Weeds don’t exist in the wild: What can that tell us about humans?

Author: Dr. Ben Belek, a postdoctoral research fellow in social and medical anthropology at the Martin Buber Society of Fellows at the Hebrew University. He received his PhD in 2016 from the Division of Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge. His previous project focused on questions concerning subjectivity, embodiment, advocacy and activism among autistic adults in the UK. Articles from this project were published in Ethos, Medical Anthropology, and Anthropology Now. His current project engages with the value economies underpinning the global blood plasma industry.


“It is needless to go about to compute the value of the damage weeds do, since all experienced husbandmen know it to be very great, and would unanimously agree to extirpate their whole race as entirely as in England they have done the wolves, though much more innocent and less rapacious than weeds.” (Jethro Tull, The Horse Hoeing Husbandry, 1731)

My family and I had recently moved to an old house which we rent. It has a big yard and, when left to its own devices, not much grows there in summer. One can still see one’s own footprints in the arid soil from the day before. But as I began cultivating that little piece of earth, watering it and fertilising it, a change has been effected.

There sprang the plants I’d seeded: tomatoes, potatoes, radishes, lettuce, aubergines. But these were persistently accompanied by other, quite unwelcome visitors, who had seized this precious opportunity to actualise their dormant potential and emerge from the soil seed bank as full-fledged plants. As weeds.  

The more I cultivated the garden, the more time I had to spend plucking out these intruders one by one. It was hard work; but I came to rather enjoy the monotony. Uninterrupted, I could go on for hours, crouching on my bare feet, squinting to try and catch sight of another crabgrass hiding in the green of the lawn; or trying to tease out the carrot sprouts from the similarly shaped, but potentially lethal poison hemlock that routinely kept growing in their stead, in quite a sinister display of mimicry.

Herbage out of place

The more I weeded, the more I came to contemplate the peculiar human practice that is weeding. What are these weeds that occupy me so completely?

Weeds don’t exist in the wild. They can’t exist. A weed is only a weed when an onlooker says it is. The property of weediness, I reflected, is little more than herbage out of place. Only when an ambitious municipal labourer, for example, bounds a bit of wild with a fence to call it a green, are its native inhabitants suddenly affixed with this label. Only when a hardworking farmer extends her field to make room for a cauliflower patch, does the hitherto wild flora that lived and thrived there suddenly transform into a nuisance. Only with foreign settlement, does indigeneity become adversarial.

I started paying more close attention to my own little community of weeds. And I started regretting branding them as such. Not for ethical reasons, but for typological ones. A weed is such a non-specific term. So homogenising and unsophisticated. So structuralist.

Each so-called weed, after all, has a remarkable story to tell. Each is the product of millions of years of evolution. Each is a descendant from an ancient species that had migrated across seas and continents. Each has a life trajectory – dormancy, germination, establishment, secondary growth, bolting, pollination, seed dispersal, reproduction, death, decomposition. Each has shoots, buds, stems, leaves, leaf stems, roots, fruit, bulb, stolon, flowers, dermal tissue, ground tissue, vascular tissue, nodes. Each employs sunlight, devours nutrients, absorbs water, consumes carbon dioxide, produces sugars, exudes oxygen. Each is a habitat for a bee, a slug, a gnat, a caterpillar, a snake, a frog, a skink, a greenfly, a spider, a mite.

Where do these creatures go when their source of nutrition and shelter is branded distasteful and cast aside?

The context conundrum

When it comes to weeds, context makes all the difference. Here, for example, is a little patch meant for a pepper plant. As I water it, eminium seeds begin to sprout. After lingering in the dirt for what may have been many summers, they finally get their turn in the sunlight. They earn my admiration when they grow into a patch of green in an otherwise grey sandy landscape.

Framed by bits of decomposing trunk from a long-dead tree which I disinterred from the ground nearby, they give the appearance of a ‘civilised’ species. Something from the botanical gardens, perhaps. And they make a lovely decoration for my pepper. But when, ungratefully, they grow further still, they turn bothersome. They pose a threat to my pepper plant, taking away sunlight, water and fertiliser that was meant for it – not them. And so, in four or five tugs, I uproot them completely.

Small, it’s a delight. Large, it’s a weed.

Or this seemingly harmless shrub, the Syrian mesquite, with its small bright-green leaves. This unimpressive-looking bush has sharp little thorns that pierce right through the gardening glove. It grasps the ground with more force than one would expect, and it is nearly impossible to pull out – even if one does somehow manage to hold on to it without sustaining a painful injury. Try to cut it from the stem, it will grow back in a matter of weeks, utterly undisturbed.

He is an auto-rewilder, as per Anna Tsing: “Auto-rewilders are bold”, she applauds; “They are weedy. Like us, they do not play well with others.” (2017, 6). Yes, it is not friendly. Nor, as a matter of fact, is it a small shrub. The Syrian mesquite is a subterranean tree. It has an entire tree trunk underground, sometimes as deep as 20m in, when all that is visible above ground is its treetop. Consequently, the only way to get rid of it (chemical herbicides notwithstanding) is to dig a hole deep enough to get it out entirely, in one piece: trunk, root and all. Quite a lot of work for merely plucking a weed. So, one keeps it, reluctantly.

Is a weed still a weed when one has given up on the prospect of removing it?

Or this colony of burweed that has attached itself to my lawn of grass? In the winter, one would scarcely realise that it is distinct from the grass leaves themselves. Green and soft, it is as pleasing to the eye and to the foot as the non-weed which surrounds it. But as spring comes, it dries up and dies, turning my soft lawn into a disagreeable bed of thorns.

Only in its death is its life marked in retrospect as having been that of a weed.

A curious obsession

Clearly, I became fascinated by weeds. And subsequently, I began to think not only about weeds, but also through weeds. So many things around us – objects and practices, ideas and memories, words and categories, might be perceived as having weedy qualities – in that critical sense of the term.

That is, weeds are considered a nuisance for no better reason than because they were unlucky enough to have surfaced outside of their ‘proper’ human context; because they were unpopular; because they were marked as being out of place. Just as my appreciation for my own weeds grew the more time I spent in their company, I wonder what other ‘weeds’ deserve similar re-examination? 

What other victims of coarse structuralist binarism might prove to be more singular, and indeed, more interesting, if only their particular histories be considered, rather than discarded as belonging to one big category of uselessness?

[Image by Ilnur Kalimullin on Unsplash: https://unsplash.com/photos/gPy7RcnxOy8]

Leave a Reply