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An essay by Robert Lynd

Weeds: An Appreciation

Title:     Weeds: An Appreciation
Author: Robert Lynd [More Titles by Lynd]

A weed, says the dictionary, is "any plant that is useless, troublesome, noxious or grows where it is not wanted." The dictionary also adds: "_colloq._, a cigar." We may omit for our present purpose the harmless colloquialism, but the rest of the definition deserves to be closely examined. Socrates, I imagine, could have found a number of pointed questions to put to the dictionary maker. He might have begun with two of the commonest weeds, the nettle and the dandelion. Having got his opponent--and the opponents of Socrates were all of the same mental build as Sherlock Holmes's Dr Watson--eagerly to admit that the nettle was a weed, he would at once put the definition to the test. "The story goes," he would say, quoting Mrs. Clark Nuttall's admirable work, _Wild Flowers as They Grow_, "that the Roman soldiers brought the most venomous of the stinging nettles to England to flagellate themselves with when they were benumbed with the cold of this--to them--terribly inclement isle. It is certain," he would add from the same source, "that physicians at one time employed nettles to sting paralysed limbs into vigour again, also to cure rheumatism. In view of all this," he would ask, "does it not follow either that the nettle is not a weed or that your definition of a weed is mistaken?" And his opponent would be certain to answer: "It does follow, O Socrates." A second opponent, however, would rashly take up the argument. He would point out that even if the Romans had a mistaken notion that nettle-stings were useful as a preventive of cold feet, and if our superstitious ancestors made use of them to cure rheumatism, as our superstitious contemporaries resort to bee-stings for the same purpose, the nettle was at all times probably useless and is certainly useless to-day. Socrates would turn to him with a quiet smile and ask: "When we say that a plant is useless, do we mean merely that we as a matter of fact make no use of it, or that it would be of no use even if we did make use of it?" And the reply would leap out: "Undoubtedly the latter, O Socrates." Socrates would then remember his Mrs. Nuttall again, and refer to an old herbal which claimed that "excessive corpulency may be reduced" by taking a few nettle-seeds daily. He would admit that he had never made a trial of this cure, as he had no desire to get rid of the corpulency with which the gods had seen fit to endow him. He would claim, however, that the usefulness of the nettle had been proved as an article of diet, that it was once a favourite vegetable in Scotland, that it had helped to keep people alive at the time of the Irish famine, and that even during the recent war it had been recommended as an excellent substitute for spinach. "May we not put it in this way," he would ask, "that you call a nettle useless merely because you yourself do not make use of it?" "It seems that you are right, O Socrates." "And would you call an aeroplane useless, merely because you yourself have never made use of an aeroplane? Or a pig useless, merely because you yourself do not eat pork?" There would be a great wagging of heads among the opponents, after which a third would pluck up courage to say: "But, surely, Socrates, nettles as we know them to-day are simply noxious plants that fulfil no function but to sting our children?" Socrates would say, after a moment's pause: "That certainly is an argument that deserves serious consideration. A weed, then, is to be condemned, you think, not for its uselessness, but for its noxiousness?" This would be agreed to. "Then," he would pursue his questions, "you would probably call monkshood a weed, seeing that it has been the cause not merely of pain but even of death itself to many children." His opponent would grow angry at this, and exclaim: "Why, I cultivate monkshood in my own garden. It is one of the most beautiful of the flowers." Then there would be some wrangling as to whether ugliness was the test of weeds, till Socrates would make it clear that this would involve omitting speedwell and the scarlet pimpernel from the list. Someone else would contend that the essence of a weed was its troublesomeness, but Socrates would counter this by asking them whether horseradish was not a far more troublesome thing in a garden than foxgloves. "Oh," one of the disputants would cry in desperation, "let us simply say that a weed is any plant that is not wanted in the place where it is growing." "You would call groundsel a weed in the garden of a man who does not keep a canary, but not a weed in the garden of a man who does?" "I would." Socrates would burst out laughing at this, and say: "It seems to me that a weed is more difficult to define even than justice. I think we had better change the subject and talk about the immortality of the soul." The only part of the definition of a weed, indeed, that bears a moment's investigation is contained in the three words: "_colloq._, a cigar."

In my opinion, the safest course is to include among weeds all plants that grow wild. It is also important to get rid of the notion that weeds are necessarily evil things that should be exterminated like rats. I remember some years ago seeing an appalling suggestion that farmers should be compelled by law to clear their land of weeds. The writer, if I remember correctly, even looked forward to the day when a farmer would be fined if a daisy were found growing in one of his fields. Utilitarianism of this kind terrifies the imagination. There are some people who are aghast at the prospect of a world of simplified spelling. But a world of simplified spelling would be Arcadia itself compared to a world without wild flowers. According to certain writers in _The Times_, however, we are faced with the possibility of a world without wild flowers, even if the Board of Agriculture takes no hand in the business. These writers tell us that the reckless plucking of wild flowers has already led to a great diminution in their numbers. Daffodils grow wild in many parts of England, but, as soon as they appear, hordes of holiday-makers rush to the scene and gather them in such numbers as to injure the life of the plants. I am not enough of a botanist to know whether it is possible in this way to discourage flowers that grow from bulbs. If it is, it seems likely enough that, with the increasing popularity of country walks, there will after a time be no daffodils or orchises left in England. If one were sure of it, one would never pluck a bee-orchis again. One does not know why one plucks it, except that the bee-shaped flower is one of the most exquisite of Nature's toys, and one is greedy of possessing it. Children try to catch butterflies for the same reason. If it were possible to catch a sunset or a blue sea, no doubt we should take them home with us, too. It may be that art is only the transmuted instinct to seize and make our own all the beautiful things we see. The collector of birds' eggs and the painter are both collectors of a beauty that can be known only in hints and fragments. Still, the painter is justified by the fact that his borrowings actually add to the number of beautiful things. If the collector of eggs and the gatherer of flowers can be shown to be actually anti-social in their greed, we cannot be so enthusiastic about them. I confess that on these matters I have an open mind. For all I know, the discussion on wild flowers in _The Times_ may be merely a scare. At the same time, it seems reasonable to believe that if flowers that propagate themselves from seed were all gathered as soon as they appeared, there would before long be no flowers left. I notice that one suggestion has been made to the effect that flower-lovers should provide themselves with seeds and should scatter these in "likely places" during their country walks. I do not like this plotting on Nature's behalf. Besides, it might lead to some rather difficult situations. If this general seed-sowing became a matter of principle, for instance, I should probably sow daisies on my neighbour's tennis lawn, poppies and fumitory in his cornfield, and dandelions in his meadow. It is not that I am devoted to the dandelion as a flower, though it has been praised for its beauty, but at a later stage a meadow of a million dandelion-clocks seems to me to be one of the most beautiful of spectacles. But I would go further than this. I should never see a hill-side cultivated without going out at night and sowing it with the seeds of gorse and thistle. Not that I should bear any ill-will to the farmer, but it is said that the diminution of waste land, with its abundance of gorse and thistles, has led to a great diminution in the number of linnets and goldfinches. The farmer, perhaps, can do without linnets and goldfinches, but we who make our living in other ways cannot. I should sow tares among his wheat, if necessary, if I believed that tares would tempt a bearded tit or a golden oriole.

Still, I cannot easily persuade myself that a Society for the Protection of Weeds is even now necessary. I have great faith in weeds. If they are given a fair chance, I should back them against any cultivated flower or vegetable I know. Anyone who has ever had a garden knows that, while it is necessary to work hard to keep the shepherd's purse and the chickweed and the dandelion and the wartwort and the hawkweed and the valerian from growing, one has to take no such pains in order to keep the lettuces and the potatoes from growing. For myself, I should, in the vulgar phrase, back the shepherd's purse against the lettuces every time. If the weeds in the garden fail to make us radiantly happy, it is not because they are weeds, but because they are the wrong weeds. Why not the ground-ivy instead of the shepherd's purse, that lank intruder that not only is a weed but looks like one? Why not bee-orchises for wartwort, and gentians for chickweed? I have no fault to find with the foxgloves under the apple-tree or with the ivy-leaved toad-flax that hangs with its elfin flowers from every cranny in the wall. But I protest against the dandelions and the superfluity of groundsel. I undertake that, if rest-harrow and scabious and corn-cockle invade the garden, I shall never use a hoe on them. More than this, if only the right weeds settled in the garden, I should grow no other flowers. But shepherd's purse! Compared with it, a cabbage is a posy for a bridesmaid, and sprouting broccoli a bouquet for a prima donna. After all, one ought to be allowed to choose the weeds for one's own garden. But then when one chooses them, one no longer calls them weeds. The periwinkle, the primrose and the mallow--we spare them with our tongue as with our hoe. This, perhaps, suggests the only definition of a weed that is possible. A weed is a plant we hoe up or, rather, that we try to hoe up. A flower or a vegetable is a plant that the hoe deliberately misses. But, in spite of the hoe, the weeds have it. They survive and multiply like a subject race.... Well, perhaps better a weed than a geranium.

[The end]
Robert Lynd's essay: Weeds: An Appreciation