Yellow Fellows

Maybe it was the terrible drought last year, but I have never (I think) seen such a display of dandelions as I have in the last couple of weeks. Whole lawns are splendidly gold-dotted; most cheerful, and in places the fields look as though they'd been washed in egg yolk. I almost hate getting out the lawnmower, I'm enjoying the blooms so much.

I have a "thing" for dandelions (witness the covers of my first two books!) and I don't understand why anyone would see them as a problem. True, if you're after that green Saxony carpet look in your front yard, dandelion foliage is a tad incorrect, but I've always found monocultures boring. Think brocade, not velveteen, and dandelion leaves will immediately add fine visual interest to what would otherwise be monotony. Then there are the flowers, those splendid complex bursts of butter-yellow. And what other flower can you turn a small child loose on, to pick as many as he or she desires? Finally, there's the idiotically silly pleasure of blowing the seeds off the ripe, grey flower head. Almost as much fun as milkweed, and much easier to come by. No, dandelions are a real blessing. It's just that we're too narrow-minded to see them for what they are.

Moreover, there are really only two ways of getting rid of dandelions: to go out there and laboriously take them out one at a time, with a special probe or a table knife, which (in my not-so-humble opinion) is a waste of God's good time; or to hit them with herbicides. Herbicides are definitely hard on the environment and may very well be hard on human health as well. Much better to live with them and learn to love them, I think.

Dandelions always get me thinking (quite cheerfully, I should point out) about sin; specifically about the tricks we play with the bits of ourselves that we can't accept because we don't think they're very nice. My real sins are more like burdocks: not only ugly buggers, but hard on anyone who brushes up against them. I have a running battle with the burdocks in my yard because of what they do to my cats. But dandelions don't hurt anyone; they're actually rather attractive. Why, therefore, do people get their knickers in a twist about them?

I think it goes back to our habit of competing with the guy next door. The original weed-free velvety lawn was the sort of status symbol that only the rich could afford: those impeccable lawns, sweeping down to water and dotted by trees, so beloved of late 18th-century estate-owners and installed by the acre by Capability Brown. Possession of such a lawn told everyone in sight that you could afford the army of men with scythes to keep the mowing perfect.

That's the ancestry of the Perfect Lawn. Yes, it's a very pretty thing, but it's also a statement that you can afford to worry about a velvety lawn because your other needs are so well supplied that you have the time, attention and money to put into lawn-maintenance. There is, I suspect, quite a lot of conformism involved, because the converse is also true: if your lawn is a mess, it's a signal to the neighbourhood that your life isn't completely together. Or you're sloppy, or lazy, or otherwise not with the program. What would the neighbours think? (I don't think it's accidental that lawn-culture tends to be town/suburban, not urban or truly rural.)

So, at least, it used to be, although things are slowly changing. Some daring people, even in suburbia, are letting their lawns go into wild grass. Some people now look over a yard strewn with dandelions and admit that they really are quite cheerful and (gasp!) beautiful in their own way. And there's an increasingly strong movement against the use of the herbicides that you have to use if you're going to keep that green Saxony look.

Dandelions, to me, have always symbolized two things: first, the acceptance of our own imperfections--and also of our own uniqueness, our vulnerability, our not-having-it-all-together. My own self has its dandelions, its patches of quackgrass, the occasional burdock or scotch thistle, and more than a few nettles--but also its banks of day lilies and a carpet or two of wild violets. If there are patches of smooth grass, they're there by grace, without any work on my part. This is who I am: anything but perfect. I have learned that the energy and time needed to try to make myself a perfect person are pretty much wasted, because I can't do it. I have my scars and my failures and a vulnerability I can do nothing about; but I also have the gifts God has given me, and the responsibility to make of them what I can. All I can do is to try to follow the Gospel and to recognize that I'm a practicing Christian because I haven't got it right yet.

But dandelions have another meaning for me: they, with plantain and chamomile and a handful of other sturdy others are the plants that first colonize the barren places, the land stomped into hardness or baked by drought. You'll find those three at the edge of gravel roads, slowly invading; you'll find them popping up at the junction between sidewalk and wall, in cracks in the pavement, wherever there's the slightest purchase. The first dandelions to bloom in our town are almost always the ones wedged up against the downtown post office wall, a most unfertile spot. After they've loosened up the devastated soil, grass can follow them.

Glory to God for pinches of glory in the toughness of things... Perhaps this was the Creator's intention when he gave this plant a sunburst flower, amazingly yellow, outstandingly cheerful: that's what we need sometimes, far more than the smoothness of mown grass.

Copyright © 2002 Molly Wolf. Originally published Sat, 17 May 2002
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