Many of the articles and essays I have written have either been drawn from my books or have been absorbed (in some way) into books. Here are a few pieces that have managed to make their own way in the world. There are essays on
The picture on this page is Flood Falls in Hope, BC.
Corn, Coons and Context
Come to rural Ontario in early autumn to take in the fall show of color. The trees are bright with eye-catching hues. And if your eye should wander to the fields between the trees, you will see what promises to be a bountiful harvest of corn. It has been a good year for corn. There was lots of sun, and rain when it was needed.
What farmers tend to call a good year, however, is a much rarer event than what most other workers call a good year, so I checked with a rep at the local Minstry of Food and Agriculture Office. He made a guarded guess that this year’s crop would be “above average.” The final statistics, he said, would not come in until early winter. If I could find a corn farmer to talk to, I could get a first-hand impression, but this can be difficult in September and October. Farmers are always busy folks, but when harvest rolls around, and the fall fairs start up, they are even busier. In the meantime, I find myself not quite so occupied, so here is my corn story.
Corn, for me at least, is pure context, something that, like gravity or a mother’s love, is only noticed by its absence. I am surprised that I can focus on it long enough to get a sentence out. Surrounding the farmstead where I passed my early years was a field of corn, alternated through the years, as I recall, with just enough alfalfa to keep the soil honest for more corn. When I went out to play, it was in a field of corn; when my friends and I took up mock swords, it was dusty stalks of corn that we drew and crossed; when we were bored, we sat in silence, prying a kernel at a time from a dried ear of corn; when we wanted to earn our first real money, it was corn that we picked and sold. And yes, we did possess, when I was very young, a privy with a pile of corn cobs. I can’t remember thinking about corn very explicitly in those days; it was the silent subtext of everything that needed to be said and done.
The reason that corn has come back into my thoughts is that we recently moved, after more than a decade of Toronto urban living, to a country house in central Ontario. Each year that I lived in the city I had a small garden with a few tomatoes, usually some chard, and always some beans, but the land-hogging crops, the corn and potatoes and pumpkins, had to be avoided. This summer, though, back in the country, there was enough garden space to try some of these other crops, so I put in sweet corn, about two thirty-foot rows, and looked forward to eating my own crop again.
My neighbor asked what I was growing, and I told him about my corn. He looked surprised. Barely suppressing a smile, he reminded me that deer would be coming across the land in late summer, and that raccoons were everywhere, both of which are great foes of standing corn. Raccoons in particular have the annoying habit of taking corn about two days before it ripens. “You might as well hoe it under now, and save the heartache,” he warned, “you’ll never eat it.”
From that moment my corn became more than an ordinary crop. No way would I hoe it under. I don’t really have to eat it, I said to myself. After all, I can buy cheap sweet corn around here from dozens of roadside stands in July and August. All I had to do was look at it, like the grass on my lawn. My corn, I vowed, would be an affirmation of my presence on this continent and in this age. I would grow it, and take the consequences.
And so all summer I hoed the corn and watched it. Once or twice I watered it, but, as I said, it was a good year. The sweet corn I planted was slow-maturing corn. My new garden got some shade for part of each afternoon, so the corn was even slower than usual. When I went down to my garden one morning in late August, long before the corn was ready to pick, I noticed that ten stalks were bent to the ground and nibbled. Raccoons. The next night it rained, and the corn was spared. The following night, another half dozen were taken.
I have prepared my heart, I remind myself. The raccoons are wild living creatures, and have the same natural right to what grows that I do. I’m not growing corn with the goal of eating it. I have enjoyed watching it grow. But these are words. My crop is being taken. All of the ways to avoid the predation run through my thoughts, and, one by one, get rejected. A dog might solve the problem, but a dog would bring a dozen other problems that I can’t deal with now. A fence, perhaps, but it would have to be high; how much trouble would I take to save a few dozen ears, that I can buy for five dollars? I could trap the coons and move them. Twenty miles, they say, and you’ll never see them again. But who do I hate enough to bless with a mature, hungry coon at this time of year? Ripe corn is everywhere. Besides, even if I could catch them, there may be other creatures waiting in line for my corn, perhaps deer, or possums or woodchucks. I can’t trap them all.
In the end, because I have no alternative, I am reconciled. I will finish with the vow I began with, to grow contextual corn, whether I eat or not. But I have made my vow with a silent reservation. If only, I plea without daring to say it out loud, if only they would leave a few ears for me.
For the next two weeks it is touch and go. The tassels form, the silks appear, and the ears begin to fill out. Some nights only a stalk or two come down, some nights I lose more. I pull out the broken stalks, on the theory that the nibbled, unripe ears attract more predators, and my gapped rows of corn begin to look like a senior citizen with a bad dental record. I try picking some of the larger ears, but they are not ready, the kernels still pointy where the silks are attached.
By the first week of September I am down to fewer than a dozen stalks with ears. Finally, after a day of full sun, I open the biggest ear. It is still a small ear, but the kernels are round and fat. By careful inspection of the remaining stalks I find four ears that can be eaten, the minimum I need for us and the company coming that night. I break them off and shuck them in the garden. I turn the warm cylinders over and over under my nose, smelling my childhood. That evening I cook them on the grill, and eat my allotted ear of corn with supper. It is indescribably good: with the sweetness of the corn starch is mingled the sweetness of satisfaction.
The next day I go to the garden, and the rest of the corn is nibbled or pulled down. Nothing is salvageable. In terms of pure calories, I probably harvested about twice the energy that I planted. My labor has been cheap this year. I set about to pull up the rest of the destroyed crop. When the stalks are in the compost heap, I stretch my back in the crisp fall air, the drying sweat of my effort augmenting the early autumn chill, and remember the exquisite taste of my own corn. I don’t care what the statistics say: it was a good year.
This story appeared in the October 25, 1994, issue of The Globe and Mail, Toronto, Ontario.
I decided to hide from my taskmasters today and take a play day. I wanted to do something I had not done for a long time–I wanted to spend the day on the ground. I was thinking of childhood afternoons when I would splay out on the earth, watching a world unfold in the grass. Of the approximately 26,000 days allotted to our kind, we probably have, on the average, fewer than a thousand that are play days, days in which we are free to choose after we wake up what we would like to do. Most of these occur before we are twelve, and after we are sixty. Between twelve and sixty life tends to be a soul-shattering succession of duties, appointments and schedules.
Children are natural intimates of the ground. Adults usually go low out of necessity–from injury, to look for lost articles, in an act of obeisance. But they rise as soon as they can. Let go of the hand of a three-year old, however, and she is as likely to dive to the ground as to run away, even if that ground is the middle of a hard floor in the busiest concourse of a mall. To her a prone posture means security, food, dreams, play. It takes years to reconnect these positive experiences with stimuli that are higher than two feet above the ground. Once adults are uncoupled from the earth, the rewiring seems permanent. The old man looks at the ground and thinks of death and decay. He forgets the affections of his early years.
Last night the sky was clear, so the morning dew would be heavy. As I waited for the dew to clear, I packed up a drag bag with items that I might need–a spoon for digging, a notebook, an insect guide, plastic bags for specimens. Though the day was warm, I dressed in two layers of clothing, taking care to cover my legs and arms. The list of what is down there that does not respect the barrier of the human skin is frightening: ticks, chiggers, lice, fleas, mosquitoes, biting ants, bees, wasps. Anyone who has kept livestock or an outdoor pet knows what waits for blood and revenge at ground level.
I picked a secluded area to do my sinking. Adults on the ground are generally a signal that something is wrong, I couldn’t think of any way to tell someone about my project without sounding a little batty. Best, I thought, not to be seen in the first place. Arriving at the place, a lush meadow near a river valley, I went directly to an area of short grass, the easiest place to recline. Down on a knee, then forward, until I’m on my stomach. No hurry. Let the brain adjust. From the warming earth comes a smell of cut hay, the dank, mousey odor of decay, the perfume of hop clover. A sensation of the ranch home of my childhood is suddenly vivid. I have been here before.
After a few minutes I begin to pull aside the overlying vegetation and peer beneath it. Soil scientists refer to the various layers of soil as horizons, and name them by letters and subscripts. No universal nomenclature exists, but I can see three distinct layers here, all of which get worked into the various naming systems. I think of them as litter, mulch and humus. The litter is the dead but largely undecayed plant and animal matter lying on the ground. Mulch is the thin layer of matter under the litter that is in the visible process of decay. When mulch is fully broken down and packed together it becomes humus, a soil composed of organic materials.
In the space of a few minutes I note ants, spittlebug nymphs, weevils, spiders, beetles and larvae of all kinds, snails, slugs, millipedes, and worms. In the air around me are mosquitoes, bee flies, hover flies. By one count, over ninety-five percent of insects spend some part of their life cycle in the soil.
I rummage in the drag bag for a spoon and use it to dig into the humus. The animal life in this deep layer inclines toward the large and the small. The common animal on the large side is the earthworm. What we know about the role of earthworms in the manufacture of soil is due in part to Charles Darwin. He began studying them as early as the 1830s, just after his voyage on the H.M.S. Beagle, and published his results fifty years later in The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms. Earthworms, as Darwin noted, are largely responsible for mixing the organic humus with the mineral soils below it. In the humus that I am grubbing through this morning there is a gradual shift from purely organic soil to one that is a blend of humus, clay and sand, an indication that earthworms have been at work. In soils where there is normal earthworm activity, it is not unusual to find a dozen worms in a cubic foot of topsoil.
On the small side in the humus fauna are the bacteria, protozoa and nematode worms. When my childhood play days led me into the dirt, this miniscule life was hidden to me; I could not have imagined its extent, even if someone had explained it to me. I pull up a tablespoon of crumbly humus and sift through it with my fingernail. Two billion bacteria can make their home in a single gram of healthy humus, so I may be looking at forty billion of them on this spoon. Densities of this magnitude are usually associated with such germ-friendly habitats as sour milk and animal feces. For a bacterium this is a desirable neighborhood. Protozoans, such as amoebas, are also abundant in humus. There may be two hundred thousand protozoans in this one spoonful. This same spoon might also hold a hundred tiny nematode worms, each barely as long as my thumbnail is thick.
Humus can reach down several inches in rich soil, as it does here. The rate of deposition can be surprisingly rapid. Though several inches of plant litter may decompose to a paper-thin layer of humus, over the years the pages can add up to a thick book. At the house where I was born, the lawn that abuts the front porch steps is almost four inches higher than it was when the steps were put in fifty years ago, as measured against the bottom step. At least a couple of inches of that accumulated soil has come from cutting the grass and leaving it on the lawn to decompose into humus. All those years that I grudgingly pushed a mower over that grass, I was building up the earth, preparing it for earthworms and the teeming, invisible life forms that would someday inhabit its organically enriched soil.
Most of the visible animal life near the ground is not in the humus; it resides on, in or just under the narrow mulch layer that is on top of the humus. The litter layer above the mulch is subject to a periodic drying out that is inimical to insect life, but the mulch layer, except in drought conditions, tends to keep its moisture and to maintain a fairly constant microclimate. I scrape at the mulch, peeling it away from the underlying humus with my fingers. The mulch I have collected in my hand seems to be a living organism. Pieces of it are trying to crawl back to the damp darkness. The mulch here is hardly a half-inch thick, but that tiny span is the cradle of life to its microfauna. And ultimately to us: what floating, microscopic plant and animal life is to the food chains in the ocean, the insects, spiders and worms in this mulch are to life on land. One North American soil scientist coined the name geenton for the biotic life here, in analogy with the plankton of the ocean. We may not have much of a taste for the geenton directly, but almost everything here becomes lunch, after it makes its way through one or more animal and plant digestions. I suddenly recall that I forgot to pack a sandwich.
Some of the moisture in this mulch is from this morning’s dew. The plants above the soil radiate into the night sky the heat they have accumulated during the day. This transfer of heat, like the evaporation of sweat from our own bodies, has a cooling effect. As the plants cool, the dew point is reached, and the moisture in the air condenses onto the cool surfaces. The moisture comes largely from the warmer, underlying humus, by evaporation, so there is a complete hydrological cycle–water vapor goes up, distills as dew, and soaks back into the soil. In the temperate region where I live there is an inch or two of this dewy rain each year. If I had come out today before the dew was gone, my prostrate body might have mopped up a pint of dew every place it flopped onto the ground. The dew on this half-acre of meadow, if collected, would fill a bathtub.
The warmth of the hot sun on my back and the coolness pressing up from the earth have turned me into a stressed thermocouple. I creep to a cedar stand in a moist alcove of the field. The mulch layer here is deeper, I notice, a reflection of how long it takes to make the transition from litter to humus. Some autumn leaves, like elm and ash, start to decay almost as soon as they fall, and are gone by the middle of the following summer. Oak leaves take two summers–I remember naively digging a large quantity of them into a garden one fall, and having to contend with the decomposing leaves all the next summer. But pine needles take the longest of all to yield to the processes of decomposition. Even in moist soil they can survive for several years. The result is a wider transition layer under these cedars, a thicker mulch. The ecosystem here is not the same as that of the grass mulch. Even the visible inhabitants are different. But the two mulches are the same in one respect: both host a frenzy of insect life. In one enumeration a scientist found that a square foot of earth taken from the top five inches of soil in a Swiss mountain meadow yielded, on the average, about two hundred insects.
The catalog of these visible creatures in the mulch has taken a long time to compile. With the exception of Darwin, the first scientists who studied the soil were mostly interested in its chemical and physical characteristics, in its acidity and mineral composition. Until the 1920s soil scientists seemed to be unaware that there was any other life in the soil besides earthworms and burrowing mammals. The study of the full zoology of the soil began in earnest between the wars, largely in Germany. After the Second World War similar work was taken up by English-speaking scientists.
The awareness of this animal life has been slow to make its way from the laboratory to the people who actually work with the soil. The English biologist D. Keith Kevan pointed out in his 1955 book on soil zoology that “professional soil officers throughout the world are generally recruited from chemists, geologists, or, less frequently, botanists, who from their training have been unable to afford any satisfactory account of the fauna encountered or of the role it might play in soil development.” In the mid 1980s two German soil biologists published a handsome folio edition of a book containing over a thousand images, made with a scanning electron microscope, of the insects in the mulch (published in English as Atlas on the Biology of Soil Arthropods by Springer-Verlag in 1987). The pictures are as fascinating as the photographs sent back by interplanetary probes, and show, as no dry scientific description can, what the world of the mulch is like. The existence of such a book is evidence that there is some movement, however slow, toward an appreciation of the biotic life of the soil.
Hours pass. At the end of the afternoon, weary of active looking, hungry because of a missed lunch, I lounge in some tall weeds. At the back of my mind is the magical mulch. Life there is concentrated in a band that forms a sharp boundary between the living plants above and the mineral soil beneath. Recently I was listening to a member of the theater community talking about a stage production he had directed that broke most of the traditional assumptions about performing and watching. “I’m not fond of boundaries,” he said. Nature, unlike his art, is inordinately fond of them: whatever is significant in nature happens at boundaries like the mulch layer. The intensity of life in the decaying mulch is a little echo of our own transitional zone: the larger animals flourish in the relatively narrow band between the bottom of the coastal shelves and the lower part of the atmosphere. The inhabitable water and air around our planet is thin compared to the volume of the earth, no thicker with respect to the globe than the skin of a plum is to the whole fruit. Though we talk about the earth being our home, we don’t use much of it–just a few gauzy miles on its surface. And most of the earth’s plant and animal life occurs in an even narrower layer less than a hundred feet on either side of the land and ocean surfaces. This is our mulch layer. Up to this point our interest, like that of the early soil scientists, has been focussed too much on the earthworms in this atmospheric mulch, too much on the obvious work done by humans to shift around parts of the world and remake it to fit our needs. The role played by the thousands and thousands of smaller species has been relatively invisible. Only in our lifetime has the scientific community begun to study seriously the vast interconnection of plant and animal species who share the earth with us. The knowledge we have gained, however, like the knowledge of the insect life in the mulch, has been slow to filter down to the people who actually make the decisions that affect the health of this flora and fauna.
I sit up and begin to brush myself off, getting ready to return home. As the afternoon ends, I trek back to the house, an elderly child coming in from an afternoon of play.
This article was published in the Spring 1998 issue of Queen’s Quarterly. Reproduced with permission.
All day long it has been piling up. Ten inches of new snow has blanketed an already snow-covered landscape. Light flurries today, the radio predicted. At sunset I stand at the window and watch as the wind, gusting over the eaves, whips the crystals into white vortexes. Winter has obliterated all traces of summer. For someone who enjoys the commotion of plant and animal life during an Ontario summer, the months between Christmas and the first days of spring can be a lonely stretch.
beaver This winter I discovered an aide-mémoire for the vanished summer. When I returned from a Christmas visit with my daughter, I brought back one of her old fish tanks. My daughter works in a pet store and has dozens of pets, many of them rescues, brought home from the store for a last-chance nursing. Her house is stuffed with pet paraphernalia. Spotting a stack of fish tanks in an upstairs closet, I begged the smallest one as a Christmas gift.
I set up the tank in my study, in a place where it would be in sunlight for part of the day. Then I fetched a large bucket and garden spade from under the deck and went outside to collect contents for the tank. I prised lumps of surface soil from the frozen earth, taking shovelfuls from different areas–a lawn, a forest floor, a riverbank. I dumped everything I had gathered into the fish tank, then fitted window screening over the top. Remembering that some of the spirits I was invoking were more responsive to light cycles than to warmth, I rigged a spotlight over the tank.
For the next two weeks I watched the tiny ecosystem for signs of life. The first creatures to emerge, even before the ice had fully melted, were a dozen small grass spiders, some so tiny that they escaped through the mesh. The ones that remained built traps of silk between the mesh and the top of the tank. They were soon joined by two larger spiders, delicate orb weavers, who laced the upper area of the tank with a latticework of fine webbing and waited for food. It’s hard to get a break, it seems. We arrive in a world that is already stocked with predators.
Some small hemiptera, true bugs, were the first to fly in the confined space. One of them also became the spiders’ first victim–I found it mummified one morning, hanging by a strand of silk. In recent days other soil dwellers have put in an appearance. There are a host of snails. Two or three weevils crawl in and out of the thatch. A plant bug has been nibbling at a rosette of campion, pointing it with frass. I see several kinds of beetles. The monster of the bunch, a black ground beetle, is an inch long. It stays in hiding most of the time, coming out when the lights are off. A humped, iridescent beetle, perhaps a hister beetle, is often active, but the most frantic of the beetles is a ladybug larva who scurries up and down the vegetation seeking an aphid meal. A flash of scarlet catches my eye now and then–velvet mites crawling briefly onto the soil.
The vegetation in the tank is also deceived about the season. Perennials are pressing their roots against the glass. The blades of one of the clumps of fescue have started to grow an inch a day. Moss phlox, wild carrot and dandelion are reviving. Shoots of columbine, horsetail and mint have sprung up. A variety of annual seeds have sprouted, most of which I can’t identify at this early stage.
I am astounded, as I look into my plot of untimely spring, at the amount of genetic information packed in this little glass house, ready to spin phenotype out of genotype. Most of what has come alive in my terrarium had been overwintering in the stage I first saw it, a testimony to the power of ice to preserve as well as destroy. The irony does not escape me: the same winter that steals my summer companions from me is also keeping them for me until spring.
The snow of two days ago is no longer a pristine expanse of white. To jog my memory of the plant and insect life I resort to forcing two cubic feet of summer. To recall the animal life of the warmer seasons, however, I only have to go outside after a snow. Though winter subdues them, most mammals continue to be at least partly active in the cold weather. The unseen presence of these mammals can, in fact, be more tangible in winter, when their tracks are easier to spot. Fresh snow is a piece of blank paper that records the faintest scribbles. I wrap myself in a heavy coat, pull on waterproof boots, and go out to see what they have been writing.
There is no evidence of the chipmunks that loiter under the bird feeder in warmer weather. They and the woodchucks in the north meadow are in deep hibernation, as unsociable as the birds that have flown south. New falls of snow are quickly doodled by the squirrels, however. Though both gray squirrels and red squirrels take long naps in the winter months, one or two squirrels are active for part of each day, except in the deepest cold. They have drafted a giant connect-the-dots picture between the trees.
The beavers on the river are also winter writers. Once the pond above the dam freezes I seldom see them in person, but I can find their trails after each snow. I wade the side channel at the place where they construct their annual dam and cross to the lodge. Leading from the lodge to the main river is a fresh trail with a huge rear paw print. A beaver, says the encyclopedia, can be over four feet long from its whiskers to the end of its flat tail, can weigh up to sixty pounds, and can have paws up to six and half inches long. The print I am looking at is seven inches. Last year a beaver stood on its hind paws and in one bite nipped off, just above three feet of stiff plastic wrap, a one-inch diameter apple tree I had planted. It must have been this monster with the seven-inch typeface.
I circle the meadow, watching for evidence of other creatures. Most of the snow scribblers are long-distance pen pals, never seen in person. The braille of dogs who have secretly made night visits to the compost heap is common enough. Either we have feral dogs around, or my neighbors along the river let their pets run loose at night. Voles, also unseen, carve long trails between the snow and grass. When this snow begins to melt, it will expose a complex system of tunnels which interlace like illuminated gothic letters. Under a spruce I find the unmistakable Arabic script of a mouse, writing curved lines with its tail and dotting with its paws. Once I saw the characteristic direct register (the hind feet stepping on the depression made by the front feet) of fox prints near here. They intersected at my brush pile with the prints of a rabbit. Where the prints met there were frozen rabbit entrails. Some snow writers are also editors.
Here are prints I had not expected to see. A lone deer has wandered across the meadow. In winter deer work their way along this river valley, passing from one feeding area to another. But they usually travel in small groups, and stay near the river. This deer was moving slowly and dragging a leg on its left side. Bright red drops of blood were between the prints. I followed the trail into a stand of cedars. Slabs of frozen blood and mashed snow showed where it had reclined for a while. Backtracking, I found where the injured deer had bounded from the local road. I could discover no trail coming onto the road. Perhaps the deer had been walking along the road at night and had been struck by a car. I returned to where the deer had rested and tracked it in the other direction, as it turned toward the river and followed the bank. Exclamation points of blood continued to punctuate the sentences that the gashed deer was writing in the snow. I traced the deer for a half-mile, to where it entered some private land, then turned back without knowing the story’s end. The wound was surely mortal–the end of this trail would also be the end of the deer.
As I trudged back through the deep drifts I thought about the power and the transience of the story in the snow. In a few days wind or sun will erase forever what I have just read. Putting the deer’s story to paper makes only slightly more durable, but it feels right–an act of defiance, however small, against the despotism of winter.
This story appeared in the March 3, 1997, issue of The Globe and Mail, Toronto, Ontario.
The Company of Weeds
Suppose that, after you die, dozens of books are written about your life. Now suppose that almost all of these books are written by people who hated you. Would you still choose fame? This paradox is the destiny of almost every weed.
Fifteen years ago I became interested in weeds. At that time I knew by common name some of the weeds that we fought, year after year, in our garden. These were only a small fraction, though, of the plants I could see along any roadside. I would sometimes hesitate at the margins of my mowing and consider the lush and vegetation that my civilizing act was holding at bay. I wondered, sometimes, at my presumption, dealing out death and decapitation to victims I hardly knew.
To learn more about weeds, I tried at first to use wildflower guides. But I found it difficult to recognize the common plants in them. My breakthrough in came when I discovered that the local agricultural office sold a book identifying the common weeds in my area. I immediately bought a copy and began to make the acquaintance of my persecuted neighbors.
In the years since I have invariably found, wherever I have lived, that there is an official guide to the weeds in the region. These extensively-illustrated volumes are written to help farmers and gardeners know their enemies. Weed guides, and the research supporting them, are funded by our tax dollars in the hope that the friends of the roadside botanist will keel over and die, never to return. Plants in these officious tomes are ranged by their destructive capability. There are lists of the “ten worst” and transcripts of legal acts identifying some of them as “noxious.” Their beneficial qualities are passed over in silence. At its best this literature is coldly scientific and descriptive; at its worst, it makes you want to perform a service to humanity by grabbing a flamethrower and heading for the nearest ditch.
The intensity of invective in the ani-weed literature suggests that we know exactly what a weed is. But do we? Defining the word “weed,” it seems, is harder than clearing weeds from your garden. I can detect three historical approaches. We might refer to these as the Received, the Romantic, and the Scientific.
The first, the Received view, starts with the idea that weeds are ontologically distinct from useful plants–a weed is always a weed, crop plants are always crops. The oldest reference to the Received view may be in the Hebrew Scriptures: When Adam and Eve sinned in the first garden, the Lord cursed the ground and made it bring forth thorns and thistles and weeds. If there were something good to be said for thorns and thistles, the point of the curse would be lost, wouldn’t it? From the perspective of the Received view, a weed is something always and intrinsically evil.
There is no crucial characteristic that makes a weed a weed. Some plants that are weeds in the modern farmer’s field were not weeds at other times and in other places. The Ontario weed book published between the world wars lists hemp, or marijuana (Cannabis sativa), as a weed. Hemp got its toehold on the land around the turn of the century, when the government provided incentives for growing it as a raw material to make ropes for the military.
Hemp is not unusual in having a dual role. The list of plants in a seventeenth-century herbal, for example, has large overlap with entries in modern weed books. Taken to the extreme of pure relativism, a weed might simply be defined as “a plant in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Even some recent experts fall back, when pressed, to a social specification as the only valid distinction. I associate this relative stance, however, with the Romantics rather than the moderns.
The Romantics were famous for taking time-honoured truths and standing them on their heads. The American Romantic Henry David Thoreau, in Walden, equivocates about the violence involved in “making the earth say beans instead grass.” With his hoe he makes “invidious distinctions, . . . levelling whole ranks of one species, and sedulously cultivating another.” In the end he wonders whether he has valued the right plant: “Shall I not rejoice also at the abundance of the weeds whose seeds are the granary of the birds?” To the Romantic mind, the distinction between a weed and a crop was a mere social contrivance.
There may be, of course, recalcitrant individualists, hardy Romantics of our age, who insist on valuing exactly those plants that gardeners and farmers find useless. They will discover at the roadside the most humble, obscure, and unwanted plant, dig it up, carry it home, and build their wildflower garden around it. But unless they can convince others, lots of others, that they have done something wise and worth copying, their statement is lost on society. The act of being valued by a single person is not usually enough to make a sow’s ear weed into a silk purse flower.
The approach to defining weeds in vogue today–the Scientific approach–looks to a coalition of scientists and agriculturalists for its authority. Lawrence J. King codifies such an approach in his Weeds of the World. He tries to come up with a list of objective characteristics that apply to plants that we regard as weeds. Here are three characteristics from his list that lean toward the observable behavior of plants:
Plants that are weeds are competitive and aggressive in their habits, choking out other valuable plants. Weeds are spontaneous, appearing without being sown or cultivated. Weeds have a high reproductive capacity, producing large numbers of seeds or having a rank vegetative reproduction. I can think of weeds that are sterling examples of these characteristics. A weed with a strong aggressive posture, for example, is purslane (Portulaca olearacea). The last garden I had before I came to Ontario was dense with it. My own garden is currently purslane-free, but my neighbor’s garden is a purslane battlefield. Purslane is an annual, but it sets seeds so persistently that, unlike other annuals, it can’t readily be cultivated away. It has a fleshy leaf that, Ontario Weeds says, “enables it to continue flowering and ripening seeds for several days after being hoed or uprooted.” Moreover, “if even a small portion of the root of a newly upturned plant touches the soil, it can grow a new root system and become reestablished.” I don’t think I have ever seen a weed produce so much vegetable mass in so short a time. A soaking rain can undo an afternoon’s weeding in a matter of days. The award for displaying the characteristic of spontaneity goes, without any near challengers, to the common poppy, Papaver rhoeas, that infests fields in Europe. Its seeds, distributed by the millions in any field where it has grown, can germinate after a hundred years in the soil. In A Manual of Weeds, Ada Georgia has unqualified advice for the farmer troubled by poppies: “Let none mature seed.” Curiously, it is a common component of wildflower mixes sold to gardeners. I wonder if North American farmers might someday regret the current craze among gardeners for this weedy wonder.
There are several good examples of weeds with a high capacity to reproduce.My most recent candidate for the weed from Hell is the horsetail, Equisetum arvense. I have been trying to establish a perennial garden in a place where horsetail has taken hold. Its two incarnations, as a whispy, flowerless, whorled vegetative shoot, and as a multisheathed, spore-producing rod, have become the stuff of nightmares for me. It reproduces in my garden by sending out underground rhizomes that can be as deep as two feet. Though I hoe and hoe, I’m not sure that I’m making any progress. I pull out as much of the root system as I can get, until it breaks off, but a week later a new shoot comes up from the same root. Even blasting it with a topical herbicide doesn’t help. The overground plant dies before the poison can do its work on the persistent roots. There is a documented case, described in The World’s Worst Weeds, of horsetail erupting through a meter of silt after a Vermont flood in 1936. If we could use this plant as food we would call it manna. It is, unfortunately, indigestible by humans, and mildly poisonous to some farm animals.
Objective as these characteristics seem, they still aren’t absolute. Without a scientific/agricultural community that treasures certain plants–our crops and flowers–over others, the Scientific view is as arbitrary as the Romantic view.
Here is the crux of the matter for me. I am a member of the community that has generated this hate literature against weeds. I was reared on a ranch, in a farming community. I have always gardened. I love long, straight crop lines, luxurious and weed-free vegetables, and composted and mulched perennials. As for my battles with weeds, I can show you the scars. I have bought in to a culture that requires highly productive farms, operated with the best of scientific know-how. When Ralph Waldo Emerson said that a weed was “a plant whose virtue has not yet been discovered” he was Romantically wrong. We do know the virtues of weeds. That is why they are weeds. If they don’t want to be weeds, let them change their natures, let them stop competing for the crops that are our wealth and health.
Yet, that said, I still have doubts. I belong to other communities as well. And these communities tell me that there is another way to look at weeds.
The purslane I mentioned has redeeming qualities, for example. It happens to be edible, and its flavour is succulent and unique. Some evenings I cross over to my neighbour’s garden to find the purslane his hoe has missed. I pull it up, strip the tasty leaves from the stems, and bring them back to munch on (leaving the stems in his garden so that the purslane won’t take root in my garden). For a few minutes, while I savour the snitched purslane, I am primal, and I know I will never be free of the wildness that is expressed in this rampant weed.
Another community finds in the common poppy an alternative meaning. The Flanders poppies that sprang up “between the crosses row on row” during the First World War were as much a consequence of the fighting as the bodies in the cemeteries. The deep ploughing of the mortar shells and the excavation of graves exposed long-dormant seeds. The flowers from these ancient spores became a mystical symbol of healing: for each numbered life, a poppy liberated and germinated.
Even the infuriating horsetail, finally, has another side to it. Horsetail is one of the most significant herbal remedies, historically used to treat kidney ailments and to stanch wounds. If the agricultural community would decide on the annihilation of horsetail, there would be guerilla groups of herbal healers prepared to conceal stands of the plant at the risk of their lives. Horsetail has so much silica in its leaves that several ancient industries used it as an abrasive. Bankers may be interested this primitive plant: horsetail accumulates and concentrates gold from the soil. Up to a pound of gold can be found in four tons of the fresh plant.
These days I often stop the mower and walk among my new acquaintances. I find that I am not so defined by the limits of my lawn and garden as once I was. I seek the company of weeds.
Weed Sources Cited
Alex, J. F. and Switzer, C. M. Ontario Weeds: Descriptions, Illustrations and Keys to their Identification (Toronto: Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food, n.d.).
Ada E. Georgia, A Manual of Weeds (New York: Macmillan, 1933).
LeRoy G. Holm, et. al. The World’s Worst Weeds (Honolulu: The University Press of Hawaii, 1977)
Lawrence King. Weeds of the World: Biology and Control (New York: Interscience Publishers, Inc. 1966).
This article was published in the July/August 1996 issue of Saturday Night Magazine. Reproduced with permission.