Where's Susan? (Part 2)

Sunday, September 22nd, 2019

Since I left Ring Lake Ranch two weeks ago after a teaching sojourn that was simultaneously restorative and stimulating, Noche's tires have hummed another 1,200 miles. First west to Grand Teton National Park, where I waved at that familiar wall of peaks as I drove by. (That's the Tetons at the top of the post.) I didn't stop to explore the familiar park because I was on a mission, headed north to Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone NP, where I spent a week working at eradicating non-native, invasive weeds. 

For the past four summers, I've spent at least a week, usually three or four, in Yellowstone doing what I call my "weeding mission." Which is about as much like weeding a garden as running a marathon is like my twice-weekly half-hour run on a treadmill. They're both exercise, but running a marathon and eradicating invasive weeds are both long games: each requires patience, strategy, and as much mental toughness as physical toughness. 

As I've written in other contexts, including this blog post for Off the Beaten Path, what leads a non-native plant to being called "invasive" is not a prejudice against immigrants:

Tens of thousands of non-native species call the United States home without causing harm. But not every species belongs everywhere. Invasives are those relative few who don’t play well with others, the species who behave badly, a detriment to us all.

The invasive weed I was digging in my time around Mammoth in Yellowstone is spotted knapweed, known to science as Centaurea maculosa, a perennial plant native to Eastern Europe. Here on this continent, spotted knapweed so does not play well with others that it wrecks the neighborhood. When spotted knapweed moves in, its roots exude poisons into the soil, "discouraging" (aka, killing) the roots of the native species around it, so that eventually, the knapweed takes over. 

Spotted knapweed, Centuarea maculosa, quietly engaged in killing the Indian ricegrass and other native plants that songbirds and pollinators depend on, so its progeny can colonize the area. 

But, you protest, it's got such a pretty purple flower! Surely knapweed attracts bumblebees and other native bees, and perhaps its seeds are edible by wintering songbirds and small mammals, so it does actually benefit the community of the land?

It's true that bumblebees do gather pollen from knapweed, though I've never seen other native bees visit the flowers. I don't know if knapweed's seeds are sought out by any of the seed-gathering birds or mammals as winter food, but I'd guess not because they're dry and chaffy, rather than plump and nutritious. 

What I do know is that knapweed lacks the rich web of relationships with other plants and other species that sustain a healthy landscape. And by replacing the native plants, knapweed disrupts those relationships--between pollinator and flower, between bird and the insects they feed their young, between mammal and seed, between those that shelter and those sheltered.

Worse yet, if unchecked, spotted knapweed can kill off the shrubby overstory of basin big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata var. tridentata) that Mark Twain recognized as the "forest canopy in miniature." These century-old plants, growing as tall as ten feet with twisting stems as big as the bicep of a muscly man, shade the soil, collect rain and snow for moisture, drop a fertilizing layer of leaves, and provide food and homes for hundreds of species of wildlife, from flashy black-and-white buckmoths to speedster pronghorn antelope. 

Grandmother big sagebrush in the area I've been digging knapweed; the tallest plant is about ten feet. 

Without big sagebrush as the sheltering canopy, these drought-challenged grasslands will turn inhospitable indeed, losing species diversity, richness, and their rugged beauty. I remove knapweed as a way to honor the diversity of lives they support, and to restore their wild community to health.

Digging my plant knife into the soil to pry out the spreading roots of a spotted knapweed plant is my personal resistance to climate change, my way to give resilience to the landscapes I love. 

My plant knife next to a knapweed I have freshly pried out of the clayey soil, being careful to not disturb the sagebrush roots. 

And dig I do, kneeling on the soil, carefully inserting the seven-inch blade of my tool into the soil, and applying enough leverage that the roots come free. Then sitting back, taking a deep breath, stretching my back and my arms, before thrusting the blade into the soil to pry up another knapweed. And another, and another. In some places they are so dense that it takes me an hour or more to clear a meter-square area (that's a bit bigger than a square yard). 

By the end of three or four hours, when I am worn out for the day, I usually have two or three 30-gallon bags filled with knapweed. (I bag up the plants to be taken to the dump so that no seeds are dispersed, and so the decomposing plants don't continue to emit their mite of poison to the soil.)

Weed bags stuffed into the micro-camper where I sleep in the back of Noche, my Toyota Highlander Hybrid. 

While I'm digging weeds, I keep my ears and eyes alert for wildlife. Sometimes a grizzly bear mom wanders by with her almost-grown cubs (yes, I carry bear spray). Or the resident bull elk herds his harem of two dozen or so cows and calves right through the area where I'm working (I move safely out of the way until they leave!).

Romeo in elk form, serenading his Juliets (that's "Juliets" plural, because of how many females he was wooing). 

Or, like the afternoon I was working with filmmaker Beth Davidow, I stop in awe to watch a nearly six-foot-long bullsnake glide past, hunting silently just a few feet from where we stood. (I'm sure Beth, a talented photographer, got a much better shot!)

The hunting bullsnake--her body was as large around as my upper arm. 

In my time in Yellowstone, I worked hard, rested well, and found, as a friend put it, "balm for my soul." It does my spirit good to contribute positively to this Earth, especially in a time of crisis. 

Now I'm home, working on restoring wildness and resilience to nature right around the condo complex where I live, including the strip of pollinator habitat with the gold flare of flowering rubber rabbitbrush (Ericamera nauseosa) and rubberweed (Hymenoxys richardsonii), and purple fall asters (which I haven't yet identified) in the photo below. Not only are these native flowers beautiful and drought-tolerant, they provide fall's final banquet for pollinators of all sorts, including bees, beetles, and butterflies. And come the hungry months of winter, their seeds will feed bushtits, juncos, and other small songbirds. 

You don't have to journey to Yellowstone and dig knapweed to make a difference.

We can all restore the health of nature around us, by removing invasive weeds and planting native species in yards, parks, and nearby landscapes. In a time full of bad news, returning health, resilience, and beauty to nature nearby is good news for us all. Join me in giving back to the Earth that gives us so much!