Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Volunteer Corn

Our weird vegetable field has lain fallow for a spell as your virtual farmer-forager takes a pause from her Brazilian sojourn to touch down in Occupied U.S. territory and witness what's been sprouting in the late North American autumn. Despite this writer's preoccupation with the bruised hands and ribs of her colleagues at the University of California, Berkeley and the violent peppering of peaceful bodies across this state and country, as well as her fulfillment of non-vegetable-related tasks with non-negotiable deadlines, others have been pitching in to help keep up production. And so, as in the natural world, what seems to be abandoned by human activity, is in fact not forgotten by all. Seeds germinate in the minds of others, photos are snapped and forwarded on behalf of the site, guest posts are written, and long-dormant co-bloggers begin to turn over their fertile plots in preparation for winter crops. Pictured above is the first of a few offerings made by kindred vegetable spirits: volunteer corn.

Yes, what you see is a corn plant that has sprouted in the sewage-soiled cracks of a city gutter. The evidence was forwarded by Bay Area curator-writer Christian Frock (creator of projects both invisible and visible), who spotted it in San Leandro, which she describes as "the wee sleepy suburban village next to Oakland." Of this newly born green guerrilla, Christian writes:

I saw this ambitious little corn growing in the gutter while out for a walk with my kids around the block. We have actually had some volunteer corn spring up in our very inhospitable backyard recently too. It is amazing on two fronts--one, I have no idea where it came from because there are no farms that I know of nearby and two, corn will apparently grow under the most incomprehensible conditions. The corn we saw in the gutter is growing out of a pretty small crack in an otherwise cement-bound area. That photograph makes me wonder at the absolute tenacity of living things, whether or not the world is conducive to their existence.

I like to imagine the ways the corn might have gotten there: a child spits out a mealy mouthful just to see the yellow spray splatter against the sidewalk. An ear tumbles out of someone's full bag of farmers' market produce or bounces off the top of a truck's abundant corn bed. A pigeon got too greedy somewhere and landed here to hurl politely into the gutter. The wind got curious about its powers and decided to fling some corn bits along the road.

One thing leads to another and the next thing you know, the city sidewalk finds itself becoming-field without active human intervention. Which leads to another question: what's the difference between a volunteer and a weed? Who determines which is which? A volunteer is "a plant that grows on its own, rather than being deliberately planted by a farmer or gardener," says Wikipedia , the key defining factor being that this plant is desirable and has decided to labor for its own life, while appearing as though a natural gift to the grateful farmer or gardener: "Unlike weeds, which are unwanted plants, a volunteer may be encouraged once it appears, being watered, fertilized, or otherwise cared for." This blog gives an entertaining account of volunteer vegetables as her cream of the crop Garden Army.

A weed, too, is talented at surviving on its own, yet to the displeasure or detriment of the human who plots and pines for its removal. It is "a plant that is not valued where it is growing and is usually of vigorous growth; especially : one that tends to overgrow or choke out more desirable plants," according to Merriam-Webster.

At the heart of this volunteer/weed divide is a value judgment applied to occupying space. Which plant deserves to thrive in a determinate patch of ground and which must be pulled up by its roots and disposed of to make way for others? But how are we to judge how to distribute (or redistribute) the soil's riches properly? Is this corn a weed if it disturbs the sidewalk and no human wants to eat it? Is it a volunteer only if it is deemed a vegetable by means of its edibility? Does its conversational value, the pleasure of surprise it gives by springing up unexpectedly from a gutter, make it a volunteer and not a weed?

Perhaps it is a matter of reinventing our definition of a weed. Books have been written in praise of weeds, including Joseph A. Cocannouer's 1950 Weeds: Guardians of the Soil, which broadens the definition of a weed from something unwanted to, "any plant growing out of place," though he immediately complicates the idea of any plant being "out of place" by asking us to take the perspective of the farmer trying to protect his beet crop from a certain weed and then that of the soil that is simultaneously being fertilized and strengthened by this same "weed." He writes: "Nature may at times compel us to discover the value of her wild plants; her weeds," which emphasizes how one inherent value of a weed is its wildness, its spontaneity.

Or perhaps weeds are vagabonds, invasive species that travel and set up camp in open areas or pioneer new systems of life in spaces cleared then abandoned by humans, as French "planetary gardener" Gilles Clément writes in his book Éloge des vagabondes (In Praise of Vagabonds), which devotes whole chapters to vegetable weeds like fennel and Tibetan rhubarb. Readers of French can find more of his writings here.

Clément's defense of invasive species asks us to suspend our opinions about what species "belong" where, challenging the assumed superior value of the local, the indigenous, and the diverse in order to open the doors to the possibilities tracked in by plants that go wandering, even those that threaten to take over an area of their own. Though Clément's writings have been influenced by Marxist philosophies, here his arguments are radical without falling neatly on any defined points along the left-right political spectrum. Here, I leave you with a tiny sampling from poet-ecocritic Jonathan Skinner's translation from In Praise of Vagabonds that appeared in an environmentally-themed issue of the journal Qui Parle that I edited last year. (Issues can be hard to track down and difficult to download if you don't have university library access, but if you email weirdvegetables AT gmail.com I can send you a pdf version of the excerpt.)

A troubled world decries the invasion of life-forms from elsewhere. Strangers, plants, animals, how dare you reach our shores? Articles on the topic abound. We hold conferences, organize world summits on the urgency of the struggle against all that is not indigenous, local, and national. We advise the user to eradicate by any means necessary species not featured on the authorized lists. We pass laws, set up quarantines, insure. Once the system is in place, it damages an extravagant process: that of evolution.

You have no right, you vagabonds, to occupy the land of another. Go away, do not crowd our floral classifications with your abusive and deadly presence. You chase away our species, sometimes you kill them. You are pollution. In the name of national identity we fight you, we protect our citizens, our landscape, our environment. In the name of diversity we wage war on you because we want peace. 

Peace: a human delusion, without biological foundation. Whenever it is at hand, elements erupt. The rest of the time life goes on in its own way. 

That’s how the process goes, and everyone knows it’s accelerating.   


If anyone else has favorite publications or sites that think about weeds or volunteer vegetables in interesting ways, post them in the comments section.