Friday, May 14, 2010

In praise of weeds

My life and yard are full of junk. A walk through my yard is more like a high-stepping slog through the weeds that take the place of things that should be there. Little seeds set loose from our steps take flight, lodging in our socks or taking root to make even more weeds.

My son tells me that it's fine. He loves weeds. He blows dandelions, harvests aphid-encrusted weed flower bouquets, and immerses himself head-high in the things. Which is fine, if you're eight.

If I could, I would agree with him. Weeds weren't always bad, anyway. Etymologically, "weed" comes from the Old English for "grass" or "herb," but during the Middle Ages the meaning changed to mean plants that grew tenaciously where they weren't wanted, especially among agricultural plots. They became the grasses and herbs that hung on, unwanted, the plants that stuck around instead of what growers decided should be there.

It's the same with my writing. I polish. I practice. I agonize. But no matter how much mental weed spray I use, I don't think like most people (a fact of which I would remain blissfully ignorant, if not for the thousands of times per day my husband looks askance at me). Because part of what I do is write stuff other people should want to read, lacking several common thought patterns leads to a thousand false starts -- a thousand seeds floating around -- and because I'm also fairly obsessive, they all take root. At any given time, I'm completely obsessed with Marvel comic fandom from a fangirl-turned-mom perspective, and I'm also obsessed with arthropods and how they're a perfect allegory for introversion, and I'm ALSO obsessed with a coffee table book idea I've had for a month, and ... well, a million other things. All at once. Always. They're gorgeous to me. I watch the seeds float; I wish on them. I play in them up to my head. But they serve only to block out the things other people do want.

A few weeks ago, I decided to pull the weeds. I waddled and crouched in my yard all day, feverishly pulling, yanking, piling. I still have the blisters. I culled about two thirds of the waist- to shoulder-high (or head-high if you're eight) weeds.

My son was close to devastated. What about the birds? he asked. They pluck seeds from the weeds each morning, and use the thin branches and stems to finish their nests. What about the ladybugs, whose nymphs were attached to hundreds of the stems? What about at sunset, when light shines through a thousand breeze-blown filaments? What about his plans to take his friend on a backyard jungle trek? Weeds are exciting. No weeds is boring.

I wrote something years ago, shortly after my son began exploring the world. I had been afraid motherhood would be boring, uniform, manicured, like a bland lawn. It wasn't. It turned out to be better, worse, weirder, and more exciting than I had expected. At the time, I said of my son and myself: "We tend the wild weeds in each other."

I've left the rest of our weeds where they are. The birds visit constantly. The ladybugs (I had carefully picked around the nymphs in the first place) have hatched.

Weeds are not a crop (even though several are great to eat). Still, they have utility of a different kind. They're our ladybug nursery. Birds make use of them for food and shelter. We wish on them. Who wishes on a rose?

Biologists don't use the term "weeds" all that often. Many plants considered weeds are very closely related to popular crops, biologically. Allelopathy, a chemical method of preventing other stuff from growing, tends to give weeds a bad rap. We've kept the remaining weeds far enough away from our "desirable" plants that everything grows in harmony. What if, then, I could do away with mental allelopathy, but keep the rest? Because weeds are awesome.

Weeds have some of the most widely heralded virtues. They are specifically adapted to thrive where destruction has occurred. They take root when nothing else can. They can even help depleted soil, bringing rich nutrients up from deeper layers and into decimated topsoil. They restore eroded soil. The stuff covering our yard, something from the mustard family, is fiercely competitive and protects itself with saw edges of teeth along its leaves. You can't help but respect the stuff. It's edible, apparently, but packs quite a punch. Our crop of it appeared almost overnight, transforming our yard from a brownish expanse into a rich green sea.

I think my favorite thing that weeds do naturally is something Tom French, one of my MFA mentors and all-around amazing guy, had to remind me a kadrillion times to do: They keep going. As any frustrated gardener can attest, weeds spread with abandon; easily, randomly, wildly.

According to Ralph Waldo Emerson, a weed "is a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered."

There's a lot of discovery potential around here.

I'm still watching my ideas float around, and they're still taking root in a thousand different places. Maybe I'll let them grow. Weeds, after all, can make great companion plants to "good" plants, helping them thrive during dry spells.

Weeds have strong roots, after all. And if the light hits them just right, they light up like nothing can.