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Weeds

July 25, 2020

An Essay of Wild Plants by Joshua Harkness

Why must we think so poorly of wild plants?  We dismiss them merely as “weeds”; we think of them as insignificant foreigners in our lawns, gardens and other manicured “landscapes”.  We see them as a threat to the aesthetical appeal of the sterile environments we are so fond of creating.  These are not invaders taking over our artificial spaces, rather we are the invaders who have so indiscriminately taken from them their wild lands – the forests, lakes, marshes, and meadows that are their home.  We wrongly believed that it was our right to take what we assumed to be our own, for we saw ourselves superior in every regard; the oppression of, and discrimination against certain human ethnic groups is not separate from our war on life, but an inexorable part of it.  There remains a pervasive belief in our American culture – that which is descended from the colonial settlers, who massacred the indigenous peoples, exterminated the wild animals, and felled our forests – that we are somehow superior to all other forms of life.  Many of us still think of ourselves as being at the top of a hierarchy of life, but such ill-devised, dogmatic beliefs do not consider ecology – the science of the interaction among species – that tells us that it is not a hierarchy to which we belong, but that we are one of countless threads in the web of life.

Native plants are no foreigners to the very lands we have taken from them, they are merely foreign to us.  We consistently fail to equate ourselves with plants, and to show them the respect that they so greatly deserve, for we literally owe our existence to them.  Were it not for plants, no animal life would exist on our Earth.  Although we certainly disregard cultivated plants to some extent, it does not compare to the apparent disgust that agriculturalists, businessmen and suburbanites feel at the sight of the very plants who are ancestors to all the cultivated plants upon which our society is entirely dependent.  Few of our domesticated fruits and vegetables are even too different to be considered distinct species from their wild ancestors, though we treat them as if they belong to separate worlds.

Think how many plants occurring in our Dutchess County contain the word “weed” in their common names!  There is the Milkweed, the Jewelweed, Clearweed, Goutweed, Pokeweed, Pondweed, Ragweed, Pigweed, Knapweed, Knotweed, Smartweed, Joe-pye Weed, Ironweed, Fireweed, Hawkweed, Horseweed, and Chickweed; the list could go on for much longer, but it would be best to refrain from listing them all.  A botanist would know, there is very little in common between most of these plants, meaning that they do not all belong to a single genus, or family, rather they are scattered across the kingdom Plantae, and are significantly varied in physical form, appearance and behavior.  Some, such as the Japanese Knotweed are extremely damaging invasive species, while others, like Joe-pye Weed, are considered endangered in parts of New England; and while the berries of Pokeweed are guaranteed to make a human consumer ill, the sap of our two native Jewelweeds will relieve the itch of Poison Ivy.  These species are not lowly invaders in our lawns and gardens, but wild, sovereign beings worthy of our respect and attention.

I feel sickened when I travel through Dutchess County, for much of our land is privately-owned and under some form of mismanagement that fails to consider the ecology of the land and its wild inhabitants.  We own private estates overrun with lawn, lawn that serves no other purpose than to look “pretty”, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder – it is subjective; I see no beauty where once there were diverse, functioning, native ecosystems – where once there were old growth forests where Wolves howled on winter nights, and beaver ponds where Moose fed on summer days – there are now only dead expanses of toxic lawn.  Yet in our society that tells us we should take whatever we can grab, and not give anything back, this egregious loss of life is not considered a crime against humanity; no, the practitioners of this system of taking are instead upheld as “good citizens”.   

I do not intend to call evil at my neighbors, for we are all as innocent as we are guilty in this plight of life.  It is not a case of demoralizing the “them” and endorsing the “us” in this situation; it is not a story of separation, but one of connection that we so desperately need right now.  I seek not to blame good-hearted people, but to begin a conversation which we must have if we truly wish for a better future.

***

The sun beats down on my back, as I wander through the hazy heat of an August morning admiring the inflorescences of the Goldenrods who grow in the wet meadow along the brook by my house.  It is still early, but already the yellow flowers are swarmed with bees, wasps, flies, beetles, and Virginia Ctenucha moths.  Of all the flowers of this old farm I call home, none – not even the earliest of the spring willows – attract and nourish such a diverse array of insects as these magnificent golden wildflowers.  Many of my neighbors, likely fearing ticks, and disapproving looks, mow every square inch of land as far from their house as the vegetation and terrain allow.  But I find nothing attractive in expanses of biologically dead lawns, I do not fear ticks and I don’t particularly care what my neighbors think of me; it is not domestic, open space that I desire, but wild space, vibrant with myriad forms of life – plants, animals and fungi.  I do not “mow” any part of my meadows and instead keep a network of trails and a small lawn-like area open with a scythe.

Outside my open window from where I am writing this, a patch of Rosy Meadowsweet is newly in flower, buzzing with bees and crawling with beetles.  As I gaze at this plant, I am struck by the incredible beauty of its “steeples” of minute rosy-pink flowers.  I wonder how anyone could think of this living being as nothing but a “weed”, while raving over the “beauty” of some cultivar of some plant from the other side of the world I have never even heard of, and which seems to me far inferior in its beauty to its native cousin.  Is the perception of beauty merely subjective?  Or is it that people value plants not as living beings, but as material possessions that indicate social status?  I will have none of it.

On occasion, I have met a poor soul, who, upon hearing of my own meadows, states their disappointment of not having a particular plant community, such as a field of goldenrod or a stand of milkweed that sustains a breeding population of monarch butterflies, but as I look beyond them I see that the entirety of their property is lawn, mown hardly an inch high and containing very few species – perhaps it has even been treated with herbicide to kill anything that is not a species of grass growing within it.  Perchance, this poor soul will also own a small patch of forest land which contains many a rare or endangered plant, perhaps even one they wished grew on their land, but alas, here it apparently is dismissed as merely a green thing in a forest. 

The Goldenrods and Jewelweeds grow right to my door, and I am frequently met with a Ruby-throated Hummingbird nectaring on the Jewelweed or one of the endangered Bumblebees of the region crawling about the flowerhead of a Goldenrod, often within an arm’s reach of a window.  I feel deeply saddened for my neighbors who surround themselves with lawn and alien plants and have never been graced by a hummingbird’s greeting at their door.

The roadsides in our county, and all those throughout this country, have great potential to be unique and diverse ecological communities that could not be found elsewhere without the disturbance of the road.  A late summer roadside can be a thing of wonderful color, the purple of the New England Aster, the white of the Fleabane, the yellow of the Goldenrod and the pink of the Joe-pye Weed, but it seems that even our roadsides are under attack.  The guardrails, rock cuts and bridges of our State highways are frequently sprayed with glyphosate and other herbicides to kill the “weeds” and increase visibility, though the weediest species, such as the invasive Mugwort, survive this beating while more sensitive species like the Joe-pye Weed are extirpated; visibility is marginally increased at best, and rarely any more than it could be by simply mowing behind the guardrail.  Our Highway Department’s efforts to eliminate the weeds from our roadsides has resulted only in the poisoning of ecosystems and the establishment of more weeds.  It must simply be faster and cheaper for the Highway Department to use herbicide than to mow, and so the destruction continues regardless of its long-term successfulness.  Even highway bridges in protected wetlands are sprayed; many of our railroads avoid spraying within a certain distance of water crossings, whether these wetlands are protected or not, yet the Highway Department sprays such places with reckless abandon.  It is our tax dollars, something which most Americans seem very protective over, that are being put to the use of polluting our wetlands and maiming some of the only “wildlands” which we regularly come in contact with.  But I fear that only a small few are concerned by this.

It is true, there remain a number of roads in our county that are not sprayed for the sake of attaining “control” over the vegetation – the action of which more often results in the degradation and loss of function of the community, rather than control – but even these roadsides exist in an impoverished state.  Most of our roadsides are overrun with invasive plants that have reduced their native floristic diversity.  Our roadsides once sprawling with Birches and Willows, with Meadowsweet and Blueberries, with Asters and Goldenrods, and home to the Yellow Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, and Indigo Bunting, are now tangles of Rose and Bittersweet vines, thickets of Buckthorn, Barberry and Knotweed.  Though we now mostly think of such species as notorious invaders of our “natural” areas, we largely seem to have forgotten that it is because of the nursery trade, because of our taste for “exotic” – in other words, alien – plants that we are losing so many of our native plants and animals.  Such species, notably Japanese Barberry and Norway Maple are still some of the most popular plants sold by the nursery trade, but they are also some of the most destructive invasive species threatening our wildlands.

I do not demand the complete cessation of pesticide use, rather I ask for the wise use of such dangerous chemicals – dangerous to the applicator and to the ecological community.  With invasive insect pathogens massacring some of our forest trees, the limited use of pesticides may become important for retaining “biological legacies” – seed-producing plants that can carry their endangered species forward through time.  As I drive now, I see roads lined with the decaying carcasses of the great Ashes, so quickly brought to death by the emerald ash borer; but make no mistake, these trees were killed more by economic greed than by this non-native beetle.  It is time we act on the responsibility we have to these species whose names do not even cross our minds when we think of those who have had to suffer and to die to bring us our modern ways of comfort and convenience.

We have a great responsibility to these places and their inhabitants who we have brought so much harm upon, but we rarely act on this responsibility of ours; we say it is because we don’t have the time, because there are more important matters, but what could be more important than the health and vitality of the ecosystems that our children will soon inherit?  We have not only a responsibility to other species, but to ourselves, for I make no distinction between what is human and what is nature, we exist as part of the same living world.  Thus, I feel that it is my responsibility to control these invasive species when they begin to displace our beneficial native plants: I spend much of my free time chopping back the multiflora rose and oriental bittersweet that tries so hard to overrun the young willows in my meadow, uprooting the Japanese barberry that forms pure thickets in the understories of young forests, and pulling the garlic mustard – that displacer of spring ephemerals and poisoner of butterflies – that tries to take over the forest and prevent the establishment of the native herbaceous layer.  The Trilliums, Bloodroot, Cohosh, Lady Slipper Orchid and Hepatica would soon disappear were it not for the control of these invasive species.  Complete eradication of these species is by no means necessary, not when one’s effect on improving the vigor and resiliency of native plants and communities can be significant by directly reducing the competition with “desirable” native plants – we do this for the alien ornamentals in our lawns and gardens, why can’t we use these same principles to preserve our native flora?

“What have the weeds done for us?” you, my reader, must be wondering by this point.  But this is the wrong question; we should instead be asking, what is a weed?  According to Wikipedia, that prevalent internet source of information and misinformation, “A weed is a plant considered undesirable in a particular situation, "a plant in the wrong place". Examples commonly are plants unwanted in human-controlled settings, such as farm fields, gardens, lawns...”  Thus, by applying the word “weed” into the names of many of our common plants, we thereby say that they are unwanted, that they are not welcome in this, our human world.  I suspect that no one deeply committed to sustainability would agree with the notion that such ecologically productive, beneficial, and downright beautiful plants such as Fireweed, Ironweed and Milkweed are “unwanted”.  Even much of mainstream society has become rightfully obsessed with the Monarch butterfly, but merely tolerates its Milkweed host.  Though for me, having grown up among these wonderous plants – admiring the beautiful flowers, chasing Red Milkweed Beetles and playing with the down as it is released from the pods, carrying with it the plant’s seeds on the breezes that flow through the newly frost-bitten late September meadows – I find my appreciation of it growing with every passing season.  While most people only like the Milkweed because it supports the Monarch butterfly, I like the Monarch butterfly mostly because its host plant is the Milkweed. 

In addition to being an edible – and delicious – vegetable, the Common Milkweed seems to generally strike a good impression upon its observers – so long as they come to it without senseless expectations.  I have heard of no child who has had the good fortune of growing up in a wild or rural area, surrounded by meadows and hay fields full of this species, who has not developed an intense fondness for the plant; though many lose this love of Nature as they are indoctrinated into the adult world of money, business deals, power and deceit.

What will happen to this love of life, this biophilia, as more children than ever before grow up away from the wildness of a summer countryside?  And as our interaction with Nature is reduced to pushing the suburban lawn mower?  Is this love of Nature fading from our society as we become more absorbed in cities, in technology and other artificial constructs? 

To answer your question, the “weeds”, as we so rudely call them, have done everything for us; our vast and varied living world simply could not exist without them – we would not be here.  Yet we continue to use names that imply disrespect for these beings.  It is time that we show gratitude and reverence instead of disconnection and disgust for the lives that sustain us.  It is time that we not only acknowledge their importance but fulfil our responsibility to them and ensure that they will continue to exist upon this Earth.

***

  There is hardly an hour of the day in which, though I live in comparative isolation from my neighbors, that I cannot hear the roar of a lawn mower, I have even heard a lawn mower, some half a mile off, running several hours after sunset.  I have frequently had the displeasure of leaving home for a quiet walk amidst Nature, only to have it spoiled by the sound of a lawn mower trundling about an unnecessarily large lawn that is mown unnecessarily short.  Never is a blade of grass out of place in such a lawn, and never does the Hummingbird or Bumblebee visit.  It is only in the extreme early hours of the morning that one may enjoy true solitude, for only then does the metal noise cease, no lawn mowers, no cars, no airplanes or trains to spoil the peace of a summer night; it may be hours between the sounds of technology in much of Dutchess County at this time of the night.  We call it the dead of night, yet it is more alive than most of the day as it is unpolluted by the obnoxious sounds of society, of what we call progress.  On a calm late summer evening, I may sit inside and listen to some seven or eight species of Crickets and Katydids singing away the airy night, their stridulating songs drifting softly through my dew-covered window screen; or perhaps I will venture out of doors after dark and encounter the elderly American Toad who lives beneath my doorstep, or meet a family of Raccoons, or stare in wonder at the vastness of the night sky overhead.  For I need no science documentary to tell me about the universe, the dramas of the universe are forever unfolding above our heads, we need only remember to look up.

Nature is full of unimaginable beauty and wonder; if we do not perceive it as such, it is through no fault of herself, but is due to our own inability to see the beauty in life.  More of us than ever before are losing connection with Nature, are falling more firmly into the story that our culture tells: one of separation, of separation from each other, of separation from Nature.  We need to begin to tell ourselves a new story, one of connection, of participation, of responsibility, of belonging to something that is more than a society that exerts its dominance over the “them” who are not “us” through sickening violence.

Even the environmental movement, once focused on conservation and keeping threatened species and ecological communities from disappearing, has now become largely about making its own profit.  We now believe that the path to sustainability, to saving the Earth from climate change is walked upon by the purchase of photo-voltaic systems, the development of forests into wind and solar “farms”, by damming rivers to spin generators – by massive ecological destruction.  We believe that exploitative industrial technology will save us from the very problems its use has brought upon us to bear.  If this is any path at all, this is certainly the wrong path to follow, for the clearcutting of old growth forests to incinerate, and the establishment of “green” industrial power plants to produce electricity for our ever-hungry society, always desiring more, can never be sustainable.  If we truly wish for sustainability, we must abandon the notion that technology can be our savior – we must be our own saviors and take responsibility for the harm our own species has inflicted on others.  Sustainability has nothing to do with buying the latest “green” products, it has everything to do with our relationship to wild lands and wild lives.

I do not ask for immediate and major changes to society or to our livelihoods, instead I ask for us begin walking the path toward genuine sustainability by fostering an awareness of Nature, and to recognize the real magnitude of the threats to our survival and to that of countless other species.  We are not immune to the damage we cause, and one day, I fear, we will finally realize as much, but it will then be too late for us to change our ways and escape our fate.  Act today, tomorrow may be too late.  Instead of desiring ourselves to be among celebrities, television stars and CEOs, we must associate ourselves with the orders of weeds and bugs and birds, to acknowledge the presence of that lone tree along the highway, to see the havoc that invasive species and unnaturally high deer populations are wreaking on our forests, and on ourselves, for as much as we disassociate ourselves from Nature, we cannot escape the web of life which we are a part of. 

Separation from Nature is the driving factor of all that I have described, and, unfortunately, it is a self-perpetuating problem.  We are no better than the stories we leave behind, but what, I must ask, will our stories look like to our children and grandchildren, when we have doomed their ability to live a good life because of our own ignorance and greed?  Do we really care more about our own short-term comfort than about our children?  But do we even live good lives now?  For we are confined to an ever-narrowing frame of mind and are distant from all that is important to our well-being; instead of living, we go to school, have careers, and when the time has finally come to leave petty occupations behind, we have been beaten into submission by them for so long that we no longer remember how to live.

We walk down a beaten path towards an uncertain future, but it need not be this way, if we only were to recognize the precedence of life over money, and show all other living beings the respect that we have failed to give them, then I have hope that the future will not be nearly as terrible as science predicts.  “Business as usual” is suicidal.  Instead of aspiring to be businessmen, workers, farmers, and celebrities, we must aspire to regain our connection to Nature, to see wonder in the lowliest forms of life, and cast away our prejudices and see the world anew.

Where are they who love the land?  Who feel not like aliens in their own forests and meadows, but as participants in the ecology of place?  Where are they who know a Hummingbird’s greeting at their door, who have seen a Monarch flitting lazily between the magnificent deep-purple of New England Asters as the Maple leaves turn blazing orange and tumble earthbound at the slightest touch of the autumnal winds, and to have known, above all else, that they were, in this instant, home?