In Defense of Weeds – A Book Review

Weeds have been with us since the beginning of human civilization. We created them, really. We settled down, started growing food, urbanized, and in doing so we invited opportunistic plant species to join us – we created spaces for them to flourish and provided room for them to spread out and settle in. During our history together, our attitudes about weeds have swung dramatically from simply living with and accepting them, recognizing their usefulness, incorporating them into our religious myths and cultural traditions, to developing feelings of disgust and disdain and ultimately declaring outright war against them. In a sense, weeds are simultaneously as wild and as domestic as a thing can be. They remind us of ourselves perhaps, and so our feelings are mixed.

Considering our combined history and the fact that weeds have stuck with us all along, perhaps it’s time we give them a little respect. This seems to be the objective of Richard Mabey’s book, Weeds: In Defense of Nature’s Most Unloved Plants. In Mabey’s own words, “this book is a case for the defense, an argued suggestion that we look more dispassionately at these outlaw plants, at what they are, how they grow, and the reasons we regard them as trouble.” Additionally, we should recognize that we wrote the definition for weeds: “plants become weeds because people label them as such.” We introduce them, create conditions in which they can thrive, and then turn around and despise them for doing what they do best. “In a radical shift of perspective we now blame the weeds, rather than ourselves;” however, as Mabey ultimately concludes, “we get the weeds we deserve.”

weeds book

But before he arrives at that conclusion – and certainly Mabey has more to say than that pithy remark – Mabey takes readers on a remarkable journey. Starting with the origins of agriculture – and the origins of weeds – he recounts the story of how weeds followed civilization as it spread across the globe. He describes our diverse reactions to weeds, how we have dealt with them, and how they have infiltrated our myths, art, cultures, food, medicine, rituals, philosophies, and stories. Along the way, certain weeds are profiled using Mabey’s unique prose. Each weed has a story to tell – some more sordid than others.

Mabey is a British author, and so the book has a strong Anglocentric slant. But this seems fitting considering that the explorations and migrations of early Europeans are probably responsible for moving more plant species around than any other group in history – at least up until the modern era. Mabey describes the myriad ways these plants were introduced: “Some simply rode piggy-back on crop and garden plants…others were welcomed as food plants or glamorous ornaments, but escaped or were thrown out and became weeds as a consequence of unforeseen bad behavior.” The seeds of many species hitched rides with numerous agricultural and industrial products, while others attached themselves to clothing, shoes, and animal fur. Everywhere humans traveled, weeds followed.

Weeds are one of the great legacies Europeans brought with them as they settled the American continent. A veritable wave of new plant species entered the Americas as the Europeans trickled in, some were purposeful introductions and some accidental. Ever the opportunists, Europe’s weeds traversed across the continent as settlers tilled and altered the land. Mabey details the introduction of “invasive European weeds” to the western United States, claiming that “by the twentieth century two-thirds of the vegetation of the western grasslands was composed of introduced species, mostly European.

One of these European species in particular has been wholeheartedly embraced by American culture; it was even given an American name. Kentucky bluegrass, Poa pratensis, “is a common, widespread but unexceptional species of grassy places in Europe…but in uncontested new grazing lands of North America it could color whole sweeps of grassland.” It has since become a preferred turfgrass species, and it’s innate ability to thrive here makes it partly responsible for Americans’ obsession with the perfect lawn. Oddly, other European invaders infiltrating a pristine, green lawn are unwelcome and derided as “weeds.” In actuality, considering its relentless, expansive, and spreading nature and its reliance on humans to perpetuate its behavior, turfgrass is much more fit for the label “weed” than any other species that invades it. As Mabey asserts, “a lawn dictates its own standards…the demands made by its singular, unblemished identity, its mute insistence that if you do not help it to continue along the velvet path you have established for it, you are guilty of a kind of betrayal.”

Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis) also known as smooth meadow-grass - photo credit: wikimedia commons

Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis), also known as smooth meadow-grass – photo credit: wikimedia commons

Reading along it becomes clear that Mabey is infatuated with weeds. You can see it in sentences like, “the outlandish enterprise of weeds – such sharp and fast indices of change – can truly lift your heart.” This doesn’t mean that in his own garden he doesn’t “hoick them up when they get in [his] way.” It just means that his “capricious assault” is “tinged with respect and often deflected by a romantic mood.” Does Mabey wish his readers to swoon the way he does over these enterprising and opportunistic aliens? Perhaps. More than that he seems to want to instill an awe and admiration for what they can do. In many cases they serve important ecological functions, including being a sort of “first responder” after a disturbance due to their fast acting and ephemeral nature. In this way, weeds “give something back” by “holding the bruised parts of the planet from falling apart.” They also “insinuate the idea of wild nature into places otherwise quite shorn of it,” and so despite their dependence on human activities, they could be considered “the very essence of wildness.”

For all the love Mabey has for weeds, he remains convinced that some absolutely need to be kept in check. He calls out Japanese knotweed specifically – an “invader with which a truly serious reckoning has to be made.” In speaking of naturalized plant species – introduced species that propagate themselves and “spread without deliberate human assistance” – he makes the comparison to humans becoming naturalized citizens in countries where they were not born. In this sense he argues for more acceptance of such species, while simultaneously warning that “there are invasive species that ought never to get their naturalization papers.”

Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica) is listed as one the 100 Worst Invasive Species - photo credit: wikimedia commons

Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica) is listed as one the 100 Worst Invasive Species – photo credit: wikimedia commons

This is an engrossing read, and regardless of how you feel about weeds going in, Mabey will – if nothing else – instill in you a sort of reverence for them. You may still want to reach for the hoe or the herbicide at the sight of them – and you may be justified in doing that – but perhaps you’ll do so with a little more understanding. After all, humans and weeds are kindred species.

As a type they are mobile, prolific, genetically diverse. They are unfussy about where they live, adapt quickly to environmental stress, use multiple strategies for getting their own way. It’s curious that it took so long to realize that the species they most resemble is us.

Listen to Mabey talk about his book and his interest in weeds on these past episodes of Science Friday and All Things Considered.

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Botany in Popular Culture: The Sunset Tree by the Mountain Goats

My obsession with plants means that I see botany everywhere – in the music I listen to, the shows I watch, the books I read, whatever. Just a fleeting mention of something plant related in any type of media will catch my attention, no matter how ancillary it is to the major themes. And that is the impetus behind this series of posts about botany in popular culture. Well that and, believe it or not, I do enjoy many non-plant related things, and this gives me an excuse to write about those things on a plant-centric blog.

TheSunsetTreeFrontCover

The Mountain Goats are a folk rock band formed by John Darnielle in 1991. It could be said that John Darnielle is synonymous with the Mountain Goats, as Darnielle is the chief songwriter and at times has been the only member of the band. The Sunset Tree is the Mountain Goats ninth studio album and only the second album featuring songs that are primarily autobiographical. The album that preceded The Sunset Tree, entitled We Shall All Be Healed, was about Darnielle’s teenage years as a methamphetamine user. The Sunset Tree describes growing up with an abusive stepfather. Heavy topics are kind of the Mountain Goats’ thing.

Darnielle’s lyrics are highly poetic and often nebulous – the listener is left to fill in the gaps. Thus, the storytelling in The Sunset Tree isn’t always direct. However, the scene begins to unfold in the second track, “Broom People,” as Darnielle seems to be describing his childhood living conditions: “all sorts of junk in the unattached spare room,” “dishes in the kitchen sink,” “floor two foot high with newspapers,” “white carpet thick with pet hair.” He also sings of “friends who don’t have a clue; well meaning teachers,” and how he would “write down good reasons to freeze to death in [his] spiral ring notebook.”

“Dance Music” reveals more as Darnielle at 5 or 6 years old is getting “indications that there’s something wrong.” As he sits watching TV, his stepfather is yelling at his mom, then “launches a glass across the room, straight at her head, and [Darnielle] dashes upstairs to take cover.” He turns on his “little record player on the floor” and makes a discovery: “so this is what the volume knob is for.”

A similar scene unfolds in “Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod,” only this time Darnielle is the victim. He arrives home to find his stepfather asleep, so he sneaks up to his room knowing that if he awakes his stepfather, “there will be hell to pay.” But he does wake up, and he bursts into Darnielle’s room to find him sitting with his headphones on oblivious. The beating begins, and Darnielle sings, “then I’m awake and I’m guarding my face / hoping you don’t break my stereo / because it’s the one thing that I couldn’t live without / and so I think about that and then I sorta black out.” Darnielle describes being “held under these smothering waves” by his stepfather’s “strong and thick-veined hand.” But he remains hopeful that eventually – “one of these days” – he will “wriggle up on dry land.”

That sense of hopefulness can be found throughout the album. In “This Year,” Darnielle is a 17 year old longing to break free. The chorus repeats resolutely: “I am gonna make it through this year if it kills me.” In “Up the Wolves,” he assures us, “there’s gonna come a day when you feel better / you’ll rise up free and easy on that day.”

But there is obviously some anger and frustration expressed as well. Later in “Up the Wolves,” Darnielle sings that he’s going to get himself in “fighting trim” and then makes a series of threats: “I’m gonna bribe the officials, I’m gonna kill all the judges, It’s gonna take you people years to recover from all of the damage.” The song “Lion’s teeth” is a revenge fantasy. Darnielle envisions “the king of the jungle asleep in his car,” and since “nobody in this house wants to own up to the truth,” he takes it upon himself to wrestle the beast. He reaches into the lion’s mouth, grabs onto “one long sharp tooth,” and holds on. The chaos that ensues makes him realize he is “gonna regret the day [he] was born,” but since there is no good way to end it, he is determined to “hold on for dear life.”

The mood lightens during the last two tracks of the album. They seem to be about forgiveness, understanding, and letting go. In “Pale Green Things,” Darnielle tells of hearing from his sister that their stepfather had died “at last, at last.” Upon hearing the news, one of the first memories Darnielle has is of he and his stepfather going to a racetrack to watch horses run. In one scene he recalls looking down at the cracked asphalt and “coming up through the cracks, pale green things.”

It’s a poignant ending to an album full of dark memories. It’s also fitting, as it adds to the bits of hope scattered throughout. Seeing plants push up through concrete or sprout up in detritus collected in gutters and corners of rooftops or even just up out of the dirt in the middle of summer when the ground is hot and bone dry, all of these moments are testaments to the tenacity of living things. Life can, rightfully so, be described as fleeting, short, and fragile – easily snuffed out and erased. But the struggle for life is also fierce, enduring, and relentless. Darnielle’s story is one example of that.

sedums in a hole 2

The “pale green things” that Darnielle saw also symbolize the struggles of the little guy, the underdog, the downtrodden – a tiny, fragile plant pushing its way past solid, suffocating asphalt. It’s a common theme in Darnielle’s music – his latest album is called Beat the Champ, for example. His song “Wild Sage” is also a sign of that ongoing theme.

I work with plants all day, and I am continually awed by them. Daily I am stopped in my tracks, practically forced by some plant to admire one or more of the fascinating features it displays. It doesn’t surprise me that Darnielle would use “pale green things” to express hope and resiliency. Every day I find some kind of hope in plants, that whatever tough thing we are going through, we can one day “wriggle up on dry land” – pale green things pushing up through asphalt, wild sage growing in the weeds.

Documentary: The Sagebrush Sea

Last month I posted a few photos of some of the weeds and wildflowers of the Boise Foothills. In that post I touched briefly on the ecology of the foothills, and a few readers expressed interest in more posts about this topic. It is definitely a topic I would like to explore further, but it is not one that I know a ton about. In fact, despite spending the majority of my life residing in this high desert, sagebrush-dominated ecosystem, it has only been in the past few years that I have really gained an appreciation for it. Perhaps that’s understandable. This landscape, which initially appears drab, lifeless, and boring, is not easy to love at first…until you do a little exploring, at which point you find it teeming with life, loaded with diversity, and worthy of admiration.

That is one of the themes of a new PBS Nature documentary, The Sagebrush Sea, which debuted on PBS in May 2015. The film is an intimate view of what’s really going on in this vast, seemingly empty landscape that many of us simply ignore, passing through on our way to somewhere else. It is an introduction to a fascinating ecosystem, shaped and formed by extreme events and inhabited by plants and animals that have unique adaptations that allow them to survive the harsh conditions of the high desert. Some of these plants and animals can be found nowhere else on earth. For anyone looking to learn more about the ecology of the Boise foothills and/or the larger ecosystem of which they are a part, this is an excellent place to start.

The-Sagebrush-Sea

The sagebrush steppe is a plant community dominated by sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata and its various subspecies) and bunchgrasses. At one point it covered as many as 500,000 square miles of western North America – hence “the sagebrush sea” – but human activities have reduced it to half that size. The plants and animals in this ecosystem have been coevolving together for at least 2 million years. Sagebrush is, as the narrator of the film says, “the anchor of the high desert,” living up to 140 years old and helping to ensure that the desert doesn’t become a dust bowl. Sagebrush also provides food and shelter for a great number of species.

The Sagebrush Sea was produced by the The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, so while lots of other plant and animal life get adequate screen time, the birds of the sagebrush steppe dominate the film. One species in particular, the greater sage-grouse, is the star character, driving the film’s narrative and speaking for the protection of this threatened and underappreciated ecosystem.

A view from behind a male greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus ) - photo credit: wikimedia commons

A view from behind a male greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus ) – photo credit: wikimedia commons

Sage-grouse are endemic to the sagebrush steppes of the intermountain west. They are sensitive to disturbances and are “tied to unbroken expanses of sage.” Their breeding grounds (leks) are large patches of open ground, but when they aren’t breeding (which is the majority of the year) they are taking refuge in the sagebrush and grasses. The females make nests below sagebrush, where they blend right in, camouflaged from predators. Sage-grouse consume various plants and insects throughout the year, but their diet consists mainly of the evergreen leaves of sagebrush. Just 200 years ago there were up to 16 million sage-grouse in the sagebrush sea, today that number has been reduced to around 200,000. Due to such a steep decline, they may soon be added to the endangered species list.

Because sage-grouse are so reliant on healthy, intact, widespread sections of sagebrush-steppe, they are considered an umbrella species. Taking measures to protect them will simultaneously spare and even improve the lives of numerous other species with similar requirements. To begin with, there are a handful of other bird species that nest nowhere else except in sagebrush, specificallly the sagebrush sparrow, the sage thrasher, and the brewer’s sparrow. Other animals feed on sagebrush and rely on it to make it through the winter, such as pronghorn and mule deer. Sagebrush is also considered a nurse plant, providing shade and moisture for grass and forb seedlings growing below it.

The sagebrush steppe is threatened by the usual cast of characters: habitat fragmentation, urban and agricultural development, invasive species, climate change, etc.  Some specific activities like cattle ranching and oil and gas drilling also come into play. While The Sagebrush Sea briefly introduces some of the major threats to this ecosystem, it does not dwell on any single issue or point fingers in any one particular direction. For one, it is hard to place blame when there are so many factors involved; but more importantly, the filmmakers wanted the film to be accessible to everyone in order to foster a greater appreciation for the sagebrush sea and a consequent desire to protect it. The debates regarding this part of the world are heated enough, and those directly involved are already well aware of the issues.

This is a beautiful film. The images it captures are captivating and at times breathtaking. Apart from the sage-grouse, various animal families are introduced throughout, each one stealing your heart. My only complaint is that, at only 53 minutes, the film is too short. Luckily, the world they depicted is right outside my door, and I am now even more inspired to explore it.

To learn more about sage-grouse conservation, visit Sage Grouse Initiative.