September 29, 2011

Backyard anthropology #1: Culturally Defined "Bad Plants" Edition

Bad plants, you ask?  I'm talking about weeds, people.  You know, those resilient botanical "pests" that pervade gardens, lawns, and yards and require the intervention of the lethal products designed by Monsanto.  Plants that are so bad, so terrible, so pernicious that we need to poison them with all of our industrial might.  Ya, those plants.  The funny thing, though, is that the very definition of what is and what is not a weed is very much a matter of social learning.  Nobody is born with the automatic knowledge that dandelions are not pretty flowers; we have to learn that they nothing more than evil little plants that only want to suck the life out of the putting green that is the front lawn.  At least, that's the so-called "common knowledge" about weeds, and many of us simply go along with it.  We follow the instructions and advice of the plant gurus who tell us which ones are "good" and which ones deserve nothing more than the botanical death sentence.

The irony is that the definition of what is and what is not a weed is certainly a matter of social learning.  That's right: what we think of as weeds all depends on how we were taught to categorize and value certain plants.  Some plants are weeds because they are not "indigenous," an argument that gets more slippery as you go further back in time.  When, after all, do we set the botanical boundary for indigeneity  One hundred years ago?  A thousand?  Ten thousand?  As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, "What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have never been discovered."  

Just the other day I was looking over a nice selection of acceptable and unacceptable plants at my mom's house in California.  One that caught my attention is the notorious "spurge," which sounds like something that floods into town and devastates everything in it's path.  Watch out!  The spurge is coming into town.  I mean, it's a weed after all.  But what do I know?  I thought it looked kinda cool, and might be suitable as a cheap, resilient ground cover or something.  But, alas, numerous online plant and gardening sources informed me that spurge is little more than an evil plant that deserves only the treatment that companies like Monsanto can dream up.  That's right: it's in the botanical category of plants that requires THE DEATH SENTENCE.

All of this leads me to a recent NPR segment "'Weeds': In Defense of Botany's Cockroach."  If you have ever wondered why some plants get such a bad rap, this is a great piece to check out.


marcussi said...

Not only thinking of weeds merely as pests obscures the social learning process that has gone underwater, but it obscures the complexities of coevolving relationships between humans and plants, between human technologies and behaviours and plants cycles and adaptations. It also obscures the role played by the continuum linking wild plants and cultivated plants in the construction of new objects, like the "medicinal plant". The late Nina Etkin has written interesting works about that. Thanks for the post

marcussi said...

Not only describing weeds as mere pests obscures the social construction dimension, but it also obscures the coevolutionary reationship between plants and humans, a relationships visible in the continuum "cultivated plants-wild plants which comprises weeds", and which was a key factor in the construction of that fascinating object which is the "medicinal plant" (usually a weed, indeed). The late Nina Etkin and Andrea Pieroni have written on this subject. Thanks for the post.