Autumn is giving way to Winter here in Geneva. The leaves are mostly fallen except for the golden topped hardwoods that rise above our gravel road like the arches of a cathedral. I have taken to incessantly posting photos of this route on Facebook: photos taken at dusk and dawn, photos with children for scale, photos of VERY RED leaves. The diminishing “likes” and comments hint at what I know in my heart: there can be too much of a good thing.
Now that most of the leaves are gone, I have ample opportunity to make a study of the woods. I do this mainly on my way to retrieve the Finger Lakes Times, a publication I read, in spite of my unfortunate tendency to fall into an involuntary comatose-like state when confronted with the physicality of newsprint. I read it because, having moved the hell up here, I want to be here.
I am impatient to feel that sense of connection and assuredness that developed over more than a decade in Brooklyn. What mix of small talk with the couple at Art Dry Cleaning, bumping into friends and untold breakfasts at The Purity made it home? I want to know what’s what and who’s who and why. I want to know NOW! The daily journey to the mail box is maddeningly slow like Tai Chi, or turning the pages of the newspaper.
Now that the foliage beneath the big trees has subsided, I have discovered that much of the sloping forest surrounding our house is, in fact, a gothic horror. Our woods are choked with a sinister invader with sooty bark and hideously twisted limbs. If evil were a shrub, it would be Rhammnus Cathartica, the Common Buckthorn.
Introduced as an exotic garden shrub by insane Victorians, Rhammnus Cathartica has infested the country from Nova Scottia to Wisconsin and shows no signs of stopping. It produces shiny black berries with a purgative effect. The birds eat them and duly deposit the seeds hither and yon, complete with a blanket of slimy fertilizer. The buckthorn is so thick in some places near the house that it is nearly impossible to walk in a straight line, without resorting to the machete I carry in my purse.
We have more than our fair share because not so long ago, our land was cultivated. When the farm packed up, the fallow fields provided the perfect habitat for the buckthorn and now there is no end to them. For every dead shrub another four appear at its feet. They sprout, die and putrefy only to rise hydra-like from the forest floor. Nature’s plan has gone horribly awry.
It isn’t supposed to be this way. In a world without exotic species, the forest returns in stages: first the shrubs, the jack pine, the wild rose and honeysuckle, then a few young tree. As the trees grow and begin to block out the light, the composition of the understory begins to change. The plants in the first wave die off enriching the soil and creating the basis for the next succession of flora. These in turn create conditions for the mature forest or as (evidently purulent) environmental scientists refer to it, the “climax community”.
Enter the buckthorn. It just will not go away. It crowds out all the native species, destroying the herbaceous ground cover. Once established is extremely difficult to get rid of.The nitrogen content of its fallen leaves changes the very composition of the soil making it inhospitable to everything except MORE BUCKTHORN.
Mowing merely slows it down. Cutting it back only works in conjunction with the judicious application of Roundup. Burning is very effective until some wretched bird poops more seeds on your parade.
I often think how I would like to do something about the the buckthorn. Some days I fantasize about conducting a controlled burn after which I will swoop in with a truck load of native saplings. This fancy only lasts a few minutes before the image in my mind’s eye becomes a blazing inferno engulfing our house. Other days l picture myself (in a suit of armor) wrenching them from the ground with the big garden fork. The drama appeals and yet, I suspect deep down that there are no easy answers.
Now and then I peruse scholarly articles on reforestation. Most of them are over my head, but I did come across one study in New Hampshire that was reassuring the way only science that confirms your own prejudices can be. It was weak, purely correlative and it dealt with the Glossy Buckthorn, Rhammnus Cathartica’s evil twin. But it felt right, if not about the forest then about the trees. It hinted that once newly planted saplings, the dogwood, ash, birch and cottonwood take hold, the buckthorn will probably perish on its own. It just takes Time.
As I walk back with the paper I try to imagine the woods without the buckthorn and wonder if I’ll live to see it. The obituaries and birth announcements are located inside the front cover of the paper. Did Mary, beloved wife to Joe and mother to four know the woods without it? Will baby Louis born to Jessica and Martin walk on an open carpet of color beneath the tall hardwoods?
I study the names, the Irish and Italian ones repeated though the paper and printed on the sides of trucks or over shops around town, the Spanish names of the laborers who work in the farms and orchards, names of Chinese or Indian scientists at the agricultural experiment station. All of them have roots here. I make a mental note to ask them about the buckthorn.
My neighbor, tells me that Ontario County holds a sale each year where residents can buy native trees at a reduced rate. She has already planted some in the brush behind her house. I make a silent promise to the woods that I will do the same. She doesn’t know when exactly. I should just look for it in the Finger Lakes Times.