Ode to the adaptable, borderless, resilient dandelion

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Dandelions in field of grass. Image credit: Jan Ledermann/Unsplash

During my childhood, the dandelion was our enemy. Before our teens, mum would round up me and my two sisters to do dandelion duty, an annual summer rite. I hated it, but mum absolutely loved it. She coveted that tract of turf, perfectly green, and all hers.

Every summer, she would sprout a serrated knife, colander and sun hat to venture into the vast expanse -- her other child, Lawn. I can still see her chicken legs crouched on the green topped by a voluminous straw hat, squatting here and there -- a perennial -- to clear out the dandelions infesting her dominion of grass.

Having grown up in a small house on stilts in Malaysia with 10 siblings, I can understand why she nurtured Lawn. Space was at a premium and the idea of a pristine piece of land, all neat, tidy and mowed, was the equivalent of winning a trophy. She could be crowned No. 1 citizen. Mother of the country. As immigrants to Canada, mum wanted conformity, in our lives and hers; to acquiesce, to keep our heads down, not stick out too much.

I recall taking a serrated knife and digging deep, piercing that pristine lawn, right down to go under the roots. I had to seize the whole system and throw it into the sad pile of undesirables. Occasionally, I would cheat, tiring of the sun and the squatting, I'd merely behead them.

We lived in the corner lot of a cul-de-sac. This was mum's dream, not just the house but a place with a monumental lawn. Due to the extra-wide pie shape of our lot, with the house at the pointy part, our backyard was a continuous ocean of green. A landscape designer my mum commissioned said we could fit a tennis court and a small pool -- much to the delight of me and my sisters. He drew up plans with a few trees here and there and a rock garden.

But mom wanted none of it. She liked seeing her green domain punctuated by nothing more than a vegetable patch in one far corner. And no flowers either. She thought they were frivolous. Every year, that garden gave us lettuce, tomatoes and cucumber. We gave much of the produce away to our neighbours.

Thus, we were taught that dandelions -- a name derived from the French for lion's tooth -- were nothing more than weeds that needed to disappear. Out of sight. But, of course, that's not how dandelions work. They are everywhere! Between the cracks on the sidewalk, waving furiously in unkempt parts of the urban environment or standing like a parade on the side of many roads. They're not leaving.

Why don't you just let them be? I asked one day.

What Would The Neighbors Think! she reacted.

Indeed, WWTNT?

That we must eradicate these wild, natural things? Take them out, stomp on them, mow them down or make them go so low, that even though we know they're there, they must be unnoticeable? Stay out of the way, dandelions!

It comes with the turf when you enter the new land called Suburbia. Keep that territory clean and cut, please. Put in weed killer, water it to death and mow it like there's no tomorrow. WWTNT? That we are nice, good people who like everything in its place. Every little thing. In. Its. Place.

Dandelions traverse the earth. The globe is their realm. At times, they are viewed as foreign. Invasive, threatening and alien to the carefully curated spaces seen as proper and acceptable.

The lawn thing made me suspicious of home ownership, or rather, that constant nagging by others (you know, the banks, the property types, the mortgaged ones -- and that's the French word for "death pledge" by the way) who consider it a sort of benchmark of respectability i.e. adulthood, responsibility and regular income. None of it seems appealing to me. Like a costume I would be forced to wear because somehow, a lack of lawn ownership signalled personal failure.

I moved countries a few years ago and found an apartment with a tiny backyard. No lawn, just wild things like ivy and dandelions, with their puffball possibilities. At first, I could hear echoes of my mother: plant some veggies! Utilize the space. WWTNT? But the ivy-blanket of soil and its wild inhabitants stood their ground and every year, I sat with guilt on my little terrace staring back at them:

What you lookin' at? 

Right, a non-gardener, a former weed-whacker, a Deficient Great Citizen.

I'm part of a Facebook group that posts pictures from around the world, from people's windows. Some include remarkable stories of having just lost a loved one from COVID or other causes, or they're recovering from cancer, or they're a nurse in New York City staying in a hotel room. I treasure those.

At first, what seemed to be a delightful wander around the earth (I do miss travel), I landed on a see-saw of irritation and anger. As people from various corners of the globe posted shots of their front or backyards, ones with pools and massive, meticulously cultivated gardens, I was struck by these properties with their empires of lawn. Everywhere. Then, it occurred to me -- lawns are control and artifice. They are venerated for their uniformity.

Lawn does not nurture. It is a Potemkin village. A false front hiding an ugly reality.

Lawns are essentially biological deserts. Looking just at the U.S., lawns utilize more than 30 per cent of all public water and mowers ingest 200 million gallons of gas (according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2019). Consider all that pesticide! The EPA says about 40 to 60 per cent of lawn fertilizer ends up in surface and groundwater, contaminating them. Lawns provides almost no habitat for any animals or plants for a healthy ecosystem.

This year I've been watching the world go by in my shelter-in-place-with-weed-garden. I've been reading the news. I've felt and re-lived the brunt of reports of COVID racism. People spat on, punched, pushed, yelled at and told to go "home," i.e. back to Asia. These stark memories in childhood of racism are as stubborn as dandelions -- I'm thrown back to my seven-year-old self when a boy told my friend, he doesn't play with "chinks."

I remain steadfast with my dandelions.

Taraxacum officinale (a.k.a. the wandering dandelion) grows in all lands. It can adapt to most soils. Borderless. A flower, an herb, an edible. Its roots are medicinal.

What do I see now? I see those white puffs, floating into the blue expanse, seeds dispersing. Make a wish!

Go, I whisper, and multiply.

WWTNT?

Grow in the those no-dandelions-allowed zones.

Grow where they want to crush you.

Grow where they don't want you.

Grow, especially, in areas where there are manicured lawns and tidy spaces.

Your presence makes the enforced order known.

Rise, transform, send out seeds.

Germinate.

Roar.

June Chua is a Berlin-based journalist who regularly writes about the arts for rabble.ca.

This article was first published in pocolit magazine in Germany.

Image credit: Jan Ledermann/Unsplash

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