the wisdom of weeds

Looking closely was both the problem and the solution.

I walk through my front yard at least a couple times a day but I don’t really see it.

When I get the newspaper in the morning, or pull the car in and lock the gate at night, I notice the cactus and the ocotillo, framed by San Jacinto Peak in the background. I see the birds fly into the olive tree. I may even catch the moment at dusk when the lights come on next to the path from the driveway to the front door.

These are big picture views. That’s my lens. Big and beautiful. I’m a big picture thinker.

The Problem

My wife is a gardener and a landscaper. She loves the details. She knows the names of things.

This past weekend I wanted to take a break from work and spend some time with her. When I looked up from the crossword she was headed outside to prune the orange tree. I asked how I could help. She got a glint in her eye. “Well,” she said, “Have you noticed the weeds in front since it rained?”

I hadn’t.

Now I looked. Really looked.

Everywhere I turned, wisps and tufts of green peeked between the rocks.

It sucked. In that moment our beautiful front yard became an abandoned lot.

The Solution

I believe in turning into the skid and answering the call for adventure. When we deny reality, we suffer. When we lean away from the hill that scares us, our skis run and we lose control.

Now that I’d seen the weeds I couldn’t unsee them. The question was what to do about them.

Weeding isn’t rocket science. But there were so many… and using environmentally unfriendly, cancer-causing chemicals was out of the question.

Our learning is most valuable when we apply it. As I surveyed the yard I remembered what I learned about setting goals from reading Emily Balcetis’ Clearer Closer Better. Breaking a big goal into segments makes it more likely that you’ll complete it. Don’t think about running the whole marathon. Get to the next landmark.

Looking at the yard all at once made me want to give up before I started. The project would be easier to complete if I focused on a specific chunk and then moved the goal posts. I zoomed in on a section between my neighbor’s wall and our driveway.

I grabbed a bucket and sat down to work.

Process Over Results

When I was in Tibet I talked with a monk who was cleaning the monastery.

“David,” he said, “I used to clean because I wanted a clean space. But cleaning was hard and I had to wait for the result. Now, I clean because I like to clean. It is easy and I enjoy the process.” He smiled. “And when I finish, I still enjoy the result.”


I haven’t done the dishes the same way since.

Yes, I wanted the weeds out of my yard, and I wanted to make my wife happy, but I also didn’t want to be pissed for two hours thinking about everything else I wasn’t doing.

When the work is just about the work, everything else stops. You get into a state of flow and you lose the sense of work itself. That’s when the fun begins.

What I Learned

Here are the top 10 things I learned on the job:

  1. There are three distinct types of weeds that were growing in that section of my yard: grassy, leafy, and sneaky purple fuckers
  2. The sneaky purple fuckers actually managed to mimic the color of the rocks around them. I didn’t see them right away so I had to retrace my steps and give them an unkind nickname
  3. Some weeds had flowers on top. I found this arrogant (“Look at me, I’m a weed with a pretty yellow hat!”) and I took special pleasure in uprooting them
  4. Propaganda is a truly effective way to justify killing. When I personalized the weeds (see #3) it became easier to characterize them as jerks (the fact that I humanized them to dehumanize them = your daily dose of irony)
  5. Different weeds have different roots, so I developed techniques like “the Rottweiler Shake” to bring them up quickly without leaving part of the root underground
  6. The best tool for most weeding is your bare hand
  7. Sunscreen is a gift from the gods in these punctured-ozone times. You should reapply
  8. People driving by your house in a community where lots of people visit on vacation sometimes do double-takes when they see a middle-aged white guy sitting on the ground picking weeds without a pickup truck in sight
  9. A fun way to scare the hell out of your neighbor Phil when you smell him smoking cigarettes is by standing up suddenly to stretch and saying, “Hi, Phil!” over the wall right next to where he’s replacing a windshield wiper
  10. Pulling weeds for a couple hours in the desert can alter your fingerprint to the point where your fancy MacPro doesn’t know who you are anymore and demands a password instead of touch recognition

The Results Are In

… and the weeds are out. While I was thinking all those thoughts, I was constantly pulling weeds. Turning over rocks. Scooting over to the next section. Pulling more weeds. Letting my eyes go soft so that anything green (or purple!) jumped out at me. And pulling more weeds, until the whole yard appeared beautiful to me, both for what I could see and for what I could no longer see.

My wife came out to say hi just as I was finishing up.

“Wow!” she said. “You have the patience of a saint.”

Nah. Just the love of a good woman, the cleaning ethic of a Tibetan monk, and a front yard that is momentarily weed-free.