What is a weed? I am not a gardener and have always found the question puzzling. As I gaze at a garden, it is never obvious which are weeds. The definition of weeds explains why: “Any plant that grows in an unwanted place…”2 Weed is a moral term. The world is partitioned into the “wanted” and the weeds. We do not simply plant a garden, we also impose a moral grid on the earth. And we do not do this alone. We may not care about what plants spring up in our patch of earth—but others do. Try not weeding, mowing or tending to your lawn. Community ordinances in most urban areas prohibit the proliferation of weeds and you could receive a citation. Even if the ordinance is not enforced there are consequences: Weeds lower property values and raise neighborly ire.
Good friends of ours are native garden enthusiasts and offered to do ”missionary work” on a small patch in our small backyard. They carefully designed and planted a garden of native plants with beautiful flowers that bloom at different times and also attract birds, insects, and butterflies. They told us that we would have to weed the garden. I was surprised, as I thought “native” meant “no weeding necessary.” Despite being native, the division endures: the “wanted” and the weeds.
The day after the garden was completed, I watched a bunny munch away in our precious, newly planted patch. I was horrified! I quickly went to the garden supply store and bought sturdy two-foot high chicken wire to protect the plants from marauding rabbits. I began thinking of these intruders in different terms. They are no longer bunnies or even rabbits. They are varmints, pests, felons.
It is not lost on me that the words “varmint,” “pest,” and “felon” are all moral terms applied to undesirables who have trespassed into my space. It is also not lost on me that my moral compass about rabbits swung from “cute-harmless” to “objectionable-destructive” when I altered my values about our small plot of earth. And it is not lost me that claiming it to be “our plot” is the height of god-like presumptuousness. I am, of course, not alone in making such a claim. Every square inch of this entire continent is “owned” by someone or some collective entity.
One of the reasons we must fence out rabbits is the lack of predators. Rabbits proliferate and hop around our yard with impunity. They do this because most rabbit-predators are more objectionable: wolves, foxes, wild dogs, feral cats, raccoons. Those that prey on rabbits from the sky, including hawks, kites, falcons, merlins, eagles, and owls are of limited number because of urban habitat degradation. Rabbits thrive because the larger communal moral grid banishes or inadvertently diminishes their predators.
The “civilized space” in many urbanized areas is typically neatly partitioned into garden and lawn. The garden is an enhancement, a beauty mark set off from the grassy green lawn. Grass. My puzzlement about weeds is accompanied by my loathing of grass. My father bought 250 acres in the rugged, forested mountains in the Southern Tier of New York State when I was 12 years old. Our weekends were spent clearing large areas of natural growth, making trails, planting—and mowing—grass. This is not how a teenaged urban boy wants to spent his weekends. It is where my loathing of grass was fostered.
Turf grass is America’s biggest irrigated crop; more than corn, wheat, and fruit orchards combined. Over 1/3 of urban water use goes to lawns and up to 60% of this is wasted. Lawnmowers use gas and pollute—over 17 million gallons of gas are spilled filling lawnmowers. Grass is environmentally unsustainable in many parts of the country, especially the Southwest, where climate change, drought, and fires renders grass an extravagant folly. Nonetheless, grass still flourishes in many of these areas, where the extravagance of grass is not viewed as folly, but a badge of wealth and privilege. The moral compass has not yet swung from privilege to folly, but movement is afoot: Las Vegas, for example, has banned certain types of grass, water rationing is in effect across the Southwest, and fines have been imposed on those using water for their grass.
A grassy, manicured, weeded lawn is a moral imperative for much of the rest of the country; a communally enforced aesthetic. It is a moral esthetic imported into this country in the 19th century from England, where the large manor houses and palaces are fronted with huge lawns. Americans now front (and “rear”) their “estates”, mimicking the privileged class of Old England. The pernicious grip of grass-fed entitlement reaches across continents and centuries.
The moral compass about grass will be harder to swing in these water enriched areas, but early signs suggest the needle is starting to move. The environmental advantages of native gardening are many: Native plants are hardy, do not require fertilizer, need less water, reduce pollution, promote biodiversity, and are beautiful. Native gardening is becoming a booming industry, sale of native plants has dramatically increased, and standards for certification of native gardens have been established. Posting a sign of certification provides moral standing to a yard that might otherwise be judged as a neglected eyesore. On my small street alone there are several yards that are covered with plants, not grass, and another with a certification notice.
Gardening is inescapably moral, having consequences for the birds, insects and butterflies, the plants and animals, and the planet that cascade from our decisions about what constitutes a weed. Grass is a weed.