The full title of British author, Richard Mabey's book is Weeds: In Defense of Nature's Most Unloved Plants. The subtitle works reasonably well on a superficial level. I suppose we can imagine Mabey as a lawyer in the court of public opinion, pleading the case for weeds to a jury inclined to condemn them. If he can establish the point that weeds are not categorically bad, Mabey can put a reasonable doubt into the minds of the jury.
Indeed, his presentation of this line of defense comprises the bulk of the book. Our advocate argues that humans have inadvertently made weeds the success stories that they are; and that, therefore, we can't really hold the success of weeds against them. Weeds are most prolific in areas where humans have disturbed the ground. A poignant example is common plantain (picture), an Anglo-Saxon name for which was "waybroad," because it is a broad-leaved weed ubiquitous along waysides.
To spice up his argument and entertain the jury, Mabey peppers his presentation with curious tales about weeds, such as how some of them were chosen for medicinal usage based on tenets akin to those that underlie sympathetic magic. In hopes that admiration will spawn mercy, he reveals the propagation strategies weeds have used to survive and prosper against great odds. And like any good defense lawyer, he brings in character witnesses, including big guns such as William Shakespeare and Henry David Thoreau.
But there is a lot more going on here than a defense of weeds. It would be rather trite merely to define weeds so as to assert that they aren't absolutely evil. Emerson's definition of a weed had covered that ground long ago (Mabey develops a "botanical" definition to counter Emerson's and others', yet his project largely consists of an Emersonian exploration of the virtues of weeds). Mabey's quest is more ambitious than that, and it is twofold. On one level, he wishes to convince us that, far from being a scourge, most weeds can actually serve a useful function. On a more cerebral level, he invites us to come to terms with weeds, philosophically, as fellow members of the ecosystem.
The Personal Case
It is in the Middlesex borderlands in England that the book opens, though, not in the courtroom. In this "wasteland being slowly overtaken by hi-tech industry," Mabey held down a job earlier in his life. He spent his lunch hours wandering through weedy oases in "refuse tips" (dumps), without which the area would have been barren of plant life. They "pulsed with life -- raw, cosmopolitan, photosynthetic life." Many of the weeds were invasive plants.
He calls this experience his "entrée into the world of plants," acknowledging that it provides a personal reason why he has a soft spot in his heart for weeds. It's a personal reason to which I can relate, which is probably why I was attracted to the book in the first place.
The Case Made in Trial
But one man's lenient attitude toward the defendants won't carry much weight in a court of law. Determined to open minds on the jury, Mabey proceeds to present nothing less than a history of weeds and our interaction with them, as "part of the story of our ceaseless attempts to draw boundaries between nature and culture."
The chapters in the book are named after individual types of weeds, but most are only loosely connected with the weeds in question; the loose framework is mainly chronological in nature (as one would expect in a history). Major character witnesses who appear (in addition to Shakespeare and Thoreau) include:
- Dioscorides (De Materia Medica)
- John Gerard
- Nicholas Culpeper
- John Clare
- John Josselyn
- William Robinson
- Frederick Law Olmsted (photo)
Mabey packs his pages with examples of why weeds are successful, both in terms of their own attributes and the ways we humans have made their success possible, without meaning to do so. Pertaining to the former, for instance, is his description of stinging nettle, which he notes has underground stems that "can advance more than two feet a year."
Regarding how humans have acted as unwilling accomplices, Mabey writes: "Almost every early agricultural practice inadvertently selected in favour of -- and therefore encouraged -- botanical fifth columnists, weeds whose form and behaviour most closely mimicked those of the crop they grew amongst." For example, if a weed's seeds were about the same size as those of a harvested crop, they were less likely to be detected (and removed) and would be sown back into the cropland the following year.
From Defense to Philosophy: What Is the Purpose of Weeds?
The author suggests that we may benefit from the very attribute that makes weeds such formidable foes for humanity; namely, their indomitability. The tenacity of weeds argues their capacity to function as natural ground cover plants to cover up the scars we've left behind: tolerant of pollution, foot traffic and harsh conditions in general, weeds can cover bare ground for us, thereby helping us with soil erosion control. Loosely speaking, this can be viewed as the "purpose" of weeds.
But Mabey seems inspired by more than a mere understanding of the utility of weeds. What place do weeds occupy in a Mabeyan philosophy? Well, we may find some valuable clues in an interview conducted by NPR with Mabey and biologist Mark Davis (July 15, 2011). In the interview, Mabey distinguishes between "human-centered" and "planet-centered" views in the context of our attitude toward weeds. For example, he argues against the eradication of poison ivy, claiming that its berries are "the most important food" source for chickadees and that this consideration should trump the fact that "we actually get inconvenienced by poison ivy".
But first of all, is this claim even true? According to a Wild Birds Unlimited blog, the wild food sources for Chickadees, even in winter, break down this way: "50% insects, insect eggs, larvae and pupae, as well as spiders, and 50% seeds and berries." In the summer, the breakdown is 70%/30% -- in favor of insects. The USDA Forest Service supplies corroborating data.
But even if the claim were true, I think I feel a little more compassion towards the people for whom poison ivy represents a major health risk, not a mere inconvenience (not everyone suffers to the same degree from the rash). If the decision were thrown into their laps, don't you think they'd be quite within their rights to eradicate poison ivy from their yards? At the end of the day, we've come full circle: back to one's personal outlook. Individuals must decide for themselves what the right balance is in a tenuous rapprochement with weeds, which, to use Mabey's own words, involves a "marrying of practical control with cultural acceptance" (p.290). We must also realize that what's practical for you might not be practical for me, and vice versa.
Addendum: Invasive Plants, a Different Case
Mabey is presented with something of a conundrum when he has to deal with judgments about a special class of weeds: invasive plants, super weeds that naturalize in a foreign land and terrorize it. If he didn't have to treat the subject of invasives, he could settle comfortably into a rapprochement with weeds, proclaiming, à la a student of Buddhism, that he is "one with the world" and holds a grudge against no weed whatsoever. The resulting philosophical argument would be cleaner.
But alas, the problem of invasive plants -- an inescapable reality -- gums up the works. He is forced to admit, for example, that Japanese knotweed (picture) is a menace in his homeland. Incidentally, the above-mentioned William Robinson popularized Japanese knotweed in Britain, so Brits and Americans alike (Japanese knotweed came to the U.S. via Britain) can thank ol' Will for "Godzilla weed," as I have nicknamed it.
But towards the end of the book, Mabey is sanguine even in his outlook on the battle between natives and invasives -- at least in a climate such as that in Britain. On p.275 he suggests that time may not be on the side of the invasive plants: "The rampant advances of aliens across the land continue only until some insect or microbe learns to eat them."
It's a breath of fresh air to hear someone challenging prevalent assumptions regarding invasive plants, even though the jury may still be out on this idea.