By Kyle Mitchell
Having worked on an urban vegetable farm for the past 3 years, I’ve had the chance to encounter lots of things we affectionately call weeds. They mostly get a bad rap for stealing water, nutrients, and sunlight from the cultivated plants. They can certainly do this.
However, being a metaphor person, I’m constantly thinking about what things mean in my life. I first encountered weeds with an almost militant mindset.
Get them out! DESTROY them! Hate them! Weeds are the enemy! I imagined the weeds in my life, things that were stealing life, joy, beauty, and I wondered how I could pluck them out in order to be able to better thrive.
Most recently, though, I began to look at weeds holistically, through a more ecological lens.
1. Weeds are pioneers
Weeds are the first to move in and cover disturbed soil. As soil biologist Elaine Ingham said, “Mother nature abhors bare soil.” Whenever land has been destroyed, tilled, burned, etc. and left degraded, weeds spring up and begin the cycle of healing and restoration. They cover the wound of bare soil, protecting if from erosion, replenishing organic matter, feeding soil life, restoring biodiversity, and providing habitat for insects and animals. In this way, land is replenished and resurrected because of the initiative of misunderstood weeds.
This reminds me of some of the saints that I’ve read about who tended to move into places that had been degraded and disturbed, offering themselves to bring healing and restoration in those places of brokenness.
2. Weeds are radical – from the latin radix, meaning “root”.
Weeds literally have roots. In that sense, they are radical. Many weeds have deep taproots which act as miners, digging way down into the soil, feeding soil life and bringing up valuable nutrients throughout their life cycle.
One of the antonyms of the word radical is superficial. Throughout life we will be tempted to offer superficial solutions in complex places that require deep healing, observation, and honesty. Will we have the courage to pioneer ourselves into disturbed and damaged places and be rooted, be radical, digging deep to encourage healing and bring out the best in the people and places where we live?
3. Weeds are sacrificial
Throughout their life cycle, weeds contribute to the life of the soil, bringing up nutrients and creating spaces for microorganisms and insects to live and thrive. But they will not stick around forever. They are a pioneer species that move in quickly to cover bare earth and create space for repair and healing to take place.
Ultimately, land wants to grow up and mature into a healthy forest, and after some time, it will, if left undisturbed. Once weeds have done their radical, healing, pioneering work, they will finally die. And in their death, they leave behind their bodies as organic matter that will continue to bring life to the once broken place.
Kyle lives with his wife Lynea on the 3rd floor of an old house in Cleveland. He’s spent the past three farm seasons working alongside folks with developmental disabilities on a 2-acre urban farm down the street from his house. In his spare time, he works with Lynea in the 2 youth gardens she started in the neighborhood. They are both passionate about growing food, spreading that knowledge, and figuring out ways to get healthy food to folks that don’t have access to it.