Author Q & A

By Victoria Crain, Correspondent to the Rutland Herald

How did you choose the title?

When my husband and I first saw the gorgeous meadow emerge from what had been a dying orchard, I felt like a god striding across my land, admiring “my” creation. As invasive weeds moved in over the next few years, I turned into an angry god, bent on eliminating all the non-native plants. Over time, I had to learn that my power is limited and that I had to accept most of the weeds. Along with acceptance, came a slow recognition of their beauty and power.

Is Playing God in the Meadow a how-to book, a nature book or a memoir?
It’s all three. It’s my story with weeds – how I started our battling them head on and slowly learned to accept, even admire them – which makes it a memoir. But it’s steeped in the latest scientific information on invasive weeds and the evolving debates surrounding them, which qualifies it as a nature/science book. In addition, by following my own learning curve about which weeds to wage war on and how, the book provides solid how-to information.

Why did you write this book? Who is it for?
As I was struggling with my weeds, I embarked on some serious research, which turned out to be difficult because there’s very little information on the subject for the average gardener. Most of the available information is geared toward agriculture, and the newest information is reported in academic journals. So I thought that there was a gap here that I could help fill, because there is no book like mine out there.

So what will people learn from reading Playing God in the Meadow?

More than learn specifics, I hope readers will start to observe plants and wonder about them, from the familiar ones in their backyard or potted in their house, out to the trees and shrubs in the street and the park, and beyond that to the green world that surrounds us, even in cities. They may become curious about plants that seem to dominate, wonder about some they may remember but rarely see. They may then want to learn about specific plants in their surroundings and wonder whether their weeding needs to expand or be cut back. If they have a meadow or even a corner that’s allowed to grow wild, the book will let them see how that area will evolve and what their role is. But all this information is seamlessly woven into the story, so readers will learn while enjoying an entertaining and humorous story that early reviewers called a “thoughtful tale.”.

There was mention in the book blurb about how your personal history plays into the story of weeds. Can you clarify that?
Non-native plants are referred to as invader, alien, foreign, illegal, pest, menace, plague, monster, nightmare and on and on. Given that all the references are based on the non-belonging, the “otherness” of these plants, out of context it’s sometimes difficult to know whether the reference is to plants or people. I found this disturbing because both my husband and I are immigrants to this country, having come here with our Holocaust survivor parents. I’ve been a citizen for many decades, and I think of myself as American – because what else could I be?  Yet people still ask me “what” I am. What exactly would make me American?

Poison parsnip and Canada thistle – the two worst non-native weeds in our meadow – have been growing in this country for far longer than I’ve been here. The movements of the early pioneers can be traced by the European plants that grew wherever they went. Later, plants arrived from other parts of the world, sometimes by invitation, more often by hitchhiking. We’ve left our fingerprints on every inch of the planet and there is no native landscape anywhere. By now, it’s almost impossible to draw clear lines between native and non-native plants. At what point does a plant or a person become native? And if the plant or person lives in harmony with the surroundings, does it really matter?

Are you at peace with your meadow now?
At peace? No, but I’m more at peace with what I now think of as my mongrel meadow. It’s not pristine, since there are plenty of non-native plants growing in it. But meadows themselves are not native to Vermont, where natural succession ultimately leads to forest. What we’re doing is arresting natural succession and making it stop at the meadow stage, not letting it progress to shrubland and then forest. In essence, we are interfering with a natural process so the result is bound to not be totally “natural,” whatever that means these days, when many of us are content with just having green things growing.

I decided that we can only fight so many invasives, so we’re focused on the two worst offenders: poison parsnip and Canada thistle, which don’t play well with others and would in time turn the meadow into a field of parsnip and thistle. The others I try to ignore. Many are beautiful and the pollinators seem to like them.

I tell myself that we are creating beauty for us and abundance for all that lives here. That is a positive act, an act of defiance in the face of all that is wrong with the world. It’s as good a way to spend our days as any. I continue to play god in the meadow, deciding which few non-native plants must be eliminated, but I am trying to be a more modest, more respectful and more forgiving god, a god with a longer perspective.