In a worship-sharing group at a Quaker Earthcare Witness (QEW) committee meeting, one set of queries included the following: How does the human impulse to dominate frame our relationships with Earth and other human beings? What role does domination play in my life? How will releasing this sense of domination change how I live? My mind turned immediately to dandelions.
My mother, as a housewife of the 1950s, didn’t have much scope for domination. My father had been well-trained in that role and did the dominating within the house. Though intelligent, creative, curious, and loving, my mother was also weighed down with self-doubt and wasn’t prepared to strike out and assert herself in a larger arena.
Within the house, her focus was on her children, and she paid more attention to the six of us than to housekeeping. But the lawn was a different story. Her standards there were high: no crabgrass, no weeds, and definitely no dandelions. She used to send us out in the summer with a long rope made into a circle about a yard in diameter. The task was to pull out every single living thing within that circle that wasn’t lawn grass. It was a pleasant and doable task (often followed by a little chocolate), and I came to know—deep in my bones—that dandelions and crabgrass were not welcome in a nice lawn.
Illustration by Dlyastokiv
Decades later, I find myself struggling with the dilemma of the dandelions. It’s hard to think of myself as a dominator. There are, of course, all the ways that groups I am a part of are in a dominant position in society. As a descendent of European settlers in this country, I am part of a history and culture of domination. In those roles I have peeled back many layers of ignorance, unquestioned assumptions, and painfully acknowledged unawareness. I’m committed to that process, and am sure that there are many more layers to go.
But it’s easier for me to see patterns of domination as they play out among men of the dominant culture. As a group, they, more than any other, have sowed the seeds of domination around the world and reaped its bitter rewards. Men, and White men in particular, are the ones in the last several centuries who have led the revolutions that upheld the genocide of Native peoples, branded African Americans as expendable, consigned increasing portions of the population to wage servitude, squandered the wealth of the soil in pursuit of profit-maximizing monocultures, and sanctioned the plundering of the planet. Throughout all these centuries, in all these arenas, they have claimed the right to subordinate and use women for their own ends.
Although a critique of patriarchy has deep roots, patriarchy itself is just beginning to be questioned and challenged by society as a whole. So as we struggle against the injuries of racism, the scourges of our economic system, grievous violation of Indigenous rights, the rape of the planet, the insidious and pervasive manifestations of sexism, we cannot ultimately find our way to right relationship until we have challenged the system and the mindset of domination.
We need to recognize the sound of it inside our heads: “I know better.” “My vision of progress is compelling enough to require sacrifice (of others).” “I’m confident that I am right.” “You—and everyone else—will be better off if you do as I say.” “My needs belong in the center of your life.” “I have the power to bend you to my will.”
It’s humbling and instructive to recognize that sound of domination. I believe we all need the courage to listen for it in our own lives. Only by listening can we come to better understand its roots and recognize and subdue the fears that lie underneath.
I don’t notice voices like that inside me very much. In my daily life, I tend to not lead with my privilege, take over conversations, use my knowledge as a weapon, decide for others, or assume my right to a favored spot or to get what I want.
But then I think of my little plot in the community garden, and am stopped in my tracks. I have to admit that I pride myself on dominion in that sphere—and the more successful I am at dominating it, the better I feel. It’s not that I use pesticides or herbicides or cultivate monocultures, or insist upon regimented rows. But I do pride myself on deciding what will stay and what will go—and I do dig out every dandelion that finds its way into my bed.
It’s humbling and instructive to recognize that sound of domination. I believe we all need the courage to listen for it in our own lives. Only by listening can we come to better understand its roots and recognize and subdue the fears that lie underneath. We may hear it in our role as a parent, or as a teacher. It may echo in our treatment or opinion of others with less rank or status. I certainly hear it in my attitude toward the dandelions.
I believe we have to hold out a goal of giving up domination in all aspects of our personal lives, even as we challenge the patterns of domination that plague our world. I’m not sure what kind of working relationship I’ll end up having with the dandelions. I don’t believe I’ll have to give my tiny vegetable plot over entirely to them, and I think there will still be a precedent for the pulling of weeds. But together, we will come to the sharing of that space with more respect; more humility; and more certain knowledge that when one species comes to complete dominance, the results are bad for everyone.
Photo by Eva Kali
I have my sights on a new weed to eradicate. It’s fast growing and deep rooted, with a showy flower, an alluring scent, and a tendency to squeeze out smaller or more tender plants. What if we all committed to a common project of pulling out the weed of domination wherever we find it growing? We could start the way my mother did when I was small. Make a circle in our environment and take on the project of digging out every manifestation of dominance that we find—in ourselves, in our families, in the communities around us.
At the end of our QEW worship-sharing session, one person had her own reflection on dandelions. “These are the plants that grow at the margins, that loosen up hard soil to make it more hospitable for others,” she said. I can add that they also are incredibly rich in vitamins and minerals; were once valued highly as the first greens of spring; and have a beautiful, bee-nourishing flower. When I relinquish my position of dominance in relationship to the dandelions, I get to experience more fully all that they have to offer. I think of George Fox’s promise that by answering that of God in everyone, “thereby you can be a blessing in them and make the witness of God in them bless you.” I think he might have been speaking of everyone we find hard to value—including the dandelions.