Field Notes: Opinion – Words Versus Worth in Nature

Language is a powerful tool in shaping perception – perhaps one of the most effective. I’ve been told that my tea cabinet is full of ‘weeds’, which leads me to reply that the word what a ‘weed’ is, is in the eye of the beholder.  It means a plant devoid of value, something to be pulled up and disposed of. As someone who takes interest in the ecological and medicinal value of plants and all other organisms, I am reluctant to call any plant a weed or dismiss any species with a signal word.

Using dismissive language is a common excuse to destroy parts of nature that are not understood. Two of the most common ‘weeds’ found in lawns (don’t even get me started on lawns, that’s another blog post in itself) in the northeastern United States are broad-leaf plantain and dandelions. Both of these invasive species of plants, while prolific, are also valued for their medicinal properties. Salves, teas, and tinctures can easily be found for sale in stores and online so it’s impossible to say they are worthless. Still, just about any plant can be conveniently reduced to a ‘weed’ if it is growing where it is unwanted – but that way of thinking extends beyond plants.

‘Swamps’ were once seen as disease ridden landscapes devoid of natural resources, and so we drained and built over them. Today we know them as ‘wetlands’, and recognize that they are only ecosystem that can serve as home to a whole host of at risk species. We have not only directly harmed other species in their destruction – with the increased frequency of hurricanes battering our coastlines we realize that wetlands would have served as buffers against these storms, had we not destroyed them.

Another example of this applied logic are creatures that invade our households – and the ecological services they provide outside. Mice, for example, while unwelcome in our homes, serve as an important food source for just about any creature large than them in the food-chain. Flies and other buzzing insects are also quite unwelcome household guest but without insects, many of the birds that we enjoy watching at our feeders would be without a meal.

Bats and opossums are a headache when they find their way into our attics, but both do a wonderful job of regulating populations of insects like mosquitoes and ticks. Honeybees are a painful nuisance when they sting us, but we are now learning that if they disappear many of our food sources will as well. If we eradicated these species entirely we would wreak total ecological havoc – and it wouldn’t be the first time, either.

Sometimes a single-word dismissal of an organism can do serious damage. Through the centuries wolves across the world clashed with farmers over livestock and were considered ‘pests’ and ‘vermin’. The farmers were expanding their ranches into what the wolves saw as territory that already belonged to them, and as far as the wolves were concerned the cows and sheep did, too. This was one of the major factors that lead to their extinction in Japan, and their eradication in most parts of the continent North America. It’s only with recent research in hand that we recognize them as a keystone species worth protecting, crucial to maintaining the biodiversity of entire ecosystems.

When we reduce an entire species or ecosystem to something to disposable with a single word, we are doing a few things. We are first and foremost stating that we don’t care to broaden our perspective, preventing ourselves from learning anything further about it. In addition to this we are giving our consent to their destruction without a second thought – and perhaps sometimes it is worth a second thought.

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