Sweet flowers are slow and weeds make haste. ~William Shakespeare
The calendar tells me it is spring, but at our home in the foothills of Bozeman, Montana that still equals snow drifts. I shouldn’t complain since my “in town” friends are spending this weekend weeding their gardens to make room for early tulips and crocuses. The arrival of spring reminds me that if you are attached to what your flower or vegetable garden produces, there are usually weed-induced backaches involved.
To welcome in the longer days and work ahead, I read a 2002 interview this week with photographer Doug Burgess on his artistic study of weeds. After a childhood of pulling unwanted plants from his parent’s front lawn, Burgess continued this practice as a form of therapy to cope with a miserable job as an adult. Noticing that after 50 years he never had a weed-free patch of earth to show for his efforts, Burgess finally moved to “the dark side,” or a neighborhood where weeds are a norm.
Burgess then spent four years photographing weeds. In an eleven-page gallery catalog on the subject he states, “The relationship between weeds and people may be one of our most enduring relationships with the natural world.”
I recommend the interview to start you waxing philosophically the importance of observing the unimportant. Through Burgess’ careful regard of his surroundings he brings forward jewels of wisdom on how we deem something beautiful and thus welcome in our lives. One of his statements especially struck me — “a weed is a social definition”; that it is simply “a plant growing where someone doesn’t want it to grow.”
So, what makes a weed? I am less than thrilled when bull thistle erupts all over my lawn and vegetable garden. It’s a pain to uproot and no matter how diligent I am at attempting eradication, it returns. Meanwhile, I am told that this “weed,” as the emblem of Scotland, was brought to the United State as a beloved plant by immigrants. A weed is in the eye of the beholder.
Outside of its original habitat a weed flourishes. It finds space and opportunity and with it the weed takes root with such gusto that it never wants to let go. Thus, in its enthusiasm it can also push out native species unaccustomed to the interloper. Weeds, like other introduced species, disrupt the balance of an ecosystem and bother its inhabitants.
Human have often been compared to invasive plant species when we set out into new ecosystems and create havoc. At the beginning of the 16th century, Christopher Columbus, Hernan Cortez and Suleiman the Magnificent all shifted the landscapes of North America, Central America and Europe respectively. Five centuries later we can still feel the effects of their efforts.
When I land in an environment that provides fertile soil for my ideas, I am intoxicated! Isn’t it delicious when you find a community that welcomes you unconditionally? What about a place where you can live unhampered by old constraints? Many are drawn to live in Montana – the “keep your laws out of my bedroom and gun closet” state – for this very reason. I have to admit that getting to wear jeans to dinner parties and roaming through wide-open spaces unhindered is really fantastic. Yet, a common question in our region is we will destroy exactly what has drawn humans like me here for hundreds of years?
Am I a weed in Montana? Since no one wants to be classified as a noxious species, you’ll notice that folks here like to be regarded as “Native Montanans,” “a third generation Montanan” or being of Native American descent. Who belongs to this ecosystem, and who doesn’t, creates a constant source of debate here. Walking into the surrounding wilderness though, humans as a whole can feel like very weed-like.
Yet, adding Burgess’ assessment of weeds into this equation, I must pause. He says, “When I photograph these weeds—and in the process of photographing them, you create an abstraction, it gives one a little distance—one of the things I’ve noticed is that some of them are very beautiful. It makes you think. If something that is so common and lowly is beautiful, the idea of what is beautiful gets to be a little confusing.”
The introduction of an invasive species is hardly new. Seeing MacDonald’s golden arches and pervasive graffiti in every foreign city I have visited in the past five years reminds me that “weeds” takes all sorts of forms. A weed’s success can be terrifying, as evidenced in the timely introduction of anti-Semitic rhetoric in the last century. It can also be delicious as we choose from a dozen gourmet chocolate bars at the average American grocery store.
Yet, each new introduction calls us to keep reassessing what we deem as beautiful, and what is inherently good or right. In their fortitude and relentlessness, “weeds” assure that these become questions we can’t ignore. In that exercise alone, a weed brings value by asking us to be conscious of what is worth fighting for and how we can best evolve.
Regardless of the ecosystem in which we each stand, how can we continue to pay attention to what we’d rather ignore? As I contemplate this question, I am finding the snow in my backyard quite beautiful for the time being.