination. Cut down the natural forest cover, plant Japanese red pine or cedar trees for a few generations, and the soil will become depleted and open to erosion. On the other hand, take a barren mountain with poor, red clay soil, and plant pine or cedar with a ground cover of clover and alfalfa. As the green manure enriches and softens the soil, weeds and bushes grow up below the trees, and a rich cycle of regeneration is begun. There are instances in which the top four inches of soil have become enriched in less than ten years.

We tamper with this natural economy at our peril. The Prussian explorer and geographer Alexander von Humboldt, drawing on his South American peregrinations, expressed alarm at how intensive indigo cultivation in the valley of Aragua “impoverishes the soil,” stripping it “like a mine”; how the disastrous flooding of the Rio Apure was caused by felling the stands of trees that once guarded riverbanks “like a very tight wall”; and how poorly planned irrigation in the Mexican highlands could reduce ancient sprawling lakes to little more than puddles. “Nature is a living whole,” he insisted, not a “dead aggregate.” But a “dead aggregate” is precisely how one might describe vast swathes of the world that we have created for ourselves. Lorain was right; nature and reason must be harmonized, and not just in the practice of husbandry. “Numquam aliud natura, aliud sapientia dicit,” as the poet Juvenal realized — “never does nature say one thing and wisdom another.”

G.K. Chesterton, in his essay “Romantic Love,” published in a 1931 issue of the Illustrated London News, famously complained of how we have “gone forward blindly and blundered in every sort of way,” with “no notion of preserving different things side by side, of allowing its proper and proportionate place to each, of saving the whole varied heritage of culture.” The modern world, he wearily observed, “has no notion except that of simplifying something by destroying nearly everything.” There is a profound egotism at work here. Past achievements are “lost or despised,” and “it is necessary for every fashion to wash away all that is best in every other.” Culture and horticulture are alike in this way, and it was the sort of conceitedness described by Chesterton that led the Connecticut-born agronomist Jared Eliot (1685–1763) to boast this to his counterpart John Bartram (1699–1777):

Take a view of a Swamp in its original Estate, full of Bogs, overgrown with Flags, Brakes, poisonous Weeds and Vines … The baleful Thickets of Brambles, and the dreary Shades of the longer Growth … [then after it is drained] Behold it now clothed [sic] with sweet verdant Grass, adorned with the lofty wide spreading well set Indian-Corn; the yellow Barley; … a wonderful Change this! and all brought about in a short time; a Resemblance to Creation.

Eliot’s attitude toward nature was in some ways quintessentially American. The anthropologist Gloria Levitas has posited that “in the early history of America, the country was a very terrifying place. But once we tamed it, it became the place where we redeemed ourselves,” and so the “grass tamed [in a suburban yard] represents the wilderness tamed. Keeping it mowed and managed signifies a state of grace — to subdue nature yet live within it.” Yet Bartram recognized that weeds and vines and bogs were all part of Creation too, and, in response to Eliot, he cautioned that “the entanglement of mud and debris, brought down by floods, among the hazels, weeds and vines of the bottomlands, maintained soil fertility in riverside lowlands” and that “clearing the weeds would prevent the deposition of debris and enhance soil erosion.” The best response to Eliot’s line of thinking, however, would have to wait until the 20th century, when the French scientist Jean Rostand, son of the playwright Edmond, memorably asserted that “in naming a plant a weed, man gives proof of his personal arrogance.”

*****

The Enlightenment philosopher, theologian, and proto-anthropologist Johann Gottfried Herder admitted later in life to having “too little reason and too much idiosyncrasy,” but it was precisely this quality that made him such a profound thinker. He investigated everything from ancient German folk songs to Sanskrit drama, and he thought it wonderful that Providence had “separated nationalities not only by woods and mountains, seas and deserts, rivers and climates, but more particularly by languages, inclinations and characters,” adding that the “savage who loves himself, his wife and child with quiet joy and glows with limited activity of his tribe as for his own life, is in my opinion a more real being than that cultivated shadow who is enraptured with the shadow of the whole species.” He traveled throughout eastern Europe and singled out Ukraine’s “beautiful skies, blithe temperament, musical talent, bountiful soil, etc.,” predicting that “someday will awaken there a cultured nation whose influence will spread…throughout the world.” Herder urged his contemporaries to “go into the age, into the region, into the whole history, and feel one’s way into everything,” for, as he wrote in Letters for the Advancement of Humanity, “to the good of mankind as a whole can no one contribute who does not make of himself what he can and should become; each should therefore cultivate and tend the garden of humanity first on that bed, where he turns green as a tree, or blossoms as a flower.”

Herder could never have foreseen the ways in which the notion of an all-encompassing “garden of humanity” would be abused in the centuries that followed. The Australian anthropologist Roger Sandall (1933–2012), an inveterate critic of romantic primitivism, declared Herder’s theory to be “the most childish notion ever to have imposed itself on an influential mind. Whatever he may have imagined, the garden of human cultures contains just as many stink-lilies as violets, strangling vines as primrose, sick societies as those with rosy cheeks — and too many problems in the modern world stem from sentimentally denying this fact.” We will set aside this slur against Dracunculus vulgaris, and the various climbing or trailing woody-stemmed members of the grape family, and instead consider the effects of treating members of the human race, in whole or in part, as weeds to be eradicated from the jardin politique.

It was around the same time that Herder was writing his Letters for the Advancement of Humanity that Catherine the Great was busy incorporating the Crimean Peninsula into the Russian Empire. Crimea was declared a new Eden, a “paradise on earth,” a “garden of empire” marred only by the unpropitious presence of its indigenous inhabitants, the Tatars. Pavel Ivanovich Sumarokov, an imperial Privy councilor and magistrate, visited Crimea in 1799 and 1802 and came away with the conclusion that the Tatar people were nothing more than a “harmful weed” that should be uprooted and transplanted to the faraway steppes of the Volga region. (When the Tatars were deported en masse under Joseph Stalin, those who were not machine gunned or drowned were instead sent to Central Asia.) Czarist authorities in Crimea would continue to employ this trope, demanding “detailed and tireless work to cultivate a removal of thorns and weeds; to sow and water with both hands,” which Mara Kozelsky later interpreted as meaning “nurture those who were Orthodox and weed out those who were not.”

The rhetoric of weeds and flowers was not to be confined to the Crimean Peninsula. Stalin regarded aristocrats, kulaks, and other “former people” as “weeds” that were “sprouting in the stone walls of the socialist edifice.” Those “socially harmful elements” may have been “unfit human weeds,” but they could be eliminated by “homogenizing” Soviet society. Readers of Pravda were told that “the Soviet land has become a vast and magnificent garden where the talents of the people blossom and the great Bolshevist gardener nurses them as though they were his favorite tree,” and where there would be no room for parasites (parazity), vermin (vrediteli), pollution (zasorennost), or filth (griaz). In communist China, meanwhile, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was set off by a November 10, 1965, article in the newspaper Wen Hui Pao criticizing Wu Han’s traditional opera Hai Jui Pa Kuan as “not a fragrant flower but a poisonous weed.” Chou Erh-fu’s 1958 novel Morning in Shanghai and other supposedly bourgeois, feudalistic, or revisionist works were declared to be “poisonous weeds,” while Chiang Ching’s utterly vapid (but appropriately titled) socialist opera A Bucket of Manure was somehow hailed as a “fragrant flower,” even though it was reported that during its first perfor­mance “some unappreciative theater-goers threw debris on to the stage.” The Taiwanese diplomat Chen Chih-mai (1908–1978) responded to all this repulsive Maoist rhetoric by wryly quoting a traditional Chinese poem about weeds:

Wild fire cannot burn them all;

When the spring wind blows, they’ll grow again.

Propagandists and politicians in Nazi Germany employed identical rhetoric, with the fascist “humor” magazine Die Brennessel (named after the stinging nettle, incidentally) referring to anti-Semitic persecution as Kampf dem Unkraut, or “Battling the Weeds,” with Hitler’s stressing the need to “prune off the wild shoots and tear out the weeds,” and with Reich Minister of Food and Agriculture Richard Walther Darré ominously remarking in 1930:

He who leaves the plants in a garden to themselves will soon find to his surprise that the garden is overgrown by weeds and that even the basic character of the plants has changed. If therefore the garden is to remain the breeding ground for the plants, if in other words, it is to lift itself above the harsh rules of natural forces, then the forming will of a gardener is necessary, a gardener who … carefully tends what needs tending and ruthlessly eliminates the weeds.… [A] people can only reach spiritual and moral equilibrium if a well-conceived breeding plan stands at the very centre of its culture.

It should be apparent at this point why the Polish sociologist and philosopher Zygmunt Bauman, in his 1989 study Modernity and the Holocaust, used the metaphor of the “gardening state” to describe totalitarian societies. “Modern genocide,” wrote Bauman, “is a gardener’s job … just one of the many chores that people who treat society as a garden need to undertake. If garden design defines its weeds, there are weeds wherever there is a garden. And weeds are to be exterminated.… All visions of society-as-garden define parts of the social habitat as human weeds.” The Holocaust, according to Bauman, was:

a by-product of the modern drive to a fully designed, fully controlled world, once the drive is getting out of control and running wild. Most of the time, modernity is prevented from doing so. Its ambitions clash with the pluralism of the human world.… When the modernist dream is embraced by an absolute power able to monopolize modern vehicles of rational action, and when the power attains freedom from effective social control, genocide follows. A modern genocide — like the Holocaust.

Our “characteristically modern zeal for order-making, the kind of posture which casts the extant human reality as a perpetually unfinished project, in need of critical scrutiny, constant revision and improvement” means that “nothing has the right to exist because of the fact that it happens to be around.”

It is safe to say that none of this is what Herder had in mind when he exhorted his readers to tend the garden of humanity. Nevertheless, as our horticulture goes, so goes our culture. Perhaps Herder would have approved, however, of the following coda provided by his favorite writer, William Shakespeare, who neatly summed up modern so-called civilization in his Sonnet 94:

The summer’s flower is to the summer sweet

Though to itself it only live and die,

But if that flower with base infection meet,

The basest weed outbraves his dignity:

For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;

Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.

Matthew Omolesky
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Matthew Omolesky is a human rights lawyer and a researcher in the fields of cultural heritage preservation and law and anthropology. A Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute, he has been contributing to The American Spectator since 2006, as well as to publications including Quadrant, Lehrhaus, Europe2020, the European Journal of Archaeology, and Democratiya.
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