APRiL, AT HoME, PiTTsBuRGH
Easter was early this year. As spring solstice drew near, I remembered that I had promised the girls I would order chicks in spring, so we could have the warm season to arrange a better coop for them, warm and cozy in time for the next winter. Unlike last year, when the multiflora rose suffered our attacks with clippers and saws, this year I have been busy shredding newspaper, exercising my lame carpentry skills, and learning how to care properly for young chickens. I called a hatchery and ordered twenty-five grab-bag banty chicks, which arrived two weeks later in a box the size of a four-slice toaster. I've never had a box handed over faster from the post office. Twenty-two chicks are peeping happily downstairs, having survived just over a week of care and affection, about double the size they were at arrival.
The multiflora rose is, as you would only expect, growing back, though it is still small enough to cut back easily with minimal injury to our hands. The poison ivy leaves have not yet unfolded in that sneaky brown, shiny earth color that disguises them from my clippers when they first emerge. I have learned something already about purslane this spring, which is that it doesn't emerge until the end of my spring semester, much to the dismay of a student cook in one of my classes. The dandelions have not flowered yet, but I am glad because I have still not yet bought that two-gallon pot I wanted more than ten years ago, when I last stoppered summer in a bottle.
I've seen rabbits out and about, but none has fallen victim to our crocuses this spring. The chicks are still too small to loose in the yard, so they are housed in a cage in the garage. For now, they stay warm under a brooder bulb that I found, complete with a picture of a yellow chick on the box, at the warehouse-style home and garden retailer in the mall near our suburb. Is the presence of this bulb in that store a relic of nearby farms, recently built over, or is it an indicator that my strange love of chickens is shared more widely than I thought? I dug up another patch of lawn in the backyard to expand our vegetable garden and was overjoyed to find some fat white grubs, because the chicks love them.
This winter I've made friends with a local beekeeper and with other weed-friendly gardeners, some of whom also have young children. I have started to feel less alone in my affection toward our weedy lawn now that the township has declared one soccer field pesticide free, now that I know of a landscaper who also plants clover. I have, for the first time, started my own tomatoes indoors, grown from fruit of heirloom plants I bought last year. I hope their provenance can overcome my methods of seed collection: they are growing from seeds that dried onto our kitchen windowsill from a tomato we didn't eat in time. I am not going to tell you how long I left the seeds on the windowsill before I scraped them off with a knife and put them in pots.
This year, I'm going to be using my clippers, saws, and even a brand-new dandelion prong. I've already pulled a number of garlic mustard plants, and I'm looking forward to a trip to the community center with clippers for their multiflora rose bushes. After all, I want to be outside, and I like to feel useful. I've got a whole brand-new year ahead of me, and I'm looking forward to four fresh seasons, each with its own weeds.
Writing this book was a process in which I kept finding more that I wanted to say about weeds. Many people have participated in this research with me, most of them long before I knew it was research. My hope is that all those who find themselves acknowledged here find it a happy surprise, just as I have found the process of writing the book.
First, I thank my mom, Becky Gift, for passing along her creative view of the world: she sees the potential in many things that others pass by. My dad, Richard Gift, loved the violets and clover in our yard, and knew how important time outside was, in horse pastures or woods or lawn. My grandmother, Clara Choate Gift, taught me to love wildflowers, and my grandfather, Edgar Gift, helped me puzzle through the skills of figuring out how to make a career out of what I love to do. My sister, Virginia Gift, taught me to blow crabgrass.
At Harvard, my mentors Peter Stevens and Toby Kellogg helped me turn an affection for wildflowers into knowledge about plants. Dan Perlman and Glenn Adelson fostered my interest in conservation, and their multidisciplinary class helped me see and try many of the paths toward environmental conservation. Larry Grabau, at the University of Kentucky, respectfully mentored my interest in sustainable agriculture; Bill Witt, also at Kentucky, immersed me in weed science and gave me a more practical vision of plants and their uses. (If my vision does not yet seem very practical, it is not for lack of effort on his part.) At Cornell, my advisor, Russ Hahn, gave me the wonderful chance to be his only Ph.D. student, and when I finished, for a time, I actually felt I was a weed scientist. Other colleagues offered support and contributed to what I know about weeds: Jennifer Ralston, David Vitolo, Toni DiTomasso, Cecile Bertin, Robin Bellinder, Jane Mt. Pleasant, Bob Burt, and Paul Stachowski. The gaps in my vision are in spite of their knowledge.
One longtime friend, Leila Salisbury, is both an author herself and an editor at the University of Mississippi Press, and her support of this book has been especially valuable, as we have gone through both professional and family changes together for more than half our lives now.
Though I was primarily a mom, not a weed scientist, during my time in Chicago, I enjoyed the friendship of many thoughtful moms in Hyde Park, the small town within the city where, it is aptly said, one can neither hide nor park. I have written this with these families in mind: people who question everything that might influence their children, from religion to schools to pets to jobs to parks to toys and books. During this time, Joy Bergelson offered me a chance to teach urban college students about agriculture. That subject and audience, that balance of life and work, suited me well for more than two years, and I'm not sure I ever thanked her.
Here in Pittsburgh, I have enjoyed enormous support from the Garden Club of Allegheny County. I thank all of the club's members, especially Anna Catone, Donna Catone, Christina Schmidlapp, Robin Kamin, Peggy King, and Mary Odom. Anna, particularly, has been the kind of friend who makes me believe that all good things are possible. Viv Shaffer helped me realize how much sustainable lawn care owes to Rachel Carson. At Chatham, my colleagues come from all different fields of study, and I think most find it entertaining that my graduate work was in weed science. I don't know that any of them have read or heard anything I've said on the subject of weeds, but they have all expressed enthusiasm and support for any success I have. I have never witnessed a group of more mutually supportive faculty. Thanks particularly to students Holly Bomba, Sarah Gibson, Megan Morrissey, Jessica Moran, and Laura Schultz for comments on the book proposal. Anna Beach did excellent work as a research assistant. Melanie Tuck offered unvarnished excitement about the project and even began to admire a weed or two. Mary Whitney offered the kinds of enthusiasm one expects only from family.
Special thanks to friends Hannah Langmuir, Wes Dripps, Jo Fyson, Donovan Bailey, Ser Jackson, and Craig Jackson, whose own suburban lawn ethics have improved this book. Some extended family have offered extended support: Brigid, Helen, Bec, Jennifer, Derrick, Pancho, Kathy, Jacob, Julia, Sabrina, Dick, and Jackie. My in-laws, Steve and Loretta, have provided a beautiful and inspiring haven from parenting and work.
My first editor, Brian Halley, seems to have picked me out of a lineup at a conference and somehow knew, before I did, that this book needed to be written and that I was the person to do it. His influence is evident in any part of this book that you enjoy, and in none of the parts you skip. I am also grateful to Alexis Rizzuto, who guided me through some of the hardest editing.
Our daughters, Emily and Hazel, have shown me over and over what is important about a lawn and who it is really for.
My husband, Brian Traw, has been telling me for years that I should write a book. This is not the particular book he imagined, but he has championed it and me every day since its conception. I even get the impression he has enjoyed watching me write it, which is a wonderful illusion for him to allow me to keep.
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