For the last two years I’ve been watching the woman across the street plant and replant her garden every couple of months. It’s about 50 feet long and eight feet wide and has gone through so many iterations — from Japanese to xeriscape to tasty herbs — that she now has to truck in fresh soil every time she changes her mind.
The poor lady spends hours out there; as far as I can tell she doesn’t have a job and she can’t possibly have time for any friends with all of that potting and repotting. The one constant is that she’s losing her battle against weeds, and losing it decisively. Shock and awe after every rain.
And I have to admit that I’m rooting for the enemy. Her most troublesome weed is that little oxalis flower that dominates the median strips and side lots of Berkeley. These little flowers team up into great splashy swarms of yellow. It’s colorful, non-spiny and requires no care whatsoever. Who says it has to be a weed? In the front yard across the street I’d much prefer a sea of yellow to the standard detritus of a garden undergoing renovation.
I, for one, am firmly in favor of disorder when it comes to plants. Don’t get me wrong, I love a nice garden. Or rather, I love it when my neighbors have gardens that I can appreciate through my window without actually having to waste a perfectly good Sunday in the pursuit of mulch. But for my money, there’s nothing as enjoyable as a good weed-infested, overgrown, vine-creeping patch of chaos.
Now here’s my dirty secret: not only do I love weeds, but I feel downright friendly toward invasive species. Bring me your vibrant, your strong, your huddled masses yearning to drop seed! Plants are just plants, they don’t spend much time on nostalgia or morality. It’s the gardeners who do all of the hand wringing over whether a certain bit of green is supposed to be there.
Around here native plants are like the Holy Grail, like fragile little movie stars that we have to coax and coddle so they’ll take up residence in our neighborhoods and we can bask in the sheer plantness of them. There’s this belief in Berkeley that if we can just get back to how vegetation used to be, then somehow everything will be all right.
A lot of my friends are plant biologists and they spend hours decrying the eucalyptus invasion. But I can’t help myself; I grew up here and I’ve always loved the smell of those trees and the way they filter the late afternoon light on the fire trail above Strawberry Canyon.
I didn’t even know I was supposed to hate them until I was well into my twenties. True, it’s always nice to have a new (and hopeless) problem to be miffed about, but would Berkeley really be Berkeley without eucalyptus?
If you’d never seen them before, you’d have to admit that yellow star-thistles have their own amazing architecture, those soft yellow petals cheek-to-jowl with malevolent spike-balls that would make a gladiator proud. And the smell of wild fennel? A kid couldn’t ask for more than to have entire hillsides smell like licorice.
There’s no such thing as native vegetation. Everything came from somewhere and it’s on the way to someplace else, just like most of us. A friend of mine who works for The Nature Conservancy went to a grade-school in Oakland to give her standard lecture on the evils of invasive species. She told me she didn’t have the heart to finish when she saw the looks on the faces of all the immigrant kids in the back row. Just a bunch of weeds.
I’ve always found it amusing that a university town that prides itself on being on the cutting edge of social change is so up in arms about the creeping evil of vegetable progress. At some point the local powers-that-be decided that it was time to freeze history. Molten Big-Bang plasma isn’t quite the look we’re going for, but oak woodlands will do just fine. The artichoke thistle has to go, but the two-bedroom bungalow is swell. People wax nostalgic over the good old days, when buffalo thundered down Interstate 80 and cougars dragged small children off the playgrounds at the Montessori. I’m pretty content to sit back and let nature run its course. Naturally. Of course it’s also possible that I’m just covering for the fact that I don’t look good in a loincloth.
Zac Unger is a Berkeley resident and an Oakland firefighter.