Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Rooting For Weeds

Burdock blossoms

Yesterday's post on candleberry tree and post-Katrina reforestation reminded me of The Bad Seed, a 2003 essay on "weeds" by Frieda Knobloch. I'd come across it looking for references to nineteenth century American botanists, like Ada Georgia. I know from my plant ecology/agriculture background that "weeds" are disturbance plants, early colonizers, pioneers in unclaimed habitats. Candleberry trees and Ailanthus can slow down the regrowth of native species, but they'll die out eventually, to be succeeded by more stable plant communities.

That's not what Ms. Knobloch knows about weeds, not by a long shot. I'm not sure I really understand her essay, but I am intrigued. Here's an excerpt to whet your interest:

It's not the plants themselves that are weedy. The ways we cultivate and think about landscapes and cultivation--as divine punishment and reward, for example--guarantee that some of our plant cohabitors will always be seen as weeds. There are no biological qualities that define a weed, only cultural ones. Any plant that reproduces in great quantity, and that can withstand a wide range of climates and forms of cultivation and herbicide application, could possibly be a valuable crop. Value in a tradition is the key to weediness and non-weediness: Can something we know eat it? Are we likely to harvest it in some quantity for some familiar purpose? Is there a market for it?

....It's easy to see how people could sometimes end up rooting for the weeds. What they value lies in some opposition to the status quo, an ordering of nature and society or even the sacred landscape that leaves too much out. Sculptor Tony Matelli in part celebrated this side of weeds recently in his installations of weedy plant groups in gallery floors in a show titled "Abandon," which also acknowledged weeds as a sign of some failure. The two go together. Abandonment will always carry with it both the promise of new forms of attention and care, and the recognition of a failure of some kind, something "let go," a judgment....

To merely find weeds visually interesting, even "beautiful," or to rub them on our minor wounds or learn how to eat them again (like fancy chefs do from time to time) is to miss a point, like saying a fire-breathing dragon can make a good welding torch. Whatever use a plant may have, a weed has an epic quality, taking on something of the significance of Biblical tares polluting the wheat, the thistles Adam and Eve hacked through on their way out of Eden. Any plant might be domesticated, but not a weed--not weediness itself....That's permanent, a kind of backhanded gift of Old World agriculture. As long as we have weeds, there will be characters to assault our best efforts and provide the seeds for new efforts always.


Larry said...

Interesting essay... but your statement "but they'll die out eventually, to be succeeded by more stable plant communities." might be a bit optimistic, unless by "eventually" you mean several centuries.

Ailanthus trees and black locusts are common here in Hannibal and neither species is native, but I think they are here to stay, at least as long as this town is populated by humans. Both species thrive on either disturbance or neglect; native sugar maples often form a patient and shade-tolerant understory in local vacant lots.

You have had some interesting posts lately!

Rebecca Clayton said...

"Eventually" is more than a human lifetime, but less than "several centuries." Ailanthus is here to stay wherever we keep disturbing things, although not in our neck of the woods--it's interesting to drive west from the Blue Ridge Valley up the Allegheny Front. There're Ailanthus trees a-plenty along the roads, and then, as you hit some critical line, poof! they're gone.

I read recently that black locust is native only to the Allegheny mountains, so our fencerow locusts are actually a native disturbance tree here. They're considered prime firewood, and a blessing.