The following story was either told to me or I read it somewhere: “God is sitting on his favorite cloud with his Angel helper and happens to drift over the Los Angeles area of California. Looking down he is puzzled: ‘Tell me, Angel, what happened to all that biodiversity I created?’ The Angel shakes his head: ‘They called it weeds and pulled it out to plant grass.’
I remembered this tale while noticing the other day that lawns in this part of France are bursting with biodiversity; sometimes what they have the least of is grass. There are tiny daisies called paquerettes, dandelions galore, and all other sorts of interesting plants that make up the green of the French lawn. The lawn is mowed the same as happens in California and, when not viewed close up, looks pretty much like any grass lawn: what is hauled away are leaves, stalks of grass and decapitated dandelions and paquerettes. The French term for “weed” is mauvaise herbe, only applied to a plant which is harmful to crops: I do not think that the dainty flowers decorating our French lawns at the first sign of spring would be considered harmful to anything.
As a matter of fact, if one begins to observe closely while walking to and from the village, weeds are everywhere decorating every available nook and cranny. The pavement has a crack? It is immediately bedecked with a weed of some sort, occasionally accompanied by a much less attractive sprout of grass and a bit of garbage, like a cigarette filter.
Thinking about the obsession of some people (my mother had a special instrument for extracting dandelions down to the roots) with weeds, I couldn’t help noticing how varied and imaginative the leaves of some of them were. So that day I purposely took my walk looking down instead of up, and noticing the incredibly decorative variety of weeds.
Weeds, just like people we have judged unworthy of our company, hide in cracks and minute crevices everywhere, as if they were trying as best they could to avoid our gaze, to protect our narrow, restricted world from that which we have termed ‘uglyness’. Yet that day, what I found the ugliest were the sprouts of grass, the kind that the manicured lawns of California strive to cultivate, that had somehow escaped the confines of our not-too-tidy gardens.
The question would be: What makes some plants acceptable and others not? How is it possible that because this day I decided to take my time to look where I usually don’t, I found beauty growing out of the wounds in walls and walks? Why are dandelions considered God’s lesser plants while yellow daisies are accepted in the choir? Who decides that grass gets the privilege of cushioning the soles of our bare feet, while other wispy foliage must go? Why are there all sorts of ferns and leafy greens that are allowed to gorge themselves on fertilizers in the pots on my window sills while others must struggle to eke out a pauper’s fare in some ignominious chink in the pavement and still make room for vagrant grass? Would not this tiny flowered creeper prosper more in someone’s window box than wrapped around a sewage pipe?
The more I walked the more I marvelled at the intricate and artful variations of these greenhouse orphans and the more passers-by wondered what in the world I was doing aiming the lens of my portable phone at the sidewalk where they perhaps could see nothing but cement and a few weeds, if the plants themselves were at all visible to someone who was not paying attention as I was. And I found myself thanking my lucky stars that I lived in a small village in France and not in Los Angeles where any green growth that might struggle to plant itself where not invited by the city’s ordinance would be promptly extracted or herbicided. So my morning stroll home was festooned with minute sproutings that bravely struggled to hold their own, thanks in part to the fact that our streets have potholes, our sidewalks are far from even and our stone walls are in dire need of repair. Beauty is everywhere, it is just a question of opening our eyes and our minds and stop tagging some plants -or some people- as weeds!