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.
When I hike in the woods, I don’t 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 any specifics.
For many years, I couldn’t manage my large back yard. I couldn’t even name all the particular enemies on my horticultural hit list. I finally found an instant solution. I stopped calling it my yard and christened it “my meadow.” Everything was better, all at once. Words can sometimes wield that much power.
Instead of cataloguing my nemeses, I watched the area evolve on its own, hoping the meadow might someday grow into a wildlife preserve. Ducks, deer, butterflies and bees!
So weeding hasn’t been a big part of my life. Last month a neighbor recommended native strawberries as ground cover in my modest front yard. For some reason, even late in the season, that sounded like a good idea.
Now, 102 bare-root plants and three bags of compost later, I care about the weeds. In this case, I find myself caring about particular weeds, one at a time, because they are too close to a strawberry shoot, 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 works easily. I’ve learned which weeds send deep roots and which prefer spreading laterally. I’m learning which tools and techniques work best for uprooting each. And then I began to wonder about how the metaphor has become separated from its literal meaning.
There’s been so much talk in the media lately 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. I don’t see dirt under their fingernails.
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 military bombs also gave us commercial fertilizer. Nitrogen can be powerful for destruction and for growing, but it also removes us from the particulars. The same technology 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 that you’d like to effect 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 applicable to nurturing and growing 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?
Don Kahle (firstname.lastname@example.org) blogs at www.dksez.com.