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.

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

In This Issue


Politics & Policy

Hard to Fire

Lois Lerner, who is at the center of the IRS targeting scandal, is clearly not a model federal employee. But it is very difficult to fire her or anyone else ...


Politics & Policy

UKIP Shakes Up Westminster

It’s all but impossible to launch a new political party under America’s electoral arrangements, and extremely easy to do so under Continental proportional representation. The Westminster first-past-the-post system puts the ...
Politics & Policy

A Chronic Disease

Conservatives and Republicans in Washington — activists, strategists, politicians — are increasingly embracing a theory about Obamacare: It’s going to collapse of its own weight, and its failure could yield ...
Politics & Policy

Defending Lincoln

Decades ago, the distinguished Lincoln biographer David Herbert Donald coined the phrase “getting right with Lincoln” to describe the impulse people feel to appropriate Lincoln for their own political agendas. ...

Books, Arts & Manners

Politics & Policy

Leviathan Fail

In Our Enemy, the State, Albert Jay Nock distinguished between the government and the State. Sadly, these terms have become interchangeable in everyday parlance: “Statism” is simply a more euphonious ...


Politics & Policy


Light Shines from New Haven I would like to thank Eliana Johnson for her tribute to Donald Kagan as he announced his retirement (“Donald Kagan’s Last Lecture,” May 20). His departure might ...
Politics & Policy

The Week

‐ The IRS is targeting people who make Obama look bad. Eric Holder, call your accountant. ‐ President Obama’s sprawling and frequently tedious National Defense University speech was long on hope ...
Politics & Policy


THE GREEN SWARD That green sward I used to walk above A baseball-diamond Mother remembered Near Penn, under a bridge, a field always Surprising her when she happened to recall It, a petal on a ...
The Long View

Investigation into the AP/James Rosen Matter

Department of Justice OFFICIAL TRANSCRIPT Investigation into the AP/James Rosen Matter   Interview with Subject conducted 5/29/13 in Conference Room H-0889, Department of Justice. Present: Investigator and Person of Interest [Name Redacted] Interview begins 11:03 a.m.   INTERVIEWER: ...

Moving Performances

Fine art these days is rarely either. Go to the sculpture wing of a contemporary museum, and you won’t find a painstakingly chiseled block of marble whose astonishing frozen drapery ...

Most Popular

Law & the Courts

‘Judges for the #Resistance’

At Politico, I wrote today about the judiciary’s activism against Trump on immigration: There is a lawlessness rampant in the land, but it isn’t emanating from the Trump administration. The source is the federal judges who are making a mockery of their profession by twisting the law to block the Trump ... Read More
White House

Trump’s Friendships Are America’s Asset

The stale, clichéd conceptions of Donald Trump held by both Left and Right — a man either utterly useless or only rigidly, transactionally tolerable — conceal the fact that the president does possess redeeming talents that are uniquely his, and deserve praise on their own merit. One is personal friendliness ... Read More

Columbia 1968: Another Untold Story

Fifty years ago this week, Columbia students riding the combined wave of the civil-rights and anti-war movements went on strike, occupied buildings across campus, and shut the university down. As you revisit that episode of the larger drama that was the annus horribilis 1968, bear in mind that the past isn’t ... Read More

Only the Strident Survive

‘I am not prone to anxiety,” historian Niall Ferguson wrote in the Times of London on April 22. “Last week, however, for the first time since I went through the emotional trauma of divorce, I experienced an uncontrollable panic attack.” The cause? “A few intemperate emails, inadvertently forwarded ... Read More

Poll Finds Nevada Voters Support School-Choice Programs

According to an April poll, a large number of Nevada voters support school-choice programs. The poll, conducted by Nevada Independent/Mellman, found that 70 percent of voters support a proposal for a special-needs Education Savings Account and 59 percent support expanding the funding for the current tax-credit ... Read More