Learning to Uproot Social Ills From the Ground Up

I spent an hour this morning weeding. Of course, I couldn’t do something boring like that without thinking about things. My first thought was how boring weeding can be — boring, but necessary. Well, only necessary if the weeds are not compatible with nearby plants, or people’s expectations, or my own pleasure as I pass by.

I don’t hike in the woods and feel the urge to pull up every thistle I see — only the one that is currently lacerating my leg. The particular will always be felt personally, but the general exists more easily as metaphor, conveying only expectations without specifics.

I found myself unable for many years to manage my large back yard. I couldn’t even keep track of the names of all the particular enemies on my horticultural hit list. Then I renames that quarter acre “a meadow,” and everything was instantly better. Instead of cataloguing my nemeses, I watched the area evolve on its own, hoping the meadow could someday grow into a wildlife preserve.

So weeding hasn’t been a big part of my life. (It was disproportionately large in my early adolescent years, which probably explains my aversion to it in adulthood.) Last month a neighbor recommended native strawberries as ground cover in my modest front yard, which has been covered mostly with dutch white clover for the last several years.

That sounded like a good idea for some reason. Now, 102 bare-root plants, five rows, and three bags of compost later, I care about the weeds. In this case, I found myself caring about particular weeds, one at a time, because they were too close to a strawberry plant, tall enough to block sun or bright enough to distract passersby.

I’ve been watering the area every day for a week, so the soil was pliable. I learned which weeds have deep roots and which plants prefer to spread laterally. I learned which tools and techniques work best for uprooting each. And then I began to wonder about the metaphor had become separated from its meaning.

There’s been so much talk this week about uprooting. I wonder when each of those people pontificating about social ills that need uprooting last held a trowel or spade in their hand. Racism, terrorism, cynicism — they are significant problems that must be addressed, but an hour of gardening suggests we add one more to the list: the isms themselves.

If you haven’t experienced your own race as a detriment, you may not understand racism the same way as someone who has. Terrorism is the abstract problem we’d all love to see addressed, as if it will save us from the particular moments of terror that every life faces. Cynicism is particular before it ever become pervasive.

The same technology that gave us bombs also gave us fertilizer. Nitrogen can be powerful for growing and for destruction, but it also removes us from the particulars. The same mentality and much of the same science gave us pesticides, which have mostly replaced weeding and eliminated uprooting. Why tend to each plant when you can spread chemicals that will do mostly the same thing?

Here’s one reason why. There is a natural order of things. Plants are easier to figure out than people, but the tools and the rules are not much different. Learning to tend the soil and watch new plants take root can be inspiring. Learning to protect them from pests and other competitors can be instructive.

Weeding is boring. It’s quiet, thankless work. It requires patience and persistence. Conditions on the ground present specific challenges. Different tools work better in different circumstances. It’s never really complete, at least not in the real world. And it really only matters in some larger context you’d like to affect or control.

What if we fail at uprooting our debilitating social strains because we no longer uproot the weeds in our own gardens? The skills and lessons learned in the ground are necessary for our success as a society. Wouldn’t it be terrible to discover that isolating nitrogen for manufacturing bombs was less harmful to society than using it as fertilizer to remove people from the land that feeds them?

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.