It’s summer as I write this post, which means I’m in the middle of lawn-mowing season. I remember begging my dad to let me mow the lawn when I was about 8 years of age. We had an old, heavy, gas-powered mower that was not self-propelled. Dad wisely said no for a year or two, until I was older and strong enough to safely handle it. I was so excited when he finally said yes. I look back on that time in my life and wonder, “what was I thinking?!?!?!” Of course, that was in Wisconsin. I now live in north-central Texas, and lawn-mowing season is an entirely different thing. It’s now a never-ending chore. And yet, if I’m honest with myself, it’s a chore I’d choose over most others. I would rather mow the lawn than sweep or mop floors.
Lawn-mowing has become a time of contemplation and reflection for me. There is something meditative about being outside, walking a line, back and forth, at a steady pace. My electric mower supplies a background hum that helps tune out distractions. I start to see and notice what’s happening in my yard.
Recently, one of the things I noticed was the variety of plants growing within the grass in my lawn. I must admit, my first response was, “I need to treat this lawn.” Fortunately, there was more grass to mow, which prevented me from acting on my first impulse. As I continued mowing and studying the condition of the lawn, I saw a dandelion. It brought to mind another memory of my childhood.
Winters in Wisconsin can be long and snowy. I walked to and from school, and I can clearly remember those spring days when I first saw the ground peeking through the snow during my walk. The dandelions followed shortly thereafter. In our spring joy, my siblings and I picked them and brought them to Mom, who received them as if they were the most precious and beautiful flowers in the world. Her happiness caused us to pick more. The kitchen windowsill soon was lined with jelly jars full of dandelion bouquets.
Now, mowing the lawn as an adult homeowner, I see the dandelion, and my first thought is of the commercial telling me I need to “shoot” it dead, along with all the other weeds. What happened to me?!?!?! At this moment though, there is more grass to mow, so I keep pushing the mower and contemplate. Who decides what’s a weed? Is the dandelion a weed? The Merriam-Webster online dictionary says a weed is “a plant that is not valued where it is growing and is usually of vigorous growth.” The United States Department of Agriculture maintains lists of weeds of the U.S. There’s even an entire field of weed science that studies management of the plants we don’t want.
Sometimes, there are good reasons for not wanting a plant. For example, saltcedar (Tamarix sp.), also called tamarisk, is not native to the western hemisphere. It was planted in the U.S. as an ornamental and a misguided attempt to control erosion. Saltcedar overtakes waterways, destroying native riparian ecosystems and sucking up much needed water, particularly in the southwestern U.S. Another example are plants that outcompete crops and contribute to hunger and poverty around the world.
However, I’m not sure we always have a good reason for not wanting a plant. Take for instance my dandelion. It’s edible. Do a quick search online, and you’ll see it’s sold as a food product, and there are many uses for it. Even Bon Appétit promotes recipes for it. Since they bloom early in spring when little else is blooming, dandelions are an important early season food source for pollinators, especially in areas where our land use has removed native food sources. Dandelions are a member of the family Asteraceae. This means they’re related to asters, daisies, sunflowers and many other flowers that we consider pretty. The relationship between dandelions and daisies makes me smile, because my mom, who loved our dandelion bouquets, is proud of being from a little place in Pennsylvania called Daisytown.
If all of this is true about dandelions, then what is true about the other plants growing in my lawn? Are they weeds? A lot of people tell me they are. But when I look closer, those people either want to sale me something, are enforcing a cultural “norm” that was developed to sale products, or were raised with lawns as a status symbol. By definition, a plant doesn’t become a weed until it’s “not valued.” I can choose to value the dandelion and the diversity of plants in my lawn. My faith tradition tells me to value all of God’s creation, not just the parts that benefit me. In the first book of Genesis, everything created by God is declared “good.” In the Job’s dialogue with God (Job 38-42), God expresses delight and a purpose for all life on this planet, even life that doesn’t make sense to people, such as the dangerous Leviathan! For a deeper read on this perspective, I recommend Of Stars and Sea Monsters: Creation Theology in the Whirlwind Speeches by Rev. Dr. Kathryn M. Schifferdecker.
There is no Leviathan in my yard, but there are things growing that I don’t know and understand. I no longer apply herbicides or use weed killers. When I mow my lawn, I look at all the different plants growing in it. I wonder what they are and what role they fill in creation. As I wonder, I’m also challenged by Merriam-Webster’s second definition of weed, “an obnoxious growth, thing, or person; something like a weed in detrimental quality.” I’m struck by the realization that the ways I think about plants in my lawn may be connected to the ways I think about people. How I treat the land might be connected to how I treat people. What do you think?