Pioneer Plants & The Kingdom of God

When I was growing up, my mate Dave’s dad had the best lawn I’ve (still) ever seen. It was glorious! Now, Dave’s dad was a big, burly bloke, who happened to be a steelworker, and his attention to his lawn was surprising to me. But this lawn stood as testament to the enormous amount of time and effort that he put into it. It was truly immaculate. As far as I could tell, it was the purest, most perfect lawn that has ever existed.

One day, when I went over to Dave’s house, I was horrified to see the whole lawn completely dead. I immediately assumed some sort of sabotage from a lawn care rival down the street, but it turned out that Dave’s dad was convinced that his lawn was hopelessly riddled with weeds and couldn’t be salvaged. His only choice, it seems, was to nuke it and to start from scratch.

At the time this blew my mind, but as I took on, over the years, a healthy (or perhaps unhealthy) dose of Dave’s dad’s commitment to the perfect lawn, I began to understand his thinking. No matter how hard you try, weeds just seem to get in and ruin everything!

Fast forward 15 years, and my commitment to the perfect lawn had seriously waned. Not only did I discover along the way that lawns essentially originated as a sign of status (only the rich could afford to have workers tend to a ‘crop’ that produces nothing!), I also began learning the ways of permaculture, and was struck by two facts:

  1. Lawns are one of the most ridiculous, artificial, time-wasting pursuits that humans strive after. A lawn is a monoculture, and requires huge amounts of water, pesticide, herbicide, and fertiliser to grow—and then we spend all our time cutting it! Not putting too fine a point on it, the not-so-humble suburban lawn is an obscene waste of time and resources, and it’s time we bid them farewell.
  2. Weeds cop a bad rap.

What I started to learn was that weeds often serve a (really useful) purpose. Many weeds are able to grow in extraordinary situations where other plants can’t, and seem to be able to spread with the greatest of ease (which is why they can be so frustrating!). But the reason that they do this is because they’re essentially pioneer plants. These pioneer plants (just the name change by itself starts to make them seem better, right?) thrive in what otherwise seem to be barren conditions, not conducive to life. Their job is to grow especially on bare earth, because nature is always moving towards making forests. Something has to start off the process of succession, and this is where the pioneer plants come in.


Thriving under harsh conditions, pioneer plants take root and, because many of them have ‘tap roots,’ begin to break up the hard ground. Many are also ‘nitrogen fixers,’ helping to make atmospheric nitrogen available in the soil, providing fertile ground for other plants to grow.

Essentially, pioneer plants take barren ground and make it ready for life.

Once their job is done, they pretty much get out of the way as other plants, shrubs and, eventually, trees take their place as the forest grows. (As a side note, we need to ask ourselves some serious questions about what we are doing to the earth that we so often make conditions where pioneer plants become necessary, whether through overgrazing, overcropping, planting monocultures, or whatever.)

Interestingly, Jesus compares the kingdom of God to a pioneer plant.

In the Gospel of Luke, chapter 13 (verses 18 & 19), Jesus says,

What is the kingdom of God like? What shall I compare it to? It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his garden. It grew and became a tree, and the birds perched in its branches.

Now, there’s some interesting stuff going on here, because the mustard plant is more a shrub or bush than a tree (the whole thing about the birds of the air coming to rest in the branches opens up a number of discussions about biblical interpretation and application, and we’ll leave that off for the moment). But what seems clear is the notion that, essentially, Jesus is comparing the kingdom of God to a weed! Let that sink in for a moment.

Like a pioneer plant, the kingdom of God somehow just spreads (much to the chagrin of some!) and, as it does, it gets into the barren ground and prepares it for life. It seems to me that us Christians could learn something from this.

What I see here is an invitation to get amongst the barren ground of our communities, helping to break up the soil and get it ready for life. I see a call here to recklessly spread the seeds of faith, hope, and love, and to watch them begin to grow in surprising places.

I’ve given up on growing the perfect lawn, and given myself fully to the task of seeing life spring forth in my community. Will you join me?


Published by

Josh Dowton

Student of history/theology/nonviolence/permaculture/missional thinking. Large of limb, red of hair. Semper in excretia sumus, solum profundum variat.

2 thoughts on “Pioneer Plants & The Kingdom of God”

  1. Hi. Nathan Campbell just hit me up with these posts. Looking forward to reading! I’m passionate about getting a planetary context for mission & church. Have been learning a lot from Manna Gum / Jonathan Cornford too. Cheers from Dar es Salaam

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s