Essay: A Reflection on Weeds

As the evening draws in on a day spent pottering in the garden, the last of the setting sun casts a mellow side-lit glow, shadows slowly deepen, and the garden takes on a beautiful, sculptural quality. I stop and take some time to enjoy this moment of physical tiredness blended with aesthetic pleasure and a sense of accomplishment. It is a moment of quiet contentment, and I want to savour it just before the light really begins to fade. Yes, I am a gardener, a passionate gardener. But as the drought goes on and the water dries up, it’s no longer cool to say this out loud. Gardening is becoming deeply unfashionable again. (Not that gardening was ever more than a fad here in Sydney, a passing phase we always knew we’d grow out of.) With all this growing awareness of the looming ecological crisis of global warming, there are many who consider gardening an indulgence, a luxury we can no longer afford. It is perhaps time to ask how can one be a gardener and still be true to the earth? And at the end of this enjoyable day I find myself thinking about this question from the perspective of that most quintessential of gardening tasks, weeding.

I liked to help Mum out in the garden, doing the exciting stuff like chopping down the plants that she’d changed her mind about, or digging new holes for transplanting the ones that were slowly dying in the wrong spot.

But I drew the line at weeding. I didn’t like the way forget-me-not seeds stuck to the fine hairs on my arms; the way cleaver leaves stuck to everything. I didn’t like the feel of the occasional slug, stupid enough to have sought refuge amongst the end of season bluebell leaves lying limp along the ground. Most of all I didn’t like the way, no matter how many weeds I pulled out – there were always more. No, weeding was boring. So when Mum told me to weed the garden – I’d usually last about 10 minutes. Just long enough for her to be distracted and wander off to some more important garden task- just long enough to accumulate a respectable sized pile before I took off, and often just long enough to inflict maximum damage. For inevitably, my respectable pile would include some treasured cutting, or herbaceous perennial that Mum had brought home, carefully wrapped in damp newspaper. How was I to know it wasn’t a weed? They all looked the same to me.

But somewhere in the course of life as a gardener, something shifted. Spend enough time killing them, and you start to respect them, I guess. Gradually, they stopped all looking the same and I got to know them as individuals. For a while, weeds became something of a personal fascination. I found there’s many different ways of looking at weeds. There’s a whole branch of biodynamic agriculture that recognises weeds as useful indicators of soil condition: sorrel and dock grow on poorly drained acidic soils, nettles on soils high in organic matter, couch and wild radish indicate compacted soils. When you get to know them, weeds can tell you a lot about your garden. You also get to know how to deal with them, which ones you can get rid of easily, taking the top off with a hoe when they are seedlings, and which are the ones you have to remove every skerrick of root or rhizome, so they don’t come back. And most importantly, when to leave them alone. You never knew when an unidentified seedling amongst the weeds might just grow into something special instead of another weed. And of course many a valuable herb is somebody else’s weed. For example, St John’s Wort, a herb used to treat depression, is a noxious weed in all mainland states except Queensland.

From an ecological perspective, I found that weeds are nature’s response to disturbance. Most weed species are specialists that have evolved to take advantage of disturbances in ecosystems. They are pioneer species. Natural selection has shaped them to be the first to colonise bare ground. Colonisation, one of the fundamental concepts of ecology, is the process by which a species enlarges its territory, in response to changing environmental conditions (disturbance). And for the last 10,000 odd years, at least since the early days of agriculture, the biggest source of disturbance in the environment has been us humans. It seems to be our nature to make a mess. 10,000 years is quite long enough in evolutionary terms, for some of these colonising species to become very good at taking advantage of our particular messes, whether that be buildings, croplands, pastures, rubbish dumps, mine sites or gardens.

And there’s other ways of looking at weeds besides the ecological and the horticultural. At a symbolic level, weeds seemed to hold a particular significance for me. I remember as a kid being very taken with John Wyndham’s post-apocalyptic vision in Day of the Triffids . The story starts with the human race rendered blind and vulnerable to triffids, mobile nettles with a lethal sting, the result of genetic engineering gone wrong. After the initial chaos and mass death, a blind humanity bunkers down before the threat of the triffids, abandoning field and factory alike. Plants inherit the earth. The narrator, one of the few left with sight returns to London…

a year later, the change was more noticeable… Grass and weeds had a good hold in the gutters and were choking the drains. Leaves had blocked downspoutings so that more grass, and even small bushes, grew in cracks and in the silt in the roof gutterings. Almost every building was beginning to wear a green wig beneath which its roofs would damply rot. Through many a window one had glimpses of fallen ceilings, curves of peeling paper, and walls glistening with damp. The gardens of the Parks and Squares were wildernesses creeping out across the bordering streets. Growing things seemed, indeed, to press out everywhere, rooting in the crevices between the paving stones, springing from cracks in concrete, finding lodgements even in the seats of the abandoned cars. On all sides they were encroaching to repossess themselves of the arid spaces that man had created. And curiously, as the living things took charge increasingly, the effect of the place became less oppressive.

I loved that passage. There was something deeply exciting about this vision of rampant growth, nature resurgent. Growing up on the fringe of a rapidly expanding city in the 1960s, I was used to seeing nature being subdued and dominated. As suburbs rolled out like an all-conquering army, billabongs were being filled and turned into sports fields, creeks were being concreted and turned into drains. Everywhere nature was being crushed and domesticated. I found Wyndham’s vision of nature’s resilience and creativity in the face of human domination, reassuring and fascinating. In retrospect, I realise that such expressions of nature’s resilience were already familiar. At that time, scattered along the Yarra Valley where I grew up, were places of the same resurgent nature; places to which I would often go to escape home unpleasantness, of which weeding duty was the least.

In that era of suburban expansion, when it seemed like there was plenty of land for everybody, if there were little bits left over after the pie was divided up, nobody bothered with them. They were just left, off-cuts that nobody had any use for. Nobody went there, except for us kids. Some of these leftover wild places were criss-crossed with narrow tracks; others were near impenetrable thickets. Where the open-crowned river red gums still remained, the canopy was open and light, and high mounds of blackberries grew beneath.

Elsewhere were darker, more forbidding places, where the canopy was dense. Here, introduced hawthorns, pittosporum, prunus and willows mixed with native hymenanthera, bursaria, coprosma and silver wattle, to create a dense shade. Ivy, honeysuckle, silk and moth vines clambered up into the trees, like tropical lianas. I loved the wild feel of these places. They felt like jungle. Nature unconstrained by humans. Human influence was evident, but not human control. They were little pockets of wild nature amongst all that suburban civilisation, and they were full of weeds. As a child with an authoritarian, punitive father, these wild places had an intuitive appeal. I loved the absence of control, of rules. We were allies. They were good places to hang out. You could do what you liked; have a fire, break a branch, ride your bike into a bush trashing it, and nobody told you off, nobody cared. And nature was tough here. If a plant didn’t grow back, some other plant would take its place.

Here garden escapees and remnant agricultural weeds jostled with the remaining locals for space. It didn’t matter what a plant’s pedigree was, where it came from, it was law of the jungle, survival of the fittest. There was no human protection here, no aesthetic or moral high ground. Pretty-boys from the garden had to be able to fight it out with the lowest of lowlife weeds, no holds barred. In the absence of human intentionality, the only referee was natural selection – winner takes all. Natural selection doesn’t care whether a plant is indigenous or not. All that matters is whether a plant can survive and reproduce. Pure nature. No humans, only our trace. I was fascinated by the thought, ‘If we were gone, what would happen here?’ In both John Wyndham’s imaginary future and the very real leftover places of my childhood, it was the absence of human control that excited me. Pockets of wild nature, full of weeds. It is no wonder, as the garden writer Michael Pollan observes, that whenever Shakespeare mentions weeds, we know a monarchy is about to fall. These were realms of pure vegetative anarchy.

The more I studied weeds, the more interesting they became. I found them to be a wonderful metaphor, holding up an ironically tinted mirror to humanity’s ambivalent relationship with the natural world. They sit bang in the middle of what Pollan calls ‘the troubled border between nature and culture.’ What makes a weed? On the one hand certain biological characteristics – the ability to reproduce vegetatively from very small pieces of plant, or sexually, producing large numbers of seeds very quickly, are two weedy characteristics. On the other hand, weeds are also cultural artifacts. For years my favorite definition of a weed was ‘any plant growing where it shouldn’t,’ where we humans don’t want it. I used to think that was a really cute definition of a weed until I came across those infuriating French postmodern theorists who ask – “Who gets to decide the ‘shouldn’t’?” One man’s beautiful flower is another man’s environmental weed. (It is usually men rather than women who get to decide the ‘shouldn’ts’, but that’s another post.) A weed is not just a biological thing, it’s also a socially constructed category.

Which poses a bit of a challenge to the scientific basis of the activity of gardening. You see, fundamental to scientific empiricism is the assumption of objectivity. This is the idea that there is a ‘there’ there, a material reality completely independent of any human understanding of it. So, there can only be one correct understanding or view of reality, and if we measure all the parameters carefully enough, excluding any subjective influences, we can know what that reality looks like. Objectivity is such a powerful idea, that it usually gets mistaken for common sense. But it is a fundamental assumption of the scientific revolution, which went on to give us the industrial revolution and modernity.

The postmodern challenge to objectivism says all theories, including scientific ones are mere representations, sort of maps of reality. And you can’t have a map without a map-maker. And what the map looks like will depend on the position of the mapmaker, not just their physical position, but their cultural position, their gender, race, class and so on. All representations of reality, even scientific theories are cultural or social constructions. Ultimately, this social constructivism arrives at the conclusion that there is no objective reality, just various subjective realities, each one as good as the next, and nature is merely another social construction. This is nonsense for science for which the material world is the only reality. Postmodern claims of subjective worlds are seen by scientists as so much empty solipsism, irrelevant twaddle, fit only for ridicule. When scientists can be bothered addressing postmodern theory, the contempt is palpable. For the most part however, they are content to just ignore postmodernism and get on with the job of investigating the ‘real’ world.

Denial of either the material or the socially constructed nature of reality makes it impossible to have any meaningful discussion across this ‘troubled border between nature and culture.’ Instead, we end up with a polarised conflict with no middle ground. Yet each position has something valid to offer to a discussion. Isn’t it about time we began to engage with the ethical complexities of our embodied interactions with a material, biological and socially constructed nature?

Well not according to deep ecology, which views human beings as the moral equivalent of any other species. By collapsing this distinction between humans and other species, deep ecology overlooks the moral complexities of human existence in a world that is simultaneously material and cultural. However deep ecology overlooks important characteristics that differentiate human beings from all other species. Our propensity to alter our environment to suit ourselves, rather than change ourselves to fit our world is one such characteristic. It has made our species very good at competing for environmental resources, giving us the ecological edge. As a species, we’ve become completely dependent on this strategy for survival. We have used our big brains, our language, our culture, our agriculture and tools to further this survival strategy. However, this aspect of human nature is deeply problematic. Our propensity to alter the environment has been allowed free rein with disastrous consequences. For a single species, we have appropriated an extraordinary percentage of biospheric resources, causing horrendous damage to the fabric of the biosphere.

In the last half of the 20th century we witnessed an emerging recognition of the cost of this strategy, of the damage we do when we alter our environment so profoundly.

The Gully

Many of us are deeply disturbed by this insight. We sense a wrongness. We feel uncomfortable, guilty about the impact of human actions on the natural world. But guilt is a difficult emotion; an impulse towards ethical behaviour and social responsibility, but paralysing when it overwhelms, and inconvenient when it gets in the way of me getting my fair share of the cake. We tend to rationalise our guilt away, minimising the environmental impact for which we are each personally responsible. And then we project it out onto convenient scapegoats like multinational oil corporations, Malaysian loggers, Japanese whalers and the like. This combination of denial and projection allows us to conveniently overlook any personal responsibility for the environmental damage our physical existence causes. We make this propensity to alter our environment, this very human part of ourselves wrong, and then we disown it.

And we do this all the time. It is there in our common speech, which makes a clear distinction between that which is natural and that which is artificial (man-made). Natural is good and artificial is bad. In popular culture, nature is idealised as this benign, harmonious web of life that wouldn’t hurt a flea. All is in balance. But it’s a very skewed picture. Nature is also conflictual, competitive. Natural selection picks winners and losers. There were extinctions long before humans were around and there will be extinctions after our own. But no, nature remains this idealised good thing, where the only discordant element is us humans. The funny thing is that this nasty humanity is never about me. None of us likes to think of ourselves as artificial, as unnatural. Particularly, if we identify as ecologically-minded, we see our selves, and want to be seen by others as close to nature. And we do this by disowning a significant part of our own humanity and projecting it onto the others of our species. The deeper the shade of green, the greater the denial of this aspect of our humanity. However, natural selection, evolution, has shaped us to be environment changers, to act on nature. This is our nature, or a part of it. To deny ourselves agency in the natural world would be unnatural. Unless we befriend this shadow side of our species, our propensity to act on and to alter our environment, we cannot truly take responsibility for our environmental destruction. Until we can accept these dark parts of ourselves as natural and legitimate, we cannot develop a truly ethical, respectful basis to our relationship with nature.

This leaves us in a fundamentally ambiguous position with respect to nature. Do we include ourselves in nature? Are we inside or outside the natural world? Looking at our common language use, you’d have to conclude we are outside nature. Nature is always seen as good, artificial usually has bad connotations. But such a black and white analysis is a profound denial of our humanity. Much as we daydream about getting back to nature, nobody goes completely feral, totally free of human artefact. We all sup at the table of technology to some degree. A more thoughtful response would be to recognise our propensity to alter our environment. While we deny it and chase ecotopian fantasies of oneness with nature, we are incapable of taking responsibility for the world altering aspect of our species. We have an ambiguous relationship with the natural world. We are both part of it and separate from it. We are at once biological and cultural beings, and we need to be able to accommodate both sides of our nature. Sadly, most of us are uncomfortable with paradox. We crave certainty, the surety of black and white distinctions; fundamentalism. It does make life simpler.

It is in our actions that the difficulty lies. If we could all just stand back and contemplate nature, there’d be no problem. The problem lies in our doing, our active engagement with the natural world. Gardening is one form of doing to nature. The American garden historian, J.D. Hunt calls gardening ‘culture melded to nature.’ ‘Culture meddling with nature’ is how most environmentalists think of it. In many green circles gardening, particularly with exotics, is considered more than an indulgence. It is an affront to nature, an eco-crime. The eminent biologist, Tim Flannery, has suggested we should rip out all those standard roses, and box hedges. Every exotic plant should go. They have no place in this country. Well I beg to differ.

To deny the right to garden is to deny a profound form of human engagement with nature. For me, gardening is a way of being true to Earth, an intimate relationship with Nature, a deep listening to the Earth, an ethic of care. I tend to see what I do in the garden as an active, playful, creative engagement with nature, a co-creative relationship rather than a unidirectional ‘doing to.’ Yes, in the garden I ‘do to’ nature. But Nature does back to me. I am not in total control, and that is a big part of the pleasure. It has the ‘give and take’ of modern tango and improvised dance, which, unlike traditional forms, has no formal leader. Instead, when two people dance together, one initiates a movement, and the second person then responds in any way they feel moved to. But this response then initiates a further response from the first person. Each partner is initiating, each responding, with the two moving as one, in an active, embodied relationship. Initiator and responder roles become blurred into a single Dance.

This is how I think of my relationship with nature in the garden. I do something in the garden, and Nature responds to my activity. Then I react to Nature’s response. By the pond, I planted a Leptospermum horizontalis. But, true to its name, instead of clambering up over the rocks behind as I had expected, it grew horizontally out over the pond, threatening to engulf it.

I cut the plant back. My creative impulse was to give it a clearly defined, geometric shape – a flat disc, suspended over the pond.

The dark well-defined disc beside the lush mass of bright green, aquatic plants looks quite striking. You may not, but that doesn’t matter in my dance. On a rock in the moist shade beneath the leptospermum disc, a small unrecognised plant sprang up. A weed? I left it to see what would eventuate. Eventually it turned out to be an indigenous tree fern, germinated from windblown spore. Now it is flourishing, its fronds dangling towards the water. At some time in the future, it will grow into the leptospermum. What happens next, remains to be seen. In a sense it doesn’t matter. What matters most for me is this process of intimate, embodied engagement with Nature. Action and reaction. I am certainly not in control, but I’m not passive either. I am dancing, and every so often, an unexpected arrangement of plants, a picture of improvised beauty, takes me by surprise. To me gardening is this kind of dance, an active, embodied, creative relationship with Nature.

However, the ecologist Tim Low argues that gardening like mining and agriculture is responsible for a great deal of damage to the Australian environment. That concerns me, in every sense. If I am to enjoy my creative engagement with Nature, I need to take account of the ambiguity of the relationship, the potential for injury to nature, by taking responsibility for my actions in the garden. My agency in nature needs grounding in a solid ethical base. So, what does this mean for me as I take up by secateurs? It means that when I garden, it must be in a way that is ethical, mindful of my responsibilities, aware of the potential for harm inherent in the relationship.

Unlike the eighteenth century English garden designer William Kent, who “jumped the fence, and saw that all of nature was a garden”, I believe that gardens are domestic things. They need to be kept well separated from wild nature. The very word ‘garden’ derived from the same root as ‘yard’ which implies a bounded or fenced area, kept separate from wild nature. So, gardens by definition need fences. There need to be limits to gardens, to the activity of gardening. We cannot garden the whole planet. Some areas must be left outside the fence… natural. The fence no longer holds the wild things out, but rather keeps the tame things in. For me the first principle of ethical gardening involves maintaining that fence, making sure that no more of the pampered pretty-boys of the garden follow Mr Kent and their feral cousins over the fence. This is one step on the tightrope of ambiguity I can take. Any respectful, non-abusive relationship entails responsibilities towards the welfare of the other. By attending to my fences, I deepen my relationship to nature with respect and care. I can garden and be true to the Earth.

Today, with increasing pressure on open spaces in cities, those wild off-cuts of my childhood are rapidly disappearing, usually to be replaced by some form of recreational landscape, complete with indigenous plantings. The irony is that such indigenous vegetation is widely perceived to be more ‘natural’ than the weedy wasteland it replaces. Yet often indigenous vegetation is as intensively managed as the sports fields, as artificial as any garden. Without regular human intervention, largely in the form of weeding, such places would quickly revert to wilderness – a mix of native and exotic species under the control of natural selection. To my mind, most of what we call bush regeneration is just another form of gardening, in that it involves humans actively selecting out certain preferred plants for protection and killing off the rest… the weeds. The fundamental difference between this form of gardening, ornamental gardening, is that in bush regeneration, our choices are governed by ecological considerations, while in ornamental gardening they are governed by aesthetic values. Both involve acts of human intentionality replacing natural selection as the shaping force on the environment. In both cases it is human whim rather than natural selection that determines what lives and reproduces and what is killed off. Neither approach is ‘natural’, if by natural we mean free of human intervention.

These days, I spend very little time gardening. My little garden has matured. I spent several years building it, planting it out and nurturing plants to maturity. I like what has been created here. But it really doesn’t need me now, maybe a few weekends in spring and the odd half hour elsewhere in the year. Instead, I spend considerably more time involved with my local Bushcare group, rehabilitating a very degraded gully. There is no possibility of restoring this land to its ‘natural state’. Hundreds of tons of building rubble were dumped there in the 1970s in the days when the local developer could just drop his rubbish down the road, no questions asked. So now we have a tip site. Even if it were possible to have this rubble removed, we would still be left with the question: What is the original state? What was there before the rubble – sand dunes created, in part, by a sandstone quarry. Or going back further, an agricultural landscape. Or going back further a landscape created by aboriginal ‘firestick farming’, or should we try to recreate the landscape that existed prior to human land management, in a completely different climate? What is the ‘natural’ landscape here? In spite of our detailed knowledge of paleoecology, the answer to that is quite subjective really, quite postmodern.

Environmental weeds in the gully

For some of my co-workers in the Bushcare group, these questions are irrelevant – the only thing that matters is getting in there, pulling out the weeds and planting indigenous plants. The only thing that matters is to act, to do something. Which is fine. That’s what we humans do. We alter our environment. And as a member of the group that’s what I do – pullout asthma weed, caster oil plant, turkey rhubarb and the rest. Gone are all my philosophical musings on the nature of weeds. They’re all just nasty exotic weeds. I pull them out. And then we plant natives, some things that still grow locally, some things we know once grew here, some things that probably grew here, and some things that might have grown here, but we have no idea if they did nor didn’t. It doesn’t matter. We bung ’em in anyway.

The Gully

Planting out indigenous plants in the gully

The funny thing is, all this activity feels just like gardening to me — pulling out weeds, planting and tending the chosen plants. It’s all just a form of cultivation, which is fine. I enjoy the work. It gives me the great satisfaction of physically engaging with nature, of shaping my environment. I figure fundamentally there is bugger all difference between this bush regeneration, and gardening. It’s all just interfering with what’s out there. The only major difference I can see is that one activity is guided more by aesthetic considerations and the other by ‘ecological’ considerations. Other than this, these two activities have much in common. Both activities are remind me of an intimate relationship. Both involve physical involvement (the doing), a knowledge informed by attunement that deepens over time, a sentiment of care (or love) and the appreciation of beauty. Oh, another difference is one is inside the fence; the other outside. Certainly, all my years of gardening experience with all those weeds inform my younger bush regeneration career.

But embracing bush regeneration has meant I have had to relinquish my fascination with ‘the wild’, those uncivilised pockets of weeds. For as soon as we act with intent on nature, we tame it. But in these times, perhaps wild nature is as much an idealisation as benign nature, and these days I am more interested in a relationship grounded in the real. A natural world that includes us is ambiguous, and so is in part artificial.