Skip to main content
No. 2048:
Of Weeds and Wildflowers

by Rob Zaretsky

Today, our guest, historian Rob Zaretsky weeds his garden. The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Returning from a recent camping trip, I found legions of weeds besieging our backyard. I rushed into the fray with hoe in hand. But wait: didn't I just meet these invaders elsewhere? Of course! These same plants threaded the magnificent green carpet rolling across our Hill Country campsite. Weeds at home, but wildflowers abroad -- the difference between nature and artifice.

In her explanation of taboo, the anthropologist Mary Douglas famously described dirt as misplaced soil. The weeds in our yard were thus fugitive flora -- invasive plants that had trespassed the frontier between the wild and cultivated. The dandelions, clover, sorrel and spurge had not changed character; they simply changed place. 

Take a different order of weed: deer. No longer at home in woods, they now forage in our flower beds. They are as out of place in these places as Americans are overseas. What is unexceptional in a local mall -- say, t-shirts blazoned with unasked-for beliefs, opinions or jokes -- clash when we see them the African veldt or slopes of Kilimanjaro. 

Yet this seems too neat. After all, what is natural? Isn't it possible that "nature" is a relative term? Take the ant's perspective. As C.S. Lewis noted, if ants spoke they would call their anthill "an artifact" and a brick wall "a natural object." For the ants, nature is all that is not "ant-made." And for us, nature is everything not "man-made." 

But what is wilderness? In an important sense, wilderness itself is man-made insofar as we shape our world in our minds. It's as impossible to imagine nature without our imagination, to see it without using our eyes, as it is to flee our shadow. For better or worse, nature belongs to us. We stand in awe of it, as with Yosemite's Half Dome -- though, as Ansel Adams said, it is just a "piece of rock." Or we stand and yawn at it, as with a local bayou. If there are no social values -- like the sublime or beautiful -- to meet a particular vista, there is no meaning. The bayou remains just that, a bayou. 

And so, back to our weed. Though an unwelcome guest in our gardens and lawns -- extensions of our homes -- the dandelion is at home in nature. But one last "but": even in Hill Country the line between nature and artifact is blurred. Henry David Thoreau worried that by overturning the weeds for his bean garden near Walden Pond, he was overturning nature's ancient rights. Yet, as botanists tell us, those same weeds were themselves recent imports from Europe.

Well, I'm simply not sure where nature ends and my garden begins. Maybe that's excuse enough to put off my weeding for another day.

I'm Rob Zaretsky at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

R. Zaretsky, Cock and Bull Stories. See the Introduction and Conclusion.

Robert Zaretsky is professor of French history in the University of Houston Honors College, and the Department of Modern and Classical Languages. (He is the author of Nîmes at War: Religion, Politics and Public Opinion in the Department of the Gard, 1938-1944. (Penn State 1995), Cock and Bull Stories: Folco de Baroncelli and the Invention of the Camargue. (Nebraska 2004), co-editor of France at War: Vichy and the Historians. (Berg 2001), translator of Tzevtan Todorov's Voices From the Gulag. (Penn State 2000) and Frail Happiness: An Essay on Rousseau. (Penn State 2001).