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Know how I know? My Farmer’s Almanac tells me so. The Old Farmer’s Almanac is one of the best reference books to have around your house, and a copy only costs $5.99. It’s teeming with information about astronomy (as they point out, that’s what makes it an almanac), gardening, and weather, and they still include interesting dates and facts from the old liturgical calendar. I page through this book often and have even been inspired to write poems based on certain oddball turns of phrase in there. The best thing about it is it’s a part of American history, published continuously since 1792 when George Washington was serving his first term as president.


Today at a thrift store I found “Common Weeds,” a coloring book put out by Dover in 1976. First let me say that I love Dover. They produce a million inexpensive educational books, including many collections of clip art. I have used their interesting copyright-free images in many a zine, and I find their books delightful. Once I even wrote an email to them telling them how much I loved their company because they’d kept my zine enterprise looking pretty, and a sweet woman wrote me right back and told me Dover was glad to have me as part of the family.

Anyway, this book is interesting because it helps to define what makes a weed a weed. Think about it: weeds are just plants. Many of them are flowering, and some are edible. A person could certainly decide to cultivate many of the plants we consider weeds, and in fact my mom has tansy, a yellow-flowering herb, growing in her garden right now–and this is one of the ones included in the book.

So what is a weed? E. F. Bleiler, the editor of this pretty little book, wrote a short introduction on the question. Bleiler said a weed is usually defined as a “vigorous, intrusive wild plant that becomes a nuisance.” It doesn’t say anything about their being ugly, or not useful. Lots of people like weeds, and I’m one of them.

Like, honeysuckle is the first entry in the book. Any gardener will tell you that honeysuckle can be a real problem because it grows like crazy and chokes other plants out. But it is a beautiful vine, and when we were kids we plucked the lovely white flowers, put them in our mouths as we pulled the stamen through, and told ourselves the sweet taste was honey.

Thinking about the value of weeds reminds me of a poem by Michelle Tea that I LOVE. It’s about pigeons, and how she likes them and even identifies with them in some ways. She says, “I am suspicious of people who say they hate pigeons. I think, Who else do you hate?”

The thing about weeds is, they grow where other things can’t. In shallow, poor soil; in wasteground; in parking lots; between cracks in the sidewalk. They grow where they can and they thrive. There’s a metaphor in that for sure.

Have you ever heard of The Foxfire Book? I hadn’t until a few months ago, when I saw a new copy of the updated repinted version that had been sent to the newspaper office where I sometimes go to work. It looked interesting to me then but I didn’t spend much time with it. Then just a couple of weeks ago I was at one of my beloved garage sales. It’s the season for those again and I couldn’t be happier. In amongst a pile of old books was a faded, slightly grubby paperback copy of the original one, published in 1972. The person who’d owned this one wrote his name, Brian, neatly in red ink, with the year 1973 underneath it.

Foxfire was a project undertaken by a high school teacher and his students in the Appalachian Mountains during the 60s. They were rowdy and wouldn’t settle down long enough to learn anything so he suggested they start a magazine instead of using their stupid boring textbook. The people in this part of the country were living then as they had always lived, but their kids, these high school students, were losing the old ways. This teacher, who wasn’t from the area, was curious about some of their habits, such as the way they used the signs of the zodiac and the phases of the moon to know how to plant their vegetables, but the kids didn’t know the answers. So they went home and interviewed their parents and grandparents, who turned out to be an incredible wealth of knowledge of all kinds of things: home remedies, religion, making clothes, making soap, preparing for winter. Simple plain living in sometimes difficult, bare circumstances. They made their magazine out of these interviews and eventually turned it into a book, which as you might imagine was popular with the people of the mainstream culture in the 70s who were trying to figure out how to live more simply themselves.

Some of the stories just make for interesting reading, especially because they use so many direct quotes and an effort was made to transcribe the language the way the people actually sounded. Some of it is fairly arcane but plenty of it could be adopted by us modern city living people. Not slaughtering and dressing a hog, maybe, but preserving vegetables and fruit, learning to understand the signs the weather gives us, and making soap and sewing quilts. I know from my own experience how satisfying it is to make something yourself—books, zines, embroidered pictures, knitted clothing—and this is something many modern people can’t relate to. It’s bad for your soul to have an entirely passive existence: being carted through the streets on various conveyances, letting machines help you do your work, then sitting in front of a TV or a computer for hours for entertainment and “relaxation,” which is also passive. You don’t have to go bananas and go live off the grid to rectify this. If you shuffle a few simple things into the mix of your life, and take a few of the unsimple ones away, you’ll start to feel happier. I promise this is true.

One of my favorite writers—and people—is Stevie Smith. She was English, born in 1902 in Hull and raised in the London suburbs where she spent the rest of her life. Stevie wrote radio plays, essays, book reviews, and lots of poems. Her unique voice and perspective seemed to resonate with a whole generation of readers and still does to this day. One of her poems, “Not Waving But Drowning,” has entered the collective consciousness; younger people might recognize it from song lyrics and myspace profiles and not known where it came from. This is where it came from. Stevie Smith.

One of the things Stevie (I know it’s probably incorrect for me to refer to her by her first name but she’s so dear to me I can’t bring myself to use only the last) often wrote about was her “suburb.” She lived there all of her life with the aunt who raised her after her mother died. The aunt looked after her for many years and then when she became elderly Stevie looked after her. Stevie’s home was in a “high-lying outer northern suburb” of London and she called it “beautiful kindly bustling.” I got these quotes from the introduction of a wonderful out-of-print anthology of her work called Me Again.

In “Simply Living,” one of my favorite essays—not only by her but by anyone—Stevie talks a bit about her quiet life in the suburbs. She talks about the simple pleasures of her life, such as looking. “I like food, I like stripping vegetables of their skins, I like to have a slim young parsnip under my knife. I like to spend a lot of time in the kitchen. Looking out into the garden where the rat has his home, and the giant hemlock is now ten feet high. …The roof colors opposite are like the North Sea, in rain they are sapphire.”

Looking. That’s all. It’s plenty.