"Small herbs have grace; great weeds do grow apace. "
-- William Shakespeare (Richard III, Act II, iv, 14)
Like bad habits, weeds need little opportunity to take up residence. A day goes by, then a weekend, then a week, and the tiny weed shoots in the garden that you've been planning to get around to pulling have spread and grown to ridiculous heights. I realized I'd been remiss in my yard work duties when I mentioned to my husband that I was thinking of writing a column about pulling weeds. "And what would you know about that?" he inquired. Then he added, "Just kidding," which is how you can be extra-sure that the person speaking is totally not.
So I planted myself in the backyard garden one evening, where the tomatoes and peppers -- the extent of our vegetable ambition this year -- were competing for precious resources with the stubborn grass and other tenacious things that used to grow unnoticed in the space that is now the garden. One by one, I tugged the weeds out by the roots, clearing around the stalks of the important plants, and discarding the invaders. Weed eradication requires no thought, minimum physical stamina, and a fair amount of time. And I enjoyed it: the evening breeze, the occasional frog, the soil's aroma, the simple focus. Pulling weeds is such a serene and satisfying task that, when I finally do it, I wonder why I always knock it to the bottom of the list of things I should do.
Weeding is as old as farming: From the time the ancient hunter-gatherers turned their attention to agriculture, weeds have challenged the harvest. It is no accident that the parables of Jesus often employ the spiritual metaphor of getting rid of the weeds, of separating the wheat from the weeds, and burning the latter in "the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth" (Mt 13:42). The lesson: Don't be a weed in the world. Be of good seed, and bear a fruitful harvest!
The reward of weeding is visible accomplishment. Weeding also clears the mind, because you have a lot of time to think. Random thoughts wander into focus, which you can then examine, mull over, learn from, and then file or discard. Anytime you have a lot of time to think, a kind of therapy is taking place. Weeding the garden is good for the soul.
Weeds seem to flourish without any care at all, while the plants we want to do well require higher maintenance. This is also true in the human brain. The thoughts and fears we'd rather banish arrive unbidden, and send out their tentacles of hysteria to choke off our calmer, more mature thoughts. Sometimes we must consciously pull the harmful thoughts, and cultivate the healing thoughts. We must water and fertilize the things in ourselves that we want to grow, and dig out the harmful stuff by the roots. And we can't hire day laborers for the weeds within. When it comes to our own hearts, we are the only gardeners who can do the work.
Some days I feel bad for the weeds: I mean, who decided that one plant was a weed and another was a flower? The definition of a weed sometimes depends upon the locale. I remember carefully tending to my new blackberry plants, even as my brother in Oregon described ripping out the insidious blackberry brambles that had taken over his yard. My precious plants were his weeds. I may feel bad for the weeds, but still I pull them out, hoping never to see them again. It's like the recommended way to get rid of snails, which is to hand pick them off your plants, and dispose of them. A part of me feels sympathy for the snails that are only trying to eat, and a fleeting guilt at their demise, but just like pulling the weeds out by the roots, I do it. In a garden, weeds, and snails, mean war.
When weeding is done, at least until the pesky things grow back, there is a lovely sense of order, both in the garden and in the universe. Weeding allows the essential beauty of the garden to shine through, and brings an appreciation for the wonderful cycle of all things green and growing. Inevitably, what was once clear of weeds will again require weeding, whether it's the yard or the soul. A garden, and a life well-lived, are ongoing endeavors. Lest the weeds have their way.
These are the opinions of Valerie Schultz, not necessarily those of The Californian. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.