Here are some excerpts from my forthcoming book, Playing God in the Meadow: How I Learned to Admire My Weeds.
I don’t find early blackberries but I discover a large patch of still-green wild blueberries that must have just colonized the shallow earth between rocky outcrops on the highest point on the hill. I am visualizing wild blueberries for breakfast, soon! But I am bothered by the dandelions that ring this exciting patch. How exactly am I supposed to view these weeds that twinkle at me so sunnily from everywhere?
Dandelions, I learn, are an astonishingly useful plant. Almost every part can be transformed into something beneficial, from salads to teas to wine. The greens are saturated with nutrients, including more vitamin C than tomatoes, and if I remember to pick them young, I add the leaves to salads or cook them like spinach. Dandelions have deep taproots, and taproots are good for the soil, opening it up to water and air. The root has medicinal uses and can be roasted and ground for a coffee substitute. The flowers make a reportedly excellent wine, which I’d be willing to make if Ted would remove every one of the green sepals that encircle the yellow blossom from every single flower, which he steadfastly refuses to do. I explain that these would make the wine bitter, but he’s not swayed. I have tried the tea and it’s not bad but not as good as, say, Japanese sencha. Even the white sticky sap that gets on your fingers when you break the stem is useful, having germicidal, insecticidal, and fungicidal properties. It’s easy to understand why dandelions have been an important component of Chinese medicine for a thousand years. Lastly, dandelions are excellent for entertaining small children, as anyone with two hands can turn them into necklaces and crowns. Plus, it’s one flower kids can pick by the handful without having anyone yell at them.
Then there’s the wonderful name, which I like so much I threatened to give it to my firstborn. It’s an English corruption of the French dent de lion, meaning “lion’s tooth,” an apt description of the tooth-like serrations on the plant’s leaves. Its scientific name is Taraxacum officinale, with officinale referencing “pharmacy,” in recognition of its medicinal properties.
Dandelions are classified as alien or non-native because they were brought here from somewhere else. Given my history, I bristle at these terms. Natives are preferred over non-natives, at least in the plant world. Mostly in the human world I live in too, unless someone comes from a high-status country and/or has the right accent, which includes almost all English accents except those from the Caribbean, and French accents. Light Nordic accents are also acceptable.
Dandelions don’t have the right accent. Despite the fact that dandelions have clearly made themselves at home here, they are far from fully accepted. They were brought from Europe by homesick Pilgrims, and once the genie was out of the bottle they multiplied greatly. Of course, coming here from Europe and multiplying also applies to many Americans of European descent. Like dandelions, many plants brought here from other parts of the world multiply to the point that they become perceived as invasive weeds. That’s because they have an unfair advantage over native species; an introduced species generally arrives in a new land without its predators, pests, and diseases in tow. Native species, however, have an extensive array of pests that have evolved with them and that like to eat or kill them.
But if asparagus turned up on its own in my garden, producing food and exotic airy fronds, or if carrots suddenly appeared, I’d be happy to eat their roots and even their leaves, which I turn into pesto. Yet asparagus and carrots were both brought to us from other parts of the world, from the Middle East and from Europe, respectively. They are clearly food and not weeds. We have to plant them and coddle them because they are not nearly as resilient, as powerful, or as pretty as dandelions.
I wander around the rocky hilltop, searching for more blueberries, walking faster as my thoughts turn cloudier. Maybe these native versus non-native labels are culturally based, and we attach them only to some plants, which we then feel justified in attacking with spade and poison. It’s a matter of how we’ve been conditioned to regard some of the most tenacious, irrepressible, and often beautiful plants.
I am feeling virtuous, having arrived at this seemingly logical conclusion. But our lawn is not a true lawn, just a meadow that is cut regularly; and the dandelions in the fields are hidden by tall grass by the time they get leggy and their sunburst blooms turn into fluffballs. Dandelions lose their good looks as they age, yet children love blowing these fluffballs and watching the seeds travel, each on its own little parachute, an effective dispersal mechanism on an admirably adapted plant.
The second year, we tried to enlist the neighbors. Not in helping us on our turf but in waging war on their own so their mustards wouldn’t make new homes in our soon-to-be-mustard-free meadow. The elderly couple had seemed welcoming; we had visited them in their home, and they had been to our cabin, where they had sat in the uncomfortable kitchen chairs for an interminable time as we valiantly attempted to find common ground for conversation. So I felt confident this conversation would yield excellent results. Ted thought otherwise.
“They don’t care like you do. They’re used to just living with whatever comes. They don’t have your energy. They won’t even know what you’re talking about,” he argued. I found that thought impossible to entertain and asked that we at least try.
He joined me when we drove up their driveway and waited in the car for the requisite five minutes, giving them a chance to ready for company.
After the neighborly pleasantries, I launch into the topic.
“We wanted to talk to you about the mustards in our fields.”
“The mustards?” he asked, looking genuinely puzzled.
“You know, the yellow weeds growing everywhere. There, there, and there and there!” I pointed triumphantly through their window. As I suspected, their field looked much like ours.
They looked and looked and looked some more. And they said nothing. The silence weighed uncomfortably. I looked at Ted.
“Would you like to come outside for a minute?” he ventured. It wasn’t the assistance I was looking for, but at least there was action as we all filed out.
I bent down and yanked out one of the offenders.
“This is the mustard I meant, but I’m sure you’re familiar with it,” I began, ready to launch into the grave consequences of ignoring them.
“It has a taproot,” I pointed out. “So, if you let it just grow and grow, its root will continue to reach down into the earth until you won’t be able to pull it out.”
They nodded silently.
“And each of these little flowers, it’s an inflorescence, you see, each of these flowers is actually made up of all these tiny flowers, so . . .” I continued, turning the flower head toward them, “. . . so each of these will turn into a seedpod, and each will hold about three dozen seeds, each of which will turn into a new plant. And each of these plants can make thousands of seeds!” I ended with a flourish.
I felt I’d made my case.
“The problem . . .” Ted began. “The problem is that these things travel, so they’ll just move from your fields into ours, and from ours into yours, and into everyone’s fields.”
“And that’s why we’re pulling them all out,” I concluded.
We waited. Another long silence.
“You’re pulling these out?” he asked.
“All of them?” his wife echoed.
Another long pause followed our affirmative answer, after which he looked at her, shook his head and looked down at his boots.
“Well,” he began, then allowed too much time to pass. “We just plan on cutting them all down when we brushhog. In a couple weeks.”
“That’ll take care of the weeds,” she agreed.
There’s a lot I wanted to explain. About the bobolinks and the redwings and their nests, and the eggs in the nests, and the embryos in those eggs, and these birds’ shrinking habitat here and in their wintering grounds, and the perfect storm that’s decimating them, and why we cannot, should not, ever brushhog, at least not until the babies had fledged and realistically not until they all leave on their return flight.
But it was not my place. These are kind, decent people who are doing things the way they and the generations before them have always done them. We know nothing about their hardships and their thoughts, their history and their ideas. With our ridiculous worries about birds . . . birds for heaven’s sake! We’re as foreign and invasive as the weeds we’re bothering them about.
So we returned to our mustard, to battle alone.
Weeding anything is like housecleaning. There’s the dirt you see and the dirt you uncover as you clean. Here, there were the yellow heads we could spot from the house gazing down through the meadow, and the uncountable small ones you couldn’t ignore once you bent down to yank a large plant. Thus the area we set aside for the day’s work was never, ever completed.
We started out together but mostly worked alone. Sometimes we met at the corners of our rectangles, or walking to a common pile to deposit the pulled carcasses. Often we worked at opposite ends of the meadow.
It was best to work alone, because weeding some twenty acres of poison parsnip does not make for friendly conversation. It consists mostly of nonverbal communication, a blend of my whining and moaning and Ted’s cursing in multiple languages, including some he doesn’t speak. It’s possible some are not languages at all, but I could tell they were curses by the not-so-subtle body language and the tone of voice. These were elicited by the worst offenders, the parsnips that had grown so massive that large implements were needed to pry the roots out of the ground. Also, and here’s another example of parsnip’s duplicity: the regular breaking off of the smallest ones in the middle of their weak root, which, left in the ground, would produce a new plant.
The best were the average-size plants. With the proper grip at ground level, these could be yanked out whole. Often the yank demanded so much energy that I landed on my backside with the trophy in the air, a tortured yell escaping. This meant I missed out on the satisfying whomp, the sound of relief, of emptiness, the grateful gasp of the earth yielding up the noxious root. And on the low crunch as the root is drawn up through the earth. With the stalk in the air, I also missed out on the satisfying weight of the soon-to-be-dead monster in my arms, its pliant drape, its heavy flowerhead already losing its vigor.
On a good day, when the ground was wet after rain, we could amass four hills of trophies, about a third of a truckload. After a week or two with no rain, each plant took three or four times longer. But we couldn’t wait for rain. We were hostages of the parsnip’s life cycle. Put it off, and it would turn to seed before we got to it, giving birth to who knew how many progeny.
That thought, and a fury I managed to build up on a daily basis, kept me going. Where did you come from, I ask, the voice in my head throbbing with rage. How dare you colonize our hill, the land I pledged to keep as a meadow for the elegant bobolinks with their drunken song? They must build their nests in the tall grass, lay their eggs, raise their young, and then fly a thousand miles to their wintering grounds, where they’re poisoned by pesticides. This place is among their diminishing chances to live, to reproduce and return in spring, where I can walk the fields among them.
The immense loathing powered my muscles, strengthened my smothering hold on the stalks. If I stayed with it long enough, and if the endorphins kicked in, it built into a rapid rhythm. Bend, grab, yank, yank. Bend, grab, yank. Bend grab, yank, yank, yank. After the third unsuccessful yank, I would go for the digging fork. Ultimately, the furnace of the sky bearing down and my throbbing lower back became too much to ignore. I would walk the last armful to the nearest pile, shove the fork into the earth, and give up for the day. Ted would continue to work for a while after I limped to the house, but he too would soon be driven away by exhaustion.
The vocabulary I came across in some of my readings in reference to non-native plants bordered on violent, with references to vagabonds, invaders, interlopers, rampage, and extermination among the memorable ones—the same ones that occupied my own mind in my early, naive days managing the meadow. But the more I read, the more uncomfortable I was becoming with the rhetoric, which mirrored the debate on human migrants. Many of the headlines did not specify whether the reference was to plants, animals, or humans. They implied that all came here to multiply, displace, diminish, take over, triumph. Even E. O. Wilson, one of my early environmental heroes, has said that “alien species are the stealth destroyers of the American environment.”
Banu Subramaniam, a professor of women, gender, and sexuality studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, writes about the social and cultural aspects of science. She traces six parallels in the rhetoric surrounding foreign plants and foreign people. First is the parallel that aliens are “other.” Second is the belief that aliens are taking over everything, and third is that they are expanding in numbers and strength. That they are virtually indestructible is the fourth parallel. Fifth, they reproduce aggressively, just as “foreigners” have been considered oversexualized and superfertile. Finally, foreigners do not return to their homelands; they are here to stay.
But I also read about the whole science of invasion biology as a discipline in the midst of an identity crisis, with its very name under attack. New voices argue that the basic premise is misguided, that if you go back far enough everything is invasive as well as alien. And that native plants grow where they do because of physical barriers and not because of any particular historical or political reasons or a particular “fitness.” A plant’s geographic origins are not ingrained in its biological being. An alien is simply a species that comes from somewhere else. Alien species are alien in name only. It seems we need to develop a new vocabulary that will let us see non-natives in a new light.
I am all for equality among people, and was therefore having an increasingly difficult time not extending that fairness to plants. I like the international aspect of equal people and equal plants, the melting away of borders, even continents. It’s a small earth, and we humans have already spread out our Starbucks and McDonald’s all over it, homogenizing it and greatly reducing the exoticism that once defined distant places. Why should we expect plants to stay in their historical homes, assigned to them by the vagaries of chance? Let them go where they will, or, mostly, where we ourselves take them. They may, in time, not only become good citizens but even contribute greatly to their adopted countries. Just look at how the United States has benefited from its immigrants, which includes everyone not already here in 1492. Take a look at Silicon Valley, at academia, at our doctors, our Nobel Prize winners. Yes, Nobelists. In 2016 every one of the American Nobelists was an immigrant.
So went the argument I was formulating while taking a sunset walk along our meandering paths. I was well along to convincing myself of the rightness, the fairness, of this evolved attitude. Actually, I was feeling proud of how much I had learned. Until I came upon a huge swath of Canada thistle that was overwhelming the grasses. It was too late in the day to do anything but stare and remember the common description of thistle as a “noxious weed” and clearly foreign, being Canadian. One flowering stem can produce forty thousand seeds, which can lie dormant for twenty years, making the plant superfertile. Once established, it’s unstoppable because it multiplies through both seed dispersion and roots that extend in every direction, as much as twenty feet in a single season, rapidly growing into a dense, immovable mat. Pulling or tilling are useless because the tiniest root fragment grows into a new plant, rendering it virtually indestructible, and like other invasive non-natives, it has no enemies. Now, having found this verdant meadow, it clearly means to stay.
I couldn’t think of any defense for Canada thistle. It was never going to fit in by growing demure and letting others live alongside it. It was set to move from illegal immigration to total takeover. And it was not contributing to the life of the meadow either. Not like the goldenrod, referred to as “aggressive” because it’s native, although it’s just as determined to turn all it can into fields of goldenrod. But goldenrod flowers sag with bees, and its stems harbor overwintering insects. Thistle, on the other hand, would quickly render the meadow unfit for the birds, and for the bees, butterflies, and the hundreds of other pollinators dancing their lives away on the breezes on our hill.
And yet, thistle most likely didn’t bring itself here. It was brought here, just as Ted and I had been. Our influence has been positive, to the extent that we have not taken advantage of the system or engaged in criminal activities, and have contributed our labor, decades of taxes, and useful paid and lately volunteer work in the community. Every immigrant I personally know or know of has also been a boon to this country, whether they build our houses and pave our roads or staff our hospitals and win Nobel Prizes. There are exceptions, of course, likely many of them, given the sheer numbers involved, but exceptions don’t define the norm.
Plants, however, are not people. It is entirely possible that law-abiding humans deserve equal opportunities to make a life here regardless of their countries of origin, but not all plants have that right. Not the poison parsnip! Not the marauding thistle!