I picked it off the shelf whilst I was looking at gardening books. I have a weakness for single subject books – they are often as illuminating about people as they are about the putative subject. This was no exception and proved truly fascinating. I had come across Richard Mabey only as the author of the ubiquitous and useful ‘Food for Free’ but had never read anything else by him. This is a shame because he turns out to be a knowledgeable and lyrical writer. Anyone interested in plants should seek his work out, this book in particular.
What are weeds? Before we began farming I guess there were just plants, some of which were useful to us, some not; weeds probably only arrived as a concept when we began to try to control nature for our benefit. The standard definition seems to be ‘a plant in the wrong place’. Ruskin, though, is quoted as saying a weed is ‘A vegetable which has an innate disposition to get into the wrong place … It is not its being venomous, or ugly, but its being impertinent – thrusting itself where it has no business, and hinders other people’s business – that makes a weed of it.’
Each chapter is named after a weed, beginning with Thoroughwort and ending with The Shoreditch Orchid by way of Love-in Idleness, French Willow and Triffid. We see how weeds arrive; by accident in hay or wool or packaging or deliberately (damn those Victorian gardeners) escaping into the wild. Our views have changed too so a lovely wildflower may be reclassified as a weed and sometimes back again. Generally, though, weeds are associated, some might say made, by people. We select them, inadvertently, by our actions and the choices we make. Examples are the cornfield weeds, which were selected by our harvesting methods to be a similar height to the crop and by our threshing and cleaning methods to have a similar size and shape of seed. Evolution in action, with us as the evolutionary pressure. But as we disturb and compact soil signature weeds turn up to take advantage of our work. I am fascinated by the idea put forward that the weeds in an area indicate past human habitation and can be a living picture of what has happened on a site long after other signs have disappeared.
An illustration of the type of fascinating story embedded in this book is that of ‘the trunk-road hitchhiking of Danish scurvy-grass. Up to the 1980s [it] was a scarce native of the drier areas of the coasts around Britain….In the mid 1980s it began to appear on a few inland railway-line sites, where its seeds had been introduced with stone rubble brought from the seashore. Then it began to show up along the edges of motorways and major roads. The plants were packed close together, especially on the central reservations, and in their flowering time of March and April it was as if a deep and persistent frost had gripped the verges.’ Mabey continues his tale, noting that in Ireland, where road grit is salt free, there has been no similar diaspora. He notes other contributing factors but concludes, ‘the saltiness of the modern road – that shoreline tang sprayed from council gritting lorries every icy evening even in the landlocked heart of Britain – has been the crucial factor. Again, a social innovation has been immediately exploited by a weed.’
Mabey, towards the end of the book, suggests that we might consider restraining ourselves in our war against weeds given that something living is better than nothing as we move towards a different, more disrupted world. Even more, the urban ecosystems that have developed and made our cities more interesting are no longer in danger of infecting valuable cropland and could be left to naturalise. Weeds are usually pioneer creatures – they move in when we have destroyed a balanced ecosystem. Mabey comments that ‘they are like a kind of immune system, organisms which move in to repair damaged tissue, in this case earth stripped of its previous vegetation.’ He continues, ‘Weeds’ rapid, opportunist lifestyles mean that their role – what they do – is to fill the empty spaces of the earth, to repair the vegetation shattered naturally for millions of years by landslide and flood and forest fire, and today degraded by aggressive farming and gross pollution. In so doing they stabilise the soil, conserve water loss, provide shelter for other plants and begin the process of succession to more stable and complex plant systems.’ I will admit to a sneaking affection for most weed species and it’s good to see someone like Richard Mabey articulating this view so eloquently. This is definitely a keeper, not only for its sound ecological viewpoint, standing back a little from the concept that the world and its contents are solely for the use of humanity, but for its beautiful prose, dense with both information and imagery:
‘We habitually think of weeds as invaders, but in a precise sense they are also part of the heritage or legacy of a place, an ancestral presence, a time-biding genetic bank over which our buildings and tinkerings are just an ephemeral carapace.’
Picture (discussed in the book) by Albrecht Durer
Picture (discussed in the book) by Albrecht Durer