Topic: EcologyWeeds and their Metaphors

Metaphors are powerful, especially where the fight for climate justice – and justice more widely – is concerned. They focus our attention on their components; connecting, reframing – creating associations between these constituent parts and so transforming them – uplifting, illuminating, distorting and deprecating. 'Natural' metaphors can be particularly potent. In this short piece, Barney Pau explores the metaphorical potential of the weed, finding it rich with resilience and binary-defying multiplicity. Edited by Jackson Howarth.

By Barney Pau

In our profoundly social world, much of our thinking is informed by the perceptions of others. Within this collective imagination, binary constructs, centred around a ‘norm’ defined against an ‘other’, have come to proliferate – for example, heteronormativity and queerness; or cisnormativity, as opposed to gender non-binary or transgender identification. This thinking has become so entrenched that we perceive through these dichotomies – constrained as we do so. Yet by breaking binaries, we might better learn to see for ourselves.

Here, the potential of metaphor comes to the fore. Metaphors blur semantics and twist perceptions. They generate and proliferate; through them, meanings abound. Socially applied, metaphors both serve and disserve their subjects, equally able to liberate or limit thinking. In this short essay, we’ll examine how metaphors have both liberated and condemned social notions of queerness, paying special attention to one particular metaphor – the much-reviled weed.[1]

Weeds are, by definition, difficult to define. They are the interlopers and outsiders; the unwanted and ignored. One dictionary defines them as plants in the wrong place; another by their lack of use or beauty. Both definitions are immutably anthropocentric: for who says what’s ‘wrong’? And what defines ‘use’? Outside of phytology, they become material for derogatory metaphors: someone ‘weedy’ is weak; and ‘weeding out’ removes uselessness.

From veg plots to monocrops; weeds have always gone against the grain. In this, their non-normativity finds parities in social otherness; for both are defined by their inadherence to the norm. Before proceeding, let us examine the critical theory upon which this essay builds, to help contextualise how it progresses.

In The Decay of Lying (1891), theorist Oscar Wilde laments that our perceptions are often socially prescribed. He writes, "Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life:” we see through the artist's eyes; just as our thinking is defined by societal norms. The philosopher Susan Sontag’s Notes on ‘Camp’ (1964) builds on this. For her, ‘camp’ (non-normativity) contradicts ‘nature’ (normativity), suggesting perception to be ultimately inherently variable.

Sontag later wrote AIDS and Its Metaphors (1989), which examined the epidemic’s social impacts. At the time, AIDS was predominantly thought to affect gay men; an assumption which homophobic rhetoric weaponised. Metaphors like ‘pollution’ plagued contemporary discourse with biblical narratives of divine retribution, compounding social ignorance and further alienating an already reviled community. Those associated became social pariahs, infected by the taint of non-normativity.

So what does this have to do with weeds? From Wilde’s Decay to Sontag’s AIDS, metaphor highlights how non-normativity is socially eschewed. Metaphors such as ‘plague’ and ‘pollution’ are used to police normativity, threatening perceptions of social purity; contaminants thereof becoming imbued with danger. Weeds present an alternative metaphor. They ‘pollute’ through diversity. Their virulence ‘plagues’ the sterility of monoculture, and – defying any associated ‘weediness’ – they are rich with resistance.

Let us consider those ‘weeds’ of the genus Plantago. Most of us will know these plants by sight; their rosettes of leaves, torn by footfall and bruised on asphalt, are stamped in our minds. Trodden underfoot, left to the liminal, sharing their common names; Plantago – or plantain – are fluid in their identity. Ecologically robust: they thrive from our ruin; a fact imbued into their etymology. Sharing roots with ‘plant;’ ‘plantain’ comes from the Latin planta: ‘sole of the foot;’ deriving from Proto-Indo-European plat-: ‘to spread.’ And so they do, proliferating in our wake.

I first met plantain by name quite accidentally, when walking with my parents. Passing a field peppered with flint, I picked up a piece and pressed its naturally knapped edge into my hand, instantly drawing blood. Without pause, my mother chided me, plucked a leaf from the ground, washed, bruised, and held it to the cut. This, she told me, was broadleaf plantain (P. major), and it would stem my bleeding and prevent infection. Ribwort plantain (P. lanceolata), broadleaf’s more slender cousin, bears this heritage in its name: the suffix -wort – from the Old English wyrt meaning ‘root’ – indicates a medicinal history.

‘Broadleaf’ is not P. major’s only moniker, it is also ‘waybread,’ from the Anglo-Saxon waybroad: ‘a broad leaf that grows by the way.’ In Braiding Sweetgrass (2020), Robin Wall Kimerer writes of another of its names. When Europe colonised the Americas, and broadleaf hitched a ride. The plant, unlike its porters, was welcomed for its nutritional and medicinal properties, earning it the epithet ‘white man’s footstep;’ a coincidental echo of its latinate protonym. Refusing the singularity of Linnaean categorisation, plantain retain their many given names, showing different faces to each of us. As per Sontag’s Notes, plantain can teach us to see past the binary, and perceive what is in front of us anew.

Present-day Americans call broadleaf ‘plantain weed;’ a name which condemns the plant to horticultural enmity. Yet, perhaps the designation of ‘weed’ is also liberating. In Weeds (2012), writer Richard Mabey suggests these plants ‘could help us learn to live across nature’s borders again.’ Weeds repair and rebuild. They thrive in our ruin, and proliferate in our waste. They can teach us how to mend what we are breaking.

Socially transcribed, weeds are those who thrive in liminal spaces; who exist between normative binaries. Those who have, as queer theorist Jonathan Dollimore calls it, ‘strayed.’ This act ‘perverts nature’ – i.e. ‘human nature’ – and ‘may produce a glimpse of difference’ which enlightens the stray to other modes of being. Weeds stray from the norm. They grow unheeded, flourish in ruin, and challenge the status quo. In other words, weeds are pariahs. They are the radicals and the rebels; those who don’t adhere to the norm. This is not their choice: they have been nominally labelled as such; yet in spite of this they persist, proliferate and thrive. For a weed, to exist is to resist. Here, their binary belies them, for they are more than just weeds. They are diversity and ecology – they bring nature back into culture.

To be a weed is to be liberated, for we need not adhere. What a relief! To be free from the strictures of society and be solely defined by non-conformity. So let us embody the weed, who defies and diversifies by merely existing. We are not what we should be, we merely are.[4]

[1] It is important to note a metaphor’s limits. In relating weeds to queer-identifying people, I’m not suggesting that either do not belong, but instead that both diversify their environments. Many plants labelled 'weeds' form an important part of the ecological zones in which they proliferate. That being said, a 'weed' is sometimes used to describe an invasive species (for which many ecologists rightly do advocate removal). This use of the 'weed' metaphor clearly does not apply for our purposes. When discussing weeds in this article, I eschew analogies based on ‘introduced,’ ‘invasive,’ and ‘non-native’ species due to their complicated socio-political connotations.

[2] Only when the disease started impacting normative sexuality was it recognised as malignant to all. Stigmas persist. Though today medication can prevent contraction, HIV-positive people are nonetheless treated with indifference. Today, when discussing one’s sexual health status in the gay community, it is still common parlance to ask if they are ‘clean;’ a semantics similarly applied to sufferers of drug addiction.

[3] not to be confused with the banana cultivars of the genus Musa.

[4] A final note to the reader: much as weeds resist control, metaphors govern themselves. If I infer them with positive queer connotations, others will invariably try to weed that positivity out. So whether your thoughts grow wild, or you maintain them manicured; my intent has been to suggest we perceive for ourselves, and seed our minds through more diverse thinking.

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