Thistles and sacrifices

Walking composition

“I could stand to have my back broken if this was the way a spine could grow back.”
—Charlotte Gill,
Eating Dirt

I spent two hours last weekend spot-spraying Canadian thistles with vinegar. With most weeds I’m live and let live but the thistles are vicious—sharp enough to poke through shoes—and spread with gleeful abandon. If they’re allowed to flower they seed everywhere, and if you try to dig them up every bit of chipped-off taproot sprouts a new plant. Spraying them is a complete tedious pain but I told myself that this would be the year I get some kind of grip over the enormous thistle problem in our yard.

A friend stopped by later to assess our garden soil and drop off a couple of honeyberry bushes. I told him I think of the thistles as white supremacy and he said that knapweed, which we also have plenty of, was probably closer and the thistles are more like the patriarchy. The thistles, he said, eventually burn themselves out but the knapweed injects a toxin into the soil to stop other plants from growing.

And then I thought it’s kind of silly for me to make sociological analogies out of invasive weeds. It’s an ingrained tendency for a nonfiction writer, I think, but thistles and knapweed are just thistles and knapweed. They don’t need to carry the weight of problems larger than themselves.


While I was spraying I listened to a half-hour episode of At a Distance, a podcast I usually enjoy for its thoughtfulness. I ended up frustrated with this one, though, and almost didn’t finish it because the guest and hosts riffed for a bit about how unreasonable “environmentalists” are for resisting nuclear power and genetically modified food plants.

This kind of criticism makes me weary. It’s very common and depends on strawman arguments, leaps of logic, and a stereotyping of opponents being anti-science instead of grappling with very real problems those technologies pose. Every time I hear someone defend GMOs they talk about Vitamin A rice, but they never talk about enormous increase in the use of pesticides and herbicides in the American midwest and the damage it causes to waterways, or, dicambra drift, or the GMO grass that was developed for golf courses, escaped, and is now spreading across Oregon.

And I don’t think I’ve ever heard a proponent of nuclear power truly grapple with the sacrifice zones that are necessary for both ends of that production line: places where uranium is mined, and places where waste is stored. Nor do they talk about the reality that the damage caused will extend to uncountable future generations, another iteration of what plastics researcher Rebecca Altman calls “time-bombing the future.”

It’s very easy to promote forms of energy and engineered food when you’re the recipient of them if you ignore the ecosystems and people sacrificed in the process.


A few years ago I hired a goat lawnmowing service. The animals were very effective at chomping down the thistles (they were also super cute) but they didn’t touch the knapweed. Evidently knapweed is so unattractive as fodder that elk have changed migration patterns to avoid it.

Every time I remember I have to deal with it, the knapweed happens to be in bloom and is covered in wild, native bees. Since bees are in decline pretty much everywhere I don’t have the heart to remove this food source when they’re using it but I’m going to have to figure something out eventually. I don’t know which plants might be strong enough to overcome the toxins left behind when the knapweed is pulled out, but I’ll start with my favorite free, cheerful, edible, soft-to-walk-on and easy-to-grow plant whose dislike by yard enthusiasts I’ll never understand: dandelions.

I suppose removing knapweed and replacing it with something else will be a lifelong project, but it’ll be interesting to see if we can turn this mini sacrifice zone into something more supportive of life’s diversities.


Some stuff to read or listen to:

  • This Futures podcast on how brain chemicals influence your life was fascinating enough that I might read Ginny Smith’s book Overloaded. She managed to explain complicated ideas—like a possible relationship between inflammation and depression—without overselling them.

  • Mary Jo Salter’s collection of “Zoom Room” sonnets for The American Scholar was a needed interlude. I don’t read a lot of poetry but enjoyed this selection.

  • Sarah Boon’s Watershed Notes this week is, delightfully, about trees. I can’t wait to share her forthcoming essay on individual trees for Psyche and, hopefully someday, the longform essay she mentions about our relationship with forests.

  • Michelle Nijhuis’s essay “The miracle of the commons,” in Aeon, arrived serendipitously on the same day I posted that walking composition about Peter Linebaugh’s commons research and the Magna Carta. Nijhuis, author of the book Beautiful Beasts, about endangered species, made me very happy by bringing Elinor Ostrom’s Nobel Prize-winning work on commons systems of ownership to the world with this essay, and dismantling Garrett Hardin’s too-often-quoted and logically flawed “Tragedy of the Commons.” She asks why Hardin’s work persists in our imaginations but Ostrom’s is little-known, to which my answer would be that Hardin’s simplified, pessimistic view of humans’ capacities to manage the gifts of the ecosystems we depend on serves power and profit, so of course it’s the image of ourselves that is pushed upon us.

  • Neutron counts at Chernobyl’s confinement shelter have started to creep up, prompting worries about increased fission reactions that could lead to decay and radioactive dust. (Did I mention sacrifice zones?)