Weeding as a Radical Act

Monday, June 19th, 2017

I'm coming to the end of my sojourn in Yellowstone National Park, my "vacation" spent weeding invasive plants, those species that imperil the health of natural communities, and impoverish us all. 

Here's what I accomplished in the past ten days:

  • Worked 35.25 hours
  • Hiked 47.5 miles
  • Dug approximately 3,050 houndstongue (Cynoglossum officianale) plants (plus musk thistles, Carduus nutans, and a few other invasive weeds)
  • Hauled 25 trash bags weighing around 290 pounds of adult houndstongue plants loaded with prickly seeds to the trash dumpsters for safe disposal. 

Two large houndstongue plants I dug up this morning, including their extensive roots. For scale, my plant knife is a foot long including the handle!

Beyond the data, I got to spend time living in Yellowstone. (The photo at the top of the post is the view from my "office" one morning after a rain. You have to imagine the resiny fragrance of rain-washed sagebrush leaves, and the musky smell of a small herd of mom and calf elk downslope.)

I got to watch elk calves so new they were still wobbling on their long legs. I learned the herd-mama "Wah-ooo-ee!" call, which means "Get over here now!" and the calves "Wah! Wah!" cry, which could mean either "I'm hungry!" or "Where are you?"

Mom elk calling her twin calves, right in the Mammoth Campground (I shot the photo from my truck, no telephoto lens needed).

I also saw pronghorn fawns still wet with after-birth, two glossy black bear cubs, plus a mom grizzly bear with twin cubs, her pale-tipped fur a straw-gold nimbus against the sun. 

Spring is baby season in Yellowstone, from baby Richardson's ground squirrels, the lunch-meat of every larger predator out there, to baby bears. And baby birds, too. The baby wrens at the restroom nearest my site at the Mammoth Campground were ridiculously loud for such tiny 'uns!

I worked in every kind of weather spring in the Rockies can deliver: snow, rain, and sizzling heat. 

Weeding in wet snow is cold and nasty, but the white landscapes surely are beautiful!

I usually worked alone, but I also got to spend a morning weeding with my boss, Park Botanist Heidi Anderson, and her crew. Their main focus is mapping and restoring wetlands, so catching up with them was a bonus. 

I also had two mornings with longtime Yellowstone "weed warrior" Dan Small, who is in his tenth summer of volunteering. Dan came down from Lake, a scenic but long drive, to help me dig out two particularly daunting patches of houndstongue, each involving hundreds of plants. (Thanks, Dan!)

A twenty-pound bag of houndstongue full of seeds, part of our morning's weeding haul... 

My days in the park are simple and retreat-like (albeit physically grueling). I wake with the light at five-thirty or quarter to six, and greet the day in my sleeping bag as the robins, western tanagers, chipping sparrows, and other birds weave the dawn chorus. 

Once up and dressed, I set my backpacking stove on my truck tailgate to boil water for instant oatmeal. As I inhale the hot meal, I think up my daily haiku. After cleaning up from breakfast, I drive up uphill to the Mammoth Store, where the cell reception is good enough to use my phone as a wifi hot spot, so I can share the poem and photo, my gift to all. 

I fill my to-go cup with cocoa in the store, and then head for wherever I am working. If I'm hiking, I shoulder my day pack with weed bags, first-aid kit, bear spray, water, and extra layers in case of rain or snow. 

Look closely at the dead tree: The golden-brown spot on the left-hand side is a Coopers Hawk with wings spread wide to dry after a drenching rain. I've never seen a Coopers Hawk do that before!

And then I dig houndstongue until I wear out, usually around noon. While I work, I scan my surroundings for wildflowers and wildlife, like the sow grizzly bear with twin cubs I saw one day from a distance. (No, I didn't think to take photos. I was too busy making sure I wasn't in their way!) 

After I get back to the truck, I dispose of my day's haul of trash bags full of weeds, take off my gloves, clean my plant knife, and head back to camp for lunch. 

The rest of the day is my time. Some days I drive downhill to Gardiner, Montana, the nearest town, to charge up my laptop and cell phone, and use real internet. While in town, I also go to the grocery store. Or take a shower. Or do laundry. 

Some days I want more solitude, so I ramble in search of new wildflowers, and then sit and identify them. Or perch on a rock in the sun and read a book. Or write a letter... 

One of my favorites: Penstemon cyaneus, blue penstemon, an endemic plant found only in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. 

Yellow bells, Fritillaria pudica, another favorite. 

After eating my simple dinner, I curl up in my truck-topper cocoon: a super-comfy, four-inch-thick Thermarest mattress, sleeping bag, and pillows (yes, more than one). Cozy, I read or write in my journal until sunset.

After which I say my gratitudes for the day, brush my teeth, and sleep soundly, snug until the light wakes me before dawn to hear the bird chorus. This morning's chorus began with the distant howling of wolves, a ululant grace. 

Dawn from my campsite. 

Weeding to nurture biodiversity in a place I have loved since childhood is deeply satisfying. Even if my inner economist reckons the dollar cost high--as a freelance writer, I live perilously close to the financial bone, unlike those who have salaries to offset volunteer time.

The thing is, I cannot afford to not do this work. Weeding for biodiversity is my gift to life. The light in my soul as I lug another heavy bag of houndstongue down the trail is life's gift to me. This work is a positive statement in a world that feels far too negative. This is my mission, the why of why I am alive:

I nurture and celebrate biodiversity, plant by plant, word by word. That our planet may thrive, and we--all the gloriously diverse kinds of us--along with it.

Nurturing biodiversity is a spiritual practice, and a radical act. A plant knife dug into the earth to resist global climate change. A sweaty step toward healing all beings--humans, bears, sagebrush, yellow bells and lupines and bumblebees, and the earth we hold dear.