I felt feral when I moved back to the city. I was wild eyed and rubbed raw by grief. Several life-changing losses had come at once slamming into me with such force I found myself boomeranged back into the city, an environment I had sworn just five years earlier I would never return to.
I had spent several years in the wilds of Scotland living out my millennial aspirations of ‘living in harmony with the land’ on the East coast, and soothing my urban burnt-to-a-crisp nervous system with the aloe of soil, sea and forests. I had marvelled at skies so clear you could see the Milky Way, and plunged my hands into soils bruised purple with volcanic-rich mineral density. We mulched beds with composted seaweed that we gathered ourselves by hand, grew over 40 varieties of herbs and vegetables and judiciously pillaged the land and seascape of her goods to seasonally sustain us.
But now there was no “us”. Just me. And I was headed back to a place where I’d convinced myself was the antithesis to living a healthy, happy and fulfilling life. Or at least a more authentic one. The grief following my divorce was indistinguishable from the sense of loss I felt in the separation from the Scottish landscape I’d also felt married to. Both were equal parts difficult and joyful unions - neither entirely straightforward, but the prospect of being back in an urban environment felt gaping.
Trying to replace those rhythmic rituals that had grounded me in a rural setting would feel void in the city, I thought. And I expected to feel as physically disorientated as I did emotionally. I had felt that I was leaving a sense of freedom behind when I moved south. When I’d lived here before I’d felt disassociated from my true self, always on edge, restless and ill at ease. How would I cope with the sheer amount of people, traffic, noise and light pollution, after roaming so for so long in a blanket of varied ecosystems largely devoid of all those things. Places I felt were expansive enough to breathe freely into a more liberated sense of self.
But I hadn’t counted on the fact that I’d developed an internal compass that was set to root me into my environment through mere observation alone. To re-familiarise myself with the city I walked. Everywhere. And everywhere I walked my broken mind started to gather itself due to daily encounters with old friends.
Plants that I’d never noticed when I’d lived in London before suddenly yelled out to me from every pavement corner, every crease in a concrete step, every building site, every common, and unkempt corner. Burdock, elder, plantain, dandelion, herb Robert, shepherd’s purse, yarrow, daisy, three-cornered garlic, chickweed, hawthorn, dock, nettle, comfrey, Russian comfrey, mallows, hogweed, couch grass, wild garlic, rose-bay willow herb, mugwort, self-heal, garlic-mustard, honesty, red clover, St. John’s wort - each one had an identical twin I’d spent time studying whilst living in Scotland.
The commonality that these botanicals share is that we’ve culturally denigrated them to the title of “weeds”. A label that denotes nuisance, inconvenience and uselessness. But our history of their usage is one that has touched every cornerstone of our existence: food, medicine and spirituality. Yet their insistence on our landscapes is only now being appreciated. Their pollinating benefits, their contribution to a stronger ecosystem, their epicurean and accessible low-cost health values.
Where gardening requires us to actively nurture, watering, pricking out, potting on, weeds need no such duty of care. They have evolved to thrive where other plants do not. They excel in adverse conditions, adopting the main characteristics we’ve come to identify with thriving in an urban environment. They’re tenacious, hardy, opportunistic, and unfussy. And humans create optimal and ample opportunities for these plants to flourish.
On the surface of it, cities appear to have an excellent capacity for short-term memory. And reinvention is essential for their survival. They’re shape-shifting entities, expanding or contracting dictated by a series of seismic events or the mundane practicalities created by infrastructure. History isn’t squeezed out but it is built-upon and around. Life insists itself upon this terrain.
After the Great Fire of London in 1666, London Rocket, a native of the brassica family and originally found in the Mediterranean, sprang up in the ashes of devastation. The fire had created the ideal conditions for this plant to flourish, and the gaps of devastation were filled with a carpet of spicy leaves and their yellow flowers. A little less than three centuries later bombs fell decimating whole chunks of cities across the UK. Rose bay willow herb, also known as fireweed, was re-Christened Bomb weed as its fuschia flowers sprung up everywhere amongst the debris. Incidentally, it is worth noting that both plants have strong medical heritages. London Rocket is still used in the Middle East to treat chest infections, whilst fireweed is used in Russia and Ukraine to make the potent antioxidant, anti-inflammatory drink Ivan Chai.
We view weeds through a cultural lens. They can be synonymous with decay and destruction, or with the more heroic notion of triumph in the face of adversity. The truth is less is less romantic. These are plants that learnt to thrive wherever humans were. Whatever form of destruction was created in our wake these tenacious plants took hold.
Nature writer and weed advocate Richard Mabey describes them as “a kind of immune system, organisms which move in to repair damaged tissue”. Void of sentimentality, he is definite about this not meaning they have a purpose any more than any other living organism that inhibits our planet. No matter the topography, a living thing exists simply because it has “an opportunity to do so”. The way in which we choose to relate to them can not only transform how we engage and interact with our immediate landscape, but it has the power to shift our internal one too.
I had fled the city looking for peace through space, and submerging myself in ‘Nature’ - something I saw as other, separate to myself. I thought that by living amongst the hub of rurality I would find my grounding. And in many ways I did. But moving back into an urban space showed me that feeling connected wasn’t dependent on where I lived, simply how I viewed myself in the context of the world that we are all a part of. And that the story of weeds with their inbuilt mechanisms to not just survive but to flourish, has much to teach us.
Maya Thomas is a cook, writer and herbologist who co-founded The Modern Herbal, a platform exploring our relationship with nature.
Photographs by Camilla Greenwell.