Nearly a year has passed since I began the journey that has now become The Trespasser’s Garden. Initially, I devoted much of my research and creative energies to the specifics on each invasive plant I hoped to explore. Viewing them as lone big bad wolves, my first creative exploits focused on these individuals more or less in a vacuum. As spring transitioned into summer, however, my understanding deepened. I watched bees pollinate indiscriminately, buzzing about buckthorn blossoms as if they were no different than the fragrant flowers of a native cherry. Remembering the flocks of cedar waxwings gorging themselves on buckthorn berries late last fall, the intertwining nature of the systems and processes involved in the spread of invasive plants became clearer.
Nature: natural selection, life cycles, food chains, climate change, drought, floods, harsh winters, hot summers, wildfires, forest succession, evaporation, microclimates, hydrologic fluctuations, disease, decay, erosion, migration, evolution, extinction…
There is no longer a natural world untouched by humanity. At this point our hands are so dirty, there is no soap or solvent that will make them clean again. Perhaps it is time we embrace our dirty hands, hold them high and show each other where we’ve been and where we want to go. Let’s get blisters from pulling and cutting out buckthorn. Let’s drop to our knees and remove seaweed from our boat trailers. Let’s fill our gardens with native plants and watch them grow into ecosystems. Most importantly, let’s write and sing and scream and whisper to all who will listen so that the hands of our children and our children’s children might be a little less dirty and their world a little bit cleaner.
Somewhere a little west of here, there is a lake fed by a cold stream meandering through an expansive fen. Sunlight flickers on the azure water as a light breeze stirs the surface. Leaves rustle and quake while wispy clouds flirt with the sun’s light.
A sudden streak of white flashes across the sky. A blur of wings, talons and feathers smashes into the water with surprising force and speed. The osprey emerges a second later; a writhing fish clutched firmly in its razored grasp. As the bird exercises his wings into a rising flight, a few sprigs of seaweed become visible trailing from his talons like streamers.
Somewhere a little north of here, there is a lake fed by a cold stream meandering through a tamarack swamp. The glassy surface reflects the clouds above; a patchwork quilt of white and blue. Gracefully, a single strand of seaweed drifts down from the sky, released from the talons of a bird soaring high above. With a quiet splash the plant hits the mirrored water. Ripples spiral outward, dissipating just as the Eurasian watermilfoil slips below the surface.
A chorus of peeping, chirping and croaking fills the air. Cattails and rushes rustle in the breeze accenting the amphibians’ song with their whispers. A long-legged shorebird is nearly silent as he stalks the shallows; his movements slow and calculated like a hunter’s meditation. Motionless turtles dot every log and rock touched by the fullness of the sun’s heat while muskrats busy themselves with the business of building. This is a swamp: a healthy ecosystem full of diversity.
One day, however, just a few of the 1.3 million seeds produced in one season by a single purple loosestrife plant find their way to this secluded marsh. The following spring they germinate beginning an invasion which has but one conclusion….monoculturalism.
In a not so distant future, the chorus will be silenced, the shorebird will seek out more fruitful hunting grounds, the turtles will no longer find nesting habitat and the muskrats will follow the cattails to a place less barren. The swamp will flush purple with blooms, but the beauty will be vacuous. The diversity will be gone, the ecosystem will have died.
Little helicopters spiral and flit in the breeze. A gust of wind has sent them on their journey; the flight of the whirlybirds. As a child I imagined these little paired winglets were the delicate ephemera of the fairy world or the leathery appendages of tiny dragons. In those days, I knew magic was real. I could see it everywhere. It was in the chrysalis which became the butterfly, in the puff of white from a dandelion, in the weightlessness of a sparrow in flight. Some of the mystery is gone now for science has taught me about the butterfly’s metamorphosis and the aerodynamics of a bird. I know that those tiny pixie wings are simply samaras: the seeds of maple trees.
Making art about the invasive yet beautiful Amur maple has sent my imagination twisting about with the samaras on the wind. While I hope I am exploring the copious spread of the tree, my creative mind is half stuck in the clouds. The colors I have printed are a bit otherworldly and the composition is expansive without a horizon like a dreamland from my childhood. I think, in the end, despite science’s answers to so many questions, I still find maple samaras mystical like so many other tiny wonders of the natural world. It would be untruthful to deny that mysticism in my work. After all, while the days when I imagined dragons and fairy folk have long gone, when maple seeds whirl about the sky, I still find myself daydreaming of secret dimensions glimpsed only when the rational mind has ceded its control. Perhaps it is in nature where magic still exists.
The July heat turns the black asphalt to hazy waves as I drive. Windows open wide, sweaty legs stuck to the leather car seat, and so much camping and fishing equipment that my vehicle is flirting with its payload capacity; that first summer road trip is a rite of passage. The scenery flies by. Red barns blur into lush trees and grazing herbivores.
In summers past I would spend my passenger seat shifts watching the purples, yellows and whites of roadside flowers flash beauty across my view. This summer, however, after months of research and study on invasive plants, the colorful vistas have turned to shades of gray. The side effect of my new knowledge is simple but infectious – I can now name those pretty flowers that once caught my fancy: the purples are loosestrife, spotted knapweed, bull thistle and crown vetch; the yellows are tansy, birdsfoot trefoil and wild parsnip. All are exotic just like those lovely white daisies, whose yellow eyed faces bob innocently in the summer breeze.
Ultimately my summer road trips will never be quite as they were, for although my eyes still see the beauty in a hillside covered with Queen Anne’s lace, I find myself choking on a strange nostalgia for my lost ignorance.
It was dusk on the first of June and I was standing on a floating fishing pier armed with a garden rake. The pier jostled to and fro under the boots of a pair of teenage fishermen who eyed me quizzically. I must have looked ridiculous; surrounded by water, holding a farm implement like some surrealist’s reinterpretation of American Gothic. Ignoring their stares, I surveyed the murky lake. The water was dark and still; its surface quieted by a dense mat of small white flowers which formed a weedy skirt around the lake.
I was there that evening, absurd tool in hand, because the curlyleaf pondweed was in bloom. Understated and drab, the flowers were almost imperceptible. The real color show will come with the heat of July and August when these early aquatic plants die. Triggered by the excess nutrients from so much decomposing organic matter, the lake will transform into an algal pea green soup.
That, however, was yet to come. At the moment I needed specimens. Incredulous teenage eyes at my back, I thrust the rake into the tannic water and pulled up a thick mass of pondweed with snails and bloodsuckers in tow. Destined to become part of a collagraph, an impression of this seaweed would soon be printed over a reduction woodcut of another invasive species, common carp.
Curlyleaf pondweed was an accidental stowaway brought over with the intentional introduction of carp well over a hundred years ago. Since then, they have proven to be an insidiously perfect pair as they both – in complimentary ways – reduce the clarity and water quality of the lakes they occupy.
Before leaving, I paused to glance over the railing at the space where I had removed rake-fulls of aquatic vegetation. Like the animated vines in campy horror films, the vacancy had already been filled by more bobbing flower heads reaching for the surface.
One morning this spring, I found myself in an urban woodland oasis along Rice Creek. The sky was dark and heavy with threats of rain, but I could not be concerned with such things; I was on a mission.
In past years I might have sought out this sanctuary for its native spring ephemerals as the creek’s banks are flush with jack-in-the-pulpits, violets, bloodroot, columbine and early meadow rue. That day, however, I was on the hunt for their nemesis… garlic mustard. From the neighborhood above, phalanxes of this culinary weed have marched down the ravine slopes conquering all forest undergrowth while advancing on the delicate ecosystem near the creek’s edge. Quickly growing to several times the height of most of the area’s native plants, garlic mustard shades out nearly all undergrowth, overcoming the forest floor in less than a decade.
As I bent to collect the fragrant herbs for use on a new collagraph plate, my thoughts were as heavy as the threatening clouds above. Soon, from the ravine crest to the babbling water below there would be no violets nor columbine.
The sky broke. Fat raindrops collided with outstretched leaves sending the understory into an energetic dance. I gathered my collection and made my way out of the creek valley wondering how many springs would pass before this refuge would become a monoculture where nothing but garlic mustard would dance in the rain.