4. What is a Weed? Or, the Limits of Reductionism

“Humanity’s prospects for developing a positive presence on Earth depend on inclusion, rather than exclusion, synergy rather than simplification. There are no evil plants, just dysfunctional human designs.”

-Ben Falk, The Resilient Farm and Homestead

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Who’s the Pig?

When I first started working on a farm last spring, I spent many weeks learning how to identify—and destroy—all of the various species of weeds that are ubiquitous throughout our vegetable gardens. Of all the pernicious opportunists I encountered that season, the one that I came to curse the most was known to me only as pigweed.

“Pigweed” (pictured above - photo by Suzanne Caldwell) commonly refers to a variety of different herbaceous annuals found sprouting prolifically from disturbed soil, such as pasture space recently visited by their namesake. I came to learn that what I knew as pigweed actually referred to several very similar species within the same genus.

All had bright pink stems at the base and a reddish pink hue under the leaves, and all could withstand absurd abuse and bounce back ten times tougher; only some—and this is why I cursed them so much—had incredibly sharp, glove-resistant thorns located in all the places where you’d naturally think to grab when plucking the plants out of the ground.

One sweaty June afternoon, while weeding in the okra patch, a fellow new recruit stopped to ask me about the identity of a seedling she’d just pulled.

“Is this amaranth?” she asked. “It looks just like it. I think this might be edible.”

“No, I don’t think so,” I responded with what probably sounded like an informed tone. “That’s actually pigweed – it’s a majorly weedy pest around here.”

By this point in the story, the seasoned foragers are probably becoming pretty frustrated, because of course she was correct. The species I knew as pigweed were from the genus Amaranthus, and not only were they edible, but I had actually purchased a cultivated variety from a local farmer’s market only weeks earlier! Meanwhile, we were toiling for hours on end to eradicate these hardy, nutritious herbs from our vegetable fields.

Once I really started giving this topic its due diligence, I discovered that nearly all of the plants I had been trained to view as The Enemy were actually edible, and some quite preferable to domesticated plants.

Not long after the amaranth incident, the wineberries that grow wild along the forest edges of the farm came into season. We spent several days wading through thickets of hairy orange bramble canes easily exceeding seven feet high, and tried our best not to eat more of the tender ruby-red fruits than we harvested to sell.

Wineberries. Photo by  Alexander van Loon .

Wineberries. Photo by Alexander van Loon.

The flavor was absolutely intoxicating, better in every way than any bramble fruit I had ever tasted in my life. Wading through the tangled canes was no easy feat, but I became enraptured by these plants, and pushed on ever deeper even as my clothes were being torn and my hands and face scratched by the hairy thorns.

I came to realize that everywhere I stepped and trampled a cane, that break would cause the plant to clone itself, thickening the thicket for next season. What felt intrusive and destructive at first, I understood, was actually precisely what the canes wanted from us.

I thought we were extracting fruits from the forest, but really, we were obeying the commands of these marvelously cunning plants, to propagate them and disperse their seeds as far as we could carry them. It was one of few non-psychedelic experiences I’ve had in my life in which I felt inextricably, if not literally, tangled up in a relationship with some force beyond my grasp—a “higher power,” if you will.

I had never heard of these better-than-raspberries before this experience, but they seemed so abundant that I assumed they must be native and well known to people in my region. When I went looking for information about them, what I did find was sparse, but disheartening.

Wineberries are actually considered a highly invasive and disruptive exotic plant, introduced from China a little over a century ago with the intention of crossbreeding them with North American raspberries to improve the flavor.

I would argue that they succeeded in that regard, but in the decades since, wineberries have come to outcompete many of our native brambles, and other plants that thrive on the edge of the forest here in Kentucky and beyond. Had I been flirting with the devil out there in the woods?


The Limits of Reductionist Thinking

I’ve been thinking a lot about the encounters I had with weeds and invasive plants last year, and how it relates back to my college education. While studying ecology, I worked in a research lab on campus that primarily focused on the effects of climate disruption on plants, as well as the impact of invasive plant species on forest biodiversity – in other words, two of the most depressing topics in science that you could devote your time to.

As would be expected, I quickly developed a healthy hatred for any exotic invasive plant that I got to know. I studied the effects of an invasive evergreen vine called winter creeper on native flora in our city parks – not good. I observed the Japanese honeysuckle rapidly taking over the understory and the edges of the local parks. I learned to identify the scourge that we call garlic mustard (Alliara petiolata) – but had to wait several years to find out that it’s actually delicious.

Garlic mustard. Photo by  Ann and Peter Macdonald .

Garlic mustard. Photo by Ann and Peter Macdonald.

After reading books like Fukuoka’s One-Straw Revolution and Holmgren’s Permaculture Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability, I began to question the merits of the reductionist scientific method that I had taken to be The Final Word on how to observe the universe.

I was taught to examine the interactions between organisms by studying them in isolation, often in a sterilized lab far outside of their natural sphere, and that never really sat well with me. What could I, or anyone else for that matter, really conclude about the way the world works from such observations?

This line of thinking forced me to confront some uncomfortable truths about the way that conventional science operates, and the myopia that results.

How much faith—because of course it is a matter of faith—should I have in the conclusions drawn from scientific research?

How much trust should I place in the hands of amoral reductionists making impossibly minute observations in a vacuum? With a budget, and therefore motives, an agenda, an ideology... Wow, science is starting to sound a lot more like more an organized religion, or a state government, don’t you think? In any case, it’s a far cry from the unbiased, objective observation it purports to be.

When we try to separate one element from its place in the system, we've already fundamentally misunderstood its role before we even begin observing.

Permaculture is, in many ways, the antithesis of reductionism, in that it takes for granted that all things are impossibly interconnected and that we can’t even begin to fathom the myriad impacts of removing just one element from any given system. We want to work with systems in all of their splendid complexity and diversity, and accept that we cannot separate the parts from the whole.

Who’s In Charge?

So what is a weed, and why are we so hell-bent on eliminating them? Reviewing several definitions of the word, I find that each one comes loaded with a whole lot of implicit narcissism and anthropocentrism.

Wikipedia tells us that “a weed is a plant considered undesirable in a particular situation, ‘a plant in the wrong place.’”

The New Oxford American Dictionary defines a weed as “a wild plant growing where it is not wanted and in competition with cultivated plants.”

The Australian government’s website offers this fun definition: “...any plant that requires some form of action to reduce its effect on the economy, the environment, human health and amenity.”

Undesirable, not wanted, requires action to be eliminated... These are wild plants we’re talking about, and baked into the definition is the idea that they are bad and we must kill them. What does that say about how we view the world at large?

And then consider those dreaded invasive species: how do you think they were able to invade in the first place? Plants have been manipulating animals into helping them invade new territory for about as long as plants and animals have coexisted on Earth.

If this is news to you, I hate to shatter your worldview like this, but those trees don’t produce delicious, nutritious, fibrous fruits for you to consume out of the goodness of their photosynthetic hearts. They’ve got an agenda that supersedes our own, and it’s naïve to think that we’ve somehow screwed things up by being really successful at the job that they trained us animals to perform over hundreds of millions of years.

I’m not saying that humans have always introduced the best plants into the most ideal ecosystems – far from it. But I am saying that this sort of thing has been going on since at least as far back as when we collectively crawled our slimy way out of the ocean. So who are we to apply a value judgment to something so far beyond our control?

In just about every case, it turns out that those wild, unwanted plants are way tougher than our wimpy cultivated varieties, and they will absolutely annihilate our sick little vegetable gardens if left unchecked for even a few weeks at the height of the growing season! Wild nature always wins, period.


We Can’t Win

Of course, science is going to keep trying its damnedest to conquer nature, and the results are often quite pitiful. As a case study, consider the Japanese honeysuckle, an incredibly badass perennial that is currently clobbering many native species in our woods here in Kentucky, and well beyond across the continent.

Japanese honeysuckle flowers. Photo by  Forest and Kim Starr .

Japanese honeysuckle flowers. Photo by Forest and Kim Starr.

Japanese honeysuckle quickly colonizes forest openings and recently disturbed sites by wrapping its numerous shallow roots around nearby trees and bushes, choking them out underground and exploiting their existing infrastructure to propel itself up above the forest floor ahead of any competition. Though technically a woody vine, honeysuckle grows so large, so quickly, that it often looks more like a bush or a sprawling tree.

A mature honeysuckle bush will produce approximately five trillion small red-black berries, inedible to us, that smell vaguely like sour tomatoes. Forest managers of the early 20th century, in their infinite wisdom, planted these bad boys all over the United States as a way to manage erosion, and also because they thought the flowers were pretty, and it seemed as though deer liked having the extra forage available through the winter.

Well, our deer certainly do eat the berries copiously, but it turns out that they’re barely digestible and contain little in the way of nutrition. The honeysuckle isn’t doing the deer any favors – it’s exploiting their natural instincts and abundant err, fertilizer, and using them as a vector for conquering our landscape.

Instead of helping our dear friends the deer make it through the winter, we instead created an unstoppable plague in our forests that’s wreaking havoc on biodiversity.

And how does science strike back? My wife Brooke was once up for a position as a gardener for a local park service, and was dismayed to learn that the job primarily consisted of digging Japanese honeysuckle out of the ground and applying glyphosate—Monsanto’s RoundUp—across the barren ground. That’s pretty much the standard response that forest managers have to offer.

If that’s honestly the best we’ve got, then we can safely move on to the “acceptance” stage of grief and get on with our lives, because what’s done here cannot be undone.


If You Can’t Beat ‘Em...

Arguing with reality is the most surefire way to make yourself miserable. Our puny chemicals are no match for the mighty invasives, so it’s about time we relinquish so me control and try to embrace what they have to offer.

Back in December, after the leaves had fallen from most of the trees in our area, Brooke and I kept noticing this one particular tree growing up along a fence line on our drive home that was replete with clusters of brown, golf ball-sized fruits.

We pulled off the road one day to inspect the tree and quickly identified it as a Callery pear (Pyrus calleryana), also commonly known by the name of one cultivar, ‘Bradford.’ The Callery pear is a merciless genetic opportunist and general blight on the landscape here in the Eastern U.S., introduced from—you guessed it—China in 1964 as an ornamental by the USDA.

Callery pear flowers. Photo by  Dan Mullen .

Callery pear flowers. Photo by Dan Mullen.

The trees were prized for their prolific white flowers, but believed to be sterile. It turns out that’s only partially true: Two Callery pear trees of the same cultivated variety can’t pollinate each other, but they readily cross-pollinate with other cultivars as well as wild related species.

When this happens, the resulting wild individuals can in turn interbreed, and along the way they often revert back to developing huge woody thorns like their wild ancestors. These unique genetic mutants are now drowning out diverse wooded spaces across the continent with their own wild monoculture.

A quick scan of the sparse resources on Google assured me that they are edible, though not especially sweet or flavorful. In fact, they are so little valued that even scavengers like raccoons and possums don’t seem interested in them, so the pears just hang there through the winter months until frost softens them up a bit and birds carry them away, dispersing their seeds across the landscape. Well, we knew we could find a use for them.

In a few short minutes we filled our baskets up with nearly 10 pounds of fruit, and hadn’t even made a dent in the tree’s full offering. We took them home, washed them off, then stuffed them in plastic bags. I threw the bags on the floor and stomped the pears into a yellow-brown mush.

Our Callery pear harvest.

Our Callery pear harvest.

From there I emptied the mush into a large, wide-mouthed glass jug, then added water and many cups of sugar, plus dry black tea leaves and a generous handful of frozen wineberries that I had tucked away back in the summer.

After a week or two of vigorously stirring the jar several times a day, my homemade Invasive-Species country wine was ready to be racked to a secondary vessel, where it will quietly bubble in the corner of our kitchen for the next several months.

In fact, it should be ready to drink in time for our summer solstice celebration in June, which sounds to me like the perfect occasion to enjoy our local landscape’s final gift from the tail end of the last growing season.

By that time we should be harvesting strawberries and perhaps the earliest of our bramble berries, some of which we will no doubt set aside to ferment for next winter’s festivities.

Why does it have to be a war? We invited the invaders, and until we figure out—and implement—better designs, and a better understanding of how to work with our ecosystems, this is what they have to offer us. This is the best that the land can do with what we’ve done to it in our ignorance. We should be grateful, and humbled by the revelation of the true depth of our naïveté.

If our fields run rampant with amaranth, we should be grinding the seeds into a flour, and baking bread with the dough to share with friends.

If the cultivated berries sold in supermarkets scarcely resemble the fruits they purport to be, we should revere the fearsome wineberry canes for the intoxicating sensory experience that they preserve in non-domesticated places.

If the forest gives us tough, bland fruits like Callery pears by the truckload, I say we make gallons of wine and throw a party to celebrate the gift of abundance!

That’s one way we can approach this puzzle from a place of inclusion rather than exclusion, and begin to reimagine our relationship with the landscapes that surround us. In the words of Chuang Tzu, “We make the path by walking.”

Let’s walk down the path that leads to the forest garden that doesn’t require our care, but is improved by our presence. It’s not as far away as it looks.