Sunday, September 7, 2014

Genocidal Tendencies

There were two moments.

Late last winter I built a cold frame, a small wooden box with a second-hand window for a "roof" in which the hopeful northern gardener can start seeds before warm weather comes and continue to grow fresh greens after the frosts and early snows arrive.  I filled it with annuals and greens to be enjoyed all summer long.  And beets, because beets are awesome.  Roasted beets, smoked beets, boiled beets, pickled beets, beets beets... I'm even coming around on smaller raw beets even though they sometimes make my mouth itch in what I can only assume is a mild but annoying allergic reaction.

Normally, a gardener would direct sow beets in the garden after the soil had been sufficiently warmed, and I did that as well, but I wanted to get a jump on some by starting them in a tray in the cold frame because, as we've learned, beets cannot come soon enough.

Beet and tomato salad
Beet seeds are teensy-weensy little buggers, and I, being of sound mind and hammy galoot mitts, went with the less than precise but ultimately easier method of broadcast planting the seeds, followed by a sprinkling of potting soil on top and a spritz of water.  In no time I was greeted by a minuscule jungle of crimson and emerald seedlings needing to be properly thinned in order to grow big and strong and delicious in the garden after being transplanted.

It was then that I had my first moment of introspection.  A real, honest-to-goodness emotional reaction.  Keep in mind that I've finished off a wounded deer with a knife to the jugular after a less then perfect rifle shot (though, to be honest, the first time I was confronted with that same dilemma I had to defer to Roger when I quailed with blade in hand). I've stomped on a bunny to end its pain after I'd unknowingly maimed it with the lawn mower, punched a bat when he finally landed on the living room wall, and hammer-thwacked a face cord of nuisance chipmunks stuck in traps out in the shop.  I'm no stranger to taking a life up close, just as none of us who pass time out in the wild world are.

Yet there I stood, Mr. Tough Guy, repulsed by the thought of yanking out the innocent little beet seedlings I'd doted over.  So their brethren could grow large enough to be murdered in my mouth months later, no less.  It was startling.

I said it was a moment, I didn't say it wasn't an odd one.  I got over my rare and unexpected wanderings into tenderness, and thinned the beets.  Transplanted them, direct sowed more alongside, and they are all currently in season and delectable.

The second moment dawned in one of those gestalt explosions that rip through your delicate little monkey brain on suddenly seeing a certain situation as a whole.

I was hoofing it down to the creek to do a little warbler watching in early May, the woods just coming alive with green and sun and little midges spinning up over the water.  Migrating songbirds gather down there to feast on the hatching aquatic bugs, and in so doing, refill their energy stores for continued voyages northward or the upcoming mating season if they stick around here.

All different sorts of colorful and drab fliers arrive, many of whom we have the chance to see only briefly as they pass through to Canada – a thrill I am unashamed to admit that I've yet to outgrow.  I'm especially partial to the kaleidoscopic clan of the warblers, with their bright plumage and hyper flitting about.  There are so many different species that I'll never keep them all straight, but the annual rite of parking my butt and watching them gorge is always a pleasant refresher course in their names.

I am slightly ashamed to admit, however, that even with it staring me directly in my apparently blind face, I'd never noticed all the buckthorn.  Not properly noticed, anyway.  I'd seen it, but I hadn't looked at it.  Somehow looked past it and around it without acknowledging it.  I even mentioned it as a growing problem in a previous post without ever giving it much of a second thought.

Common buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica) is an invasive species in North America, and a pretty harmful one at that.  It's a tall shrub or small tree listed as "restricted" here in the state of Wisconsin, meaning it can "...cause or have the potential to cause significant environmental or economic harm or harm to human health..." (WDNR Invasives Rule - NR 40/terminology).  And it is presenting a full frontal, brute force takeover right outside these windows.

As I stood there drenched in springtime rays and surrounded by this European invader, I came to the instant-if-belated realization that war had been declared without my consent or knowledge.  In my blissful blunderings through the woods here, I had missed the call to action.  On closer inspection, the invader was everywhere.  And with that knowledge, I began to notice the springtime absences.  No jack-in-the-pulpit, no trillium, no Dutchman's breeches.  I can't be completely assured the presence of dense stands of buckthorn directly correlates to these absences (and many more), I've not done a controlled study, but I do know that it can't help.  Buckthorn greens up earlier in spring than natives, produces dense shade, stays green longer in fall, and releases chemicals in the soil that retard the growth of plants nearby.  In short, it chokes everything out.

It is not a climax tree.  I don't know if, left unchecked, it would eventually create a completely homogeneous forest, but even an understory monoculture is hugely detrimental to everything from insects to deer to my beloved diminutive warblers.

And so, it has to go.  A jihad has been declared.

I was suddenly outraged.  Stupidly, angry at the buckthorn itself, but more with my blindness and inaction.  There were none of the seedling thinning related questions of morality.  In my mind, those trees were threatening me and my personal space, so I did what you do in that situation – I steeled myself for a fight.  Plum topped off with righteous disgust, I wanted nothing more than to kill those trees as I sharpened the chainsaw. While seething blood lust may not be the most cordial reaction, nothing lends more instant drive and determination than getting oneself all snarled up in a good old fashioned snit.

Another tow strap load to one of the piles
I began cutting and poisoning in earnest.  Great swaths of the evil invader buckthorn fell to chainsaw, brush cutter, and triclopyr. The last necessary as buckthorn is not a wilting violet.  Unless it's poisoned directly after cutting, multiple shoots will appear from the stump with even more vigor.  There were initial pangs of trepidation, applying poison so freely in the woods, but then I found purpose-made applicators that look exactly like those fat Bingo markers, and I was comfortably murdering trees and shrubs with blue-dyed poison in perfectly dabbed Bingo dots once again.

For a while, anyway.  With some deeper internet research, I was reminded that clear cutting entire sections of the forest isn't the most healthy practice unless you're going to replant.  A bit of moderation has to be applied lest a person slash the entire place wide open to buckets of sunshine and a new crop of invasives.  Secondly, righteous anger can only fuel a person for so long.  It's damn hot to be crawling around wrestling with a chainsaw in the thick stuff, and the mosquitoes have been atrocious this wet summer.

Most importantly, after having established multiple brush piles (one as big as a two-car garage), the old beet seedling questions began to creep back in.

What is our relationship to any given ecosystem?  Are we stewards or simply inhabitants?  In the hours of bending and cutting, skeeter swatting and sweat dripping, I've broken those questions down into three categorical answers that work for me.

One can simply remain inside and ignore whatever's happening out there.  Most of America does – video games are fun, I'm told.  Or one can inhabit the outdoors passively.  Go for a nice leaf-peeping hike in the fall, pick some apples at the orchard with your sweety, and never venture off any beaten path.  Lastly, a person might elect to jump in with both feet – explore, learn, eat off the land and with the seasons, and even sometimes attempt to actively manage it, keeping in mind that many of these attempts end in abject failure or full-on disaster.  The presence of woods-choking buckthorn where it doesn't belong being the blatant example here.

We can all point to a dozen examples of the introduction of a non-native species, applied even with the best of human intentions, leading to the natural equivalent of act three in a Jerry Bruckheimer flick – shit is gonna blow up in your face.

The understory looks a mess when freshly cut, but it'll bounce back
The sheer numbers of trees I killed (and continue to kill) was what became the crux of my more careful thinking.  From the standpoint of sheer biomass, never before have I slaughtered on such a grand scale without plans to heat a domicile.  But they are only trees, I'm not killing puppies.

Which raised another question while slowly wrestling and tripping my way through the thickets.  In the removal of invasive species, is sentience of said species morally relevant?  Is the absence of it?  Surely, killing trees at a staggering rate because social and scientific convention tells us they are "bad" is not equivalent to mass murder.  Or one murder, for that matter.  But by killing them en masse, I am removing from the land a great deal of some sort of "life force."  

They aren't inherently evil, they're just standing there... tree-ing.  I remain diligent but slightly ambivalent in my genocidal tendencies toward buckthorn.  There is some kind of bass-ackwards comfort in knowing I'll never kill it all, even on this small scrap of land.  And if I do get close to eliminating it all, there are plenty of other invaders here to contend with like honeysuckle and garlic mustard.  Best keep that saw sharp.

Not all of the cut buckthorn will be going to waste.  Some of it will be burned, and in a small token gesture to the spirits of the woods (at least on my end of the deal) Frisbee has picked up a load of it to be turned into pens, wine stoppers, and various doodads on his lathe at home.

One of the lesser-known upshot qualities of buckthorn is the beauty of it's grain and color when finished.  While the sapwood remains pale, the heartwood varies from light umber to a deep, golden orange.  And if you look closely at a well finished piece of buckthorn, you'll notice a very comely slight sheen or pearlescence seeming to glow from behind the coral orange grain.  In woodworking circles this is known as chatoyance, which comes to us from French where it means "to shimmer like cats' eyes."  (Le chat being the French word for "cat") That is one of most lovely English word origins I know.  It's so visually perfect.   

If you'd like to purchase pens or wine stoppers like those pictured below, turned from buckthorn cut here, you can contact Frisbee at  He's also turning implements in sumac at the moment.  Call him Paul. While we do annually question his father's sanity as gun deer season approaches, his parents did not actually name him after a plastic flying disc.

Buckthorn wine stopper

Buckthorn pen

Sumac wine stopper

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