Ahhh, Phragmites australis. The common reed. Frequent denizen of roadsides and disturbed wetlands, with its lofty, green-then-golden stalks and romantic, cottony seedheads.
To the naturalist’s eye and the ecologist’s ledger, it is an exotic flora, an unwelcome expendable to be eradicated in favor of [arguably] more native, nutrient-rich vegetation. But like so many weeds, in recent times this reed has conjured some heated conversation.
There’s record of Phragmites in the U.S. prior to European contact, and even today the plant provides a myriad of human uses and ecosytemic benefits: erosion control, pollutant filtration, and forage, cover, and nesting material for a variety of birds, mammals, and amphibians. And in a temperate zone that’s becoming ever less temperate, plants like phrag–flora both exotic and resilient–might come to earn a bit more human respect and celebration. But let’s start with forgiveness.
A few years ago, during my second winter on a prescribed fire crew in Georgia, my crew had some intimate dealings with phrag forest. While the longleaf pines were candling, we tucked away our torches and shipped off to coastal Darien, where ecologists put us to work mowing down the reeds prior to an Rx burn. For three days we wielded machete, weed whacker and hedge-trimmer against sky-high stalks, crossing spongy ground in tall rubber boots.
We were a menace, a pirate crew, efficient in our killing. We learned that the quickest, most effective death was to score the phrag a third of the way down the stem, then to finish it off with a thwack at shin-level. Just so, the reeds would collapse on themselves without getting in the way of our progress.
I’ve killed more weeds than I care to admit. I killed weeds just this morning–ripped an ailanthus, a tree of heaven, the same species that graced my front yard as a kid–out of the earth of Jamaica Bay’s pollinator garden, making space for the milkweeds and vervains and solidagos we prefer. Elsewhere in the park, we’ve long since given up the fight, yielding to near monocultures of spotted knapweed, but we still seek some sort of nutritive purity in our prize educational garden.
Killing weeds was my ticket to life and employment in Yellowstone for no fewer than six summers, and in that time I rarely questioned the legitimacy of our work, or our methods. I’m certain that in places, at times, we did more harm than good. Heavy-booted, we sloshed around wetlands bringing chemical death to the ox-eye daisies, then painted entire hillsides with herbicides the manufacturers assured us were species-specific.
It is no new thing, in this garden, to wrestle with the concept of culling. We cull, shape, and weed our worlds on a daily basis; we wash microbes off our bodies, rinse bugs off our berries, yank (or spray) weeds out of our gardens, kill geese when their flight paths threaten our airplane engines. We introduce species, then hunt them out of transplanted waters. Such actions occur so frequently, so quietly and unabashedly, that we’re often blind to them, even when we perform them ourselves.
But what epic lessons those weeds and nuisance species might teach us, if we’d let them. Lessons about nature’s time, and about ecological cycles: dormancy, seed spread, resilience, roots, cuticles, water storage, allelopathy. Lessons about human patience, observation, love, pain, and accountability. About surrender, humility, adaptation, and appreciation.
My current park-home, Jamaica Bay, deals with its weeds with a mixed-bag approach of slaughter, replacement, and surrender. The ivy-thick bottom of our West Pond Trail got hacked back this spring, with some 2000 native shrubs and trees planted in place of the invasives; meanwhile, phrag dominates the marsh’s edge, and thick stands of knapweed line the northern and western edges of the loop. We’ve planted cactus and shunned mugwort, protected terrapins and demonized the imported raccoons that predate them. Despite our own meddling we instruct visitors to touch nothing, to pick nothing from our picked-over park. At times it feels strange, at times hypocritical, at times supremely liberating to work in this philosophically and scientifically messy patchwork of a place.
I don’t believe uniformly in a hands-off, “nature is always right” philosophy. How could such a thing be right, in places already so disabused of any wild, more-than-human character that to leave them be would more accurately mean to leave them on a course toward wasteland, set in motion by prior human actions? And I don’t believe in the hawkish, militant, old-school-conservation approach to weed slaughter that I encountered and took part in in Yellowstone. How could that ‘such a thing’ be right? How could we expect to eradicate an entire crafty species from a place? And conceding (with comical hubris) that we could, would we really be fine with the consequences?
These days I take comfort in J-Bay’s phragmites forest. I search for muskrats nibbling greenery between the stalks and count ladybugs munching aphids off the leaves. In the phrag I feel lost, and also at home, in the biotic confusion of a well-weeded world.