What’s in a Weed?

by Ethan Seavey

Illustration by Ethan Seavey

When I was a young boy of Midwestern Suburbia, I plucked a bouquet of dandelions. The flowers were so vibrant, approaching the color of the crayon I’d always use for the sun. I gave them a cup to live in and water to drink; and they were the sun wilting indoors. They sat on the table as I did my homework, until someone older came along to tell me that my flowers were evil and malicious weeds, that I should throw them away before Mom spots them.

That was when I learned: a weed is a dandelion and dandelions should be plucked. When you find one, you go into the garage and find that green metal pole with fingers like a claw machine’s on one end. Then you locate the chest of the weed, push the metal into the ground, raise your foot and stomp on the metal bar. You break up the earth a little; you adjust the pole; and the metal claw is ready and eager to choke it out. At last, you smack the button on the top of the pipe, and those magic iron fingers grab the roots of your prey. 

Weeds are dumped on the sidewalk now and gathered into plastic bags later so they don’t re-root or go to seed. Weeds should be pulled before they are little puffballs; and blowing puffballs in the yard is spreading the evil. 

Dandelions aren’t the only weeds but they’re the only ones that you’ll see. They are not beautiful; they cannot be, because they are invaders. 

In Oak Park, the first suburb west of Chicago, everything is by human design. Every tree is planted and maintained by the village.. Every lawn is a dense green, watered every morning and cut every Saturday. If your yard is unkempt, you are fined. If you plant native, yellow grass, you’re disturbing the system and lowering property values.

As I grew up, I’d help sporadically in the yard, sticking my hands into gloves that fit a little better every time I’d help. I learned which flowers were Mom’s favorite and which ones were interlopers. One year I teamed up with my sister to build a wire fence to keep rabbits out of our vegetable patch, and the next year, morning glories—a flower, I’d once thought; a weed, I then learned—had grown around and consumed the wire. 

As I grow up I log weeds that are because they were never planted in the garden. I log weeds that are because they will draw blood, or are poisonous. I log weeds that are because they are reclaiming human creation. They root in the cracks of cement and grow in the grout; they’re ivy, devouring homes left untouched; they are the first to grow over graves.

In Oak Park, I learned that mushrooms are weeds. Grasses are weeds. Flowers are weeds, unless they are transplanted; all saplings are weeds, and they’re the hardest to kill. A weed is any unwanted plant, just as a pest is any unwanted animal, from fruit fly to termite to feral cat to coyote to pigeon. When an animal is demoted to pest, it is vulnerable. It can be killed without invoking guilt in the killer. But unlike the deaths of animals, the deaths of even great plants don’t cause many tears. Plants are a nuisance. They grow unpredictably and will never be uniform, even in the hands of the most skilled topiarist. Weeds are the common enemy of a manicured humanity.

In my hometown the humans have established dominion over the Earth. Wild nature is restricted to pockets of preservation, and the most common plant is that carpet of grass originally from Europe, same as the dandelion, but certainly not a weed.

The village is known to be full of tree-huggers. It is an arboretum, by the country’s requirements. There’s a tree every ten feet on the parkway, and five more in your yard. You can take walking tours to learn about them, but I’ve never gone on one. There are trees from all over the world, but they aren’t weeds, because they’re owned and planted by the village, so they’re uniformly trimmed and spaced. 

It wasn’t until I started spending my summers in Colorado, at 16 or so, that I saw real trees. Next to my second home I saw forests of lodgepole pines swaying as a unit. Just one tree is brittle and fails to withstand the persistent mountain winds. But with thirty neighbors, the pines brave the wind, swaying together, finding stability in numbers. When one falls, the whole forest is put at risk by its absence.

 Scattered amongst mountains of lodgepole pines are the birch-like aspen groves. Beautiful, skeletal trees with leaves a soft green, boldly approaching yellow under the sun’s rays. Every naturally born aspen in the area is connected by their roots. An aspen in your yard feels the death of another hundreds of miles away. In this way, they’re really all branches of one enormous underground tree. Saplings climb out of the ground like fingers, testing their niche for proper living conditions.

Oak Park’s trees were simulations; hoaxes; tricks, to convince us we’re still living lives on Earth. Because the village of Oak Park is not on Earth. New York is lightyears further away, but even little Oak Park is far from the world it sits upon. It controls what animals roam its streets; its native flora has been eliminated, too, to create this picture-perfect neighborhood with carpeted lawns and hardwood maple trees. Its artificial squirrels survive on the artificial trees and the discretely dumped garbage; its glass windows are wiped clean of feathers and bird blood; a house is poisoned to kill a colony of ants. 

Colorado has a much different, more pressing weed problem, because there is still nature to save. Centuries ago, humans brought pretty flowers with them when they made the journey up, and now those pretty flowers fill fields, taking the space the native plants need. They can’t survive anywhere else. They were perfected by millions of years of slow advancement to perfectly adapt to the alpine climate; and the daisy, with its ruthless, wet-dog scent, invades. It wins, every time. 

Here, I updated my definition of the term “weed”: in Colorado, weed is first a legalized drug and second any plant brought to the area irresponsibly that has escaped human control and is now free to consume the earth. The most reckless weeds are those that find root in places humans have reserved for nothingness: thistles in gravel parking lots; hemlock in the rivers once excavated for gold; and daisies, daisies everywhere a human has unturned a stone.

Long before humans set foot on the mountains, the summers were filled with color. Paintbrushes of white, red, pink, orange; blue bushes of wild sage; tiny tubular horsetail ferns of striped green; and the pink tips of the foxtail grass, bleeding in the sunlight. 

When humans first arrived, the wildflowers considered them a weed. They didn’t belong, and they stole nutrients as they walked. They lacked the skills and knowledge to survive at a base elevation of 9,500 feet above sea level. They begin to wilt at the height, finding it difficult to catch their breath and falling ill. The wildflowers laugh at their naïveté, but at some point, something changes. The humans survive the winters and cheer about the shiny rocks they find in the rivers. In just a few years, their population has doubled; and in a few more, it’s clear they’ve taken over. A weed no flower can beat. They lay stone over the fields so nothing can grow; and in the dirt behind their wooden homes, they plant their beloved European daisies, pleased by the sight of their swaying in the breeze.

When I see a daisy I see my human mistakes. I see excitement for beauty and bringing dandelions into a house. I see wanting more; I see people dissatisfied with the mundane of what’s already here muddying the system with daisies because they look pretty, because they flower all summer, because their seeds last for years and so they’ll come back next year, and the next after that. 

When I see a daisy I can finally define the term “weed.” I decide which flowers are the product of a wonderful evolution and which ones are parasites to the yard. I don’t just hear that it’s a weed from someone else, I decide, based on its non-native origin and rapid, aggressive spread. 

When I see a daisy on a walk, I pluck it. Sometimes just that one; but sometimes I’ll pluck forty and move along. They’re illegal anywhere, punishable by a fine, but this is rarely enforced. So it’s me, a lone, dull vigilante, trespassing in a field full of feathery, foul-smelling daisies. I pluck half the field before I have to leave Colorado again. 

Sitting on the plane, I look down at the flattened mountains and imagine the thousands of daisy fields I’d never seen. I rest my head on the plastic window, which bows slightly under my weight, and I imagine our exhaust, the smoggy shadow we leave in our wake.