Thursday, May 07, 2009

The future forest

It’s disconcerting to discover that what one thought a willowy Kansas wildflower is actually a noxious weed hellbent on dominance, sort of the Super Wal-Mart of the plant kingdom. A starling with stems, stamens and stalks. Disabused of any romantic notions of a flowering Garden of Eden spreading from the woods behind our spare lot into the remnants of a yard I am so carefully noncultivating, I was suddenly confronted with an ethical conundrum I had no desire to contend with. And moved, indeed, to something suspiciously like compassion for so unloved a specimen.

I can’t say when I first noticed the white blooms of Alliaria petiolata, better known in English parlance as garlic mustard, but I can tell you with some certainty where I saw it: in deep woods. The European transplant prefers shade and moist forests, which is my preferred habitat as well. Our introduction was probably at Perry Lake shortly after we moved here, during a family camping trip that saw me at my reclusive best. Rather than sit around smoky campfires engaging in idle chatter with people I barely knew (and many whom I didn’t), I’d slip into the heavily forested woods surrounding the lake and disappear into the shadowed haunts of gigantic orb spiders and Kentucky warblers. In that murky twilight the luminous petals glowed ethereally, a ghostly radiance I would forever associate with the delicate tinkling of clear springs cloaked in ferns and a green so intense that the very air was imbued with a chlorophyllian shimmer.   

And again at Alcove Spring, carpeting the undergrowth bordering Seehan Creek, or a solid waist-high mass below the levee the time Lori and I searched for a hidden geocache and found instead the bulwarks of the old bridge embankment of which so many hundreds of photos were taken, now a mossy relic bleeding into the jungle like some Mayan ruin—to enter woods was to wade through the broad fronds and nodding flower clusters of Alliaria.   

It wasn’t until last year that I finally took time to identify the plant. Our spare lot, across the street to the east of our house, is fringed on three sides by woods, one of which drops precipitously to the meandering bed of Juganine Creek. The latter section forms a dense hollow where sunlight is a rare summer visitor and the only place around where the gorgeous rhapsody of a wood thrush can be heard on early summer evenings, if one is very, very lucky. I’ve always considered it something of a sacred place, a silent cathedral untrod by man, though not untouched, for moldering into the damp hillside are rusty implements of a bygone era. Due to the devastation of the previous winter’s ice storm, many of the trees had suffered considerable loss of limb, opening the canopy and allowing light where light had been a stranger. New plants proliferated, one of which was garlic mustard. I’d never noticed it there before; now it was everywhere.

It was, I felt, the quintessential woodland wildflower. Unfortunately, research proved otherwise. So invasive is the plant that some eastern communities host weekend pull-parties to literally uproot it from their midst. I couldn’t help but wonder if afterward they communally gather to pull ticks from their bodies, an act at once strikingly similar and guaranteed to follow. 

Shortly after my discouraging ID, I all but abandoned the spare lot. Partly this was due to laziness and the lassitude of late summer’s withering heat and humidity, and partly a revolt against what nature so adamantly proliferated, combined with a prohibitive increase in gas prices. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, I thought, and so walked away from the yard with barely a look back. Since we live on the edge of town in an area zoned agricultural, it would become just another grassy field, though one with trees slowly making a leafy foothold.

But a new spring arrived, and a wet one at that, and as the lawn exploded into growth my eyes were drawn to the lot and its increasingly disheveled appearance. A manicured yard appeals to our sense of orderliness and moral uprightness, a notion our neighbors subscribe to with evangelistic fervor. Rather than continuing to style myself as odd man out, I decided to hack my way into that tangled wilderness and take its measure.

But not without walking its length first, picking up fallen tree limbs and moving them to a brush pile behind the narrow concrete foundation that anchors the central portion of the lot. It’s mostly hidden behind a stand of trees now and bordered with a broad swath of unmown grass. My perambulations discovered a dozen new locust trees varying between six to fifteen inches in height, plus a maple and a small juniper. Three elm saplings vied for space in the moldy cavity where a willow once stood. I was deeply pleased.

In the far corner, though, shaded by a towering maple, Alliaria had taken over, creeping from the declivity to form a carpet of white buds. Were I to chart its future progress, I’d guess it could easily overtake fully a third of the lot, competing with the lush brome encroaching from the pasture beyond the barbed wire fence and a stand of poison-berried pokeweed that annually rises near the mulberry. Toss in a multiplicity of elms and you have a veritable who’s-who of undesirables. 

Invasive, infestuous, aggressive, exclusive, Alliaria petiolata is probably also unstoppable. Standing in the sun-dappled shade of the maple, I saw with perfect clarity the future of this new forest, and perhaps even an end to my mowing. Slowly, steadily, our spare lot will revert to the wild, with a mix of native and nonnative life forms, one rectangular slab, a tanglesome pile of broken branches and, for the summer months beginning in May, dainty white flowers and a faint whiff of garlic. Not a bad combination.


shoreacres said...

A lovely post, with more than a few phrases I really enjoyed.

I did go looking for an image of the plant, and discovered a plethora of pages devoted to its extinction - some with a slightly militaristic tone. There's one fact that gave me pause - rabbits and other critters don't eat it, and in areas where it's become overwhelmingly invasive the wildlife population declines.

This is splendid ~ so intense that the very air was imbued with a chlorophyllian shimmer . I saw that on my recent trip to Mississippi, and it was stunning.

Tom Parker said...

Oh, great, now you tell me about the decline in bunnies. Good grief, as Charlie Brown would say. Maybe I'll dig out the flame flower and see what I can do. Or call in an airstrike...