Roundup: Thinking about Weeds

Americans have a conflicted relationship with weeds.

There are those who love the plants, scrawny and resilient, fortuitous and opportunistic. Among them was Ralph Waldo Emerson who famously said that weeds are but plants "whose virtues have not yet been discovered." His contemporary, James Russell Lowell, added a twist to this Transcendentalist sentiment, asserting that a weed "is no more than a flower in disguise." I first heard a variant on this Romantic sensibility while picking basil, thyme, and rosemary, and a basket of vegetables, from the Claremont garden of Jane Marquis, the luminous stained-glass artist: weeds, she said, are but flowers in the wrong place.

Then there are the weed whackers, those for whom weeds have no place; who believe that uninvited growth in lawns and gardens is an affront to the well-pruned geometry of a well-ordered landscape. Among the legion of predictable supporters of this perspective are those fertilizer and seed manufacturers, lawn-care services, and toolmakers that promise that their product will lead you to the Promised Land, a green sweep front and back.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson
Less predictable, perhaps, is Big Ag critic Michael Pollan. He is among those showing no mercy to the creeping vine and hardy nettle, and in Second Nature: A Gardener's Education (1992) -- still, for me, his most incisive book -- he debunks those who romanticize the unkempt. His put-down of Thoreau's rejoicing that his Walden bean field also contains an "'abundance of the weeds whose seeds are the granary of the birds," is brutal: "Sure, Henry, rejoice. And starve."

This pitched battle over the cultural import of weeds -- are they stand-ins for democratic wildness or affronts to the pleasant and cultivated? -- becomes particularly relevant when you recognize that weeds are peculiarly adapted to human environment. They grow where we live, Pollan observes, "and hardly anywhere else." If true, then studying weeds as artifacts of civilization would mean that these happenstance plants have a history, or at least that there is a historical record of our dynamic reaction to their presence along our streets and sidewalks, parking lots and playgrounds. Regardless of whether you love their attributes or despise their presence, these diverse reactions have a past and tell a story.

One chapter in this narration emerges in a new book by Zachary Falck, Weeds: An Environmental History of Metropolitan America, a fascinating analysis of the tangled relationship between the explosive urbanization of the United States since the late nineteenth century and the weeds that grew up along this expanding society's transportation grids, housing developments, and recreational spaces.

As rural migrants and foreign immigrant poured into New York City in the post Civil War years, swelling its population from nearly one million in 1870 to almost five million in 1910; as the nation's largest city built out across all five boroughs, weeds followed suit. "Where people were moving, happenstance plants were ready to live with them." Not all New Yorkers were thrilled at that prospect, nor were their peers who inhabited St. Louis or Chicago, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, or Los Angeles, Denver or Atlanta. If grand and flourishing cities served as a marker of America's coming of age, then weed-choked spaces seemed the antithesis of this cultural flowering. To clear away the unwanted would be to narrow the gap between an idealized streetscape and its grubby reality.

Nothing about this aspiration proved easy. No matter how many residents denounced weeds in favor of the manicured; no matter how many public-health officials warned that weeds were the rank source of illness and disease; regardless of the Most Wanted signs that police posted, warning that tall grass and thick weeds offered criminal safe havens; and no matter what anti-immigrant groups said about the invasive species out competing indigenous plants, none of these attacks altered the "dynamic city-building processes" that Falck argues were responsible for the spread of weeds in the first place.

Consider that by 1925 scientists estimated that 40% of Chicago was covered in "weeds and wild grasses," a spread that was tied directly to its ever-sprawling pattern of growth. The same was true in Los Angeles, the building of which was dependent first on the rapid expansion of its vast streetcar network, then the concretization of the Los Angeles River and a related network of flood-control channels and ditches, and later the threaded web of freeways--the construction of this varied infrastructure opened up the whole Southland to migrating flora. Our cities were built of and for weeds.

That made getting rid of them all-the-more complex. Until 1950s, weed-abatement programs depended on low-wage labor to clear away the offensive plant material, a painfully slow and Sisyphean process. Ever since, eradication has gone technological. Although high-powered mowing equipment has kept growth down, the apparent final solution came as chemical companies ramped up the postwar production of phenoxyacetic herbicides such as 2,4-D, whose killer qualities they pitched to credulous cities and suburbs across the country.

After New York unleashed Operation Ragweed--spraying 200 to 300 gallons of the toxic brew on each acre treated--other communities joined the fray. Although they bought into the idea, as Zalck puts it, "that killing ragweed with herbicides would produce new vegetation, cleaner air, and healthier people," that's not what happened. After soaking its landscape with over eight million gallons of 2,4-D, New York City threw in the towel. Worse, and consistent with the contemporaneous blanket spraying of DDT, phenoxyacetic herbicides worked their way up the food chain, compromising air and water quality, and public health.

However controversial these actions proved to be, the resulting debate did not uproot the broader cultural disdain for weeds and the associated social ills that were said to come with them. Mid-twentieth century urban-renewal proponents made the case that bulldozers would 'weed out' slums and their impoverished inhabitants. Thirty years later, the police in cities booming (LA, San Antonio, and Atlanta) and those going bust (Detroit, Cleveland, and Milwaukee), argued that vacant lots and abandoned housing were breeding grounds for drug dealers; clearing out the one got rid of the other. Today, if you drive out to the Inland Empire, roll down the empty streets of its mortgage-busted subdivisions, and note how quickly fortuitous flora has taken hold, you'll not be surprised to learn that local politicos are quite vocal about wanting these eyesores removed.

The links that each generation has drawn between weeds natural and human implies, Falck observes, "that while metropolitan America had changed much over the century, Americans themselves may not have changed as much as they imagined."

This century-long consistency of behavior and belief ought to give us pause. If Falck and Pollan are correct that our developmental energies disseminate the very weeds we then struggle to obliterate; if modern hand tools, high-tech tractors and mulchers, and petrochemical poisons have done little more than keep these prolific growers in check (note: Los Angeles County annually sends out upwards of 26,000 declarations to property owners to clear their parcels), then maybe it's time that we reconsider our actions (and the costs--fiscal and environmental--that they impose).

We may never come to love crabgrass, tumbleweed or buckthorn, mugwort or spotted knapweed, but we need to learn to live with them; to discover their virtues, as Emerson would advise, might be to recover our own.

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, and editor of the just-published "Cities and Nature in the American West." He comments every Wednesday at 2 p.m. on environmental issues.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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