Invasive Plant Species in New England
Of course, no one’s arguing for the eradication of the edible plant species that feed America. That would be a very bad idea. There’s clearly a distinction to be drawn between plants that have been introduced as beneficial cultivars and those that have been introduced for aesthetic purposes (many of the species that Markus Bradley spends his days executing were introduced for strictly ornamental purposes) and have since proliferated in the wild, where they’re rapidly altering the region’s forested landscape for what is likely to be generations to come.
Back in Charlotte, Vermont, I followed Markus and Redstart employee Courtney Haynes on a circuitous loop around the perimeter of the client’s property. The previous autumn, the Reaper and Courtney, along with a pack of students from the nearby University of Vermont, had invested nearly 500 hours spraying, cutting, and hand-pulling invasives throughout the 30-acre parcel.
“Oh, we cut some monsters in here,” Markus told me, pointing to a buckthorn stump that measured a good five inches across. Everywhere I looked, the ground was littered with dead and decaying plant tissue; withered specimens hung from branches, where they’d been marooned so that their roots would never again find succor. There was honeysuckle, mostly, but also buckthorn and bittersweet and … well, pretty much every introduced species common to the region.
“It’s like someone scattered the invasive-species seed mix,” Markus said. “It’s a s– show in here.” One of the things I was beginning to appreciate about Markus was his plainspoken manner, reflected in his speech, as well as his physical bearing and general countenance. If there were a single word to describe the way he presented himself and even how he moved through the woods, I thought it might be “unfussy.”
After a few minutes of strolling through the treated area, we arrived at the property’s edge and, concurrently, one of the greatest conundrums facing Markus Bradley and anyone engaged in the process of invasive-species control: Mere inches from where we stood, across the invisible line demarcating one piece of property from another, the forest understory was a dense mass of greenery, punctuated by slender masts of vine and branch, overwhelmingly of the very same species that lay in purposeful ruin behind us. It would be an exaggeration to say that it was impenetrable; it would not be an exaggeration to say that it didn’t look anything like the Vermont forest landscape in which I’d been raised. It didn’t look like the sort of place where I’d want to go for a walk.
Plants, of course, don’t respect property boundaries; they don’t discriminate between one piece of land and another. Across the line at our feet lay thousands of acres, apportioned into private ownership according to innumerable deals made over hundreds of years. In Markus’s own words, the efforts to eradicate the invasive species on the piece of land on which we now stood amounted to little more than a “doughnut hole”; beyond the hole, as evidenced by the thriving crop of honeysuckle, buckthorn, and barberry before us, the invading plants grew and flowered. They dropped seeds and released them to the wind. Birds fed on their berries and then flew away, to distribute the seeds as the urge struck.
“Does it ever feel futile,” I asked Markus and Courtney, “to know that no matter how many hours you work, how many plants you rip from the ground, or douse with glyphosate, or otherwise destroy, no matter how many doughnut holes you make, these species are all but certain to continue to spread and even prosper?”
Markus sighed, and gave the closest thing to a non-answer I believe he’s capable of: “Every time I come up here, I have more incentive to be serious.” Then he turned his back to the living vegetation at the periphery, and started walking.
Markus had taken me to the “doughnut hole” for what I assumed to be two reasons: to show me what a treated piece of property looks like, and to demonstrate what might happen to our property if we let it go. It’s no exaggeration to suggest that he views his work as something of a mission; when we parted ways on that bright October day, my ears rang with his parting warning: “Almost 100 percent of the properties we look at have invasives. From what you’ve seen today, I hope that’s troubling.”
And it was. But I was also troubled by something else, though I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Still, I knew it had little to do with Markus, beyond his being the person responsible for exposing my ignorance. But I couldn’t blame him for that, and besides, I was glad for the information. No, what bothered me was something less tangible but no less affecting, something that was rooted in my emotional response to the issue.
I suppose it’s easiest to explain it like this: The day before Markus’s visit to our property, I had embarked on a short walk in our woods. I do this frequently, often visiting the tumbledown stone foundation of an old sugarhouse, where I like to sit atop a particularly commodious slab of basalt and consider the lives of those who’d stoked the ever-hungry arch, now collapsed and half-buried by a century’s worth of autumnal leaf-shedding. On this walk, I’d passed directly by a handful of the very plants to which Markus had alerted me; heck, I’d probably brushed up against one or two.
The day before, I hadn’t known that there was anything wrong with these plants; I was blissful in my ignorance, viewing them only as part of our forest’s ecology, an ecosystem that never fails to offer me comfort and inspiration. The day after was very, very different. I’d tuned into what the offending plants looked like, and as Markus had promised, I was horrified. Suddenly, it seemed as though ruin lay around every fir and spruce, as though every stately sugar maple were merely a distraction from the despots of our woodlot. Even the red oaks, which Markus had so admired, seemed somehow diminished by the knowledge that an infestation of invasive plant matter flourished in their shadows. If I did nothing, soon I wouldn’t recognize the wooded landscape in which my children now romp and play. And when they grew to adulthood, would they even be able to remember the forest of their childhood? Or would it be rendered a nearly impenetrable mass, like the one I’d seen that morning in Charlotte, across the line dividing the doughnut hole from its perimeter?
This is all sounding a bit dramatic, I know. Still, it’s nonetheless the truth, and for a period of about three weeks, I fretted almost continuously over the pending ruination of our forest, to the point of opening a rift between my wife, Penny, and myself, with me advocating for chemical control, per Markus’s recommendation, and Penny, who’s spent her entire adult life managing organic farming operations, insisting that no chemicals would be sprayed on our land.
But in my more lucid moments, I had to ask myself what, really, had changed? Not the plants; two days prior, they’d been the exact same specimens I’d fondly regarded as constituent pieces of my beloved forest. They certainly weren’t inherently ugly. And bush honeysuckle, the most prolific of the invasives on our property, even smells nice, like a spoonful of its namesake sweetener left in the sun. Indeed, the only thing that had changed was that I now had a name for them; the only thing that had changed was my perception of these plants. I realized that it wasn’t the Green Reaper who had ruined my walks in the woods; I had done it to myself.
Penny could see my struggle (hell, anybody could). So she did the sanest thing she knew how to do: She pushed me out of the house. “At least do some research,” she implored, all but slamming the door behind me. “Maybe there’s another perspective out there.”