Week 3: Walking with Weeds (Richard Mabey)

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. And how intelligently and generously we draw those lines determines the character of most of the green surfaces of the planet.


Weeds: The Story of Outlaw Plants – Richard Mabey

Most of the urban sites we have been walking for this project have been set aside, largely vacant spots. Places temporarily in a limbo of inaction, or small enough to be overlooked. For this week we started in a different kind of space, a frequently used public underpass.

In public spaces there is a different kind of dialogue with plants – a public conversation on how spaces should be maintained, and what should be welcomed or controlled and how nature should be managed within cities.

We chose the underpass as the 3rd site initially because we were drawn to the diverse and exuberant plants coming through at odds with the regimented concrete slabs, and thought this would make an interesting subject for drawings. The sloped walls also echoed the urban cliff hypothesis (which we looked at in week 1) that in urban environments, similar plants co-exist with us as would have in our earliest dwellings in caves and cliffs, due to the structures we build resembling the natural landscapes we would have made use of.

This idea of long-term companion plants is part of the history of weeds, though each species has it’s own story. Many of these are told in Richard Mabey’s book ‘Weeds: The Story of Outlaw Plants’ which was our text for the week. It takes a balanced look at the plants which have come to be designated as weeds in the UK, how they’ve arrived here and been responded to, and how we might want to look at them in the future with more nuance.

Mabey acknowledges that concern surrounding weeds has in many cases been justified, with some species destroying native ecosystems and homogenising landscapes. Any plant introduced to an environment without the other species they have evolved alongside can become a threat to diversity and agriculture. However he offers several viewpoints which take a more sympathetic or grateful viewpoint.

In urban or heavily damaged environments for example, we are so far from a thriving and balanced ecosystem that any plant which can take hold should be welcomed. Weeds can also play a role in repairing some of our most turned over and scarred landscapes, environments which other plants might otherwise struggle to gain any ground in:

Weeds’ rapid, opportunist lifestyles mean that their role – what they do – is to fill the empty spaces of the earth, to repair the vegetation shattered naturally for millions of years by landslide and flood and forest fire, and today degraded by aggressive farming and gross pollution. In so doing they stabilise the soil, conserve water loss, provide shelter for other plants and begin the process of succession to more complex and stable plant systems.”


He argues too that agriculture would never have lasted without weeds:

It is a reasonable assumption that if weed elimination had been an option when farming was first developed 10,000 years ago, agriculture would have died a quick death as a passing fancy. Once cultivated, the dry soils of the Middle East would have simply blown away. The crops would have foundered for lack of protection from the sun. Perhaps properly understood, compromised with rather than exterminated, weeds might help us now, as they seem to be doing in the experiments in ecologically friendly crop-management systems.


Mabey’s insights open up many questions about how we want to live alongside other species in particular in urban spaces. How we might value wildness and abundance over controlled neatness, while acknowledging that we might not fully understand the bigger picture yet. That by understanding the plants which arrive naturally we might be more educated and less impulsive in eliminating them.

By spacing the walks over a six month period, and returning to the same sites, we are able to observe the species which appear and disappear naturally or by intervention. To witness their life cycle, if it isn't cut short.

For the drawing aspect of the session we focused on the plants which had self seeded in the underpass. While taking enjoyment in a bit of unkempt wildness in a space which would otherwise be bland and functional we also wanted to approach the drawing from the perspective of the plant. Weeds are indifferent to whether or not a landscape is of human design, whether or not they are welcomed. We asked participants to imagine the space between the cracks from the perspective of the plant, as a space to grow into. To draw the cracks as a plant would feel them.