When I was in college, I guided 4-day pre-orientation backpacking trips through the Finger Lakes Trail for first-year students. To do this, I had to go through a series of trainings, one being a 4-day-long backpacking trip with 8 or so other guides to practice teaching lessons. Amidst these practice lessons, we had a fantastic time joking and learning about nature from each other.
One sunny May day while we were hiking my favorite part of the FLT (around the Foxfire Lean-to), I witnessed a co-guide eat a dandelion.
I bet you had the same reaction as I did… “Dude, what? You just ate a weed!”
I bring up this little anecdote for two reasons- 1) to praise edible plants and 2) to discuss the concept of “weeds”.
To briefly touch on my first reason, knowing common wild, edible plants can not only help you if you get caught in a bind in the woods without food, but can also make your hiking experience that much more enjoyable. Trout lilies and Indian cucumbers, for example, are pretty delicious. Not to mention wild raspberries and blueberries…
But, for the sake of this blog post, let’s talk about weeds. Writer Michael Pollan, known for The Omnivore’s Dilemma, discusses the concept of weeds as a human construct in his book Second Nature.
Go straight to his New York Times article entitled “Weeds Are Us“, do not pass go and do not collect $200. (#Monopoly)
He describes two classes of definitions for weeds: 1) “a plant in the wrong place” (a human construct), and 2) “an especially aggressive plant that competes successfully against cultivated plants”.
Weeds are not wild. They outcompete garden plants because they are better adapted to life in a garden. They grow in meadows, lawns, vacant lots, cracks in the sidewalks, and by dumpsters. They thrive in ground that has been disturbed by man- and that is their only goal.
“To weed is to apply culture to nature.”
-Michael Pollan, Weeds Are Us
Most garden weeds are alien species. Before the Puritans landed, America had few indigenous weeds because it had little disturbed land. Couch grass, dandelion, sow-thistle, shepherd’s purse, groundsel, dock, mullein, plantain and chickweed, all very common weeds, were brought over from England, some deliberately.
Our soils are no longer virgin soils, and they haven’t been for centuries. Most native grasses have long vanished. Once we decided to disturb our soils, we invited nonnative weeds into our world. As Pollan says in the NYTimes article, “Without man to create cropland and lawns and vacant lots, most weeds would soon vanish.”
But, as a concept, weeding can be applied to all natural environments, not just to gardens. In this day and age, even “wildlands” like Yellowstone must be “gardened.” Pollan sums this up perfectly,”We cannot live in the world without changing nature irrevocably; having done so, we’re obliged to tend to the consequences, which is to say, to weed.” Because we have impacted our environment, we are required to manage these spaces and the effects we have on the natural environment.
So, do it. Eat a dandelion, make that weed your lunch. And while doing so, remember that you are an integral part of the environment you live in. You and nature must work together to maintain the integrity of the land.