NASHVILLE — “Nothing is so beautiful as Spring,” the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, “When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush.” I say that poem to myself every day now because I can’t think of any place more beautiful than the American South in springtime. The flowering trees — dogwoods and redbuds and serviceberries, the crab apples and peaches and cherries — are in full glory, and the woody shrubs, cascading with blossoms, are like something out of a fairy tale: forsythia and quince and lilac and bridal veil spirea. Every time it rains here, the streets are paved with petals.
But the flowers I love best are the tiny ones, so tiny they’re mostly invisible from a car window. Exquisite little flowers, most of them smaller than my pinkie fingernail, are blooming all around my house right now, and they have wonderful names: woodland violet, spring beauty, daisy fleabane, pitcher’s stitchwort, bird’s eye speedwell, yellow wood sorrel, purple dead nettle, creeping Charlie, stickywilly, dandelion and a host of others I can’t name.
Most people call them weeds. Unlike Hopkins, most people don’t love them.
A few of these flowers aren’t native to Tennessee, and some of the non-natives can be invasive. Those I pull up or mow under, but the others are beneficial, early-blooming wildflowers that pollinators love. Long before my actual pollinator garden is lush with cultivated flowers, the flowers I didn’t plant are blooming, an ankle-high meadow growing in the place where most Americans grow grass — or try to grow grass. Wildflower seeds are carried on the wind, on the coats of wild animals and in the digestive tracts of birds. Anybody who’s paying attention would see them for the gifts they are: flowers that arrive, through no effort at all, to feed the bees and the butterflies.
But Americans generally aren’t paying attention. Too enraptured with the idea of a lawn that unrolls from the street to their very door, a carpet of green that remains green even when grass is supposed to be dormant, they see these homely little wildflowers as intruders, something to be eradicated.
Maybe the whole question seems like nothing more than a matter of personal preference — I like wildflowers, and other people like grass. To each her own. That would be a fair assessment of the situation if grass grew naturally under shade trees in suburbia and if homeowners killed the unwanted plants in their yards by pulling them up or mowing them down.
Neither is true. Grass requires a lot of chemicals and a lot of water to thrive. The wildflower seeds that are carried on the wind to my uncultivated yard are also carried on the wind to my neighbors’ highly cultivated grass. Instead of weeding, it’s easier to use chemicals to keep seeds from germinating, and to kill the ones that germinate anyway with more chemicals still.
But let’s be clear here: “Chemical” is just another way of saying “poison.” Have you ever wandered down the yard-care aisles at a big-box store? Giant bags of fertilizer and gallon jugs of Roundup are stacked warehouse floor to warehouse ceiling, and the foul chemical stink they emit, even in sealed packages, will give you a headache if you linger long.
No surprise, the chemicals that give you a headache in Home Depot are bad for the environment, too. Fertilizer runoff ends up in our waterways, causing algae blooms that starve fish and other aquatic wildlife of oxygen. Pesticides and herbicides end up there, too, but first they poison us.
Last month, a federal jury ordered Monsanto, the maker of Roundup, to pay $80 million in damages to a California man with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a form of cancer. It was the second time an American jury had found for a plaintiff with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and Bayer, which now owns Monsanto, has once again vowed to appeal. But just last week it exhausted its appeals in France, where a jury in 2012 identified glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup and similar herbicides, as the cause of the plaintiff’s neurological damage.
Nature has been trying to make this point for a while now. Next time you walk around a suburban neighborhood, take a mental wildlife census of the yards you pass. What you’ll invariably find is that the pristine lawns have almost no insects living there — no bees or butterflies, no beetles, no grasshoppers or crickets, no lacewings, no spiders, no roly-polys. And where there are no insects, there are also no tree frogs, no toads, no turtles, no bats, no songbirds. A staggering 96 percent of songbirds, even those that subsist on seeds and berries as adults, rely on insects to feed their young: A growing body needs protein, and for birds the best source of protein is a bug. And birds don’t know when a bug is sick with poison.
We tend to think of nature in terms of its resilience. A rat snake eats all the redbird babies, and the parents build another nest somewhere else and try again. A tree dies in the forest, and all the little woodland creatures make a feast of the insects that live in the deadwood.
But just because we can’t see something doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. We hear birds singing in springtime, and we assume that all is well, despite our chemicals, despite the heat we are generating with our fossil fuels, despite the forests we are laying waste to. But we are wrong: The North American bird population is in steep decline, and the news is even worse for insects and amphibians: “Apocalypse” is the word scientists most often use to describe what’s happening to those populations.
Gerard Manley Hopkins didn’t live to see the havoc wreaked by the chemicals that poison us now, but he knew something about the vulnerability of the natural world:
What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.
As individuals, we too often feel powerless in the face of the corporate and political forces that drive our culture, but in this matter we are not powerless. We can change our preferences and train our eyes to see the “perfect” American lawn for what it is: a field of poison. We can put away our chemicals, make a haven of our own yards and welcome the wildflowers
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Margaret Renkl is a contributing opinion writer who covers flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South. She is the author of the forthcoming book “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss.” @MargaretRenkl
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