November 25, 2022 at 7:00 a.m. EST
(Washington Post staff illustration; images Dana Milbank, iStock) Comment on this story
When I covered George W. Bush’s White House two decades ago, I spent long weeks in a school gymnasium in Crawford, Tex., waiting for updates on happenings at the nearby Bush ranch. Invariably, it seemed, the report would go something like this: “The President spent the afternoon clearing brush.”
Clearing brush! Day after day, year after year, the most powerful man in the world cleared brush. I wondered: How could there possibly be so much brush on his ranch? Did the Secret Service surreptitiously scatter brush while Bush slept so he would have something to clear the next day?
I recently bought a property in the Virginia Piedmont, with the pandemic-inspired idea of finding peace in nature. On paper, the parcel is three-quarters wooded, one-quarter pasture. In practice, the place is about 95 percent brush.
The previous owners were elderly, and an entire civilization of invasive vines and weeds had cruelly exploited their inattention. Asiatic bittersweet and porcelain berry, kudzu and Japanese honeysuckle, invasive wineberry and aggressive Canada goldenrod had devoured the place, turning forest and field alike into tangled masses of vines and thorns, and murdering defenseless native trees by strangulation and theft of sunlight.
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It is, to use the horticultural terminology, a hot mess. But the thicket called out to me. I felt a duty to protect the trees — my trees — from the alien invaders. I felt some primal call to restore order to the place, reclaiming it from the weeds’ mad encroachment. And so I did what an urban dweller does in such a situation: I hired professionals.
Jesse and his formidable crew got immediately to work, felling the sickly trees most likely to come down on the house or the barn. I paid them for a few days’ worth of clearing, and then for a few more. But Jesse’s daily rate is significantly higher than my own, and I realized I might exhaust my retirement savings before they repelled my land’s noxious invaders.
Who was I going to call? Goat Busters. For $1,000 a week, give or take, this Afton, Va., business will supply you with a herd of goats and let them loose to devour acre upon acre. “They’re on a job now,” the owner explained, eliciting mental images of goats in hard hats, punching the clock. But there was a problem: Goats like to eat greens, and my killer vines had lost their foliage for the winter.
I was on my own. I tried my plug-in, backyard hedge trimmer, but the 100-foot extension cord left the foe out of reach. I bought a machete and loppers on Amazon, but they were no match for the thicket; a thorny wineberry branch lashed me across the lip as I tried to dislodge it from the chicken coop. I shopped for chain saws, before a friend advised me against operating an unfamiliar, lethal machine while alone in the woods with no cell service or landline.
Instead, I rented a brush cutter — essentially a weed wacker with a menacing blade — from Home Depot. But Jesse told me those machines jump when they hit large objects; a local man was killed that way rece
ntly when the brush cutter severed his femoral artery. I was relieved when I couldn’t get the thing to start.
As a compromise, I splurged on a commercial, gas-powered Stihl hedge trimmer (and a Stihl baseball cap, to look the part). It’s a monster, but the blade openings meant the most I could lose would be a finger or two. I suited up in goggles and ear protectors, heavy gloves and muck boots with steel toes. I pulled the chain and the monster roared. As I slashed my way through a runaway privet, I finally felt nature bending to my will. I swung through the honeysuckle and lopped the bittersweet. The goldenrod stalks scattered in my path. As I plunged deeper into the thicket, my thoughts wandered: Are ticks active in late November? How about copperheads? Is this what Donald Trump meant by raking the forest?
Suddenly, I felt a pain above my left knee. I looked down and saw torn jeans and blood. I had pruned myself. Cleaning the (minor) wound, I made a mental note to thank the friend who counseled against the chain saw.
I’m not the only one losing this battle. “The Appalachians, where we are, is about the most intensely infested region in the country,” says naturalist Jim Hurley of the Blue Ridge Partnership for Regional Invasive Species Management and a member of the state government’s Noxious Weeds Advisory Committee.
Invasive vines and plants, though here for centuries, are gradually taking over the forests, killing native flora and denying native fauna their food supply. They gain a foothold on the border between open space and forest, then work their way into the woods, overtaking indigenous plants because they have longer growing seasons — and leaving a heap of vines and dead trees.
Hurley says any attempt to remove the invaders by mechanical means alone (or by planting more native species — which will be the topic of a future column) is doomed; the interlopers would grow back faster than I could cut them out or replace them. The only chance of victory, he says, is with a laborious, multiyear course of herbicides applied to each invasive plant. Virginia’s Department of Forestry also recommends herbicides.
There might seem to be a moral compromise in using chemicals in the otherwise virtuous fight to save native species. But as I sit here with bandaged knee and aching back, all options are on the table.
My humbling first brush with brush has already forced me into a tactical retreat. Clearly, I won’t be defeating these invaders. At best, I’ll battle them to a temporary truce, holding them at bay until I lose the will to fight them, or the money to pay Jesse to fight them as my mercenary. But as soon as I am gone, they will reclaim forest and field once more.