Friday, March 22, 2013

The Purpose of Weeds

Photo Credit: Morguefile by Heirbornstud

Last fall, I double dug a garden bed, shaped like a triangle, and seeded it with native flowers. Perennials for pollinators—their seeds spread too thickly, in hopes of some good luck. I want a new flower bed, one riotous with buzzing bees, dancing with butterflies—a flower bed of hyssops and prairie zinnias and the magenta of hummingbird mint, crowned by the nodding heads of purple coneflowers with their yellow coronas dipping reverently to earth. Something multi-colored up against the small expanse of blue grama grass and yellow-flowered yarrow that is my front yard. In fall, the seeds set and were fortified by chills in winter, settled under snow, and thought.

In spring, I am starting to see dandelions. Purslane. Pigweed. Clover. And a leaf or two of what I think might be zinnia.

These infernal weeds! What are they doing, encroaching on my tasty soil? Wetting down the area, I sit thoughtfully, pulling—grabbing up as much root as I can. Always weeds; like the unbeckoned thought across an empty mind, the shopping list that arises in the moment of a kiss, the ad for Viagra during family movie time. Weeds with roots that won't let go, that break off leaving bits of themselves sunk in mire. Weeds that tease me "Nanny-nanny boo boo," and pop up again once I've looked away; like the never-ending pile of papers accumulating by my keyboard, ever begging to be filed; like the disappointments I put away each night that wake up with me the next morning, fresh as if I've never told them to be gone. Weeds like the flaws in my very nature that spoil the pretty show I hope to make. I do the therapeutic work of yanking at them, then covered in dirt, I come in to teach my child about ecology.

This subject is my favorite; the science of sacred wheels. Nutrient cycles. Carbon/oxygen cycles. Food chains. Food webs. Life cycles. The world breathlessly passes energy from one hand to the next—from seed to mouse, from mouse to snake, from snake to hawk. The hawk's body decomposes on the earth, consumed by tiny organisms, made food by saprophytes, and it becomes a source of nitrogen for the tree that bore the mouse its seed. For me, a biology textbook is no less than the holy word. I speak as if in church: "photosynthesis." Everything has its purpose inside Nature—to maintain or restore balance to the system of which it is a part.

Purpose. These weeds in my holy triangle are there, of course, because I invited them in, by heaving up the turf and turning soil, disrupting vast colonies of microscopic life, turning in compost, and leaving the earth bare in wait for plants that would come later to a home I made for them. In moved the nitrogen fixers, to do the magic of making sugar out of air, the dandelions—bringing up nutrients and moisture with their deep tap roots. The earth, eschewing the vacuum I've created in a small pocket of her world, has gifted it with exactly what it needs to be healthy—the mother's milk of disturbed land. She will turn it, if I leave her, into forest, eventually: fixing nitrogen, stabilizing soil, holding moisture, creating a home for shrub-land then eventually for trees. It will never need to be watered or fussed at or fertilized. It will take care of all of that itself. And feed the pollinators, too. When will I ever learn?

Lying in bed with the thoughts I pull like weeds, I wonder what is their purpose. Are they out of nature, unholy, things to be cast aside—or are they instead the ugly nursemaids of my own nature, bringing up, from the deep, faint echoes of a source of truth I may not want to hear? Resentment, sadness, regret—seen in the correct light, are these not the pioneer plants, only first in succession to the restoration of a disturbed piece of mental land? Pull them out again and again and they come back, still trying to fill the emptiness that is always left behind. What courage and stillness would it take to allow them to spend their time, bringing life back to a damaged corner of my heart? To trust that later would come fuller plants, the shade of trees, the singing of birds—a system that was whole again?

Sometimes, I can feel the rightness of that still waiting in the bones of my mammal frame. And sometimes, that trust is too expensive and with a thrust of my spade, I dig in once more and pull out another weed.


  1. thought provoking words. As always, you have given me deep thoughts to ponder. I think I would like to share a link to this post with my readers this Sunday, if you approve? :)

    1. Sure, you're welcome to—anytime! Glad it gave you something to ponder. :)

  2. Haha... See, you understand, then: Nature doesn't organize herself according to our aesthetic preferences!

    I've always sort of considered myself the human equivalent of a weed...

  3. "faint echoes of a source of truth I may not want to hear..." Been pulling some of those mental weeds myself lately.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. I keep wondering what defines "weeds" as my husband and I disagree over some very pretty plants I see in the yard. What is a weed, anyway? When you compare these plants with thoughts, it seems more obvious there truly are weeds - thought patterns that break me down versus building me up. Yet, are all of them pointless? Do we not learn from everything? I truly don't know, but I am infinitely curious. I don't know if I'm curious enough to research and/or process on my own, but I glean so much from your efforts.

    (I had a spelling error on my 1st attempt. My apologies!)

    1. I can never stand when I misspell anything on the internet either. :)

      I guess, for me, a thought-weed is just a thought I don't want. And I have begun to suspect that they're not all pointless. A lot of mine have a familiar, useless quality, and I feel comfortable ignoring them (maybe pulling them without regret would be the best analogy). I have thought through them before, and they go to the same place (at least I think.) But others keep arising and I keep not wanting to have them. I have started to wonder what need these unwanted thoughts represent.

      If all my needs and thoughts and desires were valid (but just as needs, thoughts and desires, not as prescriptions for what anyone should do, what would I see? Do I keep feeling angry about how I am the only one who puts toilet paper in the bathroom because I get angry too easily, because men and kids are dingbats, or truly because, on some level, I feel alone in my family? Once I see the actual problem the weed is trying to solve, I can nourish its soil. I can ask for participation, I can stop playing the role of the martyr going it alone. Perhaps the weed is there to let me know the soil is starved.

      I guess that it requires starting from a place of assumption that both nature and my psyche, on some level, know what they're doing and that it's my interference, my failure to listen that causes most of the suffering and the work. Right now, I just like this idea a lot.

  6. I love this weed-thought analogy--and probably really needed to hear it. I've been struggling with some particularly pernicious weedy thoughts--yanking them up and hating myself for letting them grow in the first place. Perhaps I need to leave them be and see what happens.

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