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Book Review: Weeds: The Story of Outlaw Plants by Richard Mabey

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Arriving in France to a spring garden in which the nettles stand chest-high with the grass-seed heads waving alongside, it seemed the ideal time to pick up Richard Mabey’s Weeds: The Story of Outlaw Plants. It also turned out to be a book that crossed across many of the environmental news stories of today – as well as being simply a cracking good read. Mabey as a writer really knows how to let an anecdote rip across the page, and his sources and interests are wide and broad though never overwhelming, but he’s also a thinker, and the overview of human interaction with nature – our sheer blazing ignorance and careless destructiveness – come strongly through as a theme of Weeds.

One topical story is that of ragwort – a “weed” that last year got a UK government minister hellbent on its destruction as a “vile” plant into a lot of (entirely deserved) hot water. He quotes the country poet John Clare’s early 19th-century view of it as displaying “beautys manifold” in a “sunburnt & bare” spot on a degraded meadow, contrasting it with 20th-century hysteria about the poisoning of grazing animals, particularly horses. Mabey notes: “Neither wild nor domestic animals will usually eat growing ragwort if other forage is available. The vast majority of poisoning cases are from dried plants which have been cut with hay and, ironically, from wilted and shrunk specimens which have been sprayed with herbicide (the plant is just as toxic when dead, and less easily recognised by animals.)… Clare accepts ragwort as one of the adornments of the summer landscape, even by the side of the ‘waggonways’ used by horses. The absence from the poem of any reference to local hostility (often mentioned in connection with other species) suggests there was some kind of rapprochement with the plant. It was a weed to be respected, not demonised.)”

Another strong theme now in the news is the overall massive loss of diversity over past centuries, but particularly last decades – highlighted today by news of how “the wholesale ripping up of hedgerows, draining of wetlands and ploughing over of meadows” has led to the loss of 50% of Europe’s farmland birds, and about the farming time-machine needed to try to reintroduce the short-haired bumblebee into Britain.

Mabey travels with a young Finn, Pehr Kalm, who in 1748 visited the farm of the celebrated British improver William Ellis. It was March, before plants had flowered, so the young visitor sorted through dried hay to establish what mix of species grew in the rich pastures. (The same method, Mabey notes, is still used by ecologists today.) There were 29 species, only nine of them grasses, “including several that would be regarded as grassland weeds today – hoary plantain, daisy, yarrow, knapweed, hawkweed” and, predominately what we now see as a lawn weed, bird’s-foot trefoil… which Ellis “praised beyond compare and set before all other grass species in his Modern Husbandman … to be in the highest perfection the most proper hay for feeding saddle-horses, deer, sheep and rabbits, as well as cattle”. Mabey notes we now know that many of these despised “weeds” have higher nutritional value than the grasses they are killed with herbicide to make space for.

Then there’s the “hot” question of how much we can continue to engage in large-scale monoculture, maybe with genetically modified crops to deal with the manifold problems, an issue that’s being played out in Britain today in a dispute over GM wheat. There’s good cause to be worried about the risks of this controversial trial, but even more cause to be concerned about an attempt to use a simplistic solution to allow the continuation of our destructive broad-scale farming systems. Nature’s a lot smarter and faster than we are, as Mabey illustrates with the example of the rice bred for South-East Asian conditions too “out-smart” weed grasses. “In the rice paddies… there are weed grasses so similar to cultivated rice that farmers are unable to distinguish them before the wild grasses bloom. Plant breeders thought they might be able to trick the weed into showing itself by developing a variety of rice with a purple tinge. Within a matter of years the weed grass had turned purple too. The slight pigment that had enable plant breeders to develop the coloured rice also occurs occasionally in the weed. With each successive harvets it was this strain that … passed into next year’s seed store.”

Mabey shows how attitudes to “weeds” reveals so much about human society, most notably perhaps in the nightmare of the American lawn – a toxic monocultural sward, saturated with chemical weedkiller and fertilser (more used per acre than on any crop) that occupies from 50,000 square miles (about the size of Iowa) and on which more than $30billion a year is spent. Mabey explains the origins of suburbia with Frederick Law Olmsted, a landscape architect established one of the first planned communities in 1868, laying out rules saying that each house had to be set 30 feet back from the road, and any exterior divisions were banned. Mabey notes: “The sociologist Paul Robbins has coined a term for the suburban victims of the combined pressures of national tradition, neighbourly prissiness, commercial gardening pressures, and the insistent identity, the integrity, of the lawn itself. He calls them ‘Turfgass Subjects’.” Mabey notes how this is taken to extremes in Houston, Texas, where by-laws make any weeds “illegal”, defined as “‘any uncultivated vegetable growth taller than nine inches’ – which makes about two-thirds of the entire United States’ indigenous flora illegal in a Houston yard”.

Mabey also reminds us just how much traditional wisdom and knowledge has been lost, and has had to be rediscovered. Medieval weeding techniques, as reconstructed by the historian Dorothy Hartley made full use of the power of mulching (and showed an economy of effort a modern time-and-motion type might envy).

“He uses two sticks: with the first, hooked stick, he plucks the weeds out from under the corn stalks, and with the second, forked stick pins the weed’s head down under the fork. The weeder then steps one pace forward, placing his foot on the head of the weed, and with this forward movement, swings the fooked stick round behind him, lifting th root of the weed high out of the ground before dropping it in line. In this way each pulled-up weed is shaken clear of the soil, and laid with its root over the buried head of the previous weed. Thus, as the weeder goes along the line of the furrow her lays a mulch of decaying weeds alongside the roots of the corn…”

The focus is the UK, but there’s plenty of international perspective, and Mabey has a particular interest in Australia, as might anyone interested in the damage done by the introduction of exotic species, astonishingly extreme by world standards. Among the reasons Mabey gives for this are “the isolation of the continent, and a flora that has few genetic or biochemical connections with plants in other parts of the world; the climate, hot and wet by turns; and the thin, nutriient-poor soils, which have had no ancient history of hoofed animals to scuff them up and encourage the evolution of plants resistance to disturbance”. He goes to Australian biologist Tim Low (author of Feral Future) to describe the damage – 2,500 rampaging species, costing A$4bn a year, and destroying ecosystems and native plants. The ongoing chaos befits a Greek tragedy – Asian pampas grass was no problem for almost a century after introduction, because all were females, unable to set seed. Then in the 1970s someone introduced a pastel form that was a pollen-bearing hermaphrodite. It took off. Then there’s the prickly pear cactus – a control success story, of sorts. By the 1920s this sub-tropical Amercian plant infested some 25 million acres in Queensland and New South Wales. A moth caterpillar, Cactobastus cactorum, was introduced to control it – a success story – sort of, except the species has now spread around the globe and begun to destroy wild native cactus populations.

Mabey sees some signs of sense returning to agricultural and gardening practice. “Many gardeners now tolerate and even enjoy the more colourful weeds in their gardens. Whole uncultivated corners may be devoted to them and the insects and birds they attract … some farmers are developing similarly benign attitudes, leaving six-foot strips of weeds along the edges and headlands of their arable fields. This, to be fair, is chiefly for the benefit of another crop, the pheasant. But it also provides refuges for finches and barn owls and insects which help with pollination and pest control. Twenty arable weeds are now included in the UK Biodiversity Plan, which means there is government support available for increasing their populations, or establishing sanctuaries for them… ‘Integrated weed management’ systems are reintroducing practices which echo those used by William Ellis in the 1700s, for instance under-sowing maize crops with a useful ‘weed’ like clover to suppress more harmful ones, and naturally boost available nitrogen”.

Still, however, he has to confess, that this rapprochement with weeds is as yet nascent….

“They are regarded as inexplicable and impertinent intruders, quite unconnected with the way we live our lives. And in a radical shift of perspective we now blame the weeds, rather than ourselves. Yet we gave them their derogatory name, and the opportunity to extend their repairing role out of the wilderness and into our damaged world. Every single weed nuisance – from the ground elder in the over-hoed English herbaceous border, to the casually imported pond plant suffocating the Everglades swamps, to the cogon smothering the napalmed remnants of Vietnamese rainforest – has been the consequence of thoughtless and sometimes deliberate disruption of natural systems. Weeds are our most successful cultivated crop.”

Mabey is seen as a naturalist and nature writer, rather than a scientist. But the kind of wisdom he brings to Weeds desperately needs to inform the direction of agricultural science – and I’m afraid that with a few honourable exceptions, that message has yet to reach home in the quarters that it needs to.

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About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.