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Weedy Environmental Justice

Many people mark the beginning of contemporary environmentalism with the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962. Carson depicts the effects of toxic chemicals, mainly pesticides, on birds, humans, and other animals. Her writing imaginatively and materially links human and non-human bodies—including humans and plants. Chapter 6 of Silent Spring begins with Carson’s recognition that “[t]he earth’s vegetation is part of a web of life in which there are intimate and essential relations between plants and the earth, between plants and other plants, between plants and animals” (64).

Carson critiques the use of herbicides—promoted by “the booming ‘weed killer’ business” (64)—in attempts to clear native vegetation from New England roadsides for aesthetic purposes and from the high plains of the U.S. West to create grasslands for grazing cattle. Moreover, she muses on the ecological roles played by weedy plants: “Seldom is the question asked, What is the relation between the weed and the soil? Perhaps, even from our narrow standpoint of direct self-interest, the relation is a useful one. As we have seen, soil and the living things in and upon it exist in a relation of interdependence and mutual benefit. Presumably the weed is taking something from the soil; perhaps it is also contributing something to it” (78).

Because she reconsiders the denigration of certain plants as weeds, one might then expect Carson to also remark on the social and environmental marginalization of particular human groups. Indeed, Carson’s legacy is associated with the environmental justice movement. The Silent Spring Institute now collaborates with other groups to study issues of environmental justice, looking at how environmental toxins and risks tend to be unevenly distributed onto low-income communities of color. Silent Spring is often linked with the 1970 founding of the Environmental Protection Agency, which now says that part of its purpose is to ensure “all Americans are protected from significant risks to human health and the environment where they live, learn and work.”

However, the connection between Carson’s writing and environmental justice is more circuitous. Rob Nixon, a postcolonial and ecocritical scholar, explains: “Carson never addresses questions of race or class, far less empire or colonialism. She has a bit on gender, but not much. She says little about the unequal distribution of risk and unequal access to resources, issues central to environmental justice studies today and to postcolonial studies. Yet her work created bridgeheads to those fields because she insisted that public health and food security were environmental concerns. Her thinking thus defected from the dominant patriarchal, neocolonial traditions of conservation and wilderness preservation” (283-4).

Reading Carson today, I wonder about weeds and environmental justice. Could there be a “weedy environmental justice”? How might thinking about weeds—as plants that grow quickly in disturbed spaces, on the margins—contribute to theories and practices of addressing environmental injustices? One danger in this question could be that by shifting attention to plants, I deflect awareness of the diversity in and differences between human groups. (Is it easier to talk about dandelions being uprooted than it is to talk to people who are homeless?) Yet it is much harder, more rewarding, and more in concert with theories of justice as restored relationship (or “restorative justice”), to resist dividing justice for humans and non-humans and to instead try to think them together.

I’m reminded of Giovanna Di Chiro’s call to resist “eco-normativity.” Di Chiro links Eli Clare’s poetic theorization of the “body as home” with the environmental justice movement’s understanding of community in order to ask: “Can the environmental coalitions we develop succeed in calling for stronger environmental protections, the right to a healthy body, and the need for sustainable communities in such a way that resists appeals to normalcy and normativity? And, furthermore, can our coalitions be capacious enough to embrace and care for all community members (human and nonhuman) even in their ‘irrevocable difference’ (Clare 2001, 361)?” (Di Chiro 224).

Darren Patrick’s work with a weedy tree species (Tree of Life, Ailanthus altissima) present in cities around the globe includes a case study of how humans might ally themselves with non-humans. Patrick writes, “My wager is that paying both political and ecological attention to intentional mutualisms between humans and non-humans might help spaces to become something other than ‘waste,’ ‘brownfields,’ or ‘development parcels,’ let alone the greenwashed urban renewal projects of tomorrow” (193). Analyzing how and when humans and weedy plants form mutual relationships can open up questions about land usage, as well as about community ownership, belonging, and displacement.

Following Patrick, I want to conclude by reflecting on some “weeds” I know. Dandelion, lambs quarters, purslane, broadleaf plantain—all of these plants are edible; some have medicinal value. I didn’t plant any of them in my tiny yard in Lincoln, but when I find them I don’t pull them up, either. Something I did plant a few years ago in a back corner was a cutting of common nettle, shared from a friend with recipes for nettle pasta and nettle tea. Nettles sting, yes, but when harvested and prepared carefully they’re highly nutritious. Most of the other edible plants around my home are annuals. Nettle, though, is a perennial, and it’s become a perennial weed—a weed in the sense that it’s growing quickly in a previously disturbed environment. When cut back it sprouts fresh growth. Its rhizomes spread over double the area in year two. By next spring I expect it will be able to emerge on the other side of the fence lined by my neighbor’s peonies.

Descriptions of weedy plants in rural and suburban spaces tend to emphasize how their unchecked growth threatens agricultural productivity (the environment as a place to work and earn) and aesthetic standards (the environment as a place to play and escape). Weeds and invasive species tend to be connected or conflated. For humans, weeds can pose practical questions about control and philosophical questions about who claims the power to control who/what, what means and methods are used to exert control, and at what effect and cost control is maintained.

My urban interaction with a weedy nettle surprisingly evades many of these issues. Nettle can be a source of food, and while a mass of it warrants caution a bounded planting is not necessarily an eyesore. Some varieties of nettle are native to Nebraska. The weedy tendencies of nettle can be practically checked. And philosophically, interactions with nettle can raise questions for humans about mutual exchange and interdependence.

I know how to limit the growth of nettle, and I don’t really feel any qualms about making sure it doesn’t go to seed and regularly digging up its expanding rhizome system. I want to preserve my neighbor’s choice not to have nettle in their yard, and I want to keep my own nearby leadplant. These goals don’t mean that I need to get rid of nettle altogether, especially since it has some value for me. I can respond to nettle, and nettle can impact me in return. We—nettle and I—are so far capable of actively sharing (different than co-existing in) a domestic urban environment, a place where we both can live.

The fact that nettles are a traditional indigenous sources of food, harvested and consumed by Native peoples, means that every time I interact with nettle I am reminded of the people whose land I am living on. These are the people whose knowledge of nettle has been shared with me. These are the people pursuing “decolonized diets,” food sovereignty, and restored relationships with wild and domesticated plants through the tending of urban gardens. Nettle is a provocative reminder for me of all who have been marginalized and displaced from the land but continue to live in relationship to it. And nettle, a weedy plant with healing properties, invites social and environmental justice.

-Aubrey Streit Krug

Works Cited

Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. 1962. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002.

Di Chiro, Giovanna. “Polluted Politics? Confronting Toxic Discourse, Sex Panic, and Eco-Normativity.” Queer Ecologies: Sex, Nature, Politics, Desire. Ed. Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands and Bruce Erickson. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2010. 199-230.

Nixon, Rob. “Rob Nixon Interviewed by Robert P. Marzec and Allison Carruth.” Public Culture 26.2 (2014): 281-300. doi: 10.1215/08992363-2392066

Patrick, Darren. “Queering the Urban Forest: Invasions, Mutualisms, and Eco-Political Creativity with the Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima).” Urban Forests, Trees, and Greenspace: A Political Ecology Perspective. Ed. L. Anders Sandberg, Adrina Bardekjian, and Sadia Butt. London and New York: Routledge, 2014. 191-206.

#aubreystreitkrug #ecocriticism #nonhuman