Diego Bonetto: The Weedy One

It’s a hot afternoon in March when I catch the train to an arts centre in western Sydney to meet artist and weed expert, Diego Bonetto. Staring out the window, I watch the city evolve and grow as the train rattles further southward. The wrong side of backyards, houses, shopping centres and factories expose themselves and I am intrigued by the lives held within them. The world is different when looked at through the window of a train – you see the side of things you’re not supposed to see.

When I call Diego to let him know I have arrived he is in the middle of roasting some dandelion roots. We go for a forage through the bush. He moves quickly, jumping from plant to plant. ‘Oh look, there is some knotweed’, ‘this one here is cudweed’, ‘Ahh lantana, I love lantana…’ on and on, from one plant to the next he jumps. Every single weed we discover has a use, whether it is edible, medicinal, or practical. I find it hard to keep up, snap photographs and absorb his wisdom. But I try. Because he makes sense.

The crux of Diego’s argument is this: Plants have been moving through the world as long as humans have. Things we classify as weeds are often very useful plants. Many different cultures have been eating and using the plants we call weeds since time began…So why call them weeds? And why not use them? According to him, weeds are the soldiers of the plant world; colonizing spaces humans have altered to make room for nature to re-claim as its own. He says,

Humans have created the environment that these species come and inhabit. We as humans, have a very close relationship with weeds that we do not acknowledge. The plants we call weeds have been growing in our shit forever. We eat them, and they eat our waste…. All of these bush regeneration people with blinkers on, those who decide what is right and wrong, they are nearly as bad as hardcore nationalists.

It strikes me as I follow him through the bush; nibbling on some plants, and learning about the medicinal qualities of others, that his message is quite subversive. What he says makes sense, but by agreeing with it, I find the rest of my belief system about plants and environment is more than slightly undermined. Oh, the myths we are told about weeds…

Diego’s argument challenges the entire way the natural systems of Australia are viewed and managed. A natural landscape is worthy of protection, yet a landscape that has been altered by humans is no longer natural and by trying to make it natural again is just another way of making it more human. Yes, he is slight of frame and friendly of face but Diego Bonetto is dangerous. Dangerous, indeed…

Growing up on a farm in Italy, Diego’s mother often sent him out with a bag and a knife to pick dandelions. He would return home with a bag of greenery, of which only a small percentage was dandelions. If he complained about being hungry when working in the fields his mother used to say, ‘Just pick that thing, put it in your mouth and shut up’. This is where it all began.

Why does Diego forage? Yes, he grew up doing it but as an environmental activist I think he sees it as a way of acknowledging and celebrating the food production cycle. This connection is something we seem to have lost, along with the idea that meat comes from an animal, not a plastic package in the supermarket. He says,

If we want to be nice to the environment then we should stop importing food from all over the country and world. Just produce it locally….The culture of the supermarket is pervasive and it alienates us from the production line because as consumers we have no idea where things have come from.

Over a cup of tea, finally out of the heat, we start chatting about Diego’s weedless garden. He says; ‘Everything is classified as a plant in my garden. The same way I pull out a big chunk of lemongrass when it gets too big, I pull out a big chunk of sow thistle when I have too much. Every plant is equal. I let lots of plants exist in my garden that most people would not. I only have 3 square meters but if I had my way with the rest of the place it would be all vegetables.’

By challenging commonly held beliefs about plants and environment, Diego is encouraging broader perspectives and stronger connections between humans and the environment. As he says; ‘The more disconnected people are from plants, nature and its processes, the more selfish and damaging they are to the environment. They don’t care.’

Again, the wrong side of suburbia exposes itself as I stare out the train window, heading back to the city. The world is slightly different now. It seems crazy but a small conversation about the seemingly benign subject of weeds can be enough to gently tilt a world view, and a garden view. Commelina suddenly looks more beautiful as I imagine its leaves ground into a garlicky pesto, and the oxalis popping up between the pavers will be allowed to stay on the proviso it grows big enough to harvest its lemony leaves for a green salad. And the cycle goes on and on…..