Weed or Not Weed?

Weeding is an exercise in anthropology.

How do we know what’s a weed?

The great French anthropologist, Claude Lévi-Strauss, organized his nearly-80-year-long career around a single, foundational principle: “culture” basically comes down to classification. If something is “this” (whatever “this” is), then it’s not “that.” Reciprocally, if something is “that,” then it’s not “this.”

If that observation seems banal, we rarely dwell on it precisely because it seems so obvious that it becomes invisible, like the air we breathe. Nevertheless, it’s a powerful lesson that summarizes quite a lot about the human condition. In a nutshell, our relentless urge to classify the world is one of the most important (if not first-that-comes-to-mind) features that distinguishes us from other intelligent species.

Perhaps nowhere is this species marker more sensorily evident than in an ordinary space that seems far removed from deep philosophical tenets — a garden.

True, what we choose to plant depends a great deal on soil composition and rainfall patterns. But it also reveals our values, as well as the power structures buttressing those values.

Planting a flower garden? That requires the rare privilege of having enough leisure time to value labor expended for no economically useful payoff, just sensory and aesthetic pleasure.

And, not just any flowers. A riotous garden crammed full of mixed wild flowers produces one effect.

These wild flowers scattered hither and thither create a carefree look signaling cheerful creativity

A clearly delimited plot of begonias or rose bushes neatly lined up next to a carefully trimmed lawn produces quite another.

These red creeping sedum arranged neatly as a border create a manicured look signaling control

As for a vegetable garden — that project may result from a careful calculation to provide dinner ingredients for a small fraction of the cost of supermarket prices. Or it may derive from a busy, weekend gardener’s passion . . . or a bored retiree’s new hobby.

Likewise, the selection of exactly which seeds to sow rests on whole worlds of cultural values, conjoined with economo-political structures. Pierre Bourdieu might as well have devoted a whole chapter in his book, Distinction, to analyzing what a rare breed of Japanese eggplant versus a common variety of iceberg lettuce signals about a gardener’s educational level, financial resources, and social network expectations — all of which shape our (seemingly) personal palates.

Not only that — we like to think about gardening as a paean to life. But, to be honest, we should acknowledge the reality of the euphemism we politely term “weeding.” Gardening relies on at least as much destruction as nurturance.

Trowels double as tools of promoting — and destroying — life

All those gardens (whether filled with dinner-worthy tomatoes or vase-worthy hydrangeas) require regular “weeding” — clearing space for “this” plant to derive enough nutrients from the soil to thrive, while “that” plant sacrifices its existence for its neighbor. The decision of what to “weed” announces our values about what we consider worthy of life, and what we feel justified to kill.

All of which is to say: Today, when I decide to spend half an hour “weeding“ our backyard, every plant I choose to uproot will also make a cultural statement. Indeed, in my (culturally influenced) classificatory calculus, perfectly lovely plants meriting space in the garden take on another identity when they invade the narrow gap between cobblestones lining our driveway. That, as the anthropologist Mary Douglas would have termed it in her magnum opus, Purity and Danger, is clearly “matter out of place,” and won’t evade my trowel’s ruthless digging.

Perfectly healthy plant doomed by suburban U.S. aesthetics

We can take the cultural foundations to gardening (suburban U.S. style) even further, seeing in it a veritable political parable. The delicate blades of Kentucky bluegrass count (for me) as worthy of life; those tall, thick stalks of “crabgrass” that threaten to crowd out their frailer neighbors merit death. In our garden, the never-ending drama of colonial domination and resistance plays itself out, one blade of grass at a time.

Kentucky bluegrass fighting for its life against the invasion of the imperialist Crab grass (photo by Alma Gottlieb)

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