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Burning Mustard, Burning Time

Sunday, May 15, 2016

The last blogpost was supposed to be about pulling garlic mustard, and the one before it was supposed to be about spring in West Virginia. Not sure what’s coming out now, but I think I’m done writing about my teeth. “Nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what it set out to teach.” Not sure who said it --was it the Dalai Lama or Rumi, Ralph Waldo Emerson or Paula Deen?—but it’s a good ‘un. Clop, clop, clop. I’m learning, slowly.

 Duck Creek Road. One of my happy places. I love the way it curves on into infinity. It draws me onward.

So I’m coming back on a two hour drive from a dental procedure that shall remain unnamed and I turn up Duck Creek Road just to quickly stop in and check a couple of bluebird boxes I put up on Washington Co. Fish and Game Club’s property. I put them up last year, two brand new boxes with pole-mounted predator baffles, because I could no longer stand to watch the club’s old boxes rot and fall off the trees they were nailed to, bluebirds and tree swallows struggling, making nests in wet, rotten, roofless houses, soaked by rain. How could you stand by and watch that? And in the first of my new ones were four baby bluebirds—good!!in the most enormous nest I've ever recorded.

Four-day-old eastern bluebirds

 and in the second were five baby house sparrows—bad!! but what could I do? Nothing. Not throwing these gold-lipped jewels into the weeds; it’s too late to fix this now. 

I remember painting my house sparrows for Baby Birds. I’d kept dragging their nests out of the clothesline pole box until I got lazy and a clutch hatched before I could get to it. Phoebe asked, “Why don’t you paint the babies?” It was a lightbulb moment, the child leading the parent in insight and wisdom, and it wasn’t the first time, nor will it be the last that my kids have shown me the way. 

While I take no pride in having allowed, by my travel-induced inattention, this nefarious pest to nest in a second one of my boxes, the artist in me is delighted to see young house sparrows again, such strange, flat-eyed, vividly colored three-day-old babes, lying in their many-textured fluffy grass nest. It’s lined with rock pigeon and Canada goose feathers. When they’re done with it, I’ll take it home and identify all the feathers inside; it’ll be like Christmas for a Science Chimp. And I’ll figure out how to trap the adults should they start a second brood. Such is the irony and pang of managing bluebird boxes.

While I was at the Fish and Game Club I checked the clubhouse and stage structures for any phoebe nests, and found a couple of robin nests, one of which looked long and strange. To my friend and club caretaker Sid’s quiet amusement, I climbed up on the banister, clinging to the rafters, and documented my first American robin duplex! Must not have liked the first one, because she stopped before she mudded it and built an addition. I wonder if the babes will spread out into the anteroom when they get big, feathered, 13 days old? Bet they will! Eggs in the main house were warm from Mama’s brood patch. Nothing like that blue, that blue.

Though I was in a hurry, I could not fail to notice the most incredible swathes of appendaged waterleaf (Hydrophyllum appendiculatum) I had ever, ever seen. Waterleaf must love rain, because this was just off the hook fabulous. It went on and on, deep into the woods, and in a panorama of shivery lilac, all along the road, completely covering the hepatica and Dutchman’s britches, squirrel corn and trillium that had held sway only a couple of weeks earlier, which is done and gone anyway.

Ephemerals. No better name for these native spring wildflowers. I got out of the car and shot some waterleaf photos to share, because unless you happen upon this fabulous borage in bloom, you don’t know what it can do.

And while admiring the nativity, the real nativeness going on, I happened upon a medium-sized patch of garlic mustard, possibly the plant I loathe and fear the most of all invasive exotics. I saw red. I started to grind my teeth, and stopped. I looked at my just-washed Keens, shrugged, leapt the muddy ditch and lunged up the steep slope. Braced myself and started pulling, mindful of the poison ivy that always grows amidst garlic mustard on the shaded roadsides where it first takes hold. Got a big patch on my elbow despite being careful. I threw the plants down in the road, finished the job, then leapt back down. Looking at the siliques laddering up the stems, I could see they were nearly mature, and about to spread thousands of seeds into this heretofore pristine wildflower Valhalla. I couldn’t leave them in the road, where car tires would spread them even farther. I looked at my never-mudded new Subaru, sighed, and loaded the muddy plants into the back.

Now what? Head for home. Try to find time to burn the damn things. I drove, scanning the roadside. Another patch, this one three times the size! I growled and repeated the routine, adding to the batch in the back. The car stank of garlic. Now what? I had too much to burn. Take it home and bag it up? Lay it out in the sun to dry and burn it when I got home from Utah? I’d doubtless wind up introducing it to our forest in the process. What a mess.

I kept driving. And started praying that Randy would be out and about in his yard. He’d helped me last year when he saw me pulling and throwing. Though he’d never heard of garlic mustard, he understood what was needed immediately, and offered to load the plants in his truck, take them home and burn them for me. I rounded the curve and there he was, like a burly angel from heaven, only smoking a large blunt cigar. YAAAAY!!

“Remember last year when you burned some garlic mustard plants for me? Well, I’m baaack.” He smiled and pointed to his fire circle. “Load ‘em in there and I’ll burn ‘em for you.” I was only too happy to get the reeking pile out of my car. Randy looked at it and started for the shed. “Why don’t we  just build a fire and burn that right now?” He fetched a bag of refuse and lit it. It was going slowly.  I thanked him for taking the time to help. “I was going to burn anyway. I’m always burning.”
How kind of him.

“Right about now, my dad would go for the propellent,” I mused. “I was just thinking the same thing,” he said, and headed back to the shed, coming back with a jug of kerosene.

 I observed that it was a rare man who’d throw kero on a fire while smoking a large cigar. “Kerosene isn’t as much of a hazard as gasoline. It needs contact with an open flame.” Exactly what my dad would have said, I thought, a filmstrip playing in my head of the time my father, having lost some of his once excellent judgement to a brain aneurysm in 1989, spilled gasoline down his pants, then threw more on an open fire in our backyard. The flames leapt up his pant legs, and were just as quickly extinguished without doing much harm. But that image stays with me, the burning man who had once been a guy who wouldn’t have done that in a million years.

A man and his fire. If you live in the country, you need a place where you can burn stuff. I envied his setup—the sturdy stone wall especially. We have a rickety ring of stacked bricks that the deer keep knocking down in their quest for whatever it is they get out of ashes. It took awhile to get the plants all burned down, but I didn’t want to let a seedhead get by. I looked at my watch. Oh man. The time had flown. I’d been at this quest for two hours, and I had to leave for Utah the next day. I thanked Randy again, got in the car, and got about 200 yards down the road before I saw another patch of garlic mustard, bigger than the last two. The air went blue. I sighed, leapt the ditch, pulled it all—it was perilously close to going to riotous seed—and loaded it into the Subaru. Zick 3, garlic mustard, 0. I hoped. While I was pulling, a curious neighbor stopped to ask what I was doing. Never one to let a teaching moment go by, I showed her the plant, told her how to recognize its paltry white blossoms, and encouraged her to look for it and pull it wherever she saw it. It’s hard to convey to someone who may take them for granted how rare and precious such diverse wooded slopes are, and what a deadly threat garlic mustard poses, but I tried.

Randy watched me back up to the fire circle for the last time. “Didja miss me?” We repeated the dry wood and kerosene routine until the last plant went up in black smoke. It was starting to get dark. What a day it had been.

Best part? His last name is BURNWORTH.

There are those who say that, with massive introductions of exotic invasives worldwide, we have a global flora and fauna now; that it’s pointless to fight the Burmese pythons and the walking catfish, the Japanese honeysuckle or the water hyacinth. That we should just sit back and appreciate it all. It’s all natural, it’s all good. Well. I choose not to trade Duck Creek Road’s trillium, Dutchman’s britches, squirrel corn, hepatica, Jack in the pulpit, purple cress, dwarf larkspur, blue phlox and spring beauties for a solid stand of tall, gangly garlic mustard. I consider that a natural diversity holocaust, and I’m not scared to put in the work to prevent it. I’ll go farther, and say that you should care, too; that if you’re able, you should be pulling that crap wherever you find it, and disposing of it in a way that won’t spread it further. (Easier said than done). For me, choosing not to do anything is tantamount to watching a mugging in progress, shrugging and saying, “I guess he needs some money for drugs. Too bad for that person he’s robbing.” I can’t drive by the stuff, because I know what it’s up to. And neither should you.


Just this morning I noticed a few individual garlic mustard plants in flower. First I've ever seen in my woods. I stopped what I was doing and pulled it up. Now it's in a plastic bag. Can't I send it to the landfill with the trash? Won't it perish if sealed in plastic? Is it really necessary to build a bonfire? I don't want to build a fire, but much more I don't want garlic mustard smothering my woods.

It's a unique person who, returning home after a root canal and at the end of a two-hour drive, gets out of the car to take care of garlic mustard. I admire you no end. Hopefully, you built a huge amount of dental karma and those teeth will never bother you again.

Pulled a bunch before my trip. It is drying in my garage waiting for me to come home and burn it.

I helped pull a big patch of it down the woods a few years ago - okay, maybe like 10 years ago. I looked at the spot today. Guess what - it has not come back!

Ugh, I have this popping up in my yard. I'll start burning it.

Ah, thanks for this! I have not been been able to grasp the 'invasives aren't so bad' mentality. It's probably one of my biggest pet peeves with permaculture enthusiasts.

Having spent a lot of time battling Brazilian pepper, melaleuca, and other nasty plants in south Florida, I've never been able to bite that invasives have their place. Here in Texas where I'm at now, at least this region of SE Texas, Chinese tallow is the biggest problem. Of course there are others. If I can't pull a tallow when I'm in the woods, I a least like to beat it up a bit.

As for bastard cabbage, here it is all over, by the pasture-full. ripping it out isn't going to happen here. :(

"Never-mudded Subaru?" Subarus are meant to be muddied! I put 200,000 muddy miles on an 1997 Legacy SW (with Right-hand drive) delivering my 70-mile Rural Mail Route, and when I retired, in 2008, I sold it to the next lady, and as far as I know, it's still out there! As far as eliminating invasive vegetation--well, you know, whatever makes you feel good. Like trying to eradicate
Kudzu in the south! Keep up the good fight!

The war against invasives goes on here in FL with limited success. No, not really, perhaps with patchy success amidst ongoing battle, casualties very high and no end in sight for ecowarriers. sigh. I love the close-up photo of the swath of appendaged waterleaf, the exact shade that I have wanted to paint my bedroom for ever so long, previously described hopefully as periwinkle and never matched by available paint samples. Finding or mixing this shade without its becoming a chalky pastel or overly bright lavender is a challenge, but nowhere near the challenge of wiping out invasive plants and animals.

Posted by Gail Spratley May 17, 2016 at 9:47 AM

Is the last picture that of the garlic mustard? I want to be able to recognize it.

Of Course Randy's last name is Burnworth! That made my day!

Well, I got an education. Thanks! I just walked the woods edge here at our yard. Those nice little flowering plants sandwiched in near poison ivy and the bird feeder are now yanked and in the fire ring / burn pile. Suspect seeds were already spread, but now I'm on the mission! Kim in PA

there are people here in NJ now picking this stuff and selling it in farmer's markets and to fancy restaurants....remember: it is an escaped herb and totally edible- if a person can eat arugula, they can scarf this down and pay for it. Don't just pick it; consume it.

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