Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Juicy Wildness

I spent several hours in the garden yesterday, pulling weeds and otherwise getting a couple of garden beds ready for planting with lettuce and spinach. As often happens when I'm working quietly in the garden, I started thinking about all sorts of things, especially how we place value on various parts of our world. And, as also often happens, I couldn't stand to toss out a lot of the weeds I was pulling, so I saved them for food and medicine.

Then my ten-year-old daughter joined me in the gentle spring sunshine, wanting to help out with the garden chores. I explained that I was pulling weeds. Sure, no problem, she would help. The catch: The two garden beds we were cleaning out still had cold-weather crops in them (kale and lettuce) that shouldn't be pulled up. Her question: How do I know if something is a weed? Should I throw away everything except the cultivated crops? She cast a suspicious glance at the clumps of chickweed and yellow dock I had carefully piled at the corner of one garden bed. Gee, kid, you sure know how to turn a bit of yardwork into a philosophy debate.

What's a weed? Well, there's a can of worms. Most people will tell you a weed is a useless plant that's making a pest of itself. Some gardeners insist that a weed is any plant growing where you don't want it. By that definition, a prize rose bush is a weed if it's sticking in the middle of your pristine lawn. But to most people, weeds are simply the garbage of the plant world, whose only purpose in life is to be dug up and tossed aside to make way for more worthy plants. To many herbalists, however, especially those with a more (ahem) feminist or militant bent, weeds are valuable food and medicine and powerful emblems of the bits of modern life that civilization has got wrong.

I ran across numerous examples of this dichotomy of values in my naturopathic practice. Take garlic, for instance. It's a fabulous internal and external anti-infective, lowers blood pressure and cholesterol - it's the one herb I would want with me on the proverbial deserted island. But suggest to a client that they chop up and swallow a fresh clove of garlic, purchased from the produce section of the supermarket for mere pennies or dug from their own garden, and they recoil. No, they want a pill, a processed, sanitized, colorfully-packaged pill. Which brand, they ask, is the best? The one that costs twenty dollars or the one that costs thirty?

I soon learned not even to consider suggesting 'yard salad' to clients. Sure, a fresh bowl of chickweed, violet leaves and blossoms, young dandelion and hawkweed leaves and onion grass will give you more vitamins, minerals and micronutrients than you can shake a stick at (tasty, too!). But no, they want something from a store, something processed and extracted and labeled, preferably a pill, though those odd liquid tincture thingies might do in a pinch. Sigh.

When did we learn to value human-processed items over unprocessed ones? Packaged over unpackaged? Cultivated over wild? I've watched people in the grocery store - they bypass the loose produce and pick up the stuff wrapped in plastic. That is, if they buy fresh produce at all.

I have to admit here that my values may be skewed by the fact that I spent much of my childhood on a farm. We picked and ate, out of hand, whatever was around when we were out in the fields or woods. I realize that these days that's an unusual experience, but maybe it's something we need to get back to, for the health of our bodies and the health of our values. You know, eat outside the box. Literally.

Of course, I wouldn't recommend picking a salad from a roadside where the plants have soaked up exhaust fumes and heavy metal-laced runoff. But what about that chickweed in your chemical-free lawn? Or the dandelions and violets in your flowerbeds? Did you know that the entire daylily plant is edible? When did we become afraid of anything that hasn't been sanitized and packaged and presented to us with a slick marketing campaign?

I have to wonder if we're not losing an essential, wild part of ourselves by denying the value of wild stuff in our yards and gardens. Life isn't neat and tidy. Why should our food be?

We had a delicious yard salad with homemade pizza for dinner last night. After dinner I scrubbed the yellow dock roots I had dug from the garden, chopped them up and jarred them with vodka to make a mineral-rich tincture that will save me having to buy iron pills. I'm keeping an eye on the baby burdock plant that volunteered behind the side deck, eager for the day this summer when I can dig it up and cook its delicious root in some soup. That will be about the same time that the wild elderberries and blackberries are ripe. Then, in the fall, I'll dig up some of the arrowhead roots from the pond out in the woods and cook them for dinner, along with some sumac lemonade or maybe goldenrod tea.

Weeds? Yeah. Juicy wildness.