By Sarah Jean McPeek

Earth sprays as I wrestle with a young budding tree. This particularly stubborn plant has rooted itself deep into the ground with a vertical taproot as thick as my wrist. It refuses to budge. I dig like a badger, clawing the sod to expose the plant’s fleshy green roots. I wrench another from the ground and another, turning over wriggling pink worms and fat black centipedes. Standing, I wrap both hands around the trunk and jerk the tree from side to side, sticks thwacking my face and dirt exploding in every direction. The tree groans. I spit out the grit and give one last enormous heave. Pop! I stagger backwards holding my trophy aloft. It meets its grave on top of my growing pile of naked, dying plants.

Feeling accomplished and murderous, I turn to survey the narrow trail I’m clearing. The view is sobering. Hundreds of alien trees flood the understory of the forest, suffocating ferns and wildflowers and shadowing sapling oaks and maples from the warm energy of the sun. Spirits dampened, I wipe the sweat from my brow and turn my sights to the next tangled mess of twigs.

A stubborn privet root ball

The victim of my wrath is privet, a shrub with waxy teardrop-shaped leaves and a flexible slate grey stem. If left to its devices, it can grow twelve to fifteen feet tall. Privet is endemic to Eurasia but spreads rapidly from American landscaping plots into the surrounding forests. Privet is nasty for biodiversity, especially in riparian corridors along rivers and streams like the one I’m currently tackling at the Brown Family Environmental Center. The Center has been working  to eradicate privet for over a decade. Though patches are thinning, there are still many dense thickets crowding the forest floor, shrouding every living thing underneath in impenetrable darkness.

The stillness and silence of the forest is unnerving. Over the trickling of the river I hear nothing; no birds chirping, no frogs croaking, no beetles buzzing, no squirrels scurrying. Though the woods are vibrant and green, they feel empty. As an invasive, privet is off the menu for native leaf-munching creatures who can’t digest its foreign chemicals. Birds that rely on caterpillars and other folivorous insects to feed their young can’t find enough in privet-overgrown forests, so they must seek their nesting grounds elsewhere. Those few birds and rodents who can nibble privet’s watery black berries receive sparse nutrition and only succeed in dispersing the seeds further. Sometimes, all it takes is one out-of-place ornamental to fuel a local epidemic.

Privet scrub along the Observatory Trail

Trekking back up the hill to campus after a particularly rewarding afternoon of pulling, I glower at the neat row of privet bushes lining the Kenyon Inn. Elegant cedar waxwings dart in and out of the crevices between leaves, berries clenched between their beaks. They are as oblivious to their role in precipitating the forest’s doom with their seed-rich droppings as the college landscaper was when he shoveled mulch for the shapely green bushes.

The Land Lords and I crash into the woods armed with pick axes and hedge clippers to free native plants from privet’s evil clutches. We hack the invaders to stumps and pump them full of poison. As fervent conservationists, we say that we are fighting the good fight and that we are the heroes restoring natural order, but who disrupted that order in the first place? Who planted privet hedges around the Kenyon Inn? Who plopped their pet lionfish into the Gulf of Mexico or released starlings in Central Park? Who brought stowaway zebra mussels home to the Great Lakes from their voyages on the European high seas?

Every time I wrestle with privet, I wrestle with my conscience as well. When I tug another prickly seedling from the soil, I imagine for an instant that I hear a shrill child’s scream. Shuddering, I quickly slough off my unease with the dirt and drape the little plant over the crook of a low-branching elm. Uprooted privet must be kept off the ground because any stems left near the earth will snake their way down and replant themselves. You have to admire their resilience. I feel a twinge of guilt when I see the brittle remains of last year’s kills dangling from the trees. These plants didn’t mean to hurt anyone. They were completely innocent of their destructive power. All they wanted was a little patch of earth, a little beam of sun, a safe place to sow their seeds and have their offspring grow tall. In the end, isn’t that what we all desire?

Chinese Praying Mantis at the BFEC – another accidental invader

I still say privet is nasty. I still don garden gloves in the endless struggle against its spread. Nevertheless, I’m cognizant that my battle cries are tinged with hypocrisy. Humans are perhaps the most successful invasive species the planet has ever known. Like privet, we carve a place for ourselves wherever we can manage, rarely pausing to consider whether we need all of this space. Perhaps the best thing we can do for the forest is simply to leave it alone relinquishing control to the natural cycles of forest succession. I take solace from the thought that my work helps to recover a healthier, more biodiverse ecosystem. Surely that community-wide balance outweighs the ecological success of one particularly aggressive species? We each must judge when it is just to dig down and uproot our mistakes, and when it is better to just uproot ourselves.

By Sarah Jean McPeek

Biologist, storyteller, animal

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