The Weedy Kingdom Come

An Essay by Jack Slocomb

Summertime. And the liviní is nice and easy.

And, in case you havenít noticed already, itís also gagging all over the place with weeds again.

Yes, the wretched things are now poking their cantankerous way up though every crack and cranny in the pavement, cramming every uncultivated, unwooded, abandoned bald in the temperate Northern Hemisphere it seems. A prickly, poisonous, twining, wiry, insect-snake-and-vermin ridden snarl. Grotesque lepers, little nectar drenched whores, invaders from Godless places, unrestrained demoniacs, all of them, in the blanched, broiling, buzzing heat of the afternoon.

Our hate for these wastrel chronic despoilers of scenery does often seem to warrant such Biblical monikers. And especially, in this region, for the most Unholy Four Ė Garlic Mustard, Multiflora Rose, Japanese Honeysuckle, and Alanthus.

But Iím a little odd, I guess. The sight of weeds usually does something different for me. My pulse quickens. I get stirred up. And sometimes, these irreverent blotches interrupting the calculated geometry of streets and pavement seem to draw me into a kind of comforting Zen of nowhere places Ė in-between marls, hummocks of purposelessness in a too hardened world.

As one might expect, I didnít always sport this attitude about weeds. For a good part of my life, like most other folks, I tried to ignore their obnoxious presence. Sort of like avoiding eye contact with the homeless. But I reacted to weeds like this not because I believed that manicured lawns and golf courses are the best scenery the planet had to offer. No, my dislike for this noisome stubble was based upon what I believed was a much more purist and morally superior view than that of bland suburban aesthetics. It was because I liked to have my great outdoors served up in man sized portions of untrammeled forest, raging rapids and exploding waterfalls. Anything less than this would not pass muster. And I guess weeds were just about the lowest form of beings imaginable in my cosmology of robust American scenery.

I donít think, however, that I am by any means alone in looking at things this way. I have a notion that for most Americans, at least on some level, dramatic landscapes function as the signature of our vision of ourselves as the Alpha culture on the planet. Sweeping vistas of cloud shrouded mountains, cascading rivers, and tall timber have become ingrained into our consciousness as symbols of the unlimited human possibility and manifest destiny associated with the American experiment. This obsession perhaps reached its expressive apogee in the paintings of 18th and 19th century mythscape artists like Durand, Moran, Bingham, Cole, and Frederick Church. You cannot walk away from viewing one of these works Ė many of them on a gigantic scale Ė without feeling that our republic is literally the embodiment of new heaven and earth.

And so I didnít exactly pick up my revulsion of weeds independently. There is a big historical precedent for this posture. Weeds donít much fit into the dream.

But there came a time recently when I revisited the whole ethos that surrounds weeds. And now I can say with some conviction that I believe weeds have really gotten a bum rap. Iíve taken a real fancy to the little bastards. Tender feelings even.

Hmmmm -- I guess Iíd better watch it here. Better play the pipe very lowly on this one. For I realize that such a stance could be construed as real agricultural and silvacultural heresy - if not just downright unpatriotic. And, to make matters worse, I should know better from experience. What with being a novice grower of cooking herbs and having to contend with, among other irritations (drought, insects, and slugs Ė to name a few), the Mongol Horde of herbaceous debauchers which seem to have nothing better to do than to wage guerrilla war on my precious cultivars, seizing every unguarded moment, every Achilles heel, any sign of weakness, to gain the advantage.

But, nevertheless, my intimacy with this outcast herbivory continues to grow. I canít seem to help it. Itís a schizy posture, I know. And at first, I did have a real uneasiness about this fascination. In fact, I think I felt a little akin to the Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale, the disquieted village minister in The Scarlet Letter, slithering out of the civilized enclosure into the festering wild outside the walls to enjoy the roguish pleasures of Hester Prynne, the adulteress. And also, like Dimmesdale, once I got a taste for it, I became bolder and bolder and less inhibited, and kept on taking my sin again and again. Submitting by slow, inexorable degrees to the forbidden charm, the sweet unsavored juices which started to drip into my veins and run rampant whenever I would catch sight of a clump of those seductive weeds punching their way up through the joints in the concrete or spreading wildfire-like in some desiccated landscape. Sends chills up and down my spine just to think about it. And now Iím simply perverted beyond hope.

Now this awakening (which is the Bhuddist spin I like to lay on it) came about as the result of forced circumstances (as most awakenings do) Ė and not through any kind of intellectual reconsideration of my first mindset about weeds. It was a matter of a change in perspective, the "task of seeing", as the shamans say, having been reduced in scope because the larger sweep was temporarily not accessible. Let me explain:

About two years ago, I was ambushed out of the blue by a nasty syndrome called Paroxysmal Postural Vertigo - as a result, I was told, of footloose calcium carbonate particles Ė "otolilths" - floating around willy-nilly in one of my semicircular canals. Although not a very serious condition, a prognosis about how long it would take for the symptoms to be resolved could not be made, although I was told that things should gradually better "over time". Anyway, the lingering effects of this malady were disappointingly slow to let go. And, worst of all, my long trecks in the highlands came to a immediate halt, because hiking for too long a time made me uncomfortably dizzy the whole rest if the time I was out there.

A godawful emotional crisis ensued. I mean for a person like myself, whose life has become pretty much woven into the warp and woof of wilderness, this was really a kind of death sentence. Or so I thought.

But, life went on. And gradually I evolved a new frame of mind. The take on things I finally came up with was to just keep walking no matter what. And so I began to routinely walk a six mile route around my hilly Cumberland neighborhood, shouldering a half loaded backpack. I found I could do this without becoming too dizzy. The specialist I had been seeing told me that it certainly wouldnít do me any harm, and in fact, might even help. And besides, I could at least keep myself in shape in the event that the symptoms actually did clear up.

But it wasnít long before another problem emerged. I drifted helplessly into fantasy when I was walking. It was all the places in the highlands where, if it werenít for this #%!!* dizzy feeling, I could be now. I even longed for those cursed times of freezing rain and blasting snow and having no idea where in hell I was going and if I was ever going to get back to my car.

I began to wonder if maybe this walking idea of mine was such a good one after all. Maybe I was even worse off - because it was so scaled down. It was really more the motion of a thing, a listless mimicry, like the reflex twitching of an animal who has just died, the neural algorithms of its wild country habits still pathetically firing away. Something like that.

It was in one of these bereft states that my revisionist history of weeds took root.

I was sweating it out at a pretty good clip one day by an open stretch about halfway through my route. A place that I ordinarily had given no more than a passing glance. But this time, for some reason, my attention got riveted by a thickly entangled, bloated, chaotic splay of greenbrier, chokeberry, black raspberry, black cherry, poison ivy, multiflora rose, black locust seedlings, cowthistle, dangling tendrils of honeysuckle, milkweed, wild grape leaves, and God knows what else, all bursting there in the hot beating three oíclock sun. A melting pot of indigenous plants and rampaging exotics. A tsunami of unbridled, luxuriant growth surging against the sidewalk, despite the worst drought in these parts in 100 years, and also despite rather clear evidence of recent efforts by Street Maintenance (or maybe the summer Job Corps kids) to hack away at the edges licking at my feet.

It was actually a kind of, what should I say, glory, that I saw there. My flesh was in goose bumps, impulsive, on the ready, responding to a parcel of the most reviled nature. The weeds were working a spell on me, working their way in. Revealing themselves to me, it seems, in all their diversity, subtle associations, and throbbing, dissident fury.

I was standing in the presence of an unrestrained vigor which insects could not chew to the ground, spare nutrient availability could not restrict, drought could not kill off. And so significant for me, I suddenly had a realization, was that this weed jammed sliver of unused landscape was an early successional phase, the rambunctious, awkward and long childhood, of the kind of Appalachian mesic forest I had been hankering to return to with my backpack.

It passed through me like a bullet, and then I went back to my walk.

But this little Epiphany must have left its mark. Because, after this, on these home - based walkabouts, I started to pay much closer attention to the weeds everywhere along my route Ė trying to sort out the different assemblages of species types, trying to connect these variations to the kinds of insects scurrying over the leaves and stems or hovering and fluttering near the flowers, and to the types of birds I could see bouncing around insouciantly in the knotted density of the thickets. The whole idea of wilderness now seemed to me to be more of a relative notion. For these creatures, this was the middle of it, the full blown climax growth. It was all there was or ever would be.

My mind continued to ramble on, as peripatetic as the weeds. I segued back to my cooking herb plot and then, in one enormous leap, to the whole 10,000 year old experiment in agriculture.

How it, and not weeds, is expeditiously doing in the only hospitable habitat that we know. And how, ironically, this is all happening by means of the very keys to agricultureís own success Ė hybridization, cultivation, irrigation, chemical fertilization, crop specialization, mechanization, and, now, bioengineering. A great lurking 21st century question then got called up from a back burner somewhere in my mind: is there enough of imagination and practical wisdom around to pull off something different when it comes to our agrarian heritage? Something that fits in with, or even perhaps takes advantage of, the obviously successful evolutionary model of those very pesky weeds desecrating our lawns?

As it turned out, I realized soon after that I already knew part of the answer to this question. There were a lot of shards of very pertinent information floating around in my brain (like the otoliths in my semicircular canals) - gathered from reading, TV, workshops, and a lot of other places - that just hadnít settled in anywhere in particular yet. Like odd collector pieces kept randomly strewn in an attic because they might come in handy someday. Now, I had a context.

One of these fragments that I very quickly retrieved was that ethnobotanists, herbalists, and traditional healer types have been niggling at us for years now that run-of-the-mill backyard weeds contain an incredibly rich arsenal of benefits. And even some of the invasives are time honored medicinals. A prime example is the dreaded Kudzu, which is strangling southern forests. Yes, you heard right, Kudzu. In Japan (from where it was originally imported as an ornamental) it is used to treat a variety of ailments. It also fertilizes the soil, and has a whole variety of other beneficial uses, as well. And is this stuff really doing any more harm to those forests than the timber companies that clear away Kudzu and then create ecological catastrophe, anyway, with their get-rich-quick harvesting methods?

Maybe they should harvest the Kudzu and leave the forests alone for a while. Kudzu is a lot easier to grow. It doesnít require much TLC. Just plant it. No, come to think of it, you donít even have to plant it. Just sit there and drink mint juleps until youíre ready to cut it and cash in.

Just a thought. Stupid maybe. But a thought.

I also recalled that, in another bioregion, Wes Jackson at the Land Institute in Salinas, Kansas, has been experimenting for many years now with concocting varieties of prairie grass which produces harvestable, edible grain. Being more akin to the nutrient efficient, insect and disease resistant, water-retaining, perennial polyculture of their Great Plains relatives, these plants would never need to be plowed, fertilized, pesticided, insecticided, or watered. A kind of have-your-cake- andĖeat-it-too approach to agronomy.

And then there is the case of Hemp Ė sometimes called "ditch weed". And weed it is, with all the tough, rugged characteristics that are associated with the critters. And for thousands of years has been used to make everything from paper to sailcloth. Unfortunately, Hemp cannot be legally grown in the United States because it happens to be a close relative of Marijuana, and its leaves contain THC Ė the psychoactive ingredient that is responsible for the nice little buzz which users crave. Yet there is hardly enough THC in Hemp to make a nematode high, much less a human being. (In fact, Hemp actually contains a preponderance of Cannabinol which effectively neutralizes the effect of THC.) If citizen groups are successful in their initiative now to have Hemp removed from the FDA schedule of controlled substances, then we will have a weed par excellence Ė acre for acre capable of producing twice as much fiber as trees!

Well, none of this ruminating may be worth much in the way of comfort to gardeners, farmers, and loggers, Iím sure. But, nevertheless, I think the story told by weeds can convey a form of hope for a more balanced future, not only because of their many practical uses, but also, as I have come to believe, because they remind us, if only fleetingly and from the furthest corner of our eye, of the integrity and viability of the ecological architecture of the not too distant past. Seen this way, maybe the "wild" might be viewed more expansively, less bounded and fragmented, more available to us than we were aware. The built landscape is really no more than a palimpsest, anyway - masking the underlying text of the original, the first manuscript. And maybe weeds are the dimly visible tracings, whorls and lines, of a stubborn and not easily gotten rid of mother tongue straining to reveal itself. A metaphor for the kind of life waiting within us to be rediscovered and reinvested at the dawn of this new millennium.

For undeniably here is a story of boundless diversity, mutualism, and permanency. The presence, perhaps, of a creative, redemptive intelligence, and not just an absence of civility. The ecos that we long to inhabit and articulate with again.

And, if nothing else, a story of just pure exuberant being.

So let the weedy kingdom come! Coltís Foot, Ox Eye Daisy, Joe Pye Weed, Chickory, Mullein, Golden Rod, Queen Anneís Lace, and all those spiking racemed things growing straight up out of the baking shale. Let them come and give in to them. Let their earthy zest for living colonize our minds. For in the end (who knows?), these exiled may yet save us from ourselves.

Or, at least, soften up our edges a bit.