It’s war. Oh yes, I know all about the mixed records of our ongoing, all-out shooting wars and police actions: the War on Terror, the War on Drugs (notably not a War on Addictions), the Wars on Oceanic and Online Piracy, and the never-ending War on the National Debt.
I admit I’ve even laughed at George Carlin’s rant (as paraphrased for PG consumption): Why is everything a War with us? Can’t we come up with any better metaphors for concerted human activity? But faced with Scottish thistle that rears up and looks me in the eye in early July, and burdock with a wing span rivalling that of the Great Condor, I find I’m not laughing any more. Getting creative with metaphors isn’t my top-of-mind concern: bring out the big guns, I say. It is war, damn it!
My battlefield is a small copse bordering our lot. Our new development was hacked out of a patch of roughly forested land, roughly being the operative word. As the bulldozers carved out building lots, leaving a narrow strip of trees, they uprooted mature indigenous trees that, for all their unpruned awkwardness, had previously provided enough canopy cover to discourage forest-floor growth. Sudden access to sunlight and the previous year’s incessant rainfall gave the noxious weeds all the encouragement they needed to launch their invasion.
Establishing a beach head at the margins of the copse, they crept ever inward. Disrespectful of the rights of the original residents, they soon over-ran the entire patch, doing their level best to choke out saplings and bushes. Infiltrating the deadwood rotting on the ground and hanging from damaged trees—a relic of the Great Ice Storm of 1998—they cleverly camouflaged themselves, thereby avoiding detection until well-established, and hindering access for counter-insurgency measures.
Chemical countermeasures being prohibited both by municipal bylaw and common sense—nothing less than napalm would have much effect—I am reduced to mechanical methods. Pruning, that’s it: cut away the offending parts. But the growth is now so intermingled that it is hard to distinguish legitimate saplings, struggling to take root, from dog strangling vine—so named, I suspect, because it grows fast enough to sneak up on and strangle a sleeping dog. In any event, pruning invasive weeds is just the gardening equivalent of reasoning with a rambunctious two-year-old: it does not address the persistence inherent in the beast.
Surgical strikes—digging out the offending part—seem better for getting at the ‘root cause’, as we like to say in business, but even where I can recognize these little devils in their prepubescent state, the sheer scale of the activity swamps the available diggers. And digging is harder than it sounds. A few straggly burdock leaves are supported by a tap root that would not embarrass a mighty oak: its two-inch diameter defies extraction, and I must be content with fighting a war of attrition, repeatedly chopping off the green leafy bits.
Balked in my attempt to deal preemptively with the youngsters, I go after the adults. But as I topple mature thistle and burdock, they aggressively scatter their spurred seed heads farther than if I had let them stand. Living in some weird combination of myths—Phoenix meets Hydra, perhaps—I kill one and a hundred, nay a thousand, rise in its place. Dog strangling vine takes a stealthier and more nefarious tack, because less obvious: severed roots sprout from both ends, so that a direct assault may actually spread the weed, rather than inhibit it. There ought to be a sign posted at the edge of the copse: Interfere at your own risk.
Primum non nocere: First, do no harm. The Hippocratic oath for physicians, it might well serve as a guideline not just for medicine but for gardening too. How easy it is to do harm, even while trying to do good, and how hard, sometimes, to undo it. Spread the very weed you seek to eradicate by tackling it improperly. Drown the tree transplanted into impermeable clay by faithful watering. Foster blight by offering the wrong kind of fertilizer. Give insects and disease a foothold by pruning badly. Destroy next year’s blossoms on lilac or hydrangea (or almost any damn bush) by pruning properly, but at the wrong time of year—and every species has its own ‘wrong time’.
It isn’t enough to want to do right: one must know what is right. Yet the limits of our knowledge catch us again and again: we don’t know what we don’t know. Bitten often enough by unintended and unforeseen consequences—standing hip-deep in cranky alligators after draining the swamp—we naturally tend to incrementalism as we get older. Do a little bit, see how it turns out, do a little bit more. Crank up the caution, dial down the expectations.
And as with gardening, so it is with living. In our homes, we learn to advise less, helping our family but steering clear of trying to shape them. In our work, we learn to direct less, addressing inappropriate workplace behaviour but steering clear of trying to re-shape the worker. In the public arena, we learn to expect less, supporting new initiatives but steering clear of trying to transform the world.
And when we forget the hard-earned lesson of incrementalism—when we fall prey again to the conceit that we can save the world (or even just one small patch of weed-infested trees) with the grand initiative, the bold stroke—maybe we are quicker to see our mistake. Maybe we are quicker to recognize the harm we are doing, along with the good.
Too soon old, too late smart, that’s what they say. But they also say: Better late than never. So today I’m heading back into the copse with tweezers to deal with what I generated through my last bold attack: thousands of nasty spurred seed heads scattered hither and yon, and seemingly endless root bits, sprouting new dog strangling vine as we speak. If I can’t always do no harm, I can at least try to pick up after myself. As for those responsible for public policy—for our various Wars—maybe they can get out their own tweezers. I expect their copses beckon too.