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The Wisdom of Weeds by Felicity Haynes

Where the wild weeds are…

On Tingrith farm, just outside the meeting house, sits my folly, a 50metre diameter lavender labyrinth, designed on the thirteenth century maze in Chartres cathedral,  (See which is about a quarter of the size of mine. It isn’t really a maze, because it requires you to make no choices. My labyrinth path is 1.5 kilometres from start to the centre but fortunately the lavender bushes are only half a metre high so that you can take short cuts.

This is what the maze looked like when I first planted it in June 2006, laying it out with broomstick and string. Look at the size of the little seedlings in the foreground. There are over 7,000 of them in the maze, all planted by hand. It is Oiling Grosso lavendula, grown for perfume in Provence. My son and I hired a bobcat to lay down a limestone path you see here. The bobcat was called a Kanga, because you rode it standing up, operating the bucket and steering with our fingers, and the slightest bump would cause the reflex action of your hands to make the whole machine jump. Very wearing on the back, until we both learnt to ride the machine with relaxed knees, like a surfer, riding the bumps. But the weeds won and by the following year capeweed had completely covered the paths.

The worry of weeds…

The madness of the maze is that it requires constant weeding, in cycles of capeweed, then flat weed and right now the grasses – oats, barley, rye. This is Rick Grenfell, a friend who came out in October last year to help remove them. We loaded them onto the trailer and carted them down to the alpaca paddock where we hope they will provide mulch and fodder for next year.

In that odd heat at the beginning of last November, I had reached the last quadrant, but was sitting regretting the folly when I began to think of the use of weeds. Dandelions, what I call flatweed, can be eaten, and were used as a substitute for coffee in the second World War. They are certainly beautiful. So why do I attack them with such energy? Because weeds are by definition, what we don’t want in a certain place. So even useful fodder is not welcome in my maze.

Someone suggested the only way to get rid of all the weeds was to use Roundup, at least on the paths. My immediate reaction that that there would be something wrong with that surprised me. I knew I needed some help. Even Hercules couldn’t single handedly manage cleaning a mountain of cow manure from the Aegean stables in one day. As fast as you cleaned out the unwanted manure, more would arrive. Hercules diverted two rivers to sweep through the stables, and was rewarded for achieving the impossible, but his action had the consequences of irremediably polluting the Mediterranean Sea.

I did buy a lethal expensive mixture called Fusillade, but I hadn’t the heart to use it.  I have fewer qualms about pouring boiling water on weeds because that seems to require a fair amount of effort. It just didn’t seem fair that I could murder the weeds from a position of superior technology, especially if it had damaging consequences for the environment.

The wisdom of weeds…

The act of weeding by hand became a sort of meditation, sitting on one’s bottom, moving slowly oh so slowly around the circles of the maze. I think weeding is more like the myth of Sisyphus, who had as punishment to roll a boulder uphill only to watch it roll back to the bottom. A bit like housecleaning, when after day’s hard work vacuuming, you sit and watch the dust resettle.

What are housewives being punished for?   Or weeders? Sisyphus was being punished for outsmarting on more than one occasion the Lord of the Underworld, and defying death. He displayed the peculiarly Greek sin of hubris, of thinking that you had the power to defeat death, evil, dirt, the unwanted or unpopular aspects of living.  So perhaps I suffered the sin of hubris in even thinking I could conquer the weeds. Camus said one must suppose Sisyphus happy or at least stoically accepting his task.

Ironically I have come to accept the Californian poppies which have drifted into the lavender beds, and let them stay where they come celebrating the rich red against the burgeoning purple. But I still weed out the golden flatweed, though the colour is gorgeous. I still pull out the poppy seedlings which spring up on the limestone paths. There is an appropriate place for everything.

How do I guard against the sin of hubris in my self allotted task of weeding out what I don’t want? By making the maze into a thing of beauty, using my judgement to decide which flowers should stay, making the maze work esthetically where into a work. So it is not a self-righteous competition between good and evil in which I as heroic gardener will win. It is a matter of working patiently and carefully to make things look beautiful .This is my maze embroidered on a cushion, and it was used as a map to guide the person who made the latest limestone paths a year ago. I want the maze to look like my artistic presentation of it. The weeding becomes as much a spiritual meditation as walking it. It seems to me that housework should be the same – not a frenetic battle to rid the world of dirt and decay, but a patient working through to keep things in balance. This sort of aesthetic personal involvement somehow counteracts the natural process of entropy, dirt and death. That is perhaps the ultimate wisdom of the weeds. We need to exercise intelligent judgement to decide whether they really are weeds or not, and in what way they might possibly contribute to making the world more beautiful.


After I had written this philosophical narrative, I came across this Utube video making the same point from a practical permaculturist point of view. Weeds ARE useful. The cooperative and symbiotic relationships between things often become more important than the things themselves. This is clear in Peter Andrew’s attitude to both weeds and water.

Further Reading:

Other articles by Felicity -

The Magick of Owls

Belonging to the Land