low maintenance landscaping – what’s the least I can do?

Most discussions of low-maintenance or native-plant landscaping come with plenty of caveats. Around structures like homes and offices, many authors contend, we have to do at least a bit of work. For instance, landscapers must remove large trees around foundations, mow at least once per year, remove weeds in pathways, and remove excess plant debris. But how many of these processes are truly necessary, and how many simply satisfy our desire for familiar aesthetics and culture?

Pruning overhanging tree branches is a clear example of necessary landscape maintenance. Large tree branches falling on structures are destructive and potentially deadly. But the long-term effects of leaving a dandelion growing in a sidewalk crack are much less apparent. In many ecosystems, if lawn mowing isn’t done, tree saplings will take hold. This will of course lead to a situation in which large tree branches need to be pruned over structures. But which is lower maintenance, mowing several times per year to prevent tree growth, or pruning large trees once a decade to prevent building damage? This is an important question in low maintenance landscaping. Cheaper interventions like mowing are more accessible to people of different incomes, more socially accepted, and less time consuming on an individual basis. More expensive, time consuming interventions like pruning or burning require greater expertise and risk, but result in a landscape that is more dynamic and productive.

This is not to say that all sustainable landscaping strategies are more expensive however. In a longer term perspective, pruning is less resource intensive than mowing, but there are many low-maintenance landscape strategies that are the cheapest and most ecologically productive option. Many areas that are currently mowed or under some other intensive landscaping scheme are not close enough to buildings for overhanging limbs to pose a threat. These areas require no human intervention to grow, change, and decompose. Despite this, we waste considerable resources on shaping them to our cultural standards. Sometimes this is done because of a misconception that can easily be cleared up. Many people think that tree roots near their homes are a risk to the integrity of the foundation, a fact which Gary Watson of the Morton Arboretum disputes. Watson writes, “Trees are sometimes blamed for subsidence of foundations. While trees can occasionally contribute to foundation subsidence by extracting water from the soil beneath them, very specific ‘conditions’ are required (These conditions are not often encountered in the Midwest.)”1

A concern over rodents and other pests is another often cited reason for undertaking destructive landscaping projects. Regardless of the expense or inconvenience of having a chipmunk climb into your dryer vent (something that happened to me), does it justify widespread habitat destruction that wipes out animal populations on a large scale? Instead of addressing problems as they arise, for instance with mouse traps or occasional insecticide, why have Americans as a culture decided to practice habitat destruction that not only reduces pests in our homes, but plants, animals, and insects around our homes?

The answers to these questions are wide ranging and complex, but I believe they spring up from two important sources. The first is capitalism – a system which drives toward the ownership of capital as a means to create profit. The free processes of growth, herbivory, and decay have been replaced with expensive processes dependent on capital investment in equipment and land. The second reason is a set of cultural values which prizes both purity and physical effort. Lawns are expensive in both money and physical effort, and embody the ideal of purity in their lack of species diversity and biomass. Both of these sources are clearly apparent in the marketing surrounding mole extermination. Web searches for mole damage return sites with ties to extermination companies with descriptions of the aesthetic problems with mole hills in lawns. Many websites talk about some connection to home foundation damage without providing evidence. This marketing strategy relies on creating a problem with a solution that costs money, and appealing to aesthetic considerations of impurity (often with talk of “invasion”).

If our landscaping standards are based on the aesthetics of purity instead of practical necessity, how can we assess which practices are beneficial and which are unnecessary and even harmful? Practicing close observation of the landscape is important. Instead of following traditional practices unquestioningly, observe what happens when plants and animals around your home are allowed to express their natural patterns. If a vine is growing on the side of a building, does it appear to be pulling away pieces of brick or siding? According to the University of Illinois extension, “Generally, vines have not shown to cause damage to good, sound masonry, brick or stone.”2 Are shrubs blocking access to a utility meter? If there are specific issues, can these problems be solved by directed interventions instead of widespread ecological disruption?

What is the least we can do to maintain our safety and the structural soundness of buildings? The answer is that the least we can do is to observe the landscape around us and think critically about the interventions we want to make. Many, if not most, of the landscaping practices popular in the 21st century United States are not necessary for the safety of people or buildings. Not relying on expensive equipment and chemicals saves money and time, and divests from a destructive capitalist system. Abundant landscapes full of self-sown plants and a high amount of biodiversity and biomass will become ever more crucial as climate change worsens. So perhaps in the long run, safety will actually be found in abundant landscapes rather than more controlled ones.

  1. http://www.mortonarb.org/trees-plants/tree-and-plant-advice/horticulture-care/tree-roots-and-foundation-damage
  2. http://extension.illinois.edu/vines/buildings.cfm
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inside/outside: what is “nature?”

One of the main reasons I wanted a new word to describe my landscaping concepts is the ambiguous nature of our word choices when talking about topics like sustainability, ecological awareness, or doing things the “natural” or “wild” way. I ultimately settled on eardiende because it has connotations of home, community, and Earth.

So many of our word choices fall apart under scrutiny when we try to talk about living in ways which do not cause unbalanced destruction of the Earth. First of all, the word “natural.” If natural means from nature, then everything on Earth is natural. The alternative, I suppose, would be supernatural. To think that human beings and our creations are outside the Earth, outside of nature, is to make an assumption that only furthers the thinking which results in so much destruction. The word “wild” falls apart in a similar way. To maintain the dichotomy of wild/domesticated we must see ourselves as essentially apart from nature, from the Earth, from the processes of the physical world. While these words work well when we are describing the difference between a chicken and an eagle, they do not last long when we undertake deeper analysis of the interactions between human beings and our surroundings.

Many words beginning with the prefix “eco-” come closer to describing what I want to talk about with eardiende. Ecology is a field of study that concerns itself with connections, biodiversity, the abundance of life, and functions like air circulation, water purification, and decomposition. All these things are essential to an understanding of the landscape as a living system. But the practice of greenwashing has so pervasively overused the eco label that it starts to lose its meaning. Additionally, scientific study does not always capture the essence of the home landscape. When we garden at home, we are often more focused on aesthetics, feelings, nourishment, and social norms. As an adjective, the word “ecological” begins to lose descriptive power. If ecology is the neutral, value-judgement free study of interconnected biological systems, how can “ecological” represent a way of living which promotes specific practices and products?

Sustainable comes closer to the mark of describing and valuing practices which are not irrevocably destructive to the Earth. An easy concept to understand, sustainability reminds us that are lives are intertwined with our landscapes. There is a visceral reaction to concepts like running out of oil, or polluting water so that it is no longer drinkable. But there are some destructive practices which are sustainable. Gardening with exotic plant species, for example. We humans may not notice or perceive any ill effects from the attendant loss in biodiversity. In fact, the lack of insect herbivory on exotic plant species is often perceived as a positive. There may be moral and ethical considerations, a crucial component of eardien thinking, which are not linked to the ability of humans to sustain or survive certain practices.

Organic is a common term used when describing food-growing practices which attend to environmental health. But when describing the totality of our gardening practices, shouldn’t we also attend to inorganic factors? Additionally many synthetic chemicals that can be harmful to the world around us are organic. That is, they are organic chemical compounds containing carbon. Merely describing the carbon content of certain factors does not seem powerfully explanatory of the gardening practices humans should use to foster landscapes rich in functional living relationships.

If gardening practices which do not cause undue destruction to plants, animals, bacteria, abiotic factors like riverbeds or rock formations, or aesthetics can’t be adequately described as natural, wild, ecological, sustainable, organic, how can they be described? When thinking about all the intertwined biotic and abiotic processes in the world around and inside us, even descriptions like indoors/outdoors begin to lose their meaning. Our own bodies are full of abundant non-human life and abiotic factors. Our homes, no matter how clean or urban, are teeming with insects, spiders, bacteria, yeasts, fungi, and algae. Many people grow plants indoors which come with their attendant bacteria, insects, and all the beings that dwell in soil. Pets are their own microcosm. All this abundant life is constantly interacting, breeding, decomposing, and changing.

There is nowhere we can go to escape nature, wilderness, ecology, or organic life. There is nowhere so human, so domesticated, so suburban, that it does not participate in the global churning cacophony of life. That is why words that try to section off a piece of this larger functioning and call it pure or special are doomed to fail. Everything is connected and nothing is pure or untouched. Nature is everywhere, especially inside of us. This is why I developed the concept of eardiende to specifically describe ways humans can interact with the world around us in healthy, ethical ways that thoughtfully promote beauty, biodiversity, and ecosystem services as an inherent good.

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photo by the author of Tricyrtis hirta taken 8/16/18

Piet Oudolf and ‘naturalistic’ gardens: some criticism

Piet Oudolf is a famous gardener and landscaper who is a founder and figurehead of the New Perennials Movement. This movement emphasizes using perennial plants for their year-round interest, and appreciating certain plant characteristics beyond colorful flowers. Their “naturalistic” plantings emphasized large grasses like Calamagrostis and prairie wildflowers like Echinacea. These garden designs are often referred to as “meadows,” and are frequently thought to fall under the umbrella of sustainable landscaping. While it is true that these plantings are sustainable in the sense that they can be maintained for a period of time with few external inputs, I do not believe they are ultimately a healthy way of interacting with the landscape.

It’s tempting to say that the New Perennial movement was a natural precursor to eardiende and marked some sort of progress towards an ecologically sane ideal from the destructive traditions of Western gardening. But the New Perennial moment simply aims to replace an exotic lineup of annual landscape plants with a new set of perennials. They have simply swapped one static cast of characters – petunia, geranium, vinca – for another – Echinacea, Calamagrostis, Monarda. Traditionally, European plants were exported to North American settler gardens. The reverse flow of plant material was seen as radical, but really it was just a continuation of the same processes.

Piet Oudolf’s gardens are installed and maintained by humans, using nursery stock that has been grown to order. Butterflies might be an acceptable addition to a place like Oudolf’s High Line garden in New York, but these spaces are artificially created for the aesthetic enjoyment of humans. They aren’t created by or for creatures like beavers, wolves, and vultures. They aren’t created in an attempt to rectify extreme human interventions in the landscape. Although Echiacea, a popular NPM plant, is used in its native range, it is also used in Oudolf’s home gardens in the Netherlands. The purpose of NPM gardens is always human aesthetic pleasure, not creating a functional, lively, dynamic ecosystem, or even re-creating a native ecosystem. The plant selection for New Perennial Movement gardens seems to have more to do with European romanticizing of “New World” prairie ecosystems than any respect for the functional reality or emplacement of those ecosystems.

Eardiende, on the other hand, is a philosophy which resists the idea of gardens as something humans must create from scratch. Eardiende in practice means allowing plants to self-sow, allowing spaces to support animal and plant life that is not necessarily beautiful or beneficial to humans. Piet Oudolf’s gardens all seem to represent a meadow or prairie ecosystem. In reality, not all landscapes should be meadows or prairies. Some landscapes should be swamps, thickets, or scrubland. Some of the inhabitants of a landscape might be skunks, possums, alligators, or bats. This requires the humans inhabiting a space to accept that not all space can or should be made to conform to human aesthetic desires. Furthermore, human aesthetic desires don’t have to be limited to a stand of purple echinacea with a few butterflies floating about. We can find beauty in many different landscapes if we allow ourselves to look – but even if we can’t, it is not our place to beautify the earth.

North American ecosystems have been in place for longer than humans have inhabited them – the act of acknowledging them may be revolutionary to American culture, but they do not represent a new type of landscaping. Eardiende is not a new gardening trend or novel philosophy insofar as it advocates for native landscapes that exist without human intervention and have existed for millennia before humans. In other words, eardiende is just a restatement of existing landscape realities, just as the New Perennial movement is a re-skinning of traditional Western gardening. The similarities between these two spheres of thinking is actually a superficial one, like the difference between “natural” and “naturalistic.” As Oudolf himself said, ““It may look wild, but it shouldn’t be wild. This is what you’d like to see in nature.*”

Naturalistic plantings do not question the underlying assumption of the traditional gardening industry that plants should be purchased. Even though certain varieties in a meadow garden may be native, seed collection is rarely encouraged over visiting a nursery to purchase expensive container-grown plants. While there isn’t anything inherently wrong with nursery-grown plants, the enormous expense associated with creating this type of garden at home prices it out of reach for many people. This enormous cost means that naturalistic plantings are often seen as a resources and time intensive status symbol. The absurdity of this practice is staggering. Natural or native landscapes should be able to take care of themselves, seeding and decomposing with the seasons. Our modern American relationship with herbivory in our home gardens is a vast and complex topic for another post, but suffice to say that our forced dislocation with natural processes is extremely expensive.

Another unnecessary aspect of American lawn and garden culture are the bylaws of homeowners associations and nuisance ordinances that police the plants growing on private property. Often naturalistic or New Perennial Movement gardens will be designed explicitly to cater to the boundaries laid out by these arbitrary restrictions. Eardiende, on the other hand, is focused on questioning the assumptions behind the nuisance ordinances themselves. We can clearly see the difference between reformist naturalistic plantings and revolutionary native plantings. Creating gardens across the world with the same limited list of “meadow” plants that satisfy arbitrary rules and aesthetics is not the way we will heal our relationship with the world. Listening to the plants and animals that already live in a space, and moving to a more respectful mode of cooperation with them, is how we can create ecosystems that are truly functional for all of the creatures that inhabit them.

*https://www.architecturalrecord.com/articles/13489-review-of-five-seasons-the-gardens-of-piet-oudolf

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landscape imperialism to landscape reconciliation

“Nothing was so characteristic of power politics in the imperialist era than this shift from localized, limited and therefore predictable goals of national interest to the limitless pursuit of power after power that could roam and lay waste the whole globe with no certain nationally and territorially prescribed purpose and hence with no predictable direction” (Hannah Arendt Origins of Totalitarianism; Preface to Part Two: Imperialism).

The arbitrary, casual destruction wrought by turfgrass landscapes brings to mind this quote from Arendt about imperialism. Turfgrass lawns represent a colonization of aesthetics, a change in land use norms that is both highly profitable and extremely destructive. Natural processes and products that would reduce dependence on the consumer economy and its enforcers, the militarized police, are conveniently destroyed in favor of expensive, input dependent processes. For instance, collecting wild foods can be socially ridiculed, and practically eliminated, by the requirement for each home to have a lawn.

We can see the abandonment of self-interest taking place for the home or business owner. Like the fascist Arendt describes as loyal to the party even as the party turns its deadly machinery towards him, the modern homeowner continues to wreak the ecological destruction that is slowly killing her. Surely self-interest would surface in contemplating the waste of time and money that lawn maintenance represents. Surely self-interest would cause her to connect the dirty two-cycle lawn mower engine and reduction in air-cleaning plants to her child’s asthma. But the imperialist victory lies in the slow accretion of social norms that prevent many people from critically questioning the institution of the turfgrass lawn at all. I am reminded of the farmer’s market customer inquiring about purchasing dandelion greens from a vendor. She was willing to pay for a commodity she not only could harvest for free, but probably spends money trying to destroy in her own lawn.

I take some issue with Arendt’s characterization of Imperialist destruction as capricious and arbitrary, because there are clear and decisive profit and power motives to much of the destruction and extraction the imperialist era has wrought. But on a human level, the process of wholesale landscape destruction, like the destruction of indigenous communities by imperialist forces, feels incomprehensible. On a human level, we feel the deep dissatisfaction that comes from misunderstanding our own self-interest when we seek pleasure and fulfillment from insatiable consumption and casual destruction. Imagine any of the (numerous and clichéd) films or novels describing modern suburban disaffection taking place in a dense forest teeming with birds, insects, mushrooms, and vines. The tone of ennui in a film like American Beauty would barely make sense divorced from the bare, lifeless aesthetic background of the suburb.

All of this is not to say that individuals can change capitalist, imperialist systems by recycling their lawn mower. We cannot. But it is important to recognize the ways we individually participate in consumer capitalism and imperialist destruction. And like broader political action, the fight for eardiende can be taken to a larger scale than the home garden. Apartment buildings, public parks, highway medians, and other public lands are all sites where habitat restoration and land reconciliation can take place.

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goldenrod and crown vetch growing in a drainage ditch.

aesthetics and the capitalocene

It’s important to analyze how modern landscaping arrived at this point. In their book ‘The Shock of the Anthropocene,” Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz argue that the modern epoch was not an organic, natural, inevitable outgrowth of innate human behaviors, but the result of a series of choices and pattern of violence by people in power. Modern landscaping methods can be analyzed in this same way. From the purposefully racist and heteronormative society imagined by William Levitt for the suburban development Levittown to the community-busting project of the Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System, people in power have made choices that directly affect how we view landscapes. These choices have been based in a desire to consolidate power, break up class, sex, and race solidarity, and create a profitable consumer capitalist society.

I have heard it argued that the popularity of lawns can be attributed to humanity’s early days on the savannas of Africa, where long lines of sight were important to evade predators or find prey. Personally, I find this argument to be based in a particularly terrible strain of junk science, that can make any argument for evolutionary fitness based on little more than a vaguely reasonable sounding hypothesis. Almost any claim can fit this evolutionary mad-libs template. Sexism can be defended on the grounds that human males have evolved to have an average higher body muscle mass, therefore making them natural protectors and dominators of weak, energetically inefficient females. Since our ancestors (or so the popular belief goes) hunted for game often, we can argue that the healthiest diet is one high in bacon and steak. Neither of these arguments holds up to peer-reviewed research standards, but a convincing anecdote is too often substituted for actual research when making these tenuous evolutionary claims. So it is with the long-sight-lines lawn theory. It disregards any natural selection that could have taken place outside of the African savanna, and it disregards the concept of aesthetics as an enormous, varied, and nebulous subject matter that may not have any direct evolutionary relationship to the hunting patterns of early humans.

Many advocates for sustainable landscaping pay apologetic lip service to the beauty of turfgrass lawns. They say, “lawns might be lovely and serene, but we should change for ecological reasons.” We should change for ecological reasons, but lawns are a terrible aesthetic. The source of our feeling that lawns are an unequivocal, timeless good is marketing. Capitalist interests in replacing free processes with monetized processes are the reason we spray weeds or pay for landscapers to remove them. These explicit, human driven interests are not accidental or inevitable, they are the result of individual decisions. And they have led to the anthropocene, the epoch of humanity. The anthropocene is defined by vast destruction, extraction, and environmental degradation. None of these things, Bonneuil and Fressoz argue, had to happen. They were the result of greed and violence. One of the first things we can do to to disrupt the capitalist anthropocene is to decline to substitute monetized services (herbicide, hiring landscapers, mowing lawns) for free services (natural succession, herbivory) in our home landscapes. Changing those spheres we can control is a first step to a better world.

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Photo of milkweed growing in a juniper planting. Which is ugly, which is beautiful? Which is functional, which is wasteful? Which belongs, which is unwelcome?

what is a weed?

Most people are familiar with the concept of a weed. Like pornography, perhaps you will just know it when you see it. But is there a real definition for the term “weed?” Where does it come from, and what does it allow us to express? I believe “weeds” have less to do with plants, and more to do with human cultural expectations. I first started thinking seriously about weeds in the Michigan State University Beal Botanical Garden, where a dandelion plant was labeled, “would probably be considered ornamental if not so common.” This statement is obviously true; dandelion blossoms are fluffy, brightly colored, and attract bees and butterflies. The greens are also edible and nutritious. Dandelion plants are, of course, quite easy to cultivate. They could aptly be compared to chrysanthemums or asters. But instead of spending time and money acquiring these plants, most people spend time and money destroying them. Why?

The first definition for a weed that might come to mind is a group of plants. There are certain plants, like dandelions, that are weeds. They must have acquired this designation because of some inherent trait, like uselessness or a tendency to show up in food plantings. But this definition doesn’t hold up to scrutiny for very long. Burdock is commonly considered a weed, but has important medicinal qualities. Corn, certainly not a useless or unwanted plant, is often considered a weed where it “volunteers,” that is shows up in soybean or wheat fields because of fallen seeds. Ecology considers many weeds to be important first responders to disturbed sites, holding soil and preparing a seed bed for larger plants where fires or floods have destroyed the existing plant communities. Ideas about what a weed is also change greatly across time and space. Clover was not seen as a weed before the recent invention of suburban turfgrass lawns, and is not seen as a weed in more diversely planted hay fields. So the definition of a weed as a static collection of useless plants that get in the way of human goals is not a good one.

A common definition for “weed” from my days as a student of horticulture was “a plant out of place.” In other words, a weed is any plant that grows where any human doesn’t want it. This definition is very flexible and relative. If a neighbor’s tree overhangs my yard, that tree could be considered a weed by me and a valuable ornamental by my neighbor. The volunteer corn is a weed in the soybean field, but not in the corn field. Clover only becomes a weed on a baseball field, not a hay field. This definition is useful if we are trying to create a dictionary entry that will stand up to scrutiny. It’s not quite as useful if we are trying to understand the human-plant-environment relationship. What if a gardener pulls out a poppy seedling, not understanding that it will become a flower they desire? Is that seedling a weed or not? In my dispute with my neighbor about the overhanging tree branches, do we consider the tree’s perspective? By giving us the green light to consider clover a weed in our turfgrass lawns, does this definition just further the destructive landscape aesthetic that is poisoning lakes and exterminating wildlife? Considering a weed to be “a plant out of place,” we accept the premise that the proper place for all living things is where humanity dictates they belong. Such an anthropocentric conception of the world is naive, destructive, and ultimately futile.

Perhaps it would be best to think about weeding and weeds in terms of our priorities. It is important to me to produce a crop of tomatoes for nourishment and enjoyment. Therefore I have to balance my needs, the needs of the tomato plant, and the conditions of the environment. If there is crabgrass growing under my tomato plant using the water resources the tomato needs, I might pull the crabgrass out of the soil. If there are Callery pear seedlings growing around my tomato plant and blocking the sunlight it needs, I will pull the pear seedlings too. But sometimes the proper response isn’t to destroy any competitors to my tomato. If a large tree is shading my tomato plant, a better response would be to move the tomato than to treat the tree as a weed and destroy it. Likewise, if insects are feeding on the tomato plant, I might tolerate some leaf damage instead of spraying a pesticide I know will pose a danger to my health. Growing the tomato plant is a complex negotiation between me, the tomato, plant competitors, insect herbivores, and many other environmental factors. None of these parties are “weeds” in the sense of completely useless and harmful actors. Even the crabgrass is performing an important environmental function by preventing soil erosion. Without fast-growing species to stabilize disturbed soil, there might not be enough soil fertility for me to grow my tomato at all.

Marijuana, a very valuable plant, is often called weed because of its beneficial characteristics of rapid growth and tolerance of difficult growing conditions. These qualities have made it a pernicious weed to the forces of drug prohibition. Perhaps, then, “weed” is less significant of a plant’s inherent value than the ability of humans to control it. Fear of losing control, seeing our relationship with nature as less a domestic partnership and more a violent war, is central to the modern American cultural conception of plants and landscaping. We rip and cut, burn and prevent burning, drain, sculpt, and clear lands. A common sight is a new subdivision stripped of all vegetation by thunderously loud and chokingly dirty machinery. After the decadently large homes are built, tiny exotic tree species are purchased and planted, looking like so many toothpicks in a bowl of dust. These are not weeds; they are Callery pears, an exotic species from China with few pests in American landscapes. They are carefully grown by nurseries and sold for hundreds of dollars. They are painstakingly planted, staked, and watered. They have never been free of human intervention, but they have few other relationships in the landscape. Insects do not eat them. Deer are forbidden from coming near enough to eat their meager fruits. These are socially acceptable plants. Little wonder they are considered by ecologists and environmentalists to be “invasive weeds.”

When balance and management are replaced by eradication and control, it can be very profitable for those in power. Convincing people that their neighbors will look down on them if there is clover in their lawn or sumac against their fence allows chemical companies to sell herbicides. It allows landscaping companies to sell labor for brush removal. It allows equipment manufacturers to sell expensive tools, and fossil fuel extractors to sell their product to power it all. It exchanges the free processes of plant competition, seed dispersal, and herbivory for the capitalized processes of buying and selling labor and extracted inputs. Quality of life, ecosystem services, and biodiversity are not profitable considerations. This is why getting up early on a Sunday morning and powering up a loud, dirty machine to peel the only living thing off a mostly lifeless square of invasive species is considered a socially acceptable activity, while sleeping in and enjoying the sound of the birds and insects living in a chaotic tangle of weeds is not.

We can see, therefore, that the concept of “weed” is one which is more powerfully explanatory of a Western culture of control and economic system of capitalism, than one which describes any particular plant. It is also one which we should resist. We must ask ourselves when encountering something that strikes us as a weed, a nuisance, a pest, an eyesore; “who profits from this mode of thinking?” Does a lawn improve the life of a homeowner, or the petrochemical companies which parasitize and poison them? Does a weed represent a socially humiliating loss of control or a lifeline to freedom from a system which values human life as little as the homeowner once valued a dandelion?

More is More

In Eardian philosophy, the ideals of purity, control, borders, and compartmentalization are all unethical fantasies. The world is and should be impure, weird, uncontrolled, ambient chaotic gradients freely flowing into/between/around each other. Take the colon for example; a permeable bag filled with necessary and nourishing deadly poison that functions more because of foreign bacteria than the human body. Like the biochemical miracle of the phospholipid bilayer, life exists only when it is in communication with the world around it; permeable, changeable. Not every substance a cell takes up will be nourishing or healthy, some will be pathogens or poisons. But the possibility of change, the openness to change, is what makes life possible. It is in this way that we should think of our landscapes. Some changes may be harmful, such as the introduction of invasive species or pathogens, but the wild and chaotic potential for change is the only thing keeping our landscapes alive. Without water moving in and out of the landscape, seeds traveling across time and space, and mutations creating genetic change through time, our landscape would die.

If stasis necessarily result in death for biological systems, why do we spend so much of our time and energy trying to impose that condition on our home landscapes? The ideal lawn is a constant monoculture, a constant color, a constant height, and completely free of insect or mammal herbivores. The ideal lawn is also the same across a wide range of ecosystems, from its European place of origin to the colonized desert of California. In the quest for stasis, we sow massive death and destruction that ranges from the direct effect of cutting down grass and removing weeds, to the lake eutrophication that results from nitrogen fertilizer runoff and the climate changes that result from massively reduced biomass and biodiversity. An aesthetic and spiritual destruction must surely result from forcing our land, and therefore ourselves, to be less than. A lawn is less than a wildland in almost every sense of the word. It contains less life, less activity, less beauty.

Consider an abandoned city lot. First reactions might be to dismiss these types of landscapes as messy, abandoned, or ugly. But when you stop to see the milkweed flowers, bumblebees, golden drooping heads of grass seed, and mouse nests, can you reconsider your first impression? These spaces haven’t been abandoned by the plants and insects. They aren’t a mess in the sense of things out of place – the constant interaction and competition of nature have created a place for everything that fits perfectly into the whole. If we rethink the sense of aesthetics that a controlling society imposes on us, maybe we can stop seeing these landscapes as ugly. Either way, the abandoned lot doesn’t care how you think of it. It will continue to support the family of mice, the bumblebees, and the milkweed until an overzealous landlord scrapes the life off the soil with a lawnmower, or a developer comes to pour asphalt.

 

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Photograph of some weeds, by the author. Taken in Michigan in July 2018.