Sunday, January 25, 2009

Why We Need Dandelions

Here's a short piece that I can't fit into my book no matter how hard I try. It's about weeds, plant rights, invasiveness, the origin of flowers, mass extinctions, and how detrimental we are to the world. The book is due a week from tomorrow. Amen.

At the front corner of our yard when I was growing up, where a sliver of lawn separated our driveway from the neighbors’, the mailbox stood covered in the full glory of a finicky, magenta-blooming clematis my mom finally got established. From a block away this mature vine was a beacon—the subtle and regal color, the thick petals, the puffy stamens. Someone who knew how to garden lived here. But in the grass popped up the misplaced bright head of a dandelion bent on ruining the majesty of the queen of vines. You could see it from inside the house, fifty feet away, like a pulsing strobe light. You could see it from down the street. At night. You could, invariably—according to my mother—see it from an overhead Northwest Boeing 727 making its final approach to Minneapolis-St. Paul International. It was like an overnight pimple on the rejuvenated skin of my mom’s late spring landscape.

Dandelions provide one of the first sources of nectar for bees and other pollinating insects in spring, and confirm the first glimmer of hope we had when, back in March, the temperature briefly hit sixty. With their proliferate seed heads, dandelions are a staple of the American landscape. Once, when English colonists came to the new world, they were also an imported food staple, a cultivated delicacy for garden salads. Still, as humans have spread over the last 100,000 years, reaching North America some 12,500 years ago, the development of agriculture has placed us above and out of the confines of our environments—leading to the inevitable disappearance of over 95% of the plants the pilgrims saw in the new world. According to biologist E.O. Wilson, the earth loses nearly 3,000 plant, animal, and insect species each year, or three every hour. This constitutes what many scientists call the sixth great mass extinction in the 3.5 billion year history of the earth.

As the continents drifted apart long ago, separate and distinct ecosystems began to emerge. One such place can be found in the Hengduan Mountains of southwest China, the most biodiverse temperate forest in the world. Over the course of one day, starting from the valleys to the high ridges, one can move through all four seasons as the climate changes. This strong box of genetic diversity was perfectly placed to survive the ice age’s glaciers that ravaged the fauna and flora of North America and Europe. As a result, many of the world’s most common ornamental garden plants originate here.

Toward the beginning of the cretaceous period dinosaurs were flourishing amid tropical and moist landscapes. Based on pollen spores found in ancient sediment the world over, the first flowers began to appear among these reptiles some 134 million years ago. A recent fossilized discovery by paleobotanists Sun Ge from China and David Dilcher from the United States, shows a flowering plant named archaefructus dating to around 125 million years ago in northern China. Though it lacks petals, and while alive had no scent, it is not primitive enough to be the definitive first flower—but it is the first visual record of such a plant in the world.

The end of the cretaceous period, 64 million years ago, marked the most famous extinction period the world has ever seen, that of the dinosaurs and an estimated 50%of the total species on earth. The largest extinction occurred 235 million years ago when over 90% of the species vanished. Niles Eldridge, paleontologist and a curator of the American Museum of Natural History, says scientists have discovered a recurring pattern in these extinction events that cycle at about every 64 million years; and though they are usually caused by forces such as tectonic shifts, volcanic eruptions, and meteor impacts, the current period is clearly caused by creatures living on the earth. As human agriculture, through the monoculture of its crops, brings an end to ecosystems that support vast species, as fences and poisons and suburbs create barriers to migration routes, as foreign invasive species are brought in accidentally or to beautify our foundation plantings, in our eyes native species become pests and die away.

Through farming, humans no longer fit in to the larger picture, are no longer bound or balanced by a place’s ability to physically sustain them. But eventually, at around ten to thirteen billion people, our agricultural effects may catch up with us and we will outgrow the planet’s capacity to nourish us, even with the advent of genetic engineering of crops and animals. With projections of human population to be at 8 billion by 2020, we simply dwarf the estimated ten to thirty million species of other life forms that we rely on to replenish and maintain our world. If we truly are in the midst of the sixth extinction, Eldridge says that the hope of our population cap will mean the level of lost species should not reach that of the largest extinction 235 million years ago.

Such statistics aren’t meant to terrify, or even to humble in the strictest sense, but they should make one more aware of the value—beyond nature for nature’s sake—of the biologic and human cultural diversity that needs to be preserved in order to balance ourselves with the world for the first time in our species’ history.

When I was growing up my dad had a gas edger. He fitted a makeshift metal tube to the exhaust of this edger and shoved it down into holes we found in the yard. For my mom, if she could, she’d use as violent a means to rid the world of dandelions—with a passion for Armageddon that I’ve only come to know recently, all dandelions must die. Their seed must be wiped from the earth. One spring I casually mention over the phone how happy I am to see dandelions, that their emergence means the forsythia and tulips are not far behind. “I HATE those damn dandelions,” she replies. “I wish I could pluck every last one of them so we’d be done with it.” It seems strange to me as I think about dandelions as a foreign species, brought here by us, thriving in spite of our chemicals. Don’t they now have a right to exist, much as the fictional Frankenstein did?

In Switzerland the government has requested that an ethics panel weigh the dignity of plants, or, to find out what plants’ rights actually are. Is pulling a dandelion morally wrong? According to journalist Katherine Kersten, “The Swiss have added a provision to their constitution requiring ‘account to be taken of the dignity of creation when handling animals, plants, and other organisms.’” The ethics panel was formed in an attempt to give such concerns practical examples and applications. One illustration is the following, where Kersten is citing Wesley Smith from the Weekly Standard:

"A farmer mows his field [apparently an acceptable action, perhaps because the hay is intended to feed the farmers’ herd—the report doesn’t say]. But then, while walking home, he casually ‘decapitates’ some wildflowers with his scythe. The panel decries this act as immoral, though its members can’t agree why. The report states, opaquely: ‘At this point it remains unclear whether this action is condemned because it expresses a particular moral stance of the farmer toward other organisms or because something bad is being done to the flowers themselves.’"

This panel does not consider that genetic engineering is unacceptable to the plant’s dignity, but it would be so if it caused plants to lose their independence as free, reproducing, wild organisms. I wonder how many “introduced” cultivars of plants in the gardening industry have lost their own dignity over the centuries? But still, is my mom insulting the fauna, feverishly yanking every dandelion flower and sharp-leaved stalk from the ground? The entire wildness? The creation itself? Or is she saving the native plants? If we genetically engineered a dandelion that acted more like a prim and proper front-of-the-perennial-border ground cover, what would change? Our dignity might increase at the expense of the plant’s—perhaps.

Walking along the back fence of my small lot, I noticed my neighbor—who lives on a mostly wild three acres—came along his back property line and yanked out large prairie thistles. Then, apparently, he laid them down parallel to my fence, almost as if they were sacrificial offerings. I don’t know if he thought I’d planted them, or what statement he might have been making. I do often seed just over the fence line—perhaps he saw me—simply because I’m amazed his wild backyard only grows invasive cedars, not one wildflower benefitting bird or bee anywhere. We need prairie thistles.

And we need dandelions. I need dandelions. They’re the first bright sign in spring that winter is finally over, yes, praise be, finally over. And I’ve come to appreciate them for this reason mainly, but also for their importance to, say, emerging queen bumblebees hungry to start a new colony. I also have fond memories of frying their blossoms at camp one year, and drinking warm Kool-Aid to wash them down. In a way, this flower is my first flower—likely the first one I ever touched as a child, the petals staining my knees as I roughhoused outside or whose seeds I blew in to the air.

The dandelion is a weed because it doesn’t belong here. The dandelion is a weed because it has the ability to spread quickly and thickly on disturbed land, and its progeny will always lay waiting just beneath the soil, hidden under other plants, caught between blades of grass or cracks in concrete where the rain settles it in so we can’t get to it. The dandelion is a weed because it reminds us too much of ourselves, of how our own thoughts and actions can suddenly become loosed from our ethics and morals. It seems such a plant should be placed at the center of our gardens.


Les said...

This was incredibly well written and I am sorry you could not fit it in with your other work and share it with a larger, broader audience. I wrote a much less eloquent post on the dandelion a couple of days ago in which I did not mention one of my crazy, very elderly customers. She came to me looking for a quick growing hedge plant to grow on her property line. She believes that it will keep out the seeds from her neighbor's dandelions. In prime dandelion season she gets in her golf cart and rides through their yard decapitating the seed heads before they can blow into her yard. She spends the rest of her time writing letters to the editor, calling hot lines and trying to get people to join her church.

James Golden said...

So whether to let a dandelion live is a moral choice? Though I've beheaded my share, I agree doing so is indeed a moral choice, and the problem of the dandelion's existence is emblematic of what the human race is doing to the earth. (Your mother's clematis is just as alien as the dandelion. Which has more value?) Humility in the face of the complexity we face is a good thing.

Susan Tomlinson said...

I especially like the part about the neighbor pulling the thistle and laying it next to your fence. I like the mystery of that action...

I like dandelions, too. I do pull them from my lawn every spring, though, since they seem out of place in the buffalo grass/blue grama mini-prairie. I think of it as "harvesting." ;-)

Benjamin Vogt said...

Les--thanks for thinking such good thoughts about my words. And when I grow up, I hope I can have some of those lovely eccentricities that your customer has. I think that we all have the right, after living long, challenging lives, to act however we darn well please. Of course, once you let yourself go, there's no turning back.
James--I think it's easy to see morality in how we treat animals, particularly pets (though that's certainly not the case often enough, as in puppy mills and dog fights). But to transfer that morality to creatures we don't will never see--whales, frogs, eagles--is nearly impossible. So to then make the leap to dandelions or rivers or mountains or fields seems quite impossible, and yet that's exactly where we need to start, with the habitats.
Susan--You're right, dandelions wouldn't work well in your "yard." I wish I had the gumption to rip up my sod. And that part you like in my piece about thistles, well, I actually almost cut that out because where I thought this might work in the book, I hadn't yet mentioned my having a garden yet.

Anonymous said...


Awesome! I have always been a fan of dandelions, and in fact while in high school, courted a girl who had captured my imagination, by picking her a dozen long-stemmed beauties and placing them in a mason jar.

Your inner-storyteller moves at a delicious and comfortable pace here. I'm grateful.

Benjamin Vogt said...

David--Thanks for your kind words! I once gave plastic zip lock baggies full of candy to girls I liked in elementary school. It worked. It still works.

Anonymous said...

Hi Benjamin. I read a theory about the decline in the bee population being related to the reduction of dandelions elsewhere but of course you expanded on that exponentially. It did cause me to change my views on extracting them so they can now be found in my lawn first thing in spring too.

Anonymous said...

I like dandelions. Here they bloom off and on all winter - which is a wonderful thing I believe.

I don't like extinctions. I find them one of the saddest things that can happen. It angers me that so many people can't grasp the interconnectedness of ecosystems and members of those ecosystems. That diverse ecosystems are the most stable. Oh, I'll stop now.

Jenn said...

Wow. Your neighbor must thoroughly despise the goldfinches.

What a piece of work is man.

Jenn said...

I also ofttimes amuse my self with the thought that it's a good thing purslane is so damned pernicious. It's bound to be a pot staple one of these years.

sharp green pencil said...

Benjamin! What a wonderful piece.. we all seem to have had dandelion hating parents! I hope my readers get over to take a look and I am delighted to have found your blog which amalgamates so many things I love. I often bemoan the lack of lovely writing about nature but I am proved wrong by the likes of you and Curtiss. Thank you. I will, in between bees, be reading more

Lucy Corrander Now in Halifax! said...

Hurray, hurray, hurray!