Two women document flora of the Colosseum in Rome, one in 1854 and the other in 2018 in The Weeds by Katy Simpson Smith. The first toils for Richard Deakin, a botanist, and the second is a grad student from Mississippi, struggling to win respect from her advisor and approval to conduct similar research in the Coliseum and fairgrounds of Jackson, Mississippi. Detailing how male superiors belittle the women's observations, the book may upend assumptions about adequate feminist responses across cultures and time periods.
The first woman, who lacks education and viable career prospects, relishes the work and suggests that definitions uphold sanity. Nuance is key as well as who decides and defines. “The point of botany is not to distinguish between value and waste. (There is no waste.) It’s to be honest about what something is. A part, a whole, a root, a bloom. Conditions, habits.”
The women lack mentors, role models and intellectual nourishment. The woman in 1854 lost her mother to opiate addiction. The other mother provided solid memories of fortitude, and before her early death, urges her daughter: “Truth is all you have.” The graduate students mulls the female tendency to move through life by rote, automatically pursuing education, marriage, children, “Like I was hoping to prove I deserved the space I took up.” Love is elusive for each woman. Disrespect in work relationships sows mistrust and challenges in other relationships. The first woman longs for another woman who has since married moved abroad, and the second struggles with commitments, even though her mother once advised: “Know what you want before it comes, so you can get it without being gotten.” For her, finding love is secondary, and her priority is securing research funding, a career. Yet the mentor rejects her observations, and she wonders, “If I can no longer say true things, and am prohibited from saying false things, what … is left?”
Both narrators remain anonymous, so often the case for women in science. The women strive for creativity, exploration and novel connections that are discouraged by superiors. The modern-day advisor could well speak for both men when publicly admonishing his graduate student: “Scientists don’t arrive at projects with conclusions in mind; we’re passive. Humble. Unresisting. That’s how you open yourself to answers.”
The narrators give weeds equal attention in a plot interspersed with species names and descriptions. Great care is used in distinguishing common species like S. oleraceus and S. tenerrimus: “Two sides of a genus, a plant that any ordinary passerby would fail to notice, or, if noticed, would call a dandelion,” notes the woman of 2018. She insists on distinguishing the two. “the only lesson I carry from Deakin – every thing deserves its name.”
The discomfort the limited options in responding to bias are similar in 1854 and 2018, so much so that the identity of the narrator is at times unclear: “You can’t demand love. Nor expect it, nor wait for it, nor want it. It comes on air like a scent.” The more poetic comments likely come from the woman with the broken heart: “With lyrate leaves, shaped like those instruments of old, I wonder at their purpose. If they are accompanying songs too green for us to hear. If this is a signature to mark our deafness.”
The woman of 2018 marvels that Deakin, as a man, wrote about the Colosseum’s plant life in such a charming, thoughtful way: An excerpt from Deakin's actual book, not mentioned in The Weeds: “Flowers are perhaps the most graceful and most lovely objects of the creation but are not, at any time, more delightful than when associated with what recalls to the memory time and place, and especially that of generations long passed away. They form a link in the memory, and teach us hopeful and soothing lessons, amid the sadness of bygone ages.” The graduate student finds herself wishing that she had such an advisor, not realizing that, according to the novel, Deakin died before the flora is published and the apprentice applied extensive edits before submission. Deakin published one book, and biographical information about him or a female apprentice is limited.
Both narrators are fascinated by plants’ defensive mechanisms, especially those that might harm humans. The modern-day woman marvels: “How easy, to eliminate something living from the earth. As simple as turning up the temperature, or slipping a pill in a drink, or touching a leg, or doubting.” One woman sabotages herself, and the other sabotages her superior, slipping bits of a plant that he fails to recognize into his drink. “He hasn’t done the work, so he’s missing all the signs.”
The Weeds has a weary tone for more reasons than one. The woman stronger in spirit is raped. And each woman senses that she documents a massive decline resulting from a changing climate, feeling an urge, “Write it down before it’s gone.” In keeping their respective lists, the woman from the 19th century observes how vetch transformed from staple to “crop of last resort,” and the modern-day woman wistfully recalls cattails, her favorite plant as a child: “brown and whistling with red-winged blackbirds. The pond is gone; it became a football field. Could I slow my town’s unrolling ruin by naming what exists? Is that what we’re doing here with these lists, slowing death?”
The science of botany is in decline, too, even though there are about 300,000 species. "M]ore and more, colleges and universities are getting rid of their botany programs, either by consolidating them with zoology and biology departments, or eliminating them altogether because of a lack of faculty, funds or sometimes interest," reports U.S. News & World Report.
Some species survive development and destruction, and others go extinct. The same is true of the human spirit. Some women refuse to be broken by inequities and, one way or another, ensure their voices live on.
Michigan State University's W. J. Beal Botanical Garden, is the oldest, continuously operated botanical garden in the United States, featuring a collection of more than 2000 plants. The photo is courtesy of MSU Today.