Magazine June 17, 2013, Issue

Grasping the Thistle

Fifty years ago my parents had a lawn — half an acre, surrounding their post-war ranch house. It was mowed (by me, when I could not avoid it). When it turned crisp, we moved an oscillating lawn sprinkler from quadrant to quadrant to refresh it. Those bright unwanted visitors, the dandelions, were carefully dug up; when they proved too stubborn, weedkiller was applied (a stinking metal canister with a hose and wand lurked in the garage, amongst the bicycles and the cans of paint thinner). We could not have an old mansion, or its staff, but we could have a bit of its turf. Our lawn was the ideal of the country gentleman, Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley, Americanized, suburbanized, and democratized. Down our street marched the lawns of our neighbors, some shaggier than ours (we disdained them), others more meticulous (we resented them), most identical. The background buzz of lawnmowers is the soundtrack of my summer memories, along with ice-cream trucks and transistor radios playing Gary Lewis and the Playboys.

Now I have a lawn — an acre, falling gently downhill from my house in the woods. It would be twice the work of the lawn of my youth if I were not more than twice as old. I love my lawn, and I love not taking care of it. God is my gardener, and the man who plows my driveway is His assistant. He (the man) mows it whenever the grass becomes very shaggy; if He (God) withholds the rains, the lawn must fend for itself. I will rake the leaves when they fall, but that is it.

My great change of heart was revising my notions of weeds. The man who built the house and cleared the acre planted some sort of grass, and I have planted other sorts from time to time. But when other plants come up, I let a hundred flowers blossom.

The first weed to appear every spring is bitter cress. Soon after the snow melts, while there are still frosts, tiny white blossoms float on short homely stems like a special effect that misfired (I told you I wanted dry ice). They exemplify the spring ephemeral — in a week they have vanished, as if they had never been. Yet they are persistent — next spring, without fail, they will be back.

Next comes something like a wild onion — a slim, six-inch shoot, drooping at the top, like a girl embarrassed by her gangliness. If they flower, I miss it, perhaps because the mower has made his first pass by then.

#page#May brings violets, the weeds that are worth writing home about. I never saw a display so prolific as this spring. Purple, white, and even yellow, they grew in the gravel of the driveway, they marched up the stream into the woods, they sprinkled the damp spot by the stone wall like confectioners’ powder. They have loved the cool weather, and when it turns brutal, they will eke out an extra month wherever there is shade. If you look into their hearts, you find patterns of delicate lines like crosshatching in old etchings. They are beautiful, simple, small, tough; no one could deserve them, yet they are everywhere.

Violets are also edible. I would not recommend a diet of them, but they make a pleasant garnish in a salad. The all-weather invader in my lawn is drinkable — mint. I battle to keep it out of my gardens, but decided to let it overrun certain marginal tracts of grass. Once or twice a year it gets mowed down; nothing offended, it springs right back. It feels like the height of idleness and ease to stroll out, pluck a few handfuls, and brew a pot of tea.

The pivot in my relations with weeds came when I learned that dandelions were edible. That scourge of the suburbs, so detested, so resilient; that stern test of patience and ruthlessness, since if you did not dig up the entire root, it would reflower and double — if you pluck its leaves before it blossoms, they do not simply decorate a salad, they make the salad itself. The beauty of the thing is in the ease of it: I do not have to make dandelion wine; I do not even have to boil water; since I do not use weedkiller, I hardly have to wash the leaves, beyond spritzing off the dirt. Take your enemy to dinner.

The world of pleasant weeds is a fantasy, every bit as much as the world of middle-class lawn care, Pemberley for everyone. Pleasant weeds gratify our hope that nature is a mild and bounteous mother. So she is — until she isn’t. In the dry spells, brush fires bring out the volunteer firemen to do battle (and share a keg afterwards); when tropical storms leave the tropics, even my little pond overflows its banks. That is to say nothing of droughts, tsunamis, tornadoes, conflagrations, plagues, ice ages — all the little skin rashes of Gaia that slaughter thousands.

The weed that better suggests nature’s sometimes prickly otherness might be the thistle. When it grows beyond the lawn in the meadow, it is welcome — the purple flower, though small in proportion to the hulking plant, is pretty, and goldfinches like the seeds. In the lawn it makes an unpleasant squatter. It is covered with dozens of sharp spines; it cannot be touched without gloves — not latex, but tough, old-fashioned canvas; like the dandelion, its root must be removed entire, or it will only grow; one can be big enough already, approaching the size of a dinner plate. So far as I know it is inedible. God, in an angry mood, thought so: “Cursed is the ground for thy sake. . . . Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee.” A few have taken root where an uphill path leaves the lawn, as if planted by my footfall. I dig them up now and again, but their descendants live on. Reminders.

Historian Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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