In Praise of Weeds

Pity the poor dandelion. It is, in many ways, nature’s perfect plant. With a tap root that grows more than a foot long, it can survive in climates of scorching heat and bitter cold. Its tender, young greens make a tasty addition to any salad, or they can be boiled like fiddleheads or as a tea infusion. The dandelion’s leaves contain more beta-carotene than carrots and more iron than spinach. Its blossoms, when properly fermented, perhaps with a bit of orange or lemon, make a sweet white wine. That tap root contains medicinal properties, and can be beneficial to both the liver and the kidneys as both a diuretic and blood cleanser. It can also be dried, roasted and ground as a coffee substitute. The flower’s white, milky sap can be used to alleviate bee stings and to remove calluses and moles. And then there is the dandelion’s ingenious method of reproduction. That beautiful yellow bloom is actually a composite of hundreds of tiny blossoms that mature into the familiar white globe of seeds. Unlike most other seeds, dandelion seeds can germinate without a period of dormancy, and the plant is self-pollinating. Each plant contains hundreds of parachute-like seeds that, to the delight of toddlers everywhere, who pluck and blow them apart, can be carried effortlessly on the wind for miles and miles. Yes, the dandelion is perhaps nature’s perfect plant.

Yet, plunk a dandelion down in the middle of a manicured Main Line lawn and it is treated like a terrorist. Armies of lawn care professionals are dispatched with chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction to eradicate this menace. It is, after all, a weed. Americans spend more than a billion dollars a year on more than 100 million pounds of herbicides, pesticides and other lawn-care chemicals in their attempts to rid their yards of these and other pesky plants.

Let’s look at another insidious invader. Several years ago, as I was making my twice-weekly drive between Boston and Portland, I noticed a beautiful flower blooming along the wet, marshy swales beside the highway. It was tall and feathery with brilliant purple blossoms. This flower, the purple loosestrife, was a source of beauty and joy for me as I traveled the well-worn roads day in and day out. How the loosestrife made it to American shores from its native Europe is uncertain, although some speculate that it was a secret stowaway in the sand and soil that some early immigrant ships used for ballast and then dumped overboard upon their arrival in the New World. It was also valued in Europe for its medicinal properties, and it was likely brought over intentionally as well. By the early 1800’s loosestrife was so abundant in the wetlands and along the shores of New England that some botanists listed it as a native species. Gardeners on both sides of the Atlantic have cultivated loosestrife for centuries, for its beauty as a border planting, for its homeopathic properties and for its support of the honey bee population. The purple loosestrife, like the dandelion, is a miracle of nature. It enjoys an extended flowering season from early June through September, and a mature plant may contain as many as thirty flowering stems that will produce between two and three million seeds each year.[1]

But despite its beauty and utility, the purple loosestrife is, like a common criminal, named on the “most wanted” list of invasive plants of many state governments. It is a weed of the worst variety, an alien invader of our nation’s wetlands that threatens to choke out the natural diversity that supports wildlife and indigenous species of flora and fauna.

I’ll ask you to indulge me as I describe to you one more plant that I find fascinating, the pachysandra terminalis. It’s a plant that I grew up with in New York, but that doesn’t flourish in Maine where I spent the last 23 years. Upon my arrival in Pennsylvania, the common pachysandra greeted me like a long-lost friend. In the heavily-wooded Borough of Swarthmore, it is the preferred ground cover plant, where great carpets spread across shady lots. One gardening website refers to pachysandra as “America’s favorite ground cover, second only to asphalt.”[2] Pachysandra is an import from Asia that thrives in moist, shady areas, spreading slowly through creeping shoots. It is strictly an ornamental plant, with no known medicinal or nutritious qualities. As I was weeding a bed of pachysandra earlier this summer, pulling vines and plants of suspicious origins that were poking their heads up from the groundcover, there occurred to me a certain irony. Here I was, weeding among a bed of what is, essentially, another weed.

What, then, makes a weed? Is a weed a weed just because we call it that? Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Saint Ralph” to we Unitarian Universalists, once said that a weed is simply a plant whose virtues we haven’t yet discovered. But I don’t think that’s quite right. Long ago we discovered the virtues of the dandelion and the loosestrife, yet they are a public menace. And the pachysandra, with no particular virtue other than its persistence in growing low and slow in shady areas, is spared this label. In his book Second Nature, author and gardener Michael Pollan describes the strict hierarchy of plants, where the top spaces are occupied by what he calls the “hypercivilized hybrids” like roses, and the bottom tier is infested with the weeds, which he calls “the plant world’s proletariat, furiously reproducing and threatening to usurp the position of their more refined horticultural betters.” Weediness, he tells us, is determined by several factors, including how highly hybridized a plant is (the more refined and cultured, the better), the ease or difficulty of growing it (the hearty and easily adaptable larkspur is more “weedy” than, say, a fragile, delicate orchid), and, finally, its color. (White, of course, is at the top.) Pollan goes on to tell us that there are two primary schools of thought when it comes to weeds. The first holds that “a weed is any plant in the wrong place” and the other defines a weed to be “any aggressive plant that competes successfully against cultivated plants.” “The metaphysical problem of weeds,” he writes, “is not unlike the metaphysical problem of evil: Is it an abiding property of the universe, or an invention of humanity?”[3] The purple loosestrife that I enjoyed driving up and down Route 95 for years was, to my eye, a joy. But then my friend told me that it was a terribly invasive weed, and my perception of the plant was forever changed. Was the loosestrife a weed before we made it so?

Any gardener will tell you that your vegetable crop will be stifled and eventually overcome if you don’t dispose of the plants that you didn’t plant there. Sedge and kudzu and bamboo will invariably crowd out tomatoes and peas and beans, just as loosestrife has overtaken the cattails of New England marshlands. No matter how we might equate weeds with wilderness and nature, whether we are backyard gardeners or farmers of the Great Plains, as cultivators of the land we are called to discriminate between the plants we want and those we don’t. We make these value judgments when we plant pachysandra and pull up pigweed. As Michael Pollan writes, “weeding is the process by which we make informed choices in nature, discriminate between the good and bad, apply our intelligence and sweat to the earth.”[4] And so, depending on our intended outcomes, the picture of the world that we wish to create, we may praise or curse the plants that erupt from the soil beneath our feet.

When I offered up the topic of this morning’s sermon last June, I had in mind a light-hearted look at weeds, at the lengths we go to get rid of them, and at how weeds are what we make of them. As I’ve considered and encountered weeds over the weeks since, I have, however, become increasingly troubled and uneasy. For as the crops of our country’s farmlands have ripened and, in some cases, shriveled on the vine, I hear the language of weeds being used in our nation’s debate about the “problem” of illegal immigration. Like so much loosestrife, illegal aliens from Mexico, Central and South America and Asia are flooding our Edenic homeland, straining our public resources, crowding our cities and taking our jobs. We, the precious flowers of our highly hybridized civilization, are under siege from these uncultured invaders. “Aliens” we call them, “Illegals.” Labels that, like the term “weed” implies that they are a scourge, a menace, to be eradicated. The Bush administration recently announced a crack-down on people living in the United States illegally, as well as on the companies that employ them.

Let me say at the outset that I am in favor of controlling our borders and stemming the flow of people entering our country through illicit means. As a nation we have a right to protect ourselves from terrorists and criminals and others who may wish us harm. But the American Dream is an attractive one to many living in poverty just across our borders. The dream of having a steady job, of being able to feed your family, of educating your children, of living in a decent home without fear of being the victim of violent crime. For all its problems and all its limitations, our society has achieved a standard of living unmatched in human history, and many who see it from afar long to share in our bounty. And just as every one of us here today is a child of immigrants -- parents, grandparents, great-grandparents who wanted to share in this dream -- so are there today unborn children whose parents long to provide to them what ours provided to us. Many of those parents are risking their lives to get it. Crossing the ocean in shipping containers and crossing our southern borders in 18-wheelers. Hiking for miles across dangerous deserts in blazing heat and chilling cold. Floating across the Caribbean Sea on rafts made of old tires and plastic sheeting.

When we label these people – these mothers and fathers and grandparents and children – as “illegal aliens” we dehumanize them. And once they are dehumanized it is easy to talk about them as things, as problems, as so much kudzu to be beaten back at the border, lest our garden be overtaken and all that we have cultivated destroyed. Never mind that our apple crops are rotting on the trees and our grapes are wilting on the vines this summer, because farmers can’t find workers to bring in their crops. What has been lost in the debate over our immigration situation is the fact that each of the individuals who live in our country illegally is a human being, a person with a family and a story just like us. We couch the debate in terms of “us” and “them” when, in fact, there is no “them.” There is only “us.” And as every religion the world has ever known has told us, do unto others as you would have done unto you. Or, in this case, as you would have had done unto your parents, or grandparents, or great-grandparents when they arrived on these shores.

In an effort to bring a human face to the so-called “immigration problem,” let me tell you the story of Jorge. Jorge is not his real name, but he is a real person. And he is the friend of one of my closest friends. Jorge lives in San Francisco. He is a carpenter, a term that doesn’t accurately reflect his talent. He is an artist with wood. He builds cabinetry and moldings and other finish woodwork for fancy homes of business executives and governmental officials. Jorge has lived in the United States for 14 years, having made the treacherous passage from Mexico on foot across the desert of Arizona. Jorge has a 7 year-old son who was born in this country and is thereby a US citizen. With a false driver’s license and social security number Jorge rents an apartment, owns a car, works. He even pays taxes to the government that is in constant pursuit of him. Jorge lives in fear daily. As he drives from his apartment to the job site, he worries that he’ll be stopped for a minor traffic infraction, or simply because of his brown skin, and that a California State Trooper will discover that his license is fake. He knows that, if that happens, he’ll be handcuffed and thrown in jail, and that, within a few short weeks he will be sent back to Mexico where he has no family, no job and no hope. And his son will grow up fatherless.

Ask Jorge why he doesn’t try to legalize his status here and he’ll tell you that to do that under current law it would mean voluntarily returning to Mexico, submitting an application to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (for a fee, of course) and waiting somewhere in the neighborhood of 6 or 7 years for a decision which could, of course, be a rejection.

Our politicians, particularly the conservative ones, are afraid of the word “amnesty” because they don’t want to appear soft on crime. They also fear that granting amnesty to those in our country illegally will open the floodgates to more illegal immigrants. I believe that we need a two-prong approach that considers and treats as human beings, with the respect they are due, those who wish to stay here or those who wish to come here and work. First, it is high time to welcome the Jorges of our society into our garden as full partners in the American Dream. Amnesty for those who have lived and worked diligently within our borders for fifteen, ten, or even five years, who have abided by our laws and who want nothing more than to share in this nation’s bounty (and to add to it) is long overdue. Amnesty is not a reward for their illegal entry, but an acknowledgment of their industriousness and honesty. Second, we must revise our immigration policy to make it easier for U.S. companies to employ foreign workers. We should provide them with incentives to legally invite guest workers here rather than to charge them exorbitant fees and to threaten them with fines for noncompliance. We should encourage legal, seasonal employment of people from overseas and thereby discourage illegal entry. Legal entry into our country, properly monitored, followed by a return to the worker’s home country at the end of his or her term will enable those living in poverty overseas to support themselves and their families while discouraging illegal entry at the risk of deportation. Offered the choice of legal, seasonal employment or long-term illegal status, most foreign workers will choose the legal route.

There are countless Jorge’s in this country right now, likely millions. Men and women who, although they have entered the country illegally, have been and continue to be productive members of our society. They may not be highly hybridized flowers in the top tiers of the garden’s hierarchy (though some of them could be, I’m sure, given the chance). But nor are they weeds to be uprooted and eradicated from the rich soil of this nation. Like a rototiller run amok, this nation’s immigration policy fails to discriminate between the flowers that bloom and the dangerous, insidious actors. In describing the process by which we cultivate our gardens, Michael Pollan tells us that “weeding is the process by which we make informed choices in nature, discriminate between the good and bad, apply our intelligence and sweat to the earth.” We owe at least this same level of care, discrimination and intelligence to the human beings who sit at the heart of the immigration debate.