Now that I work on a farm I spend a lot of time weeding. Some time, it is true, I spend planting, either by hand or with a tractor implement of some stripe, or seeding, or transplanting or watering or fertilizing or harvesting. But weeding, especially in the warm wet spring, is one of the most time-consuming and least intellectually challenging tasks; while weeding, one has plenty of time to think.
In some senses, weeding is the quintessential drudgery: it is what the Industrial Revolution strove to free us from, a life spent literally crawling through the dirt. But it is much more than dirt and toil—it is an act that defines farming and embodies it at its most basic level. In fact, weeding was probably the first agricultural act, as people tended stands of edible plants they found before they started actively planting them. Agriculture created weeds; before that, we merely foraged through the stands of wild plants and ferreted out some edible pods or roots or fruits to eat. Only when we began taking care of clumps of edible plants did we feel the need to seek and root out (an expression that comes from weeding!) the trespassers among them. Farming is the attempt to harness a bit of land: what grows on it, how much, where, and when. A manmade bounty to replace the god-or-nature-given bounty of the hunter-gatherer.
Farming, organic or conventional, is terrible for the soil. As my boss says, soil likes to be covered. Away from manmade things and manmade places, one sees few patches of open dirt, except where a black walnut tree has poisoned the ground, or in a deer trail. That brown background on which the green rows of corn or wheat spring up is fundamentally unnatural, and far from empty; it is teeming with seeds just dying to germinate, seeds that stay viable up to a thousand times longer than our precious crops. (Archaeologists have grown plants from weed seeds they dug up at Roman sites, one thousand years old; we get a spotty yield from seeds bought for the 2011 growing season.) Cultivation, from plowing a new field before planting to using horse-drawn or tractor implements to keep the soil between the rows dug up and free of plants, is a task of unnaturally eliminating competition for plants which were not chosen by natural selection to survive, but chosen by us as delicious. So crop plants tend to be weak, proverbial and literal “hothouse flowers,” and we have to fight tooth, nail, and shovel for their survival against the formidable enemies they have developed over thousands of years.
The huge stock of seeds buried at every level in the soil were deposited there by hundreds of years of plants that have flowered, gone to seed, and scattered those seeds nearby; after any disturbance, a few more seeds will be churned to the optimum depth for germination, receive some moisture, and spring up to fill the space. When land isn’t covered, there’s erosion and a break down in the soil structure. In addition, whenever crops are removed from a field they take nutrients with them, and we eat those nutrients. Unlike the local squirrel, we do not tend to poop in the field after eating, so the more time land spends in production, the more nutrients are naturally depleted. So farmers use synthetic fertilizers to restore soil health or try to compensate the soil with time spent in fallow (that is, planted with legumes and grains that, instead of being harvested, are simply plowed under and left to decompose in the field at the end of the season) and lots of compost. Nonetheless, weeding, the perpetual concern of the farmer, is in some ways a repeated tearing off of the scab; land wants to be covered, and to have a constant build up of organic matter, living and dead, on its surface, while we want it open.
This issue of space, of keeping our fields “clean,” is essential to the concept of weeding. Weeds aren’t specific species; they are plants in the wrong place. Thistles and burdock and dandelions and Pennsylvania smartweed and chickweed and pigweed: these are weeds only when they grow in our beds of carrots or eggplant or kale or kohlrabi. They aren’t weeds when they grow on the verge of the highway or even in the middle of the road between the barn and the green house; there, they might be a valuable resource, a blossom that sustains our pollinators until our crops flower, an anti-erosion agent, or simply a beautiful thing. They were here first; all crops started as weeds. Carrots are thought to have been domesticated from a wheat field weed. Burdock is a crop some places and a weed others (like our strawberry field, for example). We try to seek weeds out and destroy them, before they germinate, after they germinate, after they seed, after they are grown. But weeds are still only a concept; there is no sense in driving burdock extinct because we want it out of our patch.
Weeding, then, is just an act of delineation, of marking out one’s human space from the wider, wilder world. Instead of foraging for edible plants among the multitudes, we have gathered edible plants together and strive to keep the rest out. On the farm where I work, we use methods that date from ancient Mesopotamia up to the present. Most obviously, we crawl down each bed of plants pulling and scratching out weeds by hand. This is a time-honored and highly effective technique, but it is not necessarily the most efficient. A bit faster, though less precise, is the hoe, an Iron Age technology with which weeds can be scraped up. Our post-Industrial Revolution methods include using the flame weeder (a propane filled backpack that connects to a torch we hold at ground level) to kill weeds that are just under the surface about to crack through; the basket weeder, a tractor implement with wheels of wire that tear up tiny just germinated weeds from the soil between the rows; and shovel cultivators, which dig a furrow of raw earth between crop beds. There are also systemic cures; trying to lessen the “seed bank” of weed seeds in the soil by turning soil so that seeds are exposed and die in the sun, or letting fields go without cultivation for a season and planting dense plantings of cover crop (annual plants that only live one year) that leave no room for weeds to pop up in between.
In Genesis, thistles are referred to as a punishment from God, yet another tribulation for agrarian man. And so it seems at times! But I try to see weeds as something else, as a reminder that farming is not the natural state of the earth, and that we should do it lightly. When I harvested my first radish, that I had seeded, and weeded, and weeded again, I was happy, but I did not feel that I had ‘made’ the radish; all I had done was put a seed in the ground, and protected it, and let it do its own thing. The sun, the rain, the fertility in the soil, the genetic code of radish had done the important part of the work. Farming is an act of constraining and encouraging nature and bending it to one’s will, but it is not an act of creation. It’s not a factory, where people input the raw materials and they get assembled into an output. In farming, nature inputs the raw materials and we try to encourage the output we prefer. While this particular weed might be the enemy this particular time, Weeds as a monolith, the eternal scourge of the farmer, that he is doomed perpetually to seek, don’t exist in the physical world. They are a concept. There is no panacea for concepts, and that includes chemical ones.
The industrialization of agriculture has changed all this. Now broad spectrum herbicides, that kill all plants, are sprayed constantly and everywhere. This, of course, requires special crops built to withstand these chemicals, which, naturally, results in special weeds which can resist as well. But it changes, in my mind, the spirit of weeding, where we carve out our little plot from the wilderness; it changes the game into a war. When modern chemical farms spray broad spectrum herbicides, they do so much damage, to all plants, that they are forced to find chemical solutions to problems that used to be solved by nature itself. Using mass amounts of chemical fertilizer, much richer in nutrients than normal old compost or composted manure, to restore the nutrients leached from the soil by harsh growing of monocultures in herbicide-sterilized land, is an example of the slippery chemical slope. However, when farming stops being a game of hide and seek among friends and starts being Sherman’s March to the Sea, unintended consequences abound; after all, we need the natural world for more than just food production. We need it for water and air as well, and the strange tampering that accompanies an unnatural form of agriculture affects those resources as well.