There are ‘yes’ plants, ‘no’ plants, and there’s moss.
‘No’ plants are generally strong and green. They may have yellow flowers. Pulling them up makes them stronger.
‘Yes’ plants are grateful for all the help they can get but frequently fail to live up to expectations.
Moss is always with us here in Scotland because of the rain. In the winter, moss almost takes over the garden. In summer, it recedes somewhat. And I’m not even talking about it with respect. Properly I should say mosses, because there are thousands of moss species. These non-vascular plants like lots of water and they spread by spores. I have no idea what kind of moss I’ve got – I wish I did – only that you can yank it up in armfuls as it creeps like a carpet across the path.
When you know the name of a plant, you feel curiously empowered. Recently, for example, I was carefully removing a certain little invader and its name suddenly came to me: Out with you, you coltsfoot, I thought. I’ve no idea how I knew the name.
I remember being shown how to ease open the pods of Shepherd’s Purse with a finger nail – then you see the rows of seeds inside, just like tiny coins. Shepherd’s Purse is a ‘no’ plant; it spreads everywhere. But it’s shallow rooted and easy to remove.
Unlike buttercups, which have the most determined foothold. “Opportunistic colonizers” the botanists call them, and I’ll second that. Who taught me to hold a buttercup under a person’s chin? If a yellow glow is reflected, the person likes butter. Except a yellow glow always appears, which ought to mean everybody likes butter. Back to looking for four-leaved clovers, or making daisy chains.
In such games, we learn some of the names unconsciously. But what to call the rest of them – the myriad ‘no’ plants in my garden? If I ever knew, I have forgotten.
During one year of serious cultivation, I decided I would get a book on garden weeds – with pictures. That way I would be able to identify them, accuse them personally of invasion and thus get the upper hand. I spent some time looking for such a book and couldn’t find one.
Alison Brackenbury, a good poet and a wise woman, suggested consulting a book of British Wild Flowers. Why hadn’t it occurred to me that what I called weeds were just plants I didn’t want? This was before Richard Mabey’s Weeds, but when that worthy book was published in 2010, Alison sent me a copy and I read it with relish. You get proper stories from Mabey; you can really like a plant with a name like ‘Thoroughwort’, for example. And Mabey is fascinating on the whole issue of weediness. Correctly, he points out “it all depends what you mean by a weed”, and then he goes further:
“The definition is the weed’s cultural story. How and why and where we classify plants as undesirable is part of the story of our ceaseless attempts to draw boundaries between nature and culture, wildness and domestication. And how intelligently and generously we draw those lines determines the character of most of the green surfaces of the planet.”
So my weeding is my ceaseless (actually I cease more often than I weed) attempt to draw a boundary, to establish my cultural patch. This has been a rainy summer and the garden is monumentally green. Green things are getting higher and higher, and many of them are ‘yes’ plants. I notice they have fewer flowers this year, though, and more leaf, even the nasturtiums, which sound misleadingly like plants I wouldn’t want. And the foxgloves have been amazing. They are really woodland plants, aren’t they? – but I love them. This year not just pink ones; white too.
And it keeps raining. So I sit inside and attempt to draw cultural boundaries round poems instead. There are ‘yes’ poems (not many of those) and ‘no’ poems (opportunistic invaders), and lots of moss obscuring the path. To some extent my rulings are personal, and yet I am – like it or lump it – part of a cultural movement. Despite acknowledging (with Mabey) that “the ambivalence and instability of the weed blacklist is clear”, I can’t help feeling un-ambivalent about my response to a ‘yes’ poem, though I know how perilously unstable that yes-ness is.
Often I admire the persistence of a kind of poem I cannot approve. That is to say, I won’t let it into my garden, but I admire its vigorousness, its impenetrability, its wild passions, its rampant ambitions and excrescences.
Let Gerard Manley Hopkins have the last word on the matter:
What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.