Weeds

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Suddenly, beginning yesterday morning, my inbox is overflowing with German spam. Auslaender bevorzugt! Tuerkei in die EU! Deutsche werden kuenftig beim Arzt abgezockt! Graeberschaendung auf bundesdeutsche Anordnung! Vorbildliche Aktion! Volk wird nur zum zahlen gebraucht! Du wirst ausspioniert ….! And so on. The two that I open by accident contain no HTML, just Internet addresses. Clearly, the senders are “pharming,” trying to lure the curious or unwary into visiting a website where the seeds of malicious software lie waiting for new victims, new agents of dispersal. But why me? I don’t know a word of German. Whence this sudden invasion?

A few hours later I’m on a botanical field trip where one of the other participants is German and speaks authoritatively (albeit with a heavy accent) about plants and disturbance regimes, here and in Europe. We’re examining one of the few, tiny, remaining fragments of xeric limestone prairie in Pennsylvania. Why do European plants so easily out-compete ours? I ask. The German guy explains it’s because many of the northern European weeds have had a thousand years of intense cultivation to learn how to be aggressively weedy.

In North America, by contrast, the only really widespread form of anthropogenic landscape alteration was fire. Regular burning favors oak forests or savannas, depending on geology, exposure, moisture level, and other factors. This perpetuated openings that were originally natural, dating from a much warmer climatic period ending around 4,500 years ago in which wildfires were much commoner than they are today. Given fire, deep-rooted warm-season grasses can successfully out-compete cool-season grasses – mostly European imports. Large Pleistocene herbivores such as ground sloths and mastadons also played a role in originally creating these openings; in more recent times, the American bison helped spread prairie seeds between far-flung openings. Our trip leader describes an experiment with samples of different kinds of animal fur in order to find which would best transport the seeds of side-oats gramma grass, a prairie indicator species. Some pelts, such as deer and elk, shed the seeds immediately; the densely matted buffalo pelts picked up and retained side-oats gramma seeds like nothing else.

As with the wolf and panther, the wild bison still has a sort of ghostly presence in the Pennsylvania landscape, recalled by numerous toponymns: Buffalo Valley, Buffalo Creek, Buffalo Run. Run they did, but never fast enough. You can, however, still see them around – there’s a farmer who raises buffalo right on the other side of this hill, one of the local participants informs us. That really gets us talking!

We discuss spotted knapweed, a plant I only know from the railroad right-of way. Most of the invasive species in our hollow first appeared down along the tracks, hoboing in from god knows where. Spotted knapweed is that tall, rank stuff with the purple thistle-like flowers, but no spines. Turns out it doesn’t need them. It’s what they call allelopathic, poisoning the soil for other plants, and it’s potent enough to repel would-be grazers as well. Humans foolish enough to pull it out bare-handed may be susceptible to a nasty rash, but just as often it doesn’t leave a physical sign, going instead straight for the nervous system. You get recurring headaches, our trip leader says, and for a week or two, nothing will taste quite right.

Following local leads, we discover a previously unknown prairie remnant on the side of a hill above a plowed field; the owner mows it every few years because it’s a popular sledding hill in the winter. A number of indicator plants are intermixed with non-natives; the bright, orange-yellow patches of hoary pucoon are the most extensive we’ve seen all day. They intermingle with red columbine for a wonderful, natural garden effect.

One of the botanists shows us how to identify the planted pine trees: gather their long needles together in a sheaf and press them against the palm. If they bend readily, it’s red pine. If they threaten to go right through the hand, it’s Austrian pine. These are definitely Austrian, stout swords. We laugh nervously about possible ethnic parallels. Our erstwhile German participant has already bustled off to scout out other rare plants, convinced there was nothing more to be seen with us. Earlier, he had asked me to show him the location of another prairie remnant on the map. I explained how it was right across from the entrance to a very charming cave. “I have no interest in caves,” he said. It was impossible to tell from his intonation whether or not he meant that remark to sound friendly.

The strange thing about yesterday’s outing was that I had been to the first site we visited nine years before, but had absolutely no recollection of it. I figured something would eventually ring a bell, but nothing ever did.

*

Last night, I didn’t dream about either German botanists or Vorbildliche Aktion, as far as I can remember. In the last dream before I get up, a train I’m riding returns to the station so I can search for my boots. I had taken them off and left them somewhere without noticing how much harder and rougher the ground had become to my stockinged feet. In this dream – maybe in all dreams? – the surfaces of the world are as smooth as a lover’s thigh. But no true beloved could ever be half so innocuous.

The train travels backwards for one whole stop, disrupting service up and down the line. “We do this all the time,” the conductor says. “We’ve learned to accommodate the special needs of our passengers, who are uncommonly forgetful.” Everyone disembarks, and the other passengers wander off in search of coffee or newspapers. My companion helps me retrace my steps: over a metal bridge, through cobblestone alleys, into a slick-floored casino. Perhaps the boots were stolen right off my feet? I search through the Recent Acquisitions rack in a second-hand clothing store, and although I do find several pairs of army boots that look virtually identical to mine, none respond to my plaintive whisper. One large pair gleams, freshly spit-shined. They almost sneer. Their former owner couldn’t have made it through Day One of Basic Training.

In the very last place I look, there they are: old and comfortable, caked with limey mud, perhaps carrying a few seeds of side-oats gramma. Now I remember! But I had to swim upstream to the source, the very start of the dream. I take off the loaner pair of women’s boots – they’d been just a little tight – and step into my own with a sigh of pleasure. Read into this what you will. Me, I woke up. I lay in bed rehearsing the apologetic speech I would have to deliver to my fellow passengers. “From now on, I’ll always take the train,” I thought, “even if it never takes me where I want to go.”

*

This morning, a Baltimore oriole has begun persecuting his reflection in the window opposite my writing table. He’s not quite as aggressive as last year’s cardinal, preferring to sing rather than attempting a full-scale assault. From a perch two feet away he flutters up against the glass, singing loudly. It must confuse him the way his rival opens his beak at the same time he does, since his is the only song. He’s looking right in my direction as he does so. If I didn’t know better, I might think I was the intended target of his sharply worded messages.

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave's writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the "share alike" provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

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