In what must have been a much simpler era of my life, dandelions were the principal target of my rage. Spring arrived, and soon those spiky leaves, arranged as spokes around a creepy hub, overran the earth. Their treacherous attempt at cuteness—the brief phase when cheery little yellow flowers form the hub—makes a quick transition to a much more honestly ugly arrangement of fuzzballs spewing seeds in every direction.
As I struggled to exterminate these botanical vermin, inevitably passersby would pause on the sidewalk to tell me—officiously and condescendingly—that my efforts would be pointless unless I could dig out the whole root.
Since the most energetic and deft user of a dandelion fork still can only get at the top one-or-two inches of the root, the passersby were stopping to tell me that I was defeated before I had started. Of course, this was true, but when strangers stopped to tell me this truth, I could become almost as angry at them as I was at the dandelions.
Over the years, while I have never surrendered my dandelion forks (at present, I have three), I have grown much more temperate, refusing to give dandelions the satisfaction of knowing they have upset me. Moreover, for reasons that I cannot guess, it has been years since a single passerby thought that I needed to be reminded of the futility of my undertaking.
But what changed me forever was the 1986 publication of Alfred W. Crosby’s Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900.
Whipping up his readers’ interest in the crucial role that invasive plants and imported livestock played in the European conquest of North America, South America, Australia, and New Zealand, Crosby wrote a spectacular “Prologue” to his book. If the Pulitzer Prize Board were to concede ground to the short attention span of readers today and to create a new Pulitzer Prize for the Best Sentence written in any given year, then I believe Al Crosby’s sentence would receive that prize retroactively.
This award-deserving sentence comes as the answer to the question, why did European colonization have such striking success in areas so remote from Europe geographically and so plentifully populated by other societies?
Here is Crosby’s response to that question:
Perhaps European humans have triumphed because of their superiority in arms, organization, and fanaticism, but what in heaven’s name is the reason that the sun never sets on the empire of the dandelion [my italics]?
If I were a swooning sort of person, when I encountered that sentence thirty-five years ago, I would have swooned from pure envy. Instead, I wrote Al Crosby a fan letter, celebrating the whole book, but honestly admitting that I would have given anything to have been the author of those eighteen perfectly chosen and perfectly arranged words.
Join me in contemplating them one more time: What in heaven’s name is the reason that the sun never sets on the empire of the dandelion?
With those words inscribed in my mind, when I went to Alaska and when I visited Australia, I hoped against hope that I would travel beyond the borders of the empire of the dandelion.
Surely winters in Fairbanks would be so intense that the dandelion would have to recognize that its empire had finally reached its limits?
The midnight sun in the far north had whipped the dandelions into a complete frenzy of growth, turning them into towering forests.
So now, when I take dandelion fork in hand, I feel grateful that I will be up against only short, stubby plants that do not tower over (or near) my head.
But most of all, while I still yearn to prevail over these intruders into my yard, I yearn a lot more for the company of Al Crosby, a very good soul who died in 2018 at age 87, and who wrote history books that changed his readers.
If you want to see why I make that claim with confidence, pick up Crosby’s Ecological Imperialism and find the answer to that perfectly phrased question—"what in heaven’s name is the reason that the sun never sets on the empire of the dandelion?”
The task of weeding your yard will double as your chance to understand the planet.
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