Farm News

Weeds: A Philosophical Journey Pt. 2

april joy farm field

Part II

full sized pigweed

Full sized pigweed

After my revelation I was convinced it was foolish to think I could truly extirpate my weed ‘problems.’ I felt like I was back at square one. But really, I was just beginning one of the best journeys of my life. I knew clearly that what I had previously thought of as model farms many not truly be the ecologically highest functioning farms. In fact, quite the opposite could be true. Monoculture farms in which thousands of acres are uniformly seeded to one variety of plant definitely had a neat and tidy look. But this approach to growing food has damaging consequences… and it sure didn’t look healthy to me. I began to parse apart the word good so I could discover its true meaning in the context of my farm. I began to question my previously unchallenged ideas about how beauty and health were connected. Privately, the concept of beauty had begun to change considerably for me. What I saw showcased as beautiful in terms of food production was often not indicative of any measure of authentic health.

But publicly, every time I hosted visitors, I felt a little embarrassed because no matter how many hours I worked, my fields never looked as neat and tidy as I thought they should. Well, all that changed one summer day. I was in the middle of giving a farm tour. A guest was complimenting me on how good all my crops looked and how hard it must be to keep up with all the weeding. Before I knew what I was saying, the words, “Well, I think of my farm as a work in progress,” came out of my mouth.

After the tour I turned that phrase over and over in my mind. Like a life raft, I clung to it. Why, each of my rows and aisles and fields and trials were truly a work in progress. Any day of the year you visit the farm, every animal, fruit tree, vegetable, farmer and weed… we are all works in progress. We are all life forms hard at work growing, changing, becoming, expanding or receding. I began to consider my farming practice as just that – A PRACTICE.

Practice is messy. Practice is uncertain. Practice is experiential and chaotic and requires tools and resources and prototypes. Practice requires failure.

IF I could never eradicate all the weeds anyway and IF everything was a work in progress, these two ideas meant I could stop yearning for perfection. Instead (metaphorically) I could leave all the pens and paper and paints and ideas on the drafting table because I was capital W Working. I could stop bludgeoning myself for not having perfectly weeded aisles and manicured lawns. Instead, I could trustingly follow my creative curiosity and thereby take an incremental approach to improvement. This curiosity, without fail, gave me exactly the experiences and challenges I needed to learn. By ceasing to expect perfection in my work, I could allow myself to work more freely. By doing so, I could inch closer to a new, more kind and generous vision of a ‘perfectly imperfect’ farm. In this vision, there was less effort and more flow, less judging and more acceptance, less busy work and more meaningful work.

With this philosophy, my work mattered now in a new way, and my trials did too. Even my failures and weedy patches mattered because from each experience I took away a small shaving of knowledge, of confidence, or of understanding. These small bits began to add up and the big weights of being, looking, or acting in a certain manner began to fall away. Yes, little by little, I am moving closer and closer to my vision of a ‘perfect’ farm. Concurrently, my vision of a ‘perfect’ farm is blossoming into something beyond what I could have imagined from my place of restrictive perfectionism.

Through some moment of grace, and by wrestling with this idea of a work in progress, I realized that actually, I didn’t want that original version of perfection. Because if everything was perfect, then oh my, that meant I would have nothing to work towards. With great relief, I realized I was in the thick of life. I realized I was the happiest as a work in progress, where I could experiment in a fun, free-form way. I suddenly became very thankful for all my weeds; my weeds meant I wasn’t finished with life.

It was the nearly crushing weight of my own weed shaming that allowed me to begin to break apart my awful perfectionist tendencies. My whole life, I would have denied that perfection was my goal, for who admits to that? But my weeds made me confront the truth, because weeds are completely relentless.

Pigweed is a plant you don’t turn your back on. From seed to senescence can take as few as two months. This means 1 seed becomes 1 million seeds in about 8 weeks.

Cultivation left a dust mulch around these young squash plants, thereby discouraging germination of pigweed and other small-seeded weeds. However, foot traffic recompacted the soil enough to re-establish seed–soil contact near the surface, thereby allowing weed seeds to imbibe moisture, germinate, and grow in the footprints. Photo credit: Mark Schonbeck, Virginia Association for Biological Farming.

I learned early on to treat pigweed not as one plant, but many, for it truly does contain multitudes. Like other weeds, it undergoes a metamorphosis startlingly fast. The seemingly innocuous little green plants can grow as tall as 4 feet in their short lifespan. The tender, easy to hand-pull seedlings transform into tall and slender red stemmed plants with spiny, needle sharp bracts that hold one million shiny, black seeds.

Pigweed taught me that timing is everything, and thus it transformed my enjoyment of weeding. Because of its skin piercing seedheads, I quickly learned that weeding full grown pigweed was not for the faint of heart. With the right tool, with the right soil conditions, I can roar down and back a 160 foot bed in less than an hour and it is pleasant, enjoyable, peaceful work. As far as pigweed is concerned, size matters!

I’ll always carry a certain fondness for pigweed. In part, because years ago I came across the picture on the left when I was learning about its lifecycle. It’s my absolute all time favorite weed photograph. It reminds me of the quintessential relationship between weeds and humans. The big plants are the “good” vegetable plants. A farmer has taken time to weed all around them, and has been quite successful. But the two patches of pigweed are growing most prolifically—literally—in the farmer’s footsteps. What a conundrum!

Amaranthus retroflexus

The ideal stage at which to weed Amaranthus retroflexus. Just looking at it makes me want to grab my wire hoe and run for the field! Can you see those little green leaves peeking up out of the soil?

But no matter what size the plants are when I go out to weed, you will never hear me gripe or complain. Oh, I will not hesitate to tell you heatedly about their strength and tenacity, but I will refuse, refuse to classify my weeds as enemies. I will refuse to personify them in a way that incites anger, which makes it easy to assume ‘they’ exist purposely to cause me harm. I refuse to believe that because one of us is here, it means we both can’t be. I refuse to believe competing interests can’t find the common ground of collaboration. This farmer and her weeds? We give and we take. Sometimes I give, sometimes I take. The weeds in my life keep me in balance. They keep me curious, attentive, and humble. They keep me questioning my false beliefs, the roots of my desires, and my knee-jerk reactions that stem from ego rather than compassion.

I can’t possibly hate pigweed. It never gives up. Once pigweed grows tall enough that you have to use two hands to pull it out, you’ll usually find it has taken root in dry, compact soil. So many times, I’ve rushed by, thinking I can get the job done fast. I’ll pull as hard as I can, but the roots won’t yield. Instead, the top breaks free, right at the soil line. Decapitated, I’ll pitch the spiny top growth and rush on to another task. But, without fail, when I come back a week later, a low, horizontal growing plant will be spreading stealthily, with three or more new arms where only a single vertical one existed before I intervened. This use to infuriate me, but now it makes me laugh so hard at my comical failings. Every time, pigweed teaches me to go beyond the superficial. Each plant seems to ask me, Do you want to effect change? Then stop rushing. Draw back your attention. Align your purpose with your actions.

Moment after moment, you have to be willing to kneel at the foot of truth and to go down deep. You have to be willing to work towards the roots of life. ~AJ

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