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Lives of Weeds: Opportunism, Resistance, Folly

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Lives of Weeds explores the tangled history of weeds and their relationship to humans. Through eight interwoven stories, John Cardina offers a fresh perspective on how these tenacious plants came about, why they are both inevitable and essential, and how their ecological success is ensured by determined efforts to eradicate them. Linking botany, history, ecology, and evolu Lives of Weeds explores the tangled history of weeds and their relationship to humans. Through eight interwoven stories, John Cardina offers a fresh perspective on how these tenacious plants came about, why they are both inevitable and essential, and how their ecological success is ensured by determined efforts to eradicate them. Linking botany, history, ecology, and evolutionary biology to the social dimensions of humanity's ancient struggle with feral flora, Cardina shows how weeds have shaped--and are shaped by--the way we live in the natural world. Weeds and attempts to control them drove nomads toward settled communities, encouraged social stratification, caused environmental disruptions, and have motivated the development of GMO crops. They have snared us in social inequality and economic instability, infested social norms of suburbia, caused rage in the American heartland, and played a part in perpetuating pesticide use worldwide. Lives of Weeds reveals how the technologies directed against weeds underlie ethical questions about agriculture and the environment, and leaves readers with a deeper understanding of how the weeds around us are entangled in our daily choices.


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Lives of Weeds explores the tangled history of weeds and their relationship to humans. Through eight interwoven stories, John Cardina offers a fresh perspective on how these tenacious plants came about, why they are both inevitable and essential, and how their ecological success is ensured by determined efforts to eradicate them. Linking botany, history, ecology, and evolu Lives of Weeds explores the tangled history of weeds and their relationship to humans. Through eight interwoven stories, John Cardina offers a fresh perspective on how these tenacious plants came about, why they are both inevitable and essential, and how their ecological success is ensured by determined efforts to eradicate them. Linking botany, history, ecology, and evolutionary biology to the social dimensions of humanity's ancient struggle with feral flora, Cardina shows how weeds have shaped--and are shaped by--the way we live in the natural world. Weeds and attempts to control them drove nomads toward settled communities, encouraged social stratification, caused environmental disruptions, and have motivated the development of GMO crops. They have snared us in social inequality and economic instability, infested social norms of suburbia, caused rage in the American heartland, and played a part in perpetuating pesticide use worldwide. Lives of Weeds reveals how the technologies directed against weeds underlie ethical questions about agriculture and the environment, and leaves readers with a deeper understanding of how the weeds around us are entangled in our daily choices.

34 review for Lives of Weeds: Opportunism, Resistance, Folly

  1. 4 out of 5

    Pedro

    Thanks to NetGalley and Cornell University Press for the ARC in exchange for an honest review A truly fascinating read. The title caught my attention and I thought I’d give it a go. It definitely didn’t disappoint: lots of opportunism, resistance and folly. It’s probably easy to end up writing a terribly boring dud on a topic like this, especially if you’re writing for a general audience, but the author managed to keep me fully engaged throughout. Lives of Weeds does a really good job at tackling Thanks to NetGalley and Cornell University Press for the ARC in exchange for an honest review A truly fascinating read. The title caught my attention and I thought I’d give it a go. It definitely didn’t disappoint: lots of opportunism, resistance and folly. It’s probably easy to end up writing a terribly boring dud on a topic like this, especially if you’re writing for a general audience, but the author managed to keep me fully engaged throughout. Lives of Weeds does a really good job at tackling a very big topic. Written by a self-described ‘weed guy’, the book explores different scientific aspects of weeds (e.g. genetics, ecology) as well as lots of cultural ones (e.g. history, what even is a ‘weed’?). I think the author did a really good job on both fronts, even if the scientific parts are predictably stronger due to his background. Due to the nature and history of weeds, lots of the species the author discusses will be familiar to readers in Europe (my case), Africa and Asia, even though the author is predominantly writing from an American perspective. (I don’t think this is a conscious choice, and I wouldn’t fault the book if it only dealt with American species I didn’t recognise, but it means that it will probably resonate with people in many different countries and continents.) Some of the key concepts, like ‘agrestal selection’, were things I’d never considered before. It’s really opened my eyes to a lot of more unknown natural processes, and it’s kinda crazy to think of that type of evolution happening so quickly right before our eyes. That fricked me up a little bit, I won’t lie. It doesn’t require loads of specialist knowledge at all, but it does suppose a high-school(ish) level of genetics for some of the more scientific sections on how weeds evolve. I had to check a few specific points to really understand what was going on, but it wouldn’t have been the end of the world if I’d just gone over those sections without understanding them perfectly. I know veeeeeeery little about botany (although I feel like I know a lot more now!), so I’m in no position to have opinions on the more subjective parts of the book and I was happy to take them at face value. I imagine specialists might have a different reaction to some of the claims. It’s also really well written, which is something I never take for granted in books like this. I often found myself highlighting bits that were quite pithy (‘Few things advance the ecological success of a weed beyond an organized attempt to exterminate it’). The author is funny and sarcastic at times (like when he refers to a long list of environmentally destructive practices as ‘hallmarks of progress’), and his personality does shine through the writing a lot without getting in the way of the story too much. One thing I wasn’t crazy about is the way the author is kind of vague on genetic engineering as a technology. He does make an understated comment about anti-GMO sentiment not being backed by science and the obviously positive applications of genetic engineering – you know, like some Covid-19 vaccines and insulin (my examples) – but he seems a bit too evasive, like he’s just not interested in opening that can of (genetically modified) worms. I understand not wanting to go into it if it’s gonna alienate half your audience, and I assume a significant portion of the intended audience is vehemently ‘anti-GMO’. He seems to walk on eggshells when it comes to tricky topics, often in a way that manages to avoid upsetting either camp, which ended up frustrating me a little. To be fair, I have no reason to think that the author is ‘against’ genetic engineering as a technology, but in being vague and evasive on the topic, I think it’s easy to read it as such (especially if that’s already your position going into it) instead of him simply having understandable and valid complaints and concerns about the way genetic engineering is carried out for profit by huge companies in a capitalist system, often at the expense of people and planet, which is REALLY not the same thing. I thought it was a bit of a cop-out. But it’s a minor issue, and it’s more about the way some people might interpret it than what’s actually written there – it just seems shifty to me. Anyway, definitely one of the best things I’ve read this year, and I totally recommend it to anyone who likes reading non-fiction about the natural world, especially more unfamiliar topics that turn out to be unexpectedly relevant.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Mandy

    An important and timely book, this exploration of weeds covers every aspect of them – ecology, agriculture, science, conservation, medicine and so much more – and is a meticulously researched and comprehensive study of the plants that are usually considered worthless and something to be erased but which in fact have a whole other existence that I was not aware of. In fact I’m astonished by how much I didn’t know before I read this wonderful book. Mind you, I did feel as though I were drowning in An important and timely book, this exploration of weeds covers every aspect of them – ecology, agriculture, science, conservation, medicine and so much more – and is a meticulously researched and comprehensive study of the plants that are usually considered worthless and something to be erased but which in fact have a whole other existence that I was not aware of. In fact I’m astonished by how much I didn’t know before I read this wonderful book. Mind you, I did feel as though I were drowning in weeds and their science at times but that was a small price to pay. If nothing else I came away with a deep respect for weeds and will never look upon them in quite the same way again.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Jennifer Anderson

    How does one write a jarring narrative about weeds? Ask John Cardina. Approaching his “Lives of Weeds”, I was not at all prepared for such an uncomfortable encounter (or anything else along the anxiety spectrum for that matter!). Pencil in hand, I readied myself for a primer on these gritty (sometimes prickly) challengers of crop resources. Not far into the first chapter, though, the pencil was down and I was completely absorbed in his holistic analysis integrating history, social and cultural n How does one write a jarring narrative about weeds? Ask John Cardina. Approaching his “Lives of Weeds”, I was not at all prepared for such an uncomfortable encounter (or anything else along the anxiety spectrum for that matter!). Pencil in hand, I readied myself for a primer on these gritty (sometimes prickly) challengers of crop resources. Not far into the first chapter, though, the pencil was down and I was completely absorbed in his holistic analysis integrating history, social and cultural norms, technological innovations, and his expertise: weed science. Starting first with the common dandelion, the narrative is intriguing, pleasant, and almost laughable. From its earliest origins, Cardina traces its arrival to the New World--a time in which it graced dinner plates and medicine bags alike. In those days, lines of poetry extolled its cheerful presence and marveled at its floating ball of seeds. Early pioneers found enough utility in the plant (as it was not yet a weed) and cleared land to ensure its steady supply. By the early 19th century, however, human fickleness determined that the grass was greener on English estates. Cardina credits Thomas Jefferson for creating the earliest notions of the suburban lawn that grew to symbolize prosperity (as, “only poor folk or sinners let dandelions bloom”). The ensuing pursuit of a flawless lawn required slaves and all manners of inventions to eradicate any yellow aberrations. But true to Newton’s Third Law, every (human) action inferred an equal and opposite (weed) reaction. Exhaustive attempts to manually pluck it from existence stimulated buds deeper on the root. Rakes devised to remove the flower before it seeded resulted in shorter stems, keeping the flower closer to the ground and out of the rake’s reach. More sophisticated mowers distributed its willowy seed sack evenly and at larger distances. Burning them brought only temporary satisfaction until a new growth of buds emerged. Humans upped the ante post-WWII with high dose applications of 2,4-D--a hormone originally intended to stimulate growth of plants. Encouraging early results combined with the period’s enthusiasm for capitalism ignited a multi-billion dollar herbicide industry. Cardina reports that Americans now spend over $900 million annually on lawn chemicals, a point to which he adds “a quick glance out the window in springtime shows how well that has worked out.” Having established this concept of “agrestal selection”--the unexpected adaptations plants take at the response to human intervention--Cardina turns his focus on 7 additional species’ extraordinary evolution and the farmers they entangle. Although he provides detailed context to explain the current state of affairs, the read becomes sobering. Each example is merely a snapshot of a complex system still in motion. In this case, unfortunately, past performance is no predictor of future results, particularly as chemical innovations give way to genetic engineering, all while climate volatility threatens an already overextended and overexploited industry. And so it was with wide eyes that I absorbed the implications for the adaptive mechanisms weeds are undertaking such as seed dormancy (ability to delay seed germination to ensure its survival; in some weeds, this can be up to 40 years), plasticity (ability to adapt physically in response to surroundings), and allelopathy (ability to inhibit growth of adjacent plants through release of chemicals). Paired with herbicide resistance--the “everlasting” pigweed has outwitted numerous--and the ability for winddriven pollen and seeds to travel hundreds of miles, no farming operation is immune to these superweed mutations. But such is the course that industrial agriculture conglomerates are demanding. Cardina rightly asks the question: is this what we really want? It’d be a useless question if there weren’t other ways (and he points to examples that are working!). While “voting with a fork” as he suggests is equally important, many of us don’t yet understand how to vote and why. If that is you, this book is a great place to start. To anyone interested in living sustainably, supporting farmers (particularly those making the transition to regenerative farming practices), or even questioning what all the climate fuss is about, I highly recommend “Lives of Weeds”. It’s an incredible work from a unique and sound perspective. Thank you Dr. Cardina, Cornell University Press, and NetGalley for extending an Advanced Reader Copy of this book!

  4. 5 out of 5

    Anna Craig

  5. 4 out of 5

    Brian Nelson

  6. 4 out of 5

    Mantra

  7. 5 out of 5

    Triumphal Reads

  8. 4 out of 5

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    Stefan Liljenström

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    Sarah

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    AK

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    Emrys

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    Terri Gorden

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    Andrew Wakelee

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  27. 4 out of 5

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  28. 5 out of 5

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  30. 5 out of 5

    Liza Breytenbach

  31. 4 out of 5

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  32. 4 out of 5

    Erica Catalano

  33. 4 out of 5

    Bradley

  34. 5 out of 5

    Breanna Ford

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