The Greedy Weed

As we are a few days from Halloween and thus well into the Scary Season, I write of a vine of legendary horror.  No, it isn’t Audrey II, the alien plant that devours people, but it’s close.  It is kudzu, the Vine that Ate the South! <cue ominous chords>

Okay, that’s slightly overdramatic, but you can safely add it to the list of imports that “seemed like a good idea at the time.”  Like many inspired catastrophes of good intention, importing this rampant leguminous vine from Asia was intended to be an easy fix for another human-caused calamity, soil erosion.  And it certainly covers up the gullies and bare slopes like nobody’s business.  The problem is, kudzu isn’t that great at holding soil.  True, its vines lengthen at the stunning rate of a foot per day, but the thick taproots don’t spread wide and fine to hold soil as those of grass might.  Once rainwater collects under the vines, there is little to keep the soil from washing away. 

The climate in the South is substantially different than that of Japan, where shorter growing seasons and colder winters moderates the growth of the vine.   In the land of hot summers and mild winters, the plant turns invasive, flowing over fields, over trees, over buildings…anywhere a vine can go.  Kudzu crowding vines deprive everything beneath them of sunlight, killing forb, grass, shrub and tree.

Kudzu has been put to various uses in an effort to make a positive out of such an overwhelming negative.  The leaves make a highly digestible cattle forage.  Some people make compost; others craft baskets or wreaths from the vines.  But the usage of kudzu is negligible compared to the sheer productivity of the plants. This menace has covered millions of acres across the Southeast, and as far north as Nova Scotia and westward to the Pacific coast.

Apart from seeing blankets of the weed, covering field and forest, from the safety of the family truck, my first experience with kudzu came when I was eight or nine.  My Mom and I tramped through a pine stand one night, trying to connect with some foxhounds that had strayed from the pack.  We lit the forest floor with wheat lamps (a powerful light used by miners and coon hunters alike) to guard against entanglement or envenomation. As we progressed, I gradually noticed a change in the vegetation around me.  There were fewer briers, and most of the abundant saplings were dead and leafless. Then, our lights picked what appeared to be a fuzzy wall fifty yards ahead, stretching in either direction as far as our lights would shine.  We looked up and saw the unnerving ceiling of the same gray-brown material, held up by dead pine trees like tent poles. 

We reached the wall of vine and dead leaves, and I looked to Ma to see what to do.  The vine tangle stood between us and the truck, and there was no telling how far we’d have to follow this dead barrier before we struck another open trail.  Finally, she put down her light and reached into the wall, pushing the vines apart just enough to form a tunnel.  She directed me to climb up into it and continue to dig through.  I remember the dead mass supporting my weight and being thick enough that I was completely encased in dry leaves before reaching the first green ones.  I broke through to the open air and tumbled out the other side before turning and helping Ma crawl through.  With the green wall at our backs, we waded through a smothered field before reaching the dirt road. 

My encounter with the backside of kudzu occurred a couple of weeks ago when I visited a newly-purchased hunting property.  It had many of the common invasives – Chinaberry, stiltgrass, tree-of-heaven, sericea, and so on – but by far the most visible issues were the mounds of kudzu, topping the smaller trees and coiling upwards towards the tallest oaks. I think the landowner is aware that the land he bought is a “fixer-upper.”  I’ll tell him the options: burning or mowing to reclaim conquered territory, followed by herbicide to strike at the roots, the only way to permanently kill this scourge.  But I’ll warn him to be prepared for a multi-year campaign.  And I won’t say what I’m thinking: Better you than me.

Gone With The Rain

Many moons ago, I was on a van with my college Soils class, riding past farmland south of Athens. One of the students hailed from the Midwest.  Surveying newly-tilled, rusty-red earth, she asked the professor, “Do you have any soil here?”  All the southerners laughed, but it’s a fair question, and one with a depressing answer.

It’s been called “one of the most significant environmental disasters to occur in the state.” The evidence is all around, in forest and river, and indeed the consequences can be seen in how limited our choices of land use are today.

Most soil profiles have several distinct layers, or horizons.  The O (organic) layer and A (surface or topsoil) layer contain most of the accessible minerals, organic material, water-storing pores, microbial life…everything that makes soil valuable for plant life.  The Georgia red clay, synonymous with southern dirt,  is the B or subsoil layer; it contains very little organic material and is stingier both with nutrients and water.  In much of the south, and especially in the Piedmont, we simply have little to no topsoil.  But this was not always the case.

Tree being undermined on a bank

Think back to the first half of the 19th century.  The native peoples were swept out, and settlers opened the forests and savanna.  The supply of land seemed inexhaustible, so it was deemed more important to wrest what one could from the soil than to tend it carefully.  Cotton was the primary cash crop, and straight furrows were easier than rows that curved to follow the contour of the land.  Rains came and washed away centuries worth of topsoil, hastening the decline of fertility and forcing farmers to abandon exhausted farms for new ground. By mid-century, many upland farms had lost their topsoil completely and farmers were trying to coax crops from subsoil. The problems compounded as the lost soil washed into waterways.  Millponds filled with silt; rivers clogged up with earth, increasing flooding. There were some efforts to control erosion – contour farming and planting pines, for example – but war put those efforts on the back burner. 

Recent erosion leaves only a rootball on this oak

Subsequent decades follow a pattern of waning agriculture, a rise of forests, a clearing of forests, and a new rise of agriculture.  Poor farmers trying to coax crops from even poorer land was the recipe for a cycle of poverty and destitution.  In my lifetime I have seen the cycle more or less continue, with eroding fields planted in pines or left to grow wild; some of those stands have since been cleared again for agriculture or other developments. Erosion is still a pervasive issue.

Take a look at this creek in the Georgia Piedmont. See the broad slabs of stones and smaller rocks in the creek? That’s likely the natural base level of the creek, about where it would have been two centuries ago. See the 10’+, nearly-vertical banks? Those are largely composed of earth that has eroded from the surrounding hills due to clearing, development and poor farming practices.  Steep banks of silt such as these are unfortunately a common feature of creeks and rivers in much of Georgia.

I’ve been told that one reason for the University of Georgia’s location at the turn of the 19th century was the clear waters and abundant fishing on the Oconee River.  Current students may be forgiven for assuming the steep banks and opaque brown water is the natural state of Piedmont rivers.   Not that many years ago, crews dredged behind the dam at Whitehall Forest; 20 feet down into the muck, they came upon a sawn tree stump!

I drive past so much land with stubby, slow-growing pines or thickets of spindly sweetgums and scrawny oaks, with little on the ground beyond stubborn tufts of grass or reindeer moss – a lichen that even as a kid I learned to associate with poor soil. Across the land, gullies – some bandanged by leaves and brush, others bare gashes that continue to hemorrhage soil – remind us of the natural wealth lost through ignorance, indifference, or greed. 

But I haven’t visited the most famous monument to this human-enabled catastrophe: Providence Canyon.  What started in the mid-1800s as series of gullies a few feet deep have become a fan-shaped series of canyons spanning hundreds of acres and plunging up to 150 feet below ground level.  The super-gullies continue to gnaw at the land around them, extending further every year. It is sometimes called the “Little Grand Canyon,” as if its existence was a point of pride and not the most visible scar of a curse our ancestors bequeathed to us.

I see turn-of-the-century farm houses, mobile homes, and dilapidated ranch style dwellings lining the backroads I travel. Around these homes are either pine stands or clearcuts, for the hard, gullied subsoil is neither fertile enough for seasonal crops nor (in some cases) level enough to run a tractor. The preponderance of political banners touting modern lost causes suggests to me where these folks stand on the subject of climate change. They are willfully ignorant of the effects that human irresponsibility will have on their descendants; yet I suspect that they are innocently ignorant of the impoverishment bequeathed to them by their own forebears.

A 8′-10′ deep gully. It still carries soil away when it rains.