Weeded out :(

In which I review Richard Mabey's Weeds - and get made redundant

Hi! I’m Hannah James, journalist, writer and editor, and this is where I review nature books, and think about nature-related topics out loud. Thanks for reading!

It’s been A Week, friends. Read on.

Connecting to nature

This week’s suggestion is more about helping others to connect to nature. Offtrack is a Melbourne company that provides outdoor gear for schools and other organisations. Its 2nd Life Project repurposes unwanted outdoor gear, passing it on to underprivileged schools, community organisations and people experiencing homelessness. If it’s really past its best, they recycle it. Seems like a worthy home for kit you’ve upgraded from - check it out.

I strolled my old favourite, the Manly-Spit walk, with a friend on Tuesday, after hearing the Big News (see below), proving to myself yet again that taking to nature in times of crisis is a very healthy habit. Also lifting my spirits was the fact that said walking friend, Cleo, is always a joy to behold - she manages to remain glamorous even when hiking. Some day I’ll learn that trick.

What I’ve been reading

A weed is a shifting, tricksy creature. It’s usually defined simply as a plant in the wrong place - but Richard Mabey’s Weeds: In Defence of Nature’s Most Unloved Plants points out:

“How and why and where we classify plants as undesirable is part of the story of our ceaseless attempts to draw boundaries between nature and culture, wildness and domestication.”

Plants shift in and out of the category of weed depending on fashion, politics, medical breakthroughs and many more considerations that ebb and flow with the passage of time.

It was the invention of agriculture, says Mabey, that also created the crop plant’s shadow twin, the weed - as soon as you mark a piece of land out to grow one plant, any other plant is unwelcome.

“Plants become weeds because people label them as such.”

The irony is that weeds flourish in disturbed ground - land that humans are using to grow crops, to build, to wage war on (the blood-red poppy of the battlefield endures as a potent symbol). So weeds are a human creation both because we have classified them as unwelcome, and because we produce the conditions they love.

It’s a suitably rambling book that takes in weeds’ place in ecology, culture, history and climate change. Their significance in literature interested me - they’re a symbol and result of the Fall in Genesis, a friend and companion to the poet John Clare, and frequently star in Shakespeare’s plays. He was a country boy who knew his plants, and even hinged the entire plot of A Midsummer Night’s Dream around the fabled powers of the weed he calls love-in-idleness, which we know as the pansy. We know Lear has lost his mind when he makes a crown of weeds - who in their right mind would elevate “rank fumiter and furrow-weeds… hardocks, hemlock, nettles” into a symbol of royalty?

And it’s an oddly topical book right now, too, not shying away from weeds’ uncomfortably colonial associations.

“It would be wrong to make glib comparisons between our attitudes towards displaced plants and displaced humans, or to assume, for instance, that an entirely justified concern about invasive plants stems from a kind of botanical xenophobia. Weeds cause trouble in a quite objective sense, and our reactions to and treatment of them are often entirely rational. Nevertheless, the shape of our cultural response to them is familiar. The archetypal weed is the mistrusted intruder. It takes up space and resources that by rights belong to the indigenous inhabitants. Its vulgarity makes it the vegetable equivalent of ‘the great unwashed’. Its frequently alien origins and almost always alien ways test the limits of our tolerance. Do we show forbearance and try to accommodate it? Or strive to stop it migrating from its original wild home into our cultivated enclaves? The familiar conundrums of multiculturalism echo in weed ecology, too.”

I found an interesting discussion of these issues here. The conversation has an entirely different resonance in Australia, whose Indigenous inhabitants, human or botanical, are mostly not protected and revered - quite the opposite. (I always think it’s a small but telling symbol of non-Indigenous people’s disconnection from the land that most of us eat absolutely zero foods that are native to this country.)

Weeds do cause trouble, of course, particularly in Australia - Mabey learned from reading Tim Low’s Feral Future just how much destruction they cause here. Yet they also have their uses.

“They green over the dereliction we have created. They move in to replace more sensitive plants that we have endangered. Their willingness to grow in the most hostile of environments – a bombed city, a crack in the wall – means that they insinuate the idea of wild nature into places otherwise quite shorn of it.”

So the fact that we will never now be able to completely eradicate weeds and return to an original, natural Eden unpolluted by their stain, might provide a model for the future.

“The best we can do is try to find way of incorporating into our lives and ecosystems those we already have, and attempt to prevent the arrival of unhelpful newcomers.”

They could even play a vital role in the increasingly necessary reconnection of humans and nature.

“Weeds were a consequence of our rigid separation of the natural world into the wild and the domestic. They are the boundary breakers, the stateless minority, who remind us that life is not that tidy. They could help us learn to live across nature’s borderlines again.”

Well, we need all the help we can get.


ELLE Australia ceased publication for good this week, in news that hit hard for magazine-lovers. Bauer Media’s new owner closed eight titles in its stable, meaning I, along with our whole team, am being made redundant.

Others have used this news as a springboard to write beautiful obituaries for the magazine industry. Of course I feel devastated, too, and posted my share of cry-face emojis in my Instagram Stories, as well as collapsing into real tears roughly three times a day since I found out. But a little bit of me is more pragmatic: it’s just another industry. If that industry’s frankly glacial response to digital disruption means not enough people buy the product any more, the people whose job it is to create the product become redundant. We can’t claim any special immunity from market realities just because it was a creative, glamorous, female-focused industry.

But its being a creative, glamorous, female-focused industry certainly makes it very difficult to shrug our shoulders and move on - and I wonder if that’s what’s really behind some of our hand-wringing. We DID have a mission to treat women, with all their varied interests, as worthy of observation and celebration (a position a lot of society still notably fails to occupy). We DID often tell extraordinary, inspiring stories, highlight injustices, and effect change at the highest levels of government. We DID provide a space for creatives of all stripes to play and dream and blossom. But mostly, I suspect, our sense of loss is less about what magazines did for others and more about what they did for us. We loved our jobs and we want them back.

They’re gone, though, and a large part of the sector with them.

So… a scorched earth. Let’s see what opportunistic, healing weeds start to grow.

Last time, I forgot to list the books I’d been reading (it’s a new habit - I like it because it keeps me honest!). So here’s my list from the past four weeks:

  1. Louisa Deasey, A Letter From Paris (Louisa reads this newsletter - hi Louisa! I LOVED your book!)

  2. Adrian Cooper (ed.), Arboreal: A Collection of New Woodland Writing (reviewed here)

  3. Mary Stewart, The Gabriel Hounds

  4. Ngarta Jinny Bent, Jukuna Mona Chuguna, Pat Lowe, Eirlys Richards, Two Sisters: Ngarta and Jukuna

  5. Andrew Caldecott, Lost Acre

  6. Eva Holland, Nerve: a Personal Journey through the Science of Fear

  7. Richard Mabey, Weeds: In Defence of Nature's Most Unloved Plants

See you in two weeks. Who knows, maybe I’ll have a job by then! (Any suggestions? Send them my way! I’m serious.)