I don’t know very many people involved in dealing with invasive species in a hands-on fashion. People who are out there pulling or spraying or burning or trapping to try to prevent the spread of unwanted plants or animals, organisms that can fundamentally reshape a habitat.
I’m one of those people. So is Tom Pease. We frequently commiserate about the sheer overwhelming nature of the work to halt our respective nemeseses in the woods. His is buckthorn, mostly, and mine is honeysuckle.
The battle against them, and really, as much as I don’t like military imagery, it is a battle against a particular species, with the goal of exterminating it where we live. It’s an impossible goal, and I often feel like a fire fighter bulldozing a line through the forest, knowing the fire will keep raging on somewhere else. But it’s a physical struggle for territory, to push back and limit the growth of an unwanted invader. Just like war.
I first learned about invasive species the first year I had my cabin. Heather and I are incredibly fortunate to own 45 acres near the Kickapoo Reserve and LaFarge. The land is hilly, forested, and not suited to much besides recreation and small scale farming.
There’s only one flat spot in the whole 45 acres of land, and that’s where the cabin sits. There’s an open space right in front, about an acre in size. My first year at the cabin, I decided to pull what was obviously an invasive species in this meadow. It turned out to be wild parsnip, and within two days my legs looked like those of a radiation victim. Back then, 17 years ago, doctors weren’t aware of wild parsnip, and they treated it like poison ivy. The reality is that wild parsnip literally burns your skin when the plant oils and sunlight combine. A friend noticed my condition and asked if he could take a picture of my legs. I became the anonymous poster child for the Wisconsin DNR, my oozing legs featured on a poster alerting hikers to the dangers of the plant.
I learned about wild parsnip and now I’m able to pull it out without difficulty, thanks to the Parsnip Predator, gloves, and long pants.
I’ve owned the cabin for 17 years. I think that I can reasonably expect 17 more years of the ability to walk to the high ridge to watch the sunset. But probably not 34 more, without a lot of luck. So one question is, who will care when I’m gone? One thing about invasive species is that they require, in the words of the Harry Potter professor, “Constant vigilance.” The parsnip is reduced but every year there are a few plants. If I let them go for a year, their seed will create many times the number of new plants the following year. The old adage about a stich in time saves nine has never been truer. And when someone else owns this land, it’s hard to believe that they’ll care as much as I do about preserving the land. And neglect of two or three years would result in the prairie being overrun with parsnip, and honeysuckle.
Honeysuckle came in to Wisconsin as a nice decorative plant, but its seeds escaped into the wild and began to colonize natural habitats in parks, forests, and woodlands. The problem? It crowds out other native plants by shading them out. And I love spring ephemeral flowers. The thought of my woods, or any woods, becoming nothing but honeysuckle feels so sad to me.
And so I fight it. I go out with my Weed Wrench and chainsaw and herbicide and fight. I pull out the little ones and chop the bigger ones and cut the largest ones. With the big bushes, I’m experimenting with using herbicide. I think of it like chemotherapy. I’m an organic gardener for nearly 40 years, but the situation is too dire to rely on organic methods. I don’t have the time or energy to carefully pull out every plant, ensuring that I get each root that might possibly sprout. I have decided to poison the plants as carefully as possible, making sure that little or no poison affects anything else. I know the arguments, and I may be wrong, but I’d rather judiciously use herbicide than cede the field and forest to honeysuckle. For me, it’s like chemotherapy, and I don’t see much of an inbetween view, except to be judicious and cautious.
If I were to eradicate it all by hand, it would easily take four or five weeks of doing nothing else full time. And I don’t have it.
I sometimes think of invasive species like chain stores and big corporations. They come in and take over the local ecosystem, making places just like other places. Who would want a world with nothing but honeysuckle and buckthorn?
Asian Carp, wild parsnip, honeysuckle, garlic mustard, ash borer, gypsy moth. , . and the biggest invasive species of all. Humans.
Bill Oliver’s song “Habitat” is one way to address this issue with kids by at least identifying the concept of habitat. Brigid Finucane has also written some great blogs about garden songs and activities with kids. I think that’s the place to start with this issue. Get kids to love the earth and plants.
This is the closest I can come to a song that relates that’s also for kids. I wrote this about three years ago, and then Tom and I wrote verses with kids, some of which I recorded here.
Rabbits chewing peas.
Birds are singing sweetly.
With the buzzing of the bees.
Digging in the soil.
Planting in the sun.
We use cow manure
To make food for everyone.
Leaves are making sugar
With a solar kiss.
They mix air and water.
That’s called photosynthesis.
Rain falls when it’s cloudy.
Sun shines from above.
Plants need wormy soil
And they need a little love.