Unfolding the Map
Heading through Newberry, South Carolina with William Least Heat-Moon (LHM), and ruminating about kudzu and other invasive species that afflict our native environment throughout the United States. To learn where Newberry is situated, click the map thumbnail.
"In the sunny flats, kudzu from last year had climbed to wrap trees and telephone poles in dry, brown leaves. Whole buildings looked as if they had been bagged. Introduced from Japan in the thirties to help control erosion that had damaged eighty-five percent of the tillable land, kudzu has consumed entire fields, and no one has found a good way to stop it. Kudzu and water hyacinth, another Japanese import, have run through Dixie showing less restraint than Sherman.
"The heat held until sundown in Newberry. There, wearied from the eighty-five degrees, the glare, the racket of wind, I stopped. Newberry was a town of last-century buildings, old trees, columned houses with cast-iron fences, and gardens behind low brick walls. A lacy town. Old people moved along old sidewalks or pulled at greenery in old flowerbeds; they sat on old porches and shook the evening paper into obedience, or they rocked steady as old pendulums and looked into the old street as if reading something there. Living out the end of an era."
Blue Highways: Part 2, Chapter 14
Newberry, South Carolina
I had not intended to use this post as a plea for being conscious of native environments, but the first part of the quote above, where LHM writes about kudzu as he drives toward Newberry, South Carolina, has gotten me thinking about it. It was also on my mind as I watched some workers attempt to remove ivy along the side of a building opposite to where I work - it took them about a month to do so.
If you have not been to the South, you probably have not seen kudzu overwhelming the natural features of the landscape. Kudzu was first introduced to the U.S. from Japan in 1876 at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. Farmers were eventually encouraged in the 1930s to plant it to help control soil erosion. Unfortunately, not much thought was given to introducing a plant to an environment where it had no natural checks. The plant spread prolifically. By the time LHM was traveling through, he was able to note its omnipresence. The plant is harmful particularly because it grows so thick it chokes out native vegetation. It can grow so thick up a tree that the sheer weight of it can actually uproot the tree. It can grow 100 feet a day, and though there have been efforts to find a biological agent to control it, these efforts have not yielded much success. The best way to remove it is labor intensive, and involves cutting the plant out completely by the roots and then mowing every month over two growing seasons. Needless to say, the costs to the environment are the loss of native plants that sustain native animal populations.
Water hyacinth is another Southern invasive species that is native to South America. It is sort of like an aquatic kudzu, with no natural checks on its growth. Blanketing water, it blocks out sunlight that feeds other, native aquatic plants and starves the water of oxygen which kills native fish and other aquatic wildlife. It is not only a pest in the South - whole portions of Lake Victoria in Africa have been choked off by the plant which was probably introduced by traveling horticulturists sometime in the 1800s.
In my own experience growing up in California, I am aware that many times the invasive species are introduced with the best of intentions. Whole sections of coastline in Northern California are blanketed with ice plant, which was introduced with the intention of stabilizing railroad beds, and later highway verges. However, it is easily spread through its prolific seeds, and through rat feces. I remember marveling at its beautiful flowers, but where there might be coastal grasses, there is now only the iceplant along the edges of the cliffs where I grew up. Similarly, every summer I enjoyed picking blackberries. It turns out the blackberries I picked, and which we made into jams, were of the non-native Himalaya variety, which grows thick and pushes out native vegetation.
My wife is affected by an invasive species, and not of the plant variety. She has to carry an Epi-Pen, a self-administered shot of epenephrine, around with her when she is in areas that are known to have fire ants. These little ants, a cross between a South American ant and one native to the U.S., are found all over the Southern U.S. They are extremely aggressive when their nests are disturbed, and swarm and sting. They actually coordinate their stings so that multiple ants will sting at once. Their sting contains a poison, the only ant in North America to have a poison, that will send my wife into a severe allergic reaction if she gets stung. Efforts to eradicate this ant were somewhat successful during the years that DDT was used as a pesticide, but not any more. Currently there are some experiments with the phorid fly, a small fly that constitutes the ant's only known enemy - it swoops down on the ant and implants its egg within the ant. When the egg hatches, the ant dies. It doesn't eradicate them completely, but it discourages them from spreading over a wide area. However, this solution brings in another species that is not native to the U.S., and who knows what effects that will have?
So, eradicating non-native species and nurturing native plants and animals is important. Upsetting the balance has effects throughout the environment and the ecological system. Be careful when planting and try to plant native species, and maybe even join efforts to help eradicate non-native trees and other plants. Your environment, and perhaps even Newberry if you can get rid of their kudzu, water hyacinths, and fire ants, will thank you!
If you want to know more about Newberry
Next up: Old Ninety-Six, South Carolina