Weeds -- Guardians of the Soil

by Joseph A. Cocannouer

1. Weeds and Youth

DURING my early boyhood years on the farm, weeds spelled misery. At the first break of spring, weeds carpeted the land -- yesterday drab; today dense green everywhere. And mother saw every weed as a separate, individual enemy with which we must join battle.

"Bring the hoes from the loft and file them right away, boys!" I can hear her voice now, coming out of the long ago. "We simply mustn't let the pesky things get ahead of us!" I wonder how many weed hoes I have filed in my dreams!

Our little Kansas farm, even at that period, was in sore need of what controlled weeds could have done for it. But weed superstition reigned then as it reigns today. We hated all weeds in all situations because we hadn't learned to interpret some of the simplest laws by which Nature maintains the productiveness of land.

Even during those trying years when I could see nothing good in weeds save as potherbs or as feed for hogs, I always liked to pull or hoe weeds for Sol Benson. Sol was a successful farmer who owned considerable land -- and who didn't treat me as a kid as did so many other farmers. Sol also usually gave me a few cents extra when he paid me off.

A certain day in Sol Benson's cornfield started me on a research journey that has spanned a half century. I happened to be hoeing in one of Sol's best fields, which I had contracted to clean of weeds for a definite sum. The corn was tree tall and the morning promised a scorching day. This particular field, fortunately for my feet, was quite solidly carpeted with purslane -- the dirt where the sun reached it was hot. "Pusley" was then a much more common weed in Kansas cornfields than it is now. (When I not long ago queried a young farmer why that was so, his reply was characteristic: "Good cultivatin' machinery and weed sprays -- we're gettin' the weeds licked!" I didn't say what I thought then. His fields spoke for me.)

I was soon so absorbed in those weeds in Sol Benson's field that I forgot everything except to keep my toes away from the edge of the hoe. With great spreads of pusley rolling up over my feet, my battered straw hat pushed back on my head and the sweat trickling down my face --

"Hold on there!" The voice was right behind me.

I turned -- and there was Sol Benson grinning at me. Then Sol very quickly seemed to forget that I was present. Very seriously he started to examine the roots of a large pusley plant he had brought with him. It wasn't one of the plants I had hoed up, for it carried a husky set of roots. Sol was fingering the pusley roots thoughtfully. I jerked my hoe loose and walked closer to him, wondering what there was about that pusley plant that made it so interesting.

Sol lifted his head quick-like then, same as he always did when he was going to say something important. "Joe," he said; "Joe, I been watchin' this pusley weed in my fields for a long time, and I've come to the conclusion that it not only don't do any harm, but it does good! This thing of considerin' all weeds as bad is nonsensical. Lot of guessin' without knowin', way I look at it. So I aim to do some guessin' of my own -- we're goin' to stop cuttin' pusley out of my corn!"

I stared at Sol Benson for a long moment, completely dazed. "But -- but pusley is weeds!" I finally managed to gulp. "Weeds is allers bad in fields where crops is growin' -- "

"That's only what people think!" Sol interrupted me sharply. "I'm convinced we been thinkin' wrong about weeds. Look here -- " he showed me some broken corn roots scattered among the pusley roots. "Know what that means? It means that the pusley roots are openin' up the dirt for the corn roots, so the corn can go deeper into the ground and get more to eat. Now come with me and I'll show you somethin' else -- "

Sol went striding away through the corn and I trotted along behind him, still not sure he wasn't having a fit. Of all the silly ideas -- pusley makin' a road so the corn roots could go deeper into the ground!

When we came to a part of the field where there was almost no pusley, Sol stopped and began pointing out the corn to me. "See the difference?" he said. "Not near as good as where the weeds are thick back there. Same kind of dirt, too. Somethin' is makin' a difference in that corn, and I figure it's the pusley. It's like that in all my fields. Where the pusley is thickest I get my best corn. Most farmers will say the corn is doin' good in spite of the pusley. That ain't it at all! The pusley is helpin' the corn to grow better."

I could see a difference in the corn all right, but the very idea of the pusley being responsible for that difference! "Sol, it jist must be somethin' else!" I told him courageously. "I know yer a good farmer and all; but nobody thinks that weeds is good for anything but hog feed and greens -- '

"I know they don't! Remember, people used to believe the world was flat -- "

"But that was 'cause people used to be ignorant and superstitious-like -- "

Amd right then something hit my brain a terrible wallop. People had been ignorant and superstitious and all, about the shape of the earth. Could it be that people were superstitious about weeds, too? Somebody had to discover that the earth isn't flat. And Sol Benson was smart enough for most anything -- even smart enough to discover that pusley could be helpful to corn!

Sol Benson has long since departed from the earthly scene. His name has been forgotten save by a few. The pusley of those yesteryears is also gone -- most of the present soil on that Kansas farm of my boyhood will not support it.

But, starting with Sol Benson's cornfield, I can see a winding trail; a dim trail at first, winding its way persistently into the years, traversing many parts of my own country and many foreign lands. Along this trail came soil studies in numerous regions of Asia, with its ancient agriculture; the desert lands of Africa; the semi-wild man and his crude farming; Europe offering the best in modern soil science. And with "weeds" ever a major part of every picture or episode where soil fertility entered in.

During much of my youth my weed trail was beset with skepticism and doubt, despite my confidence in Sol Benson's wisdom as a farmer. Weeds helpful to the crop with which they were growing -- all evidence seemed against the idea. Then there were the teachings of my mother. Those would not give way until I had undeniable proof that her concept of weeds was wrong.

As I grew older, support of Sol Benson's conclusions poured in upon me, often from the most unexpected sources. Weeds could be friends of the land! Day by day this evidence drove me deeper into the study of Nature's laws which supported the evidence: the laws pertaining to the constructive relationship ever existing between soil and deep-feeding herbaceous plants.

Now as I look back across those years, I am able to evaluate more scientifically my varied sources of information: sound knowledge gleaned from a Pawnee Indian in his wigwam; a Chinaman fighting for survival on a small area of land and employing weeds as his fertilizer; from still wider acquaintance with the jungle man and his "mother weeds" on his primitive farm -- and coming close to understanding the science back of his procedures; or from some progressive American or European farmer who had discovered weed values and who was ready to support his findings with proof.

Then, too, there came further penetration into the natural laws of soil fertility; personal experiments -- all have convinced me that Sol Benson was a soil scientist who knew his pusley and its value in correct land management. Thus the chapters which follow.

Next: 2. Weeds and Weeds

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