Weeding as a Radical Act

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 Smith, 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. 

Fieldwork: Yellowstone Time

It’s almost ten a.m. and I am squatting in the fragrant and dusty shade of a basin big sagebrush shrub (Artemisia tridentata ssp. tridentata) as tall as I am, and perhaps twice my age. The seven-inch blade of my Hori-hori (a Japanese knife that serves as the multi-tool for we plant-folk) is shoved as deep as it will go into the dry soil. I twist the curved blade side to side, grunting with the effort of prying out the taproot of a flowering clump of invasive houndstongue (Cynoglossum officianale)

The sweat rolling down my back tells me that the temperature is nearing the day’s predicted high of 90 degrees F. It’s time for a water break. But first I want to dig out this biggest of the houndstongue plants in a patch of the noxious weeds crowding the old-growth sagebrush and wildflowers in this ravine along the Old Gardiner Road above Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park

I lever the knife a little deeper into the soil, twist again, and “Crack!” The stubborn clump suddenly pops out, and I fall backwards, plant in hand.

A clump of houndstongue (Cynoglossum officianale) with my hori-hori for scale

As I push up and dust myself off, I hear a soft “Whuff!” nearby. I freeze. 

Earlier, I smelled the musky odor of elk, and carefully probed with my hiking stick to make sure there were no calves hiding in the shade of the sagebrush where I work. Getting between a mother elk and her gangly-legged calf is not something I want to do–elk cows can easily knock down and break the ribs of even a large human (and I am definitely not large). 

I turn my head in the direction of the sound, noticing the trilling songs of the sagebrush sparrows have gone silent. I reach for the canister of bear spray in the pocket of my daypack. 

Then I see the source of the noise, and laugh out loud. A dozen or so pronghorn bucks are resting up the hill, and one, presumably the lead guy, has his head up giving that breathy warning.

The pronghorn “boys” at rest

“If you’ve just noticed me,” I say out loud, “I’ve been working here for at least two hours.” My voice trails off as I realize the pronghorn are watching movement up the ravine, not me.

Something large and furry moves downhill, weaving between the shrubs. I fold myself into the shade of the sagebrush, and pop the nozzle guard off the canister of bear spray just as a cinnamon black bear, reddish fur glinting in the sunlight trots out onto the dusty road not ten yards away. And after her tumble two adorable cubs, both black. 

She stops, sniffs–the air is still–snaps at the cubs when they don’t follow her and cuffs one for good measure as if to say, “Listen to me!” And then the trio trots down the road, the mama bear striding gracefully for such a bulky body, the cubs cavorting around her. I watch, still as a statue, holding my breath, until they disappear around the far bend. 

The sagebrush sparrows begin their trilling songs again. I take a long breath and look over my shoulder for the pronghorn; they’ve vanished too. 

As I rise, leg muscles shaking, I think, “I should have taken a photo!” Only that would have meant moving and likely giving away my presence. Not a good idea.

I stow the bear spray and take a long drink from my water bottle. I stretch my sore back and legs, toss the clump of houndstongue into the half-full trash bag, probe another sagebrush thicket with my hiking stick, and bend over to dig out another clump of ecosystem-disrupting noxious weeds. 

Just another morning in Yellowstone…

Red, my camper and weed-bag hauler… 

By the time I quit that day, I was sweaty and exhausted. As I hoisted three 30-gallon bags–50 to 60 pounds of houndstongue plants out of the ecosystem–into the back of Red, my truck, my mind focused on food and rest in the patch of shade at my campsite in the Mammoth Campground. 

Later, I thought back to that heart-stopping moment when the bear and her cubs trotted out of the sagebrush close enough that I could clearly see the individual hairs on the mom’s back. In that heart-stopping moment, my pulse rate quickened along with my breathing, and my awareness of the world sharpened.

I felt intensely alive and connected to the lives around me–the ancient and aromatic sagebrush, the balsamroot with its golden flowerheads, the pronghorn on the ridge, the sagebrush sparrows silenced by the bears’ passage, the buzzing bumblebees and fluttering butterflies, and of course, the bear family. 

Those moments of intense awareness are part of why I spent two weeks working in Yellowstone. I wanted to remind myself of what it is to live without the distractions that we allow to fill our everyday lives–the bings and beeps of our digital devices, the clamoring voices, the deadlines and demands, the urgency of it all.

Two weeks largely unplugged, doing sweaty labor outside in the sun and wind with the sound of birdsong and pronghorn “whuff!” around me; two weeks doing something useful, something healing for the landscapes I lov, gave me a depth of connection that doesn’t come with visiting and hiking.

And it also gave me a gift I didn’t expect: refilling my spirit, and restoring my emotional balance and my belief in life as basically a good thing. Which helped in weathering the horror of the Pulse nightclub shootings in Orlando, Florida, and the disturbing xenophobia of the Brexit vote in Britain. 

Two weeks of doing useful physical work in the company of elk and black bears, sagebrush and bumblebees reminded me of what really matters in life: what we do, not what we accumulate. Living our lives with kindness, generosity and compassion. Leaving this earth in better shape than we found it. 

It’s great to come home with a bear story, but that’s not the point. The point is that we all, each of us, can find the time to do useful work. To contribute goodness to the world in our own ways. And goodness knows, the world needs that everyday dose of light and love now. More than ever.