Weeds: In Defense of Nature's Most Unloved Plants
“Weeds, therefore, makes a quiet and enlightening read, enjoyable in one gulp if you’re an enthusiast or in small doses if you’re new to the subject. If nothing else, it’s a fascinating sampler of intriguing names, as we meet the likes of mealy leaved fat-hen, fenugreek, ramping fumatory, love-lies-bleeding, spiny restharrow, and viper’s-bugloss. . . . After reading this book, you’ll look down at the ground with more interest and appreciation—and think twice before pulling something out.”
The best nature writers show us how much humans have in common with other life forms; and in this, naturalist Richard Mabey is no exception. In his new book, Weeds, he puts it plainly: “As a type, [weeds] are mobile, prolific, genetically diverse. They are unfussy about where they live, adapt quickly to environmental stress, use multiple strategies for getting their own way. It’s curious that it took so long for us to realize that the species they most resemble is us.”
And so, right from the beginning, Mr. Mabey presents weeds as our brethren and tells their story—their natural as well as cultural histories, their virtues and flaws, even their influence on human art, mythology, and commerce. Most of all he conveys our love/hate relationship with them over time, conveying through anecdotes and evidence how we have helped and harmed each other in an endless, symbiotic dance.
Even when presenting data, Mr. Mabey sustains the friendly, relaxed tone that characterizes the book and makes it accessible, whether you’re interested plants or indifferent to them. He also makes important points that aid in perspective, such as, “The development of cultivation was perhaps the single most crucial event in forming our modern notions of nature,” and “Weeds are our most successful cultivated crop.”
He loves weeds not only “because of the often extraordinary means by which they’d arrived, but also because of their disregard for the proper botanical order of things,” and tells us many interesting tales about how and why they came to be. Each chapter opens with a lovely drawing by Clare Roberts, and the back matter includes a glossary of weed names in both British vernacular and Latin, as well as notes and references for further information and an index for easy lookup.
Some of the tales are surprising, such as how weeds restore battlefields and wastelands, destroy buildings, inspire poets, artists, and playwrights (Shakespeare referred to them extensively), heal the ill and feed the hungry, and in so many other ways enrich or complicate human life. Despite a sometimes romantic flavor, the book never veers far from science, squarely placing weeds in a godless world:
“. . . this doesn’t mean that weeds have a ‘purpose,’ any more than does any other living thing. An organism exists for no other reason than it is able to, and can find an opportunity to do so. The wonderful, almost transcendental thing about life on earth is that in order to so exist, organisms must relate to each other and to the earth itself, and therefore find, if not a purpose, something close to a role. Weeds’ rapid, opportunist lifestyles mean that their role—what they do—is to fill the empty spaces of the earth, to repair the vegetation shattered naturally for millions of years by landslide and flood and forest fire, and today degraded by aggressive farming and gross pollution. In so doing they stabilize the soil, conserve water loss, provide shelter for other plants and begin the process of succession to more complex and stable plant systems.”
Well! How many of us think of weeds that way? The entire book draws one into adjusting one’s viewpoint without the author being preachy or judgmental. This, again, is the mark of a good science writer, who simply shares his or her joy in a subject in a contagious manner, igniting our own curiosity and respect. Weeds, therefore, makes a quiet and enlightening read, enjoyable in one gulp if you’re an enthusiast or in small doses if you’re new to the subject. If nothing else, it’s a fascinating sampler of intriguing names, as we meet the likes of mealy leaved fat-hen, fenugreek, ramping fumatory, love-lies-bleeding, spiny restharrow, and viper’s-bugloss.
After reading this book, you’ll look down at the ground with more interest and appreciation—and think twice before pulling something out.