Which is a good thing, because weeding some 25 acres of poison parsnip does not
make for friendly conversation. It consists mostly of non-verbal communication, a
blend of my whining and moaning and Ted’s cursing in multiple languages, including
some he doesn’t speak. It’s possible some are not languages at all, but I can identify
curses by the not-so-subtle body language. This is elicited by the worst offenders, the
parsnips that have grown so massive that large implements are needed to pry them
out. Also, and here’s another example of parsnip’s duplicity, breaking off the smallest
stalks will produce a new, stronger plant if the root isn’t removed.
The easiest to uproot are the average-sized plants. With the proper grip at ground
level, these can be yanked out whole. Often the yank demands so much force, though,
that I land on my backside with the trophy in the air, a tortured yell escaping. This
means I miss out on the satisfying whomp – that sound of relief, of emptiness – the
grateful gasp of the earth yielding up the noxious root. And I miss the low crunch as
the root is drawn up through the earth. With the stalk in the air, I also miss the weight
of the soon-to-be-dead monster in my arms, its pliant drape, the heavy flowerhead
already losing its vigor.
On a good day after rain, we can amass four hills of trophies, about a third of a truckload. After a week or two with no rain, each plant takes three times longer. But we can’t
wait for rain. We are hostages to the parsnip’s life cycle. Put if off, and it will turn to seed,
giving birth to who-knows-how-many thousands of vegetable Genghis Khans.
That thought, and a fury I manage to build up on a daily basis, keep me going.
“Where did you come from?” I ask, the voice in my head throbbing with rage. “How
dare you colonize our hill? It’s for the bobolinks! They need the tall grass for their
nests! And there’s less and less of it around. I hate, hate, hate you!”
The immense loathing powers my muscles, strengthens my smothering hold on the
stalks. If I stay with it long enough, it builds into a reliable rhythm. Bend, grab, yank,
yank. Bend, grab, yank. Bend grab, yank, yank, yank. After the third unsuccessful
yank, I go for the digging fork. Ultimately, the furnace of the sky bearing down and
my throbbing lower back win out. I walk the last armful to the nearest pile, shove the
fork into the earth, and give up for the day.
We then drive straight to the wilderness lake, where without preliminaries we walk
up and over the boulders, fling off clothes, and wade into the glittering water.
There’s nothing more calming than floating on a lake. All emotion dissolves. My
ears in the warm water, I hear only my own breathing, which has lost its raggedness.
My eyes see into the depths of the sky, penetrate the layers of cobalt air. I close them
and let the soft ripples take me where they will.
Back on land, drained of anger, I’m struck by the unspoiled forest of fragrant
cedars and tall pines, the ground a jumble of shrubs, thin grass, and stones. A solidly
deep-green world, with nary a weed in sight.
It was bound to happen. With so many sources and modes of transport, how could
weeds not invade open fields? Birds leave their seeded droppings everywhere. Our
meadow is home to hundreds of field mice, to voles and moles and chipmunks that
carry seeds in their fur. Deer congregate by the remaining apple trees and crisscross
the meadow on their way to other playgrounds.
Then there’s the machinery, a wide brush hog mounted on an ancient tractor. That
equipment has cut many fields over many years. As it moves noisily through our
meadow, chopping down the tall grass and keeping shrubs and trees from moving in
and turning everything to forest, it spreads whatever was stuck to rubber and metal
onto our receptive soil. But there’s no choice. Forests, after all, are nature’s default state
around here. Once a year, the meadow must be cut.
We, too, do our share. We, too, are unsuspecting recruits. On every walk through
the meadow we carry seeds in our clothes and hair and the soles of our shoes. I thought
I was being clever when, instead of buying compost in bags, I bought a truckload from
a nearby farmer. Within a week, the rich dark pile was a flourishing green, studded
with an endless array of familiar and unfamiliar weeds, from ferns and horsetail to