What is a weed? Perhaps that’s a trick question. And no, I’m not talking about marijuana (although according to Agriculture Victoria, marijuana is, in fact, classified as a “noxious weed”. There you have it!). I’m talking about common garden weeds – plants like dandelions, morning glory (bindweed), crabweed, spiny emex, etc. The kinds of plants you’d recognise by sight but maybe not necessarily by name. Taxonomically speaking, there is no single family or genera of “weeds”; no uniform classificatory status. Merriam-Webster (that most cited of online dictionaries) defines a ‘weed’ as “a plant that is not valued where it is growing”, “usually of vigorous growth,” and “one that tends to overgrow or choke out more desirable plants”. They are productive and voracious growers – voracious not in the food-hungry sense of the word, but in their eagerness, their enthusiasm to grow – appearing in spaces where other plants simply wouldn’t survive; such as on concrete pathways and in rooftop gutters. They grow quickly and reproduce abundantly, colonizing available ground with speed. Certainly, they are intrinsically bound to these concepts of space and place: ‘Many plants become weeds simply by being in the wrong place’ (Creswell 1997, 335; emphasis added). Take the common dandelion, for example (Taraxacum officinale). A meadow filled with their bright yellow flowers – a literalization of the Anthropological “field” if ever there was one – would be considered charming. Look at all that yellow! Yet when a dandelion appears in a garden or public pathway, they are no longer considered charming. They are immediately relegated to the category of the “weed”.
But what, you ask, does any of this have to do with Anthropology? You want to study people, not weeds. Well, fair enough. But think about it: Who defines this notion of “right” and “wrong” places for weeds to grow? Mary Douglas, a prominent Anthropologist you’re bound to come across in your studies, is perhaps most famous for her argument that dirt is simply ‘matter out of place’ (Douglas 1965, 198). So, too, are weeds simply plants that are “out of place”. They are weeds only in relation to their unwanted-ness; and, specifically, to human want and un-want. A cat, or a deer, or a bee, or a tree, has no concept of a weed; for weeds ‘are creatures of human disturbance’ (Tsing 2017, 3; emphasis added). For me, weeds highlight the human obsession with classifying things and putting them in their “right place”. This linguistic and ideological obsession is ‘deeply engrained in the way we think and act’ (Creswell 1997, 334); in how we think about and interact with the world around us. We order this world in carefully constructed ways, both scientifically – through taxonomy and nomenclature (see my companion post on Carl Linnaeus’s legacy here) – and practically. Gardens are personifications of this botanical ordering, with each plant put in its correct place, ‘forming a harmonious whole’ (Creswell 1997, 335) in which weeds would be a disturbance: ‘useless, harmful, and undesirable’ (ibid.). In removing such “weeds” from the human-cultivated space of the garden – in performing the verbal act, “to weed” – the gardener ensures that the physical world ‘conforms to the structure of ideas’ (Douglas 1965, 199). Things belong where they belong, and must remain so, bounded and boxed eternally. A garden full of weeds is not a garden at all but a representation of the “natural” and the “wild”, encroaching on the “human” and the “civilised”. Colonial terminology abounds.
Certainly, our pedantic categorising of the world around us reveals more about ourselves than, arguably, any inherent properties of the world itself. A weed is not a weed until a human deems it so, and a human only deems it so when a plant has the wild, untamed audacity to grow where it is not wanted. Anything can be a weed, in that sense (okay, except for maybe trees – which grow too slowly and would be “weeded out” before they reached anything approaching maturity). Conversely, it appears that plants can occasionally escape the denomination of “weed”, too. In my grandmother’s retirement village in South Africa, a common species of clover (nomenclature unknown), with its dainty purple flowers – long relegated to the category of “weed” in the village inhabitants’ previous suburban gardens – had achieved an ideological revolution, and was now present in almost every garden and window-box in the village. My mother was horrified. “But it’s a weed!” she cried, repeatedly. And yet the inhabitants of the retirement village had now deemed it not so. The ease with which the “weedy” clover grew was now coveted, and the flowers “sweet” and “pretty”. It makes me think of the Shakespearian idiom “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. Would a weed by any other name be considered as “weedy”? As unwanted? As out of place? Clearly not.
Image Source: Travel Like a Local: Vermont
Creswell, T 1997, ‘Weeds, Plagues, and Bodily Secretions: A Geographical Interpretation of Metaphors of Displacement’, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Vol. 87, No. 2, pp.330-345
Douglas, M 1965, ‘Pollution’, in W.A. Lessa and E.Z. Vogt (Eds.), Reader in Comparative Religion: An Anthropological Approach, Third Edition, Harper & Row Publishers, U.S.A., pp.196-202
Tsing, A 2017, ‘The Buck, The Bull, and The Dream of the Stag: Some Unexpected Weeds of the Anthropocene’, Suomen Antropologi: Journal of the Finnish Anthropological Society, Vol. 42, Issue 1, pp.3-21