Waste, weeds, and poetry

in About Books/Featured by

Waste defines not only the modern era, but modern humanity, according to some writers. We are what we throw away. Or: we are because we throw away. Yet, waste has been invisible to many of us most of the time.

No longer. Today waste is appearing everywhere. It isn’t staying neatly out of the sight of the middle and upper classes. It’s on our streets; it’s on our beaches; it’s in our fish and in our birds. There’s a waste research fund here at MUN. Researchers are grappling with questions about social justice and micro plastics in our oceans and mapping e-waste as it travels around the globe.

Amidst all this, one small book of poetry appears on the scene in Newfoundland and Labrador: Mary Dalton’s Waste Ground, a book of short poems from the point of view of local plants that have been categorized as weeds.

Defined as waste, these local weeds are given voice in these poems, lamenting their lost histories, their lost folklore and food cultures, and the loss of knowledge about their medicinal uses. What is waste, Dalton asks of us? What is the cost of losing what used to be common, everyday knowledge about the world around us?

Tansy, Juniper, Dandelion, Parsley, Daisy, Goldenrod, Stinging Nettle, Dog Rose, Joe Pye Weed, Hops, Sorrel, Clover, and Yarrow: each of these plants tells their story. These poems may send you to a book or to the web to decode the riddles Dalton builds into each poem. I suppose that’s the point though: we used to know these things without books, but, using books, we can take this knowledge back if we value waste, if we understand that we are what we throw away.

I talked with Mary Dalton about her book. Here’s what she had to say.

Tell me about the title of the book. 

Waste Ground. It’s waste ground in the meaning of ground worth nothing only to someone who knows nothing about the plants growing on it. In another sense though it’s waste ground because these plants are being ignored.

When there’s an area that’s not cultivated and that’s overgrown with this kind of vegetation we call it waste ground. But it becomes ironic if you think of all the uses and the value of the plants growing there. It is a waste, our lack of knowledge is a waste. And it is a waste ground in the sense that we are oblivious to so much that could be useful to us. And that isn’t part of what is being pushed at us through agriculture as it now is in this time of neo-capitalism.

I love these plants. I love the ground that all of these plants grow on. Almost all of these plants grow in a space that I spend a lot of time in. A weed, somebody said,2 is a plant in a place you don’t want it. But these plants are so rich both in mythology and in nutritional value in so many ways and of interest in terms of their structure.

Why write about weeds?

I was spending a lot of time in my garden in the country at the time. Almost all of the plants I write about are in my summer place which is out in Conception Bay. And almost all of them are considered weeds.

We call them weeds but these are sources of food. Stinging nettles are in there. Nettles are much richer in iron than spinach. They are not an indigenous plant to Newfoundland. The Europeans would have brought seeds to Newfoundland with them because it would be their first green food in the spring. It’s just an amazing plant for its food. Now we buy spinach that might have been grown in California and we just ignore the nettles or get rid of them as much as we can. Of course, they’re not friendly. They will sting you if you don’t know how to handle them.

Hops were used to make bread, beer. It can be used to make rope. I don’t know if they used it that way in Newfoundland but they certainly did elsewhere.  There’s clover tea. Rosehips are a great source of vitamin c.

The only one in there that isn’t considered a weed is parsley, which is an escape. It’s not usual in that it seeds itself and that it comes back, at least I haven’t seen it. And the lore surrounding parsley is so interesting I just had to use it. The idea that Parsley, I think it has to go to the devil nine times and come back before it will germinate. There’s a whole range of lore about Paresley.

How did you decide to use the riddle as a form for these poems?

I think the overarching concept of the riddle came to me because I’ve also been fascinated with that aspect of the culture for a long time. The riddle was one of the means whereby people in traditional Newfoundland entertained one another. As well as singing songs and dancing and telling stories, they tested one another’s intellect by making up riddles. Children would try their hands at that as well.

I became especially interested in the riddle when I noticed after my first couple of books that I wasn’t working with metaphor as much. I wasn’t making those wonderful leaps that the metaphor can do, linking something with something completely other. And somehow that came together with my interest in and knowledge about the riddle. I thought making riddles would be a way to work in metaphor to the nth degree. The type of riddle I’ve used is in the Anglo-Saxon tradition of riddle in which an inanimate object or a phenomenon speaks. So you’re embodying your linking the thing with person.

Which plant did you enjoy writing about the most?

With hops people think of one use. Oh, hops are good for making beer. Of course, I picture a hops in this poem as a drunkard. But hops also had other uses: the making of bread, paper, possibly in making shoes, and hops were thought to have a soporific effect so you’d put one under your pillow if you couldn’t get a good night sleep. So, there’s all of these uses that have fallen out of the general knowledge. So hops suffers in this portrait the melancholy perhaps of the alcoholic who realizes that all his usefulness has gone by the board and now he’s reduced to being just associated with alcohol.

Michelle Porter is the lead editor for The Independent. She holds a BA in Journalism, an MA in Folklore and a PhD in Geography. She is the recipient of 2005 Atlantic Journalism Award for feature writing and the recipient of 2016 NL Arts and Letters award for poetry. She has been long-listed for CBC Poetry prize in 2016 and 2017.