From the beginning of horticulture about 8000 BCE or earlier to the present day, weeding has been women’s work. Women, who were the gatherers and preparers of food in traditional nomadic societies, no doubt were the first to discover that seeds dropped at a campsite one year sometimes sprung up as plants the next year. When this discovery was systematized, agriculture was invented, and human beings began to settle down in the first villages and towns.
In the early days of horticulture (the name for the earliest stage of agriculture before the plow was developed), the cycles of planting and harvest and all the stages in between were understood to have been given to mothers by the Great Mother, the Source of Life. The secrets of planting, seed collection, harvest, and food preparation and preservation were all perceived to be “mysteries” connected to the ongoing cycles of birth, death, and regeneration in the universe.
My grandmother Lena Marie Searing who was born on a farm in Michigan must have learned agricultural secrets from her mother, for she not only created a beautiful garden, she also farmed an orchard and preserved its fruits in glass jars that lined her pantry. It was she who taught me and my brothers and cousins to love nature. My mother learned to garden from her mother, but she did not harvest food crops. I think of both of them whenever I work in my garden.
The past few days I have been weeding my garden after heavy rains that left the soil clumpy and moist. I have weeded before, but I have never enjoyed it so much. My garden has matured over the past seven years, and now the weeds are more “under control.” There aren’t so many of them, and as I have now been weeding them out over the years, their roots are shallow.
As I slide a trowel into the earth the weeds lift up and with my fingers I gently pull the plants with their roots from the soil. The weeds are familiar, though I don’t know all of their names. The “sticky weed” has many tough roots, the clover has many fine ones—both are hard to eradicate. Other weeds are easy to pull up and do not reappear again until the next year.
I am discovering that weeding is a delicate process. Sometimes the roots of plants I want in the garden are entangled with those of the weeds. I work carefully choosing the ones to save and the ones to discard.** I leave poppies, chamomile, yellow daisies, and marigolds where I find them, as I consider them to be wildflowers that will provide beauty in my garden when they bloom in spring. I also take care to “keep the soil in good heart” by not discarding too much of it along with the weeds.
As I weed, I think of the women in my village who harvest greens from the fields, feeling certain that some of the weeds I discard are edible. I marvel at all of the knowledge women have shared and passed down over the past 10,000 years and more, as I realize how little of it I know. My suspicion that some of my weeds could be food is validated when a friend and I order boiled “greens from the mountains” for lunch at a local taverna and are served one of the plants I had thrown into the garbage can.
As I weed, I am reminded of an essay called “Keeping the Soil in Good Heart: Women Weeders, the Environment, and Ecofeminism” by Candice Bradley which was published in Karen J. Warren’s Ecofeminism. Bradley writes that weeding is women’s work in almost all cultures. As I work, I understand that this is so because weeding is delicate work that requires concentration and patience and that must be repeated. Bradley says that in many cultures men disparage weeding as they disparage housework—not considering either to be “real” work.
Horticulture is the most environmentally friendly form of farming, according to Bradley, because it does the least harm to the soil, and because the weeds that are not eaten are burned or composted and turned back into the earth to replenish it.
While weeding by hand has been considered work for women and children, men have generally controlled the plow and its recent successor, the tractor. However, as Bradly states, the plow and the tractor do not eliminate the need for hand-weeding. In many cases they encourage the weeds to regenerate. Women and children still weed.
The chemical gardening and farming industry (“round it up”) is based on the premise that weeds can and must be eradicated. Rachel Carson warned us of the danger this approach to agriculture presents to human and all other forms of life. A by-product of chemical agriculture is that the careful work of women weeders is further discounted.
I do not use chemicals or pesticides in my garden, and I will be out there weeding on a regular basis in the next months. As I put my hands in the earth, I will think of all the women before me who have weeded and planted, weeded and harvested, and weeded again. Blessed be.
*The title of this essay is an homage to Elizabeth Wayland Barber’s Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years which discusses and celebrates women and weaving.
**I am aware that no plant was born a “weed” and that the designation of some plants as weeds is a by-product of human digestive systems, human taste, agriculture, and the creation of gardens for the celebration of beauty.
Carol P. Christ created a newly released new website for the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete which she leads through Ariadne Institute. Early bird special for the spring pilgrimage available until February 15. Carol can be heard on a WATER Teleconference. Carol’s books include She Who Changes and Rebirth of the Goddess and the widely-used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions.