( Originally Published 1908 )
A strange analogy exists between plant life and some aspects of human life. The same stern necessity of the survival of the fittest physical in one, and in the other mental and spiritual — seems to inhere in both. Among the weeds, competition is the dominant note, as it is in our world. In some higher circles it is sounded faintly, while untold legions of the more delicate plants like sensitive natures are driven to the wall, unequal to the struggle.
There are weeds whose ways suggest the arrogant monopoly, and others which recall the parasites of society. The dodder fastens upon its vi dim and the bindweed throttles the innocent. To with-stand the severe competition of pigweed and ragweed, the garden patch requires your energy, plus its own ; and the more war is waged upon these, the more does it seem to encourage the purslane, which thrives like a freebooter in this sort of warfare.
One can imagine no more irrepressible rabble than these weeds of the garden. They seem possessed almost of a conscious life, and to push and shove and scramble for place like a hard-headed, thick-skinned, piratical crew. Many of them are immigrants, the riffraff of Europe, who have found their way to our shores, some to become good citizens, and others to remain pestilent anarchists, opposed to the law and order of the kitchen-garden and rebelling against all government by the hoe. Yet how happy are the bob-whites and the tree-sparrows for the poor seeds of the ragweed when the snow lies deep. They repair to these as to an unfailing larder, which may lie between them and starvation at such times. Through some kind providence, the seeds remain into the winter to be shaken down upon the snow. The obnoxious weed of summer rises to the dignity of usefulness and becomes a food plant grain and corn to the hungry birds.
There are weeds and there are weeds. So much depends upon the point of view ; is it a weed on the lawn, or is the lawn but a background for the dandelions which star the grass ? What bright day-stars are these which beam upon us from the orchards and by-roads with cheerful golden radiance ! And when these shining stars have grown dim and faded from their firmament of green, there appear in their place such white wraiths of their former selves as resemble the moon seen by the light of day. They are now so many extinct suns, so many ghosts of the dandelions, soon dissolving into still less substantial state, to be spirited away on the winds.
During the summer the common dandelions gradually disappear, and at length the fall dandelions suddenly spring into prominence, poking their flower-heads up on long scapes. With commendable thrift these are closed every night, that a little pollen may not be wet by the dew. These fall flowers appear to be more numerous even than the early species. They can sustain themselves in tall grass where the latter could not, keeping their flower-heads always floating on the rising tide of green. You may see fields of red clover mixed with dandelions, while the Virginia creeper lies in scarlet splendor along stone walls, and goldenrod and asters are massed on the borders Elysian fields surely. The play of light and color is a kind of music, and stimulates one to some inner hearing. The deaf could hear this. And were the blind to listen to the crickets' reverie, they might see these fields.
Is there anywhere a more audacious beauty than the pokeweed in autumn ? It flaunts itself in your face one of the respectable bourgeoisie of weeds, now suddenly arrayed in this regal fashion and mocking you with its splendid beauty. A weed ! Why are not roses weeds as they stand all forlorn before this voluptuous child of the people? Out of the plebeian rabble there comes here and there such a superb creature as this.
Consider the milkweeds,— a family of beauties. Something luxuriant and sensuous there is in their ample proportions. They have an excessive health, an exuberance of vitality ; a full-blooded race, if you so much as break a leaf from one it bleeds like a wounded creature. From the mud, the swamp-milkweed has derived some rich hue, while the butterfly-weed in the pasture has caught the very sunshine itself and become a living flame. The great pod of the milkweed is the luxuriant fruit of this fine plant, as tropical in appearance as any mango or cocoa bean. When it is ripe, in place of a luscious flavor, it discloses a mass of finest silk, a fluffy ball. Who would guess the treasure within these grotesque pods with their long beaks, their spines and wrinkles? They are like curious old junks with a cargo. of rich stuffs of the East, which children young pirates that they are —overhaul on the high seas of the pasture and despoil of their treasure.
It is the sturdy character, if nothing more, of some weeds which constitutes their charm, for health is beautiful everywhere. Ironweed and joepye-weed are such lusty, vigorous plants, and bur-dock and jimson-weed. The earth shall nourish them; they push themselves to the front; they do not live by any one's favor. How can the impoverished dust of the roadside sustain these burdocks with their incredible leaves? The richest swamp produces no such extravagant foliage. As for the ironweed, it clothes the pastures with a royal purple, so rich a hue it compels the eye, and is a kind of stimulant. One may become mildly intoxicated with such color.
In August the high-roads and by roads are painted stripes of gamboge and patches of delicate blue--and all because of some weeds. It would be worth while riding through the country at this season, if for no other reason than this. Vivid streaks of tansy stretch in narrow lines for rods together. Where the road skirts a pond, the eye is refreshed by the pickerel-weed, resting like aureoles above the surface of the water. In the fields beyond is the celestial blue of the chicory so common a weed, so divine a hue; while everywhere a fringe of wild carrot trails in the dust, the lace border of that gorgeous mantle. Such laces and jewels nature provides if you are but rich enough in thought to possess them.
In the pastures mullein and thistle grow side by side, two pronounced personalities, as different as it is possible to be, yet nourished by the same soil and under the same conditions. The mullein seems to invite you to take hold of its leaves, while the thistle as plainly says, Hands off! They suggest similar types of people, one bristling and repellent, the other suave and genial. These great flannel leaves of the mullein are caressing and soft to the touch. Contact with them is agreeable, well nigh soothing. If, perchance, your feelings have been ruffled by a bellicose thistle, address yourself to the tender young leaves of the mullein and you shall feel their soothing effect.
The perfume of the Canada thistle is equal to that of most wild flowers and superior to many. It is wholly refined, with no taint of coarseness. With what vulgar effrontery a cheap perfume assails the nose. But here is a despised thistle which brings itself to notice by an influence not plebeian but patrician. You might pass this thistle day in and day out and never suspect it had any such virtue, till you had gone out of your way to cultivate a closer acquaintance. Call it a weed if you will, it has an individuality that separates it from other common plants, and by reason of which it commands attention.
Floating in nebulous masses about the black-berry thicket, the delicately conspicuous hue of the fireweed catches the eye. If you will but watch the slender pods you may now and again see one suddenly open and its four walls silently withdraw, while there emerges from the interior a phantom shape, the filmy mass of pappus-down with rows of golden seeds attached. This white cloud of silk gradually takes shape, as the mist might rise from a mountain lake, lingers a moment, and then sails away on a passing breeze ethereal still as the mist growing less and less, and vanishing at lenght, again into the invisible.
Old gravelly roads, which meander across the pasture and seem destitute of any special beauty, are often adorned from end to end with the round-leaved spurge, of richest hue, varying from maroon to plum color. This little weed is so unpretentious, so sincerely humble and unassuming, that probably very few ever see it or are aware of its existence. It lies prone upon the earth, where, once it attracts the attention, it is seen to be a beautiful embroidery on the bare ground. Here grows the poverty-grass which on misty days is covered with dewdrops incrusted with jewels while more pretentious plants are not decked in any such beautiful array. The mist descends upon the poorest of them all, and makes that resplendent.
The strange spiny fruit of the orache suggest sculpins, or some sea-shells, while the innumerable erect stems of the spreading house-leek resemble the backbone of fish. Carrying with it its air-sacs and paraphernalia of the sea, the rockweed, which is a weed" of another world, grows as far up on the land as it can go, while the weeds of the beach approach the water as near as they dare. Here is the frontier, the edge of their world, and one and all would scramble over the border could they sustain life on the other side.