Invasive Plant Species in New England
I wasn’t keen to suffer the same fate, but it was too late, really: A few hours with Markus in a piece of forest I know better than any other place on earth, and already I’d come to see it in an entirely different light. No longer did it feel like an escape from the pressures of work and family, like a place to ramble carefree and untroubled, soothed by immersion in a world where things happened because they were supposed to happen, unfettered and unadulterated by the hand of humankind. Now I couldn’t walk through my woodlot without seeing the encroachment of invasive species everywhere; what before I’d assumed to be noble and beneficial players in nature’s self-regulated game, I suddenly understood to be something undesirable and even rapacious.
“Unless you do something, in a few decades you’re not going to even recognize your woods,” Markus told me. “This is a whole new deal.” Then he dropped his voice, as if confiding something: “To tell you the truth, there’s a bunch of plants coming that scare the s– out of me.” My innocence was over. I had to know more.
Given the recent defiling of both Markus’s innocence and mine, one could be forgiven for thinking that invasive plant species are a contemporary issue, a 21st-century blight on the landscape. And although there’s evidence that some species have become more established in certain regions over the past decade or so, the history of invasive (also known as “exotic” or “non-native”) plants in New England is as long and as storied as the history of the Europeans who settled here.
That’s because the early settlers carried more than woolen knickers and musket balls when their ships anchored off the stony shores of New England: They also carried the seed and stock of their favorite edible, medicinal, and ornamental plant species. Indeed, there’s evidence that humans intervened in the distribution of vegetation even earlier: Some researchers believe that nomadic tribes of Native Americans traveled with their favorite plants.
Truth is, this continent would likely not have been settled by Europeans were it not for introduced plant species. Of the world’s 20 most prominent food and industrial crops, North America has contributed few originals, corn and sunflowers among them. (Central and South America, of course, have contributed more.) The limited number of other major crops indigenous to the north include blueberries, cranberries, grapes, pecans, and possibly beans and squash (though many other smaller crops are also native). Not exactly the sort of fare upon which a nation is built, which is the very reason that one of the U.S. Navy’s earliest and most important tasks was the gathering of cultivatable plant species from foreign countries.
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.