“Long live the weeds and the wilderness”

4 May


This darksome burn, horseback brown,

His rollrock highroad roaring down,

In coop and in comb the fleece of his foam

Flutes and low to the lake falls home.

A windpuff-bonnet of fawn-froth

Turns and twindles over the broth

Of a pool so pitchblack, fell-frowning,

It rounds and rounds Despair to drowning.

Degged with dew, dappled with dew

Are the groins of the braes that the brook treads through,

Wiry heathpacks, flitches of fern,

And the beadbonny ash that sits over the burn.

What would the world be, once bereft

Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,

O let them be left, wildness and wet;

Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.

-Gerard Manley Hopkins

How can we read in the newspapers that “we” as humans might be responsible for 30 or 40% of species extinction, without this effecting a change in our “identity” and our “relationships”? How can we remain unmoved by the idea that we are now as dangerous to our life support system as the impact of a major meteorite?

-Bruno Latour, 2007 “A Plea for Earthly Sciences”

Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem, a paean to the weeds and wilderness and a celebration of generative disorder, evokes an earthy landscape, simmering with untamed life. This, a stark contrast to the  burgeoning industrialism and formal gardens of late 1800s when Hopkins wrote, is an even sharper counterpoint to the industrial parks, roll-out suburban lawns, and agri-business of the twenty-first century. Most contemporary approaches to landscape design and agriculture pose an ideal scene and or target profit, cultivate a range of plants to create this ideal or meet this target, and intervene with toxic chemicals, traps, and fences to restrict and kill pests: animals, weeds, and insects that would interfere with the ideal ends.  In the modern university, academic disciplines are similarly organized via taxonomies that cultivate particular epistemologies and exclude others. In place of fences, we have specialized jargon and research methods to keep intruders out. In the realm of college writing, we have an arsenal of weapons—placement tests, quizzes, rubrics, handbooks—to help us battle the traditional pests of student errors and  vernacular dialects. One thing that the increasing specialization of disciplines and the standardization of language have in common with conventional landscaping and commercial agriculture is that all move towards monocultures, a dangerous move, one that has, as Bruno Latour reminds us, resulted in the loss of biodiversity in the physical environment. Another commonality is atomistic thought: a dangerous and ill-conceived focus on small, independent units rather than systems, a focus that exacerbates competition and  stymies collaboration.

The wholistic science of ecology teaches us the value of diversity and attention to context as means of  adaptation, and, essentially, as means of maintaining life. Gregory Bateson describes  diversity as necessary for the survival of healthy ecosystem. He writes: “There shall be diversity in the civilization, not only to accommodate the genetic and experiential diversity of persons, but also to provide the flexibility and ‘preadaption’ necessary for unpredictable change” (503). The principles of permaculture, based on ecology, offer an alternative design model, one that transcends the Cartesian mistake of valuing mind above body and humans above nature. Rather than positing an ideal landscape, permaculture works with the diverse materials, life forms, needs and resources of local ecosystems.

Permaculture reminds us that pre-industrial principles of sustainable living embrace diversity in living ecosystems. In many ways, academic research offers a range of arguments for intellectual diversity in general and language diversity in particular. As few back as the 1950s, linguists have been detailing the existence of various World Englishes, in contrast to the illusory ideal of  a standard English, and composition scholars have been advocating for the value of language diversity.  But, this research has not yet completely changed public perceptions of  diversity. Educated discourse remains narrowly defined as academic forms in standard English. The gatekeepers of the  university are like homeowners who despise the dandelions on their lawns, unaware that these plants offer a host of nutritional and aesthetic benefits, unaware that by poisoning the dandelions, they are also poisoning the earth.


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