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Confessions of a Weed-Hugger: Or, Browsing Chaos Sarah D. Scalet weed (wéd)—The word has no definite application Mike Burton is earning a Ph.D. by planting weeds. ActuaUy it's more complicated than that: his doctoral research has to do with why certain weeds tend to grow in certain areas. He plants them, monitors how they grow, and looks for patterns to see if he can't find "a chink in their armor" and thus control them. "Planting weeds in farmers' fields," he teUs me, laughing. "My mother loves that." It's past 8:00 P.M. in Burton's time zone, and nine o'clock in mine, and he is stiU in the weed ecology lab at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Half a country between us, we have both let the weed creep into our Saturday nights. I caUed him, a friend of a friend, hoping to find answers to a few questions that have been pestering me:What is a weed? Who decides which plants are weeds? Why do we need the term at aU? As it turns out, there are no simple answers about what Burton and others caU "plants out ofplace."Yet I hear in the voice ofthis self-described "weed-hugger" something I've not yet heard outside my own head—an enthusiasm, a respect and excitement about the resilience of the things whose characteristics have made them weeds. Could I be a weed-hugger, too? (Ia) An undesired or useless plant I thought I was their first love. Yellow buttons poking up from too-tidy grass, buttery fuzz at my chin, skeletal puffbaUs that begged to be blown into the wind. I adored the dandelion with the fervor of a scientist who has discovered a new species, the devotion of a fan cheering for the underdog. I imagined myself as a sprightly old woman with a yard fuU of cats and cultivated dandelions. Under my tutelage, the neighbors would grow to admire 98 Sarah D. Scalet99 this bright flower's resistance: they would accept the dandefions creeping toward their borders, they would thank me, and we would aU become friends over goblets of dandelion wine, drunk on a patchwork quilt spread on my sunshine-sprinkled lawn. Not until years later would I realize that I was not, of course, the first to see poetry in the dandelion, in the weed. Shakespeare's work includes more than 20 direct references to weeds, and countless indirect ones, like this: "Golden lads and girls aU must, / As chimney-sweepers, come to dust." In an issue of Harper's devoted to Shakespeare, Jonathan Bate explains that in the Bard's vernacular, a dandeUon was a "golden lad" when in flower, a "chimney-sweeper" in puffbaU stage. Shakespeare makes the dandelion seem as beautiful as I always imagined it to be. Why couldn't we admire the hardiness of certain plants, rather than despise them? If the world was of infinite possibility—as I had been made to believe it was; after aU, my teachers said any ofus could be president when we grew up—then the unfortunate could be made lucky, the unwanted coveted , the unloved suddenly desired. One day my gangly figure offto the side of the school cafeteria (the body that had itself shot up like a weed) might even find a table at which it fit. A flick ofa mental switch, then, and aU the weeds in the world disappeared. (Ib) That which grows where it is not wanted or needed I didn't recognize it at the time, but even as I rejected the notion ofplant dubbed weed, I was courting another, one that sprouts in the written word, taking over phrases, sentences, sometimes whole paragraphs. The more typos you find, the more you know remain, their roots tangled in intended meanings . This weeding of words started in the first grade, when I came across the word its and informed my teacher that my book was missing an apostrophe . "Oh, no, that's not a mistake," she said. "Its is a word without an apostrophe, too." No matter. I could teU, by the way she had bent over my desk...


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pp. 98-104
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