Dear weeds:

I know there are many of you: Many species, many communities, many individuals.

I’m tempted to consider you only as obnoxious invaders intent on claiming my land for your pleasure. You wish to take over, becoming landlords unsympathetic to the needs of other plants or animals, wholly unconcerned about humans, and particularly uninterested in me.

You don’t care that I care about the natural world, that I’ve planted native trees throughout my farm, or that I lyme and fertilize my pastures to keep them healthy.

Well, OK; maybe you do care about my pasture management because it stops your spread. What do you think I mean by “healthy”?

But I assume you get my point: You’re indifferent to your impact on the world around you. You’re just plum selfish.

I’m addressing this letter of complaint and protest specifically to four members of your large delegation:

Pigweed, you crafty ancient grain known in respectable circles as amaranth. I give you credit for spreading from tropical lowlands to the Himalayas, and I know your leaves and seeds have fed many indigenous peoples. You’re a vegan’s dream — full of protein, fiber, and carbohydrates — and your colors are wonderfully cosmopolitan — maroon, crimson, pale yellow.

But when it comes to reproduction, you’re embarrassingly oversexed. Each of you make 100,000 seeds every year without any angst. Really? Do you have to be that fertile? Where one of you grows one year, 20 sprout the next. Compared with you, rabbits are pathetic amateurs.

Ajuga reptans, you creepy carpetweed carpetbagger with your long, clever, ever-growing legs threading through my grass like snaking, sneaking, sinister scouts looking for more space to plant your roots again and again and again. You have a reputation for being pretty. “A wonderful ground cover in the mint family, with beautiful small clusters of purple flowers,” says one catalogue. Only $12.99 a flat (50% off).

Little do those gardeners know they’re buying a Trojan Horse. Enthralled, they miss the colorless fine print: “Avoid planting near lawns where its spreading nature could pose removal problems.” (Nominated for understatement of the year). I’d accuse you of arranging a kick-back, but you don’t need money to be successful. Your cheap beauty buys a ticket to your next conquest.

Multiflora roses, you exotic ladies of the Orient. Our herd of 50 goats kept you in check, but they left a few years ago. Now you’ve returned in all your spikey splendor. Because you grow so quickly into dense thickets, some states planted you on highway medians as a “natural” crash barrier. Now, our pasture slopes hold a herd of crash barriers — tangly brier patches that kill our grasses.

Virginia pine, you scrubby, uninhibited, interloper. Yes, yes, I know you’re asking yourself: “Why is this man putting me on a list of weeds? This is outrageous. I’m a tree!” Well, I’m sorry. I know you have reforested abandoned hills in coal country and warmed some human hearts at Christmas, but you are presumptuous — jumping in before any other tree can take root. Many hundreds of you crowd together in what was once a clear-cut, becoming cockeyed caricatures of your already unsightly selves. Your cousin, the elegant white pine, doesn’t stand a chance when you’re around. So, there you are; you’re on the list. Live with it, just as I have to live with all of you.

With the rest of you weedy types, I’m just as impatient and frustrated. You will claim, perhaps, that you are blameless. “We have no say in the matter,” I hear you whisper. “We have no voice. We are simply doing what all living things do: taking advantage of opportunities to multiply.”

Nonsense. You may have no voice that humans can hear, but let’s agree that you have authority; you have agency; you act in ways that force me to respond. If I were maddened, I would see in you what Ahab saw in the white whale: Blasphemy!

But I’m not a crazy, vengeful captain on a whaling voyage. I’m an aging caretaker of land in Appalachia. I’m an occasional gardener, a curious admirer of the natural world, a solitary traveler on forest trails — at my best, an Ishmael of the mountains, witness to an unfolding story of an everlasting struggle between the tamed and the unruly, between discipline and disorder.

In the end, I’ll come to terms with this struggle. I know I’ll eventually lose. For all my work to thwart you, you still hold the better hand. “He might try hard to get rid of us,” I can hear you exclaim to each other, “but we’ll always come back!” It’s a mystery to me that I can love the natural world and detest some of its inhabitants.

From your disconcerting, exuberant resilience, I take one comfort: the act of removing you is forever meditative. During the hours I spend pulling you up, removing your roots, and cutting you down, I ponder weighty questions: How to address the troubling divisions of our time? What to do about the incessant creep of age? Any leftovers from last night’s dinner?

It’s a joy to finally rise from sore knees, my hand reaching to massage a tender muscle. I have no certain answers or solutions, but I take pleasure nonetheless from a berry patch free of encroaching tendrils and a hillside of sedum liberated from your advancing columns.

Weeding — a word you must detest for all its deathly connotations — provides respite and relief for my mind. For that, I owe you some calloused gratitude.

With reluctant respect,

Man with sore back


Henry T. Ireys makes Hampshire County his home now. A Ph.D., he has extensive experience in policy analysis and program evaluation related to maternal and child health and children with special health care needs. He has been a consultant to numerous state departments of health concerning programs for children and young adults with chronic illnesses and disabilities.

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