If I had to live in Indiana, it would be in Plymouth. If I had to live in Plymouth, Indiana, it would be most specifically on Dan & Vera’s 25 acres– and nowhere else. The plot sits at the curve of a county road, five minutes from downtown. It rises up to thwart the dichotomy of cornfields and marsh as a canopy– an organically shady Midwestern oasis, green against the brown and tan around it, making the crop rows feel militaristic in comparison.
We spent our second weekend back on the road at Dan & Vera’s, parking between the big red barn and the canopy of trees, adjacent to the garden where the sunflowers have taken over the back left corner. They decided 30 years ago to forego another year of crops and pesticides– Vera couldn’t take it, anymore– and it was Dan’s land inherited from his father to do with as he wished. And they wished to plant 26 varieties of trees on 25 acres of Northern Indiana land. A beekeeper visited twice in our short three days, checking his new Italian variety of bees that were tucked behind where the new pond will go– just through the open path that leads past the pines. The pines were planted on the outside, the hardwoods on the inside. Dan maintains the circular, winding paths inside, where we walked our two dogs twice a day minimum, startling up young bucks with velvet antlers and large doe. We’d return, shaded, breathing easier, and wishing we’d come a little later when the two pear trees by our camper had a bit more to offer than the small buds of early fruit.
Dan’s son, Cain, spent the afternoon working on his car while his collie, Eva, stole a few sniffs of our dog. He told us that it’s only been in the last three years or so that the conglomeration of trees became a true canopy. An old story of nature succeeding by way of a young forest– and it took under 30 years. That’s what nature does– it fights farm and fire, as we vigilantly cut it back to make way for ourselves. Except Dan & Vera didn’t want to make way for only themselves, anymore. So they made way for a tiny forest to wild up the place– give the land a shake out from its clean shave. They spent all their money and time on the saplings, careful to choose a variety so that it could withstand plagues– like the ash borer.
After they’d planted, they brought in The Expert to help them assess the move forward. The Expert said they’d need to spray down the plants with pesticides. The way Vera tells it, Dan was hesitant but understanding. Vera was neither. She said no. The Expert scoffed and said it again, adding that they’d lose the whole lot if they didn’t spray.
“Everyone sprays,” he said, “you don’t have a choice if you want them to survive.”
Vera decided she did have a choice, and refused. The Expert talked to Dan again later, until Dan went to Vera and said he was sorry, but they’d have to spray.
“So I stopped talking,” she told me. “It must of been three or four days. But he heard me. He listened to my silence.”
Dan told the expert, for the sake of his marriage, that he would not be spraying.
Three years in and some of the hottest weather they’d seen in Indiana collapsed on the trees. The saplings were struggling, but the ragweed was not. It towered over the young trees and sometimes Vera’s head. She worried over the land, watching and wringing her hands even as she retold it to me. What had she done? She thought of her decision not to spray, wondered if they’d lose everything because of her stubbornness. She turned to an herbalist at the agriculture class she took that summer. She confessed that she’d gone against The Expert’s advice, that their dream of a green canopy would yield a field of ragweed– that the whole thing may be beyond her managing.
“Ah!” the herbalist said, delighted, “Ragweed! Wonderful! Ragweed is a Warrior Weed. Your trees are in good hands.”
As Vera retells it, her eyes get wide and she goes somewhere just past my shoulder admiringly, as if watching the ragweed still swaying. Ragweed, she explained, comes just in time to make way. It’s spiny to keep away most bugs and animals from stomping around it. It can grow intimidatingly tall, but its leaves are wide, and in hot Indiana summers like 27 years ago, those tall wide leaves create a precursory canopy of their own, taking the brunt of the sun and shading the plants below. Its roots, too, have been known to absorb harmful chemicals in the soil, say, from years of crop sprays wafting from field to field. Its roots, too, will clang around the dirt, loosening more compact places so that the more tender roots of young plants can grow deeper and more freely. And for all of its effort, all of its brute, how does it get thanked? It doesn’t. Soon, the young plants will become grown, casting their own shade down on the ragweed. Its terse, unquenchable need for the harsh sun will be unsatisfied, and it will simply curl up and go away. All on its own.
Ragweed is not a war monger, lashing out where it isn’t needed. It’s a true-heart warrior that knows when it’s time to lay down and be ready for peace.
That is exactly what happened on Dan & Vera’s 25 acres full of 26 varieties of trees. Suddenly, there was no more ragweed. The trick, said Vera, was waiting.
When we left, I sent messages to Ann, telling her the whole story. I was electrified by it.
“The Warrior Weed,” I said, again and again, “I just can’t stop thinking– who has been a Warrior Weed for me?”
On our new record, there’s a line in the opening song–
I read your Bible,
You reap what you sow.
And I’m the only–
Am I the only?–
Weed you’ve grown?
When I’d written it, my head was jammed with biblical metaphors, and my heart was wracked fresh with an angry, mean-spirited note from my parents.
I was a weed. I needed uprooted. I was shaking my little pollinating head all over the precious family garden and I was ruining it with my spindly stems and shaggy leaves.
I used to go into the yard and pick dandelions in early summer. I’d bunch them up and put them, sparse, in a couple of Dixie cups and set them on the table for my mother to find. She’d keep them for a day before they wilted, and then toss them into the trash. I overheard her once, when I was in my early 20’s, tell a friend about it. She said it with delight, pausing in the memory, and then said, “That’s our little Mallory. Picking weeds out of the yard for me like they’re flowers.”
It makes sense, now. I’d always had a hard time distinguishing flowers from weeds. That may be why I couldn’t see the difference between me and the rest of the family. It wasn’t until the verbal classification that I was pulled and tossed over the fence.
“Maybe my parents are my Warrior Weed?”
I was obsessed with figuring it out. The universe had handed me a perfect metaphor, and I wanted to fit it in.
“You know, because they were really harsh with me, but then I grew so much in spite of it?”
“In spite of it. And only after they were gone,” my Someone said.
“Dammit,” I said. “Then who is it?”
My Someone shrugged. He was more interested in eating his vegetables than worrying about my weeds.
Two weeks ago, we were in Northern Michigan. It was our week of lighthouses, playing a different one every night. It was the same spot we’d met our friends, Bill & Audrey, from Indiana. They were on vacation to Michigan two years ago when they heard us play, and stuck to us ever since. They’ve followed us as far north as Ludington, MI and as far south as Tallahassee, FL. They decided to recreate our meeting with a reunion and spend their vacation on another trip back to Ludington.
It was perfect weather, as far as Michigan goes, and the shows were a mix of post-pandemic enthusiasm and wonderfully understated normalcy. It was a blast. And Bill & Audrey showed for each one, front row, big smiles. They are careful listeners, compassionate speakers, and helpful gear carriers. The kind of people we love to keep around. On the last evening, Bill handed my Someone and I each an envelope.
“It’s about time you get some fan mail,” he said.
I set it on my bedside, keeping it for later, when we’d driven a couple of hours and had time to focus without the hum of the road. We landed in a rest area outside of Lansing, and while my Someone walked the dogs once more before bed, I opened it.
Bill told me a slew of kindnesses, and I was lifted. And then, I was shocked. He mentioned the weed lyrics, and he mentioned his trouble with it. But then, he said this–
First, weeds are strong and resilient. They thrive where weaker plants wither. You have emerged… thriving. Secondly, there are many weeds that are beneficial. Some weeds drive away predatory insects from gardens, while others have uses for everything from seasoning to medicine. The weeds are useful because, at some point, someone recognized their value…
My Someone walked in.
“Holy shit!” I said.
“What?” he said.
“I AM MY OWN WARRIOR WEED.”
“Cool,” he said.
I couldn’t believe it. I was searching outside of myself for the person who made it possible to grow, for the person who had rescued me. And while I do owe a significant portion to the weeds around me, it was my roots that dug in deeper. I absorbed the toxins from the soil. I stretched out my spiky uncomfortable leaves. I grew from an earth that had been scorched and poisoned and raked over too many times.
Then, there was relief. Two years of taking the heat of the beating sun, of standing defiantly tall, and I could take my leave. I served my purpose, and now it was time to let those tender other roots grow. I kept reading–
But even after all of that, I still would not think of you as a weed. You are so much more than that.
That’s right, I thought. I’m a whole damn forest.