Weed Is the Word

 

There are many respectable plants bearing the word “weed” in their common name, such as Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa), Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium spp.), and Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis). Some are easily available at garden centers, some are available only by mail order, while still others will show up in the garden on their own. All demonstrate a propensity for spreading easily if conditions are right, and that is perhaps the reason for the designation “weed” in their common names. Latin names typically are not prejudiced against these less formal plants that straddle both the garden and the wilds.

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Monarch butterfly on a Butterfly Weed at Cape May National Wildlife Refuge in New Jersey. Photo by Laura Perlick for the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).

 

Some gardeners do not look beyond the word “weed” in a name before they reach for their hoe or a chemical plant killer. Such gardeners are not independent thinkers, but ones who are locked into a binary view of the natural world, viewing everything as either good or bad. Try to explain to them that the inclusion of “weed” in a plant’s name can be merely a case of poor public relations. It’s worthwhile to get overly judgmental gardeners to stay their hand regarding these plants because they are often beneficial to butterflies, birds, and other wildlife, more so than a hybrid rose bush.

Other weeds, of course, do not have the word included in their name but have acquired it as a general type by reputation. For those weeds, gardeners and farmers have less tolerance and are apt to destroy them whenever encountered, though even those exist on a sliding scale. People are divided into several camps about Dandelions (Taraxacum spp.), for example, while they nearly universally abhor Palmer’s Pigweed (Amaranthus palmeri) and Lamb’s Quarters (Chenopodium berlandieri). Even those last two plants offer the feature of edibility, making them attractive on however limited a basis to at least some people and animals.

One important group of plants has acquired the name “weed”, and they are in the genus Cannabis, also known as Marijuana. Growers and users of the plant have called it “weed” and many other names besides for reasons of its outlaw, rebel status, as well as its diverse nature in checking off boxes from good to bad. Marijuana plants can spread readily on their own; mismanaged large scale cultivation, as opposed to the former practice of clandestinely maintaining relatively small plots, can have a negative impact on the environment; and for people the plant can range in usefulness from good to bad depending on the inclinations and prejudices of the person beholding it.



Paul Reubens as Pee-wee Herman performs “Surfin’ Bird”, a hit song for The Trashmen in 1963, in the 1987 movie Back to the Beach, with Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello.

 

The word “weed” embraces many meanings, and means different things to different people depending on their tolerance level. To hear “weed” in a plant’s name and automatically seek to eradicate it from the garden is arbitrary and foolish. Better to take a more nuanced approach regarding the plants that don’t threaten to choke out every other plant in a garden plot. Some can be seen as friendlier than others regardless of being handicapped with a bad name. As for that other kind of “weed”, the kind some folks like to smoke, legally it’s gaining more widespread favor despite its outlaw name.
— Izzy

 

Build Bridges, Not Walls

 

Anyone who has ever been driving and had a collision with a deer or other large animal knows just how devastating it can be for the animal as well as for the driver and any passengers, besides the damage to the vehicle. Every year millions of animals die in collisions with vehicles, though of course only estimates are available on that number, and damage to vehicles comes to over eight billion dollars. The best method for reducing both those numbers appears to lie in building ways for animals to cross roads safely.

 

France led the way in the 1950s, building overpasses and underpasses for animals to use in crossing busy highways. Other European nations followed, and then Canada and the United States. There is still much to be done in all those countries, and even more in the rest of the world. The animals have a hard enough time navigating a world dominated by people, and they should not also have to risk death in the simple act of trying to get from point A to point B. People do it every day without serious thought of not returning home safely from their journey, though all the other drivers on the roads don’t always make it easy on account of their distractions and reckless behavior.

Axis axis crossing the road
A spotted deer crosses a road near a “Wildlife crossing” sign in Nagarhole National Park in India. Photo by Chinmayisk.

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Wildlife crossing warning signs portraying a deer, a fox, and a turtle, in Orient Beach State Park in Orient Point, New York. Throughout the country, signs like this are  often pockmarked by blasts from the firearms of people who pass themselves off as wits. Photo by DanTD.

It makes even more sense to build more safe wildlife crossings when considering it is in our own self interest. A high speed collision between your vehicle and a deer will kill the deer either instantly or harm the deer grievously enough it will die later in great pain, and the collision will also cause thousands of dollars of damage to your vehicle and possible injuries to yourself and passengers, if any, adding up to thousands of dollars in medical expenses, as well as psychological trauma which may make you justifiably jumpy behind the wheel of an automobile from that point on. All this is obvious, and old news really. Why then wouldn’t highway departments across the country do more to mitigate this kind of thing?

A certain kind of person might view a wildlife crossing, be it an overpass or an underpass, and think “Look at all the money the highway department threw away just to protect some stupid animals, probably because a bunch of animal loving tree huggers wouldn’t shut up about it until they built it.” No, the wildlife crossing isn’t there solely for the sake of the animals, and whether a group of people this certain kind of person is contemptuous of pushed for the project is besides the point. The wildlife crossing is there for everyone, for animals to use and for people of every political persuasion to admire as they motor along more safely than they did without it. It is there to save everyone’s lives, and in the case of people it is there to save the treasure they care very much about, possibly more than the well-being of other creatures on this Earth. It is way past time for that certain kind of person to ask who is really the stupid one when it comes to how we cope with animals crossing the road which, as we all know, they will do come what may.
— Izzy

 

 

The Hiding Place

 

For decades now when gardeners needed a windbreak or a privacy screen they have resorted to planting hedgerow monocultures of a few relatively fast growing evergreen species, among them the Leyland cypress. For some who prefer a more formal, planned look, that plan has sufficed, but others might look at such a hedgerow as boring and as a lost opportunity to bring more wildlife into their gardens. Planting with wildlife in mind takes a generous spirit, particularly for the gardener who is also trying to raise fruits and vegetables for their own consumption. There are trade offs and compromises involved.

One of the problems with a hedgerow monoculture occurs when one or more of the plants dies, creating a gap that must then be filled with the same kind of plant, sometimes at considerable expense if the new plant is not to be too conspicuous by its smaller size. The gardener can feel trapped, and the trap can get more enveloping and add even more expense if the reason for a plant’s death is a disease or pest, engaging the gardener in an endless battle. Sometimes it can be a blessing when a disease or pest spreads quickly from one plant in the monoculture to the next, ending the battle with its consequent frustrations and expenses and presenting the gardener with a blank slate after a tree removal company has carted away the battlefield fallen.


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This colonnade of Leyland cypresses in England is presumably a windbreak for the greenhouses behind. Photo by Ben Gamble.

Instead of persisting in folly and boring landscaping, a gardener might decide it is wiser and more interesting to plant rows or clumps of a diverse assortment of trees and shrubs, more closely imitating nature. The gardener might look for evergreen trees for year round screening for the gardener and cover for wildlife; deciduous trees which with their tall, rounded crowns fill visual gaps between the conical forms of the evergreens, and add nuts and acorns for wildlife food; shrubs and small trees both evergreen and deciduous which give fruits and berries in different seasons; and finally a water source, preferably running rather than stagnant. That’s a privacy screen for the gardener and a home for wildlife, and it isn’t only for large properties, since there are almost always dwarf or semi-dwarf forms of trees available.

Inviting wildlife into the garden this way means being willing to compromise on the amount of produce left for the gardener, and also means protecting vulnerable young plants from the very same wildlife. This is a microcosm and an imitation of nature, after all, and not truly nature. In nature the loss of a few sapling trees here and there to deer browsing is not necessarily a catastrophe since there may be as many more that will survive to maturity. But for the gardener who may have space to plant only a few trees, the loss of even one young tree is important. An example would be the gardener who joins in the effort to restore the American chestnut to the landscape and helps the cause by buying and planting a few saplings at home. Unless that gardener cages the chestnut saplings for the first two or three years of their growth, deer will come along and browse its foliage and rub the velvet off their antlers on the trunks of the saplings, debarking them. Caging is the only truly effective way to get deer to leave the chestnut saplings alone until they are big and strong enough to withstand their attentions.

On a small lot in particular a gardener should not expect to get very many fruits and berries for their own consumption. Birds love eating the same things, and they are outside all day every day, watching for ripeness, and when it comes the birds get to the fruits and berries very soon. Netting is a nasty business that tangles up birds and other critters, killing them, and it has no place in a garden planted for wildlife. Either be content with gleaning a few fruits and berries here and there, or build a small greenhouse to grow a few protected plants. Gardeners with large plots of land have more options, both for the wildlife and for themselves. Plant native plants when possible, because they are better adapted to coexist with native wildlife. Once there are birds and frogs and other insect eaters living nearby, the gardener may actually find fewer pest and disease problems in the rest of the garden, and that alone makes it worth the trouble of devising a landscape scheme more varied and interesting than a soldier row of Leyland cypresses.
— Izzy

 

Letting Go

 

There’s a movie out recently starring Hugh Jackman as the 19th century impresario P.T. Barnum, and it’s called The Greatest Showman. The script appears to play fast and loose with history, for one thing imposing a modern sensibility about sideshow freaks on people like Barnum perhaps, and on many in Barnum’s audiences certainly, who would have found modern ideas about respect for diversity bizarre and laughable. We, of course, have come around to feeling the sensibilities of people in the past regarding respect for diversity and individual rights were bizarre and cruel. It’s not clear from a review alone if the movie takes the same anachronistic approach to respect for animal rights.

 

In the last year, after many years of criticism of it’s inclusion of animal entertainment acts in its circus, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus folded its tents for good and went out of business. The criticism led to steadily declining ticket sales as well as loss of revenue from being shut out entirely from some localities where legislation had been enacted to ban the kind of animal entertainment acts that had long been part of circuses, even before P.T. Barnum came along with his great showmanship.

Jacko и Bess, мандрилы на представлении в Olympia Circus в Лондоне. 31st December 1931
Jacko and Bess, two mandrill monkeys with the Olympia Circus in December 1931. Some people find this sort of thing entertaining. Note the leashes.

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An African elephant at the Milwaukee County Zoo. Photo by Ronincmc.

Zoos may start closing in large numbers soon, after several of them around the world closed in the past decade, citing the hypocrisy of pretending zoos provided means for animal conservation and public education, when really they represent a more staid form of the entertainment seen in circus animal acts. Zoos have always dressed themselves up in a veneer of respectable science, often with little evidence to back it up. Zoos have played Dr. Jekyll to the Mr. Hyde played by the rest of humankind in its voracious appetite for resources and habitats, displacing and killing wildlife at will. It’s past time to go beyond trying to conserve wildlife from the rapaciousness of Mr. Hyde and to stand up to him and then relegate him to irrelevancy. Meanwhile, no one asked the animals what they wanted, but it’s clear from the more expressive of them that they are miserable in their zoo enclosures, however well disguised those are from steel cages.

These are steps in the right direction, and naturally it will take some time to redress the other wrongs against animals that people have perpetrated through malevolence, neglect, and a misguided sense of divinely bestowed dominion. At the same time that many people treat their pets, mostly dogs or cats, very well indeed, there is a whole revolting system of inhumane factory farming of animals for meat and other animal products that goes on largely ignored by the general public. Out of sight, out of mind. People will sometimes wonder how the Germans and the Poles could have turned blind eyes to the shipment by trains through their villages of millions of Jews bound for the gas chambers during the Holocaust. Surely they had to have noticed, and the claims by some of them that didn’t are self-serving lies. Maybe so; but then look what goes on across the United States and, increasingly, other parts of the world every day in order to feed the rising demand for meat with every meal. Or don’t look.

Lion Milwaukee County Zoo II
A lion at the Milwaukee County Zoo in June 2010. Photo by Antigrandiose.

Companionship with a pet is a fine thing, beneficial to human and animal alike when the animal is welcomed as part of the family. From that point on there is a sliding scale measuring the relationship of animals to humans, continuing past domesticated animal likes cows and pigs to partnerships like that with honey bees, and on to the last type of relationship, that with wildlife, which in its ideal state would be one of mutual respect and staying out of each others’ way. There used to be a television program sponsored by an insurance company called Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, in which the host and his trusty assistant were forever tranquilizing wild animals and then affixing a radio collar to them before letting them go. The people troubling the animals in this manner meant well, and they were doing it all in the interests of science and of the animals themselves, but another concept  seems to have never come up, namely leaving the animals be. There have been many other nature shows since, and thankfully some of them have grasped that concept: How about if we just back off, let these animals have the space any of us have a right to, and leave them the hell alone?
― Izzy

 

Paper or Plastic?

 

When grocery stores were switching from paper bags to plastic bags for packing up customer purchases in the 1980s and 1990s, the clerks would ask the customers “Paper or plastic?”. At some point in the 2000s the question faded away and plastic bags became the default option. Some grocery chains no longer carry paper bags at all. Very few stores offer paper bags only, no plastic. The paper bag fell out of favor due to cost savings on material as well as on labor, as it requires less time and skill to pack a plastic bag than a paper grocery sack. Environmental costs for both are high, but people are discovering that costs for plastic bags after disposal are getting higher all the time since the plastic persists far longer than paper before breaking down into harmless components, if it ever does.

 

The humble paper sack that we take for granted today as just another everyday item began in 1871 with a patent taken out by Margaret Knight on a machine for folding and gluing paper sacks with flat bottoms. Her design was an improvement on an 1852 invention of another American, Francis Wolle, of a machine for making paper sacks shaped like large envelopes. The flat bottom that Ms. Knight added made the paper sack far more useful, and thereafter store clerks developed the skill of properly filling the sacks – heavy, durable items like canned goods on the bottom; light, fragile items like eggs and bread on top; double up the bags for weight or for items that might sweat moisture and compromise the integrity of a single bag.

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The Andy Monument at 17th Street and Broadway in New York City. The nearly ten foot tall chrome sculpture was created in 2012 by Rob Pruitt and is outside Warhol’s Factory building of the 1970s and early 1980s. Andy Warhol is depicted with his familiar Polaroid camera and a shopping bag, which would have been filled with copies of Interview magazine. Warhol used to stand in the street, signing autographs and giving away copies of his magazine. This shot, taken on May Day, shows Andy sporting a red May Day/General Strike sticker. Photo by Thomas Altfather Good.

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Paper straws like these were in general use until the late twentieth century, when plastic straws took over. Paper straws all but disappeared until recently, when a growing realization that plastic straws presented the same disposal problems as plastic bags prompted a comeback. Photo by Marco Verch.

Bagging up groceries in plastic sacks requires no such skills because only a handful of items will fit in each, and unlike paper, the plastic presents no difficulties handling moisture. The plastic bags we have gotten accustomed to using once and throwing away were invented by Sten Gustaf Thulin in the early 1960s for a Swedish packaging company. They came into widespread use in this country in the 1980s, and then store clerks had to start asking the paper or plastic question of every customer. Switching from paper to plastic seemed like a good idea at the time. Trees would be saved, and the high environmental cost of processing wood pulp into paper could be avoided. The plastic bags? They were each so thin and flimsy that surely the environmental costs of producing them had to be lower than cranking out paper sacks.


A disturbing scene from the 1931 film Frankenstein, directed by James Whale, with Boris Karloff as The Monster and Marilyn Harris as Little Maria.

On the front end, yes, that turned out to be true. But those thin, flimsy plastic bags took awhile to accumulate in their billions and then trillions, in landfills and in the oceans, where, unlike paper bags, they stubbornly refuse to deteriorate for years, maybe generations. They just accumulate, posing a threat to wildlife on land and in the sea. In the United States, recycling plastic grocery bags has never topped 10 percent of the total used. They are thin, they are flimsy, and therefore as far as most people are concerned, to the extent that they think about it all, they are one time use items. Like Dr. Frankenstein with his creation, The Monster, we invest most of our intellectual energy and talents in the invention, and very little in contemplation of the long term consequences of our ingenuity, which, unintended though they may be, afflict us after our formulations have broken loose from us, as all creations eventually do, and roam the countryside causing havoc.
― Techly

 

Deerly Beloved

 

Every gardener will at one time or other have to contend with wildlife or neighborhood pets causing problems in their yard and garden. Vegetable gardens are especially apt to be browsed by wildlife, obviously, and the legal options for backyard gardeners in coping with unwelcome visitors are much more limited than the options available to a farmer whose livelihood is at stake. Today as in the past a farmer can dispose of a varmint chewing up his or her crops with a well-aimed shot from a .22 caliber rifle and law enforcement or neighbors are unlikely to interfere. That option is not generally available to the urban or suburban gardener tending a small plot in close proximity to neighbors’ houses.

 

What is a varmint? A varmint is any animal whose survival habits conflict with your own, just like a weed is a plant out of place. Some people are thrilled to see deer browsing in their back yard, at least for a while, but to others those same deer have long since crossed over into varminthood after they have eaten hostas down to the ground, nibbled away rosebuds on the cusp of bloom, and used their antlers to rub the bark off young fruit trees, killing them. Garden enemies are not limited to deer, although they are probably at the top of most peoples’ lists, and a by no means complete catalog of varmints would for most folks have to include groundhogs (woodchucks), gophers, rabbits, rats, mice, voles, moles, chipmunks,  skunks, dogs, cats, poisonous snakes, raccoons, opossums, squirrels, inattentive drivers, and unsupervised children.


Bill Murray as a golf course groundskeeper in the 1980 movie Caddyshack plots the destruction of the gophers who have been disfiguring the fairways and greens.

For some of these varmints, the critter kind, there are no shortage of chemical and mechanical repellents manufactured by companies eager to help out a distressed gardener and incidentally make a buck on a continuing basis, because all of them require regular re-application or constant tweaking to keep up their effectiveness. Gardeners who have wised up to this laborious and expensive treadmill may look instead to fencing, the only truly effective solution, though effective only in the sense of diminished and insecure expectations. No fence is a 100% effective deterrent for all critters at all times in all situations, as any convict will tell you, although in this case the malefactors seek to break in rather than out.

 

Some gardeners will try to remove the problem from the garden by relocating it, or by hiring someone to do so. Although this practice is illegal nearly everywhere, the gardener can feel smugly humane about it. Unfortunately, it is a poor strategy for everyone concerned. The varmint, let’s say a groundhog, is trapped in a humane trap, but sometimes the animal injures itself in some way in its panic to escape. Injury to a wild animal is often a slow death sentence. The gardener, or his or her proxy, then takes the groundhog out to some countrified place and releases it, feeling good about him or herself, even if the groundhog begs to differ. This is likely another slow death sentence for the groundhog, because for one thing it is not familiar with the new territory, and for another the territory, if it is any good, is likely already occupied by another groundhog or two who will not treat an interloper kindly. The gardener then, with a warm and fuzzy feeling brought on by reflecting on the newfound happiness of the groundhog he or she has just released to frolic in fields of daisies in the countryside, returns home where another groundhog from a neighboring yard eyes the newly unoccupied territory and its fresh crop of tasty vegetation.

 

There are all sorts of other strategies for dealing with varmint pressure on the garden, such as companion plantings or planting only things offensive to them. It can seem the options come down to living in a fenced-in or foul-smelling compound, or giving up on planting old garden favorites like roses and daylilies. There is another option involving compromise and a relinquishing of control, and in the end it may be the only sensible option whether the gardener is willing to acknowledge it or not. It doesn’t mean giving up, but merely giving in where other options are inhumane, or too expensive or unsightly, or just plain idiotic insistence on controlling every little thing. The critters – varmints, if you insist – have just as much right to be here as we do, and that’s true whether you want to acknowledge it or not. Putting up a fight is fine, but try to retain perspective on who is supposed to be the rational creature capable of long-term, ethical considerations.
― Izzy

 

White Tailed Deer
One of the Varmint Cong, or a Beloved Creature? A white tailed deer fawn, Odocoileus virginianus, in Raleigh, North Carolina; photo by Clay Heaton.