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Tearing it Out

Saturday, January 30, 2021

 On clearing....

If you are looking for satisfaction, choose a battle you have a prayer of winning.

One where you can see your progress. 

Preferably, one where you can pile stuff up and burn it.

 Since the world stopped turning and wobbled on its axis in March, there have been far more things in the world that I can't control than I could handle. The book tour I had worked for months to arrange was canceled, lock, stock and barrel. The book I was so proud of, that had been out only a few months, that I believed was the most compellingly readable and best-realized thing I'd done, tanked in sales. Not because it wasn't good, but because I was prevented from promoting it. My publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, had shown great faith in ordering a jaw-dropping first printing of 14,000 copies, and last I checked perhaps 3,900 of those had sold. I have had to stand on the shore and watch it vanish into the void with barely a ripple, and that was hard. It is nothing to what 430,000 Americans and all their  loved ones have suffered since, I know, but still I mourned and ground my teeth. Bad timing for Jemima Jay, all around.

 Like everyone else, I went into isolation, stopped giving talks, stopped seeing any friends but Shila, stopped shopping for anything but food, stopped getting haircuts, stopped driving my car. I've stopped going anywhere. I played a game with myself: How long could I go without shopping for food? 9 days? Two weeks? How long could I go without cleaning the house? What was the point? Who'd ever see it but me and the dog? 

  Though I didn't much enjoy it, I was pre-adapted to deal with all that. It wasn't all that different from my life before, if you ignored the fact that I used to travel a lot.  But I was worried about my kids, making their way in work and college where I couldn't see them or hug them. Neither one was getting any hugs at all, and that continues to bother me. I was hoping masks would protect them, hoping masks would protect me. What would happen to them if something happened to me?  There's nobody else on this watch, so pardon me if I drive slowly now and continue a lifelong practice of eschewing rock-climbing, hang-gliding and scuba diving. If this virus got hold of me, what would become of them?

A mess of multiflora rose, choking the trees. 

I was sick about the state of the country. Corruption and lies had become the standard from the top down. Mercy, empathy, gentleness, humor, integrity, truth, science: all these things were utterly gone, devalued in the regime in control. The country was in absolute turmoil, chaos and agony. The pandemic was a "hoax" and masks were for "libs" and "individual freedom" was more important than protecting each other from a deadly disease. Somehow this horrific stew of hatred, misinformation and lies was "great;" was keeping and making us "great." The world was upside down and inside out. Though I was certainly not alone in feeling this way, I was definitely lonely, and from what I could see from the lawn art in my red rural area, those who felt as I did were a distinct minority, and/or keeping their heads as far down as possible. I was terrified about the upcoming election. If I'd known what would unfold around the election, I'd have been in even worse shape.  It could all come right back in four years. Not gonna fix that up too easy.

So I got myself outside, to rip out invasive plants. I have been ripping out vines and multiflora rose since late winter 2019. Something has taken ahold of me. I know it's not normal; that it's excessive, but it's what I do. I get up around 8, suit up and head out into the orchard, usually without eating breakfast. I don't care what the weather is doing; I go. 30's, 20's, snow, rain, whatever. It's just weather, and I have work to do. I guess I learned that from the Amish. I carry large boltcutter style pruners and wear my 30-year-old LL Bean barn coat and heavy steerhide gloves. I almost never know where I'll start or what I'll end up doing, but I rarely come in before four hours of heavy labor have flown by. Bending, cutting, squatting, pulling, hauling, tearing. I'll cut a multiflora cane at ground level, then break off a section of the wicked hooked thorns at the base and commence to pulling. Usually I pull down  20' long multi-branched canes and a whole lot of honeysuckle with it. 

Before one four-hour session

After. I have reclaimed a lot of real estate this way. Look at that view of the meadow!

I have noticed that the invasives work in cahoots. Just like humans, they step on each other's heads to get to the top.  Multiflora rose sends up its obscenely long arching canes into the lower branches of trees. And Japanese honeysuckle twines around those canes and gets a fast track to the top. Both of them horrible, shading out the rightful native vegetation; both of them, aiding and abetting the other in the race to strangle and choke out everything in their path. Barbarians on the stage.

The mess on the left? Gone now. It's in the photos above.

So I cut and pull, cut and pull in a purifying, cleansing effort that might never stop.  I make great piles of thorn and vine in the clear aisles of the old orchard. 

The other day was typical. I was delighted that the temperature had gone up from the low 30's to a balmy 43. So what if it was raining a bit?  I grabbed the new telescoping Fiskars pruners and walked out to the orchard. 

I had cleared the way to some heavy multiflora growth yesterday and I meant to put it to death today. I didn't even look up or feel weary until 1:30 pm. Didn't eat, didn't drink, just cut, hacked, smashed and pulled. I made six huge stacks of thorny canes, with skeins of honeysuckle on top for padding for when I roll it up. 

When I have eight or more piles, I have a hauling day. I couldn't figure out at first how to transport the piles to the burn sites, so I opened YouTube, searched "How to haul brush" and found a nice video of a man bundling brush. First he lays a strap flat on the ground. He piles the brush on top, then stomps it down while cinching the strap around it. Wow! I can do that!

I'll roll this pile onto the strap I've laid out. Then I'll cinch the strap around the mess as tightly as I can. To do this, I have to stomp on the pile.

 Climbing onto a huge pile of multiflora canes is like walking on a very soft, very springy mattress, except for the 1/2" recurved thorns, which are not usually found in soft mattresses. It's dangerous. You teeter and totter. I use the pruner for support, and carefully stomp the canes down to compress the stack. The only good thing about multiflora is that when you stomp on it, it sticks together, hooking into itself. It's tricky to cinch the strap around it without getting hooked, but so what? I heal fast and well. I've learned that when a thorn gets deeply embedded and breaks off, I have to cut an X over it with a razor, then wait a few days for it to work its way out. You don't panic, you just let your body eject it, and give it a way out.

  After one attempt to hand-pull the first pile, I hooked the strap to the back of my John Deere lawn tractor and dragged it, and I've never looked back. That pile was the first of dozens thus moved. It works smashingly well. I've never had a pile come apart. Most of the ones with rose in them flip completely over when I put traction on them, but they never come apart. I guess I have the thorns to thank for that. I also have thorns to thank for the puncture wounds all up and down my legs; for the rips and runs in my good jeans. Badges of honor. People pay a lot of money for jeans that look like mine. Nobody's going to see them, anyway.

 Some people learned to make sourdough; some people cleaned closets; some got deeply into cooking or physical fitness or training their dogs to push button boards and compose English phrases. Who knows what all people did in isolation? Me? I tore out invasives and made enormous piles for burning. 

This is the small pile. Wait 'til you see the big one.

 The beauty of this work is several-fold.  I'm now pulling vines and canes that I cut way back in late winter and early spring of 2020. They're ever so much easier and lighter to pull out or down from the trees when they're dead and snappy, rather than green and pliant. That winter, I cut so many thick stems that I ruined the ring finger of my right hand, giving myself a bad case of trigger finger. This winter, my work has been more varied. Yes, there's a lot of cutting, but there's more pulling, and so far that is kinder to my body than cutting. 

Cantilevered dogwood, buried for 20 years in invasives, now uncovered.

What's beautiful about clearing?  Revealing what is supposed to be there. Uncovering new, expansive views where there was only a green wall of tangled invasive crap before. There is nothing quite so satisfying as walking up to a slumping hummock of tangled honeysuckle, making several dozen strategic cuts, and pulling the mess, bit by bit, from the smothered tree beneath. In most cases, that tree will be a dogwood, and over the years it's been smothered, its branches have grown ever outward, in a vain attempt to outpace the vines. So when it is finally revealed, the tree has long, sinuous, cantilevered branches of great and unexpected beauty, tipped by the tight onion-shaped buds that will be white flowers come April. 

This dogwood is crying to be released. I can hear it every time I walk by. 

This is your lucky morning, little tree. Even under all that sh-t, you're making buds for May. Good for you. 

Before...And after...a waist-high pile of waste--thorn and bramble and vine. And a tree, breathing again.

To free a's one of my favorite things in the world to do. I talk to the tree as I make the last cuts, when I tenderly unwrap the big vines from its trunk and limbs. I see the deep white scars the vines leave, the ruckled lips of tree-flesh around the constricting vine. Those will remain to tell the story of when it was a prisoner. And I can feel the tree begin to breathe again. I can feel its gratitude, and that spurs me on to the next, and the next. The orchard is practically solid dogwood now, just like it was solid honeysuckle and multiflora before.

Do this enough, and you begin to be able to see through the forest again. There are about a dozen dogwoods here, now cleared of their burden, and I can see a bluebird box through them, and that is how it should be.

 In addition to de-vining the tree itself, I  pull up as many honeysuckle crowns as I can, some of them coming up for yards, like a thread-run pull in a huge carpet. Then I remove any vertical growth in the tree's vicinity, eliminating anything the vines could use to climb again. Honeysuckle, when it's young, must have slender saplings and grasses and rose canes to climb; it can't climb a proper-sized tree without a thin ladder. And honeysuckle, I've learned, will only bloom and fruit when it's well off the ground. Robbed of its ladders and supports, it will run over the ground, looking for something to climb. Bad enough, to be sure, but at least it's not producing drupes. 

Before-the end of an orchard row

In progress--the piles are growing

After...Curtis is proud of his ma.  The junk is gone. The trees are free. And we can see clear through to the meadow!

 Judging from what happened last winter, the only thing that's going to stop me is leafout. When the poison ivy sends out its tiny shiny red leaves, I'll have to quit. Until then, look out multiflora. Look out Japanese honeysuckle. Look out hawthorn and Russian olive; look out Japanese barberry and Amur honeysuckle. I am coming for you, and I hate your guts. I will rip you out and I will burn you. And when you send out shoots, I will spray them.  I will have no mercy, for you are bad for my land, for my trees and wildflowers, bad for my spirit. Just as killing you is good for it. At least I think it has been. I am stronger than I've ever been, even as I'm older than I've ever been.

I know that, while my soul is grim and determined and obsessed, my motivation is pure. I'm fighting as hard as I can for truth--what is supposed to be here--and beauty--which has been smothered under ugly overgrowth. Truth IS beauty. Lies are poison. I kill the lies when I cut the canes. It's very simple when you work like this. It all becomes so clear in your mind. 

As I cut and pull, I look for buds on the dogwoods. I envision them floating in the clear blue sky of May. With each mass of vegetation I remove, I gaze across the new vista and exhale. It's good work.

That pile in the foreground? All poison ivy. Not going to burn that one. Going to let it rot in place. 

Here's a shoutout to my constant companion in all this, who makes me his sun, and orbits around me like Pluto, spinning joy. 

When he sees me grab the pruners, he turns on a dime and heads for the orchard.

I guess a part of me loves clearing vines, killing invasives.

Good thing, that. Because my work will never be done.


Even just reading this was cathartic!

In times of stress we all find a way to cope! Yours is wonderful and good for your body! I work in the neonatal ICU.. so I don’t get outside as often as I desire, but I’ve cleaned closets, raising dozens of unusual houses plants and sowing hundreds of perennial seeds!! Focusing on good things help us get through everyday! Good for you !!! This spring is only 50ish days away!!!

Nothing like the catharsis of physical work, especially withe such positive results. I once had land to clear, but the vines were poison ivy, and the huge vines punctured my thigh. They carry the oil there too so be careful. That was a horrible mess. Should you get punctured again, black salve will speed the draw. Ichthammol ointment. My mom wouldn’t steer you wrong.

Could you advertise "Saving Jemima" on Facebook? I bought a book not nearly as good as yours that way.

I admire your determination to clear your land. I wish everyone knew about these invasives. I volunteer with the CISMA group in our area evicting invasives. We mainly work in public parks etc to try to educate people about these badies. We go ahead and treat the stumps of these when they are cut off during winter. It works. Cudos to you and Curtis.

I am so fortunate I was able to attend your book tour before it came to a hault ..down in Sanibel Island . ..still one of my most favorite weekend getaways ..I so enjoyed that talk and I loved your book Saving Jemima. My husband came with me and also attended your talk and he loved it too . So sorry it all had to end. The book is so great as well as the illustrations !
I’ve been doing a little bit of removing invasive plants can relate to how good it feels to remove all that junk....but nothing like your scale of property...what an accomplishment ! I just started a small native plant garden in the corner of my yard that t months ago was covered with invasives...freed two trees I never knew were even there...makes me happy now my new little native garden.
Good Job Julie.

That is hard work. My sister and O are slowly trying to clean up our Dad's place. I am trying to kill privet and kudzu after Hurricane Sally. A project I knew needed doing. Sally started it. I think i might need a tractor. Recent project cutting camphor.

Totally with you about how this year has been, especially living in the solid red place I am in, and the garden was a great place to retreat to. Poison ivy found it's way to the beds this year, possibly due to the abnormally wet spring we had? I got it three times and needed prednisone the last time, so I'm so scared to tackle it like I need to. You have given me inspiration, as usual. Thank you so much for this blog -- I check for it every morning :-). (Yes, I know I can get alerts, but it's just part of my routine now.) Can't wait to see those dogwoods in the spring!

I have fought against invasive species in my yard and the place my Dad left me and my Sister as well. I will tell you that using a tarp to move the piles is much easier than mutilating yourself bundling up the piles. Just a tip you might want to try and use a utility trailer that your tractor can pull. Put the tarp on bottom of the trailer when loading so you can just pull it off at the burn pile. The tarp will fall apart eventually but can work thru many loads. If you don't have a trailer, use bungee cords on the corners of the tarp to bundle and drag with tractor/mower.
"Saving Jemima" is a great book as is your other books.
I appreciate post free of politics.

You always seem to put my thoughts into words! Eagerly looking forward to Spring photos of your meadow and orchard.

You've inspired me to get out there, and work on the honeysuckle. In purchasing your book, would it benefit you more to purchase through amazon (or elsewhere) and leave a review, or to purchase through your website? I expect you profit more monetarily through your website, but wasn't sure if the reviews would help a wider audience see it?

I bought and loved Saving Jemima! Was planning on going to White Memorial to hear you speak.:(
Been a really difficult year. I have tons of clearing to do but am so allergic to poison ivy now I've been afraid to touch it. I will have to be brave and try it. Fingers crossed to another tour that will bring you 20 minutes from my door. Betsy Buckley

@Laurie, Buying the book off my website nets me half the purchase price. Buying on Amazon-zip. Reviews are nice but there are quite a few there at this point. Thanks for asking. @Betsy, I've been enjoying some protection from a homeopathic capsule called IVY GONE, which I take every six months. Check it out!

I think you might look in to up grading your wardrobe. Have you ever tried snake pants and welding gloves?

Julie, do you mean Be Gone Poison Ivy? Do you take it daily during the season? I just ordered some, but had to search for it as most places are out and will not get it in till March. Thank you so much for the recommendation -- now I can tackle the problem!

@Janet, my product is called Ivy Gone and I take it every six months, not every day!
My product is a homeopathic remedy made from the fruit.
It is made near me in SE Ohio.
There are LOTS of products online. The only one I've taken is called Ivy Gone.


I admire your passion and determination to combat the bad stuff. Tearing it out reminds me a bit of a parable having to do with tares.
Not to damper your fiery response to burning multiflora rose but I do find one good thing about this nasty invasive. It keeps people out.
I spend time every year yanking these buggers out of my pasture. I suppose I will keep at it as long as I live here because my neighbor does nothing to control it on his property. He is a great neighbor and I'd never suggest land management strategies to him. Besides there are some "secret" spots on his property which are rendered nearly inaccessible by multiflora rose. At the risk of sounding elitist, there should be some parts of the planet where only wild things can go. Or at least if we humans venture in we are made to approach slowly and endure entrance fee jabs.
Please drink water as you work. Hydration is part of quick healing. Also, Tractor Supply Co. sells a tongy looking thing called the brush grubber. Between that, your John Deere tractor and your tenacity you might actually beat the multiflora on your land.
Finally,my pet peeve. One that will shortly need some attention thanks to the falling snow..... credit the LA rock band, Rage Against the [small] Machine for the category title... four things I despise, yes these four I curse: dirt bikes, ATV's, snow mobiles and jet skis. Abominations? Maybe that's a little strong but I really don't like them.

Julie, Ohhhhhh, thank you so much. I finally did find them on Facebook, and will try to order from there. Be aware there is a similarly named pill product that also is homeopathic and has the plant as its main ingredient and can be taken for prevention. Once every six months, though -- wow!

A mechanic's hand cleaner called Mean Green will also take down poison ivy blisters. It's sort of soapy and gritty. It has worked for me. I scrub the first blisters I see with it and they recede fairly quickly. And, of course, there is good, old yellow soap. Sending good (and social) vibes to you.

I am truly surprised about your wonderful Jemima book. If all your FB friends bought at least one copy, or multiples to give away as gifts, we could turn it around. Let's hope book tours can be rescheduled soon.
When I read in this blog about the dogwoods calling out to you, it struck a chord. My house is next to some woods that are choking in Japanese Honeysuckle. I bring clippers with me every morning when I walk my dog, and I swear the trees are pleading with me not to forget them. There was one mature tall tree covered in English Ivy I swear sent out some kind of vibe because I would never have noticed it otherwise. Your attack on invasives is very inspiring!

Good Morning Julie, I am one of your new fans, the one that sent the mask with the bluebird print. First of all,”thank you” for the info on the last blog about the bird festival. I am still enjoying it!!! I purchased the $12.00 ticket and ended up purchasing the $67.00 just to show my sister your interview. I Loved the beautiful storytelling part, Saving Jemima Live From Stuart’s Opera House” and the song you sang! If more people could see it, I think the book would sell.

Second, I so much connected with you about the messy election. Some of my neighbors still have those signs up. I am also longing to hug my grandkids (Liam is my oldest)

Third, I like how you are handling frustration!!! You go girl! I can’t wait to see the results when the Dogwoods are blooming!

Keep staying safe,

Yes, please do, I am a beginner watercolor painter and colorist of colouring books, I need some real experienced work gor inspiration in my painting and drawing for my paintings...

I am disabled and bedridden and I lived vicariously through your pics and explanations of what invasives you were removing and desyroying. When I was well, my favourite garden and orchard work eas to prune back the overhrown ornamental trees and the fruit trees in preparation for their next crop. I am very much look forward to seeing pictures of your progress well into springtime as things start to grow again and the trees free from their prison grow in health and mostly to see in pictures how ypu have brought the landscape more to its natural state by your cathartic work. As I read of what you did to remove invasive brush, I could feel the cold air I breathed in and my eyes and nose running, they always do in the cold, and frlt my cherks had gone red with yhe cold, seeing my breath exhaled in a white mist. I was alongside you as you described everything uou did, feeling the vigour of the hard work, tjank you gor transporting me to such a beautiful place where I could DO and feel all these things instead of staring at the wires dropping down from the big tv. It is the only visible item put on the wall opposite from me; which is what I look at all day long for a year now. I must wait until spring yo have them hidden in the attic or move the tv elsewhere. I'd rather look at your paintings.

several years ago, while living in Georgia, I was having trouble with a mockingbird eating all my mealworms before the bluebirds could get them, and asked you for some advice and you told me to take the mocking bird at least a hundred miles away and release, and so the next day I made a 60 mile trip to the John Deere store and there, released the mockingbird. ,should have listened to Julie, the mockingbird was back that evening, probably beat me home. Any way, I purchased your book and absolutely loved it and have loaned it to many friends(not all bird lovers) and they all loved it and I made sure I got it back(signed edition), so believe me, it will sell. I even loaned it to another writer, Dawn Liss and she loved it. I have been using Zickfood now for 2 years and my birds love it. ,even the Baltimore orioles here in South Carolina prefer it over the famous grape jelly 10 to 1, that you say is not really good to give them anyway. On the brush pile, just think of the exercise you're getting and the wonderful thing of giving life back to something that would eventually be choked out is a beautiful win win thing, thanks, Leonard Berry

This is a response to Leonard Berry’s post. This past fall I was so happy to have the addition of a mockingbird at my feeding station! I named her “Raisin” because she eats raisins I put out for her, as well as Julie’s “Zick Dough. “ I now have what I assume may be her mate (he’s bigger) coming to the feeder. So far I like having her around because she keeps the Starlings away and doesn’t seem to be eating the mealworms. I wish I could post a photo of them along the fence near my feeder with her eating, she’s out here at this moment as I write. I also monitor, sitting close by the feeding stations outside my screened in porch every morning. I have a bigger problem with the Starlings...they know when I’m out monitoring not to come around, when they do I only have to clap my hands or say “git!” and they scatter...the bluebirds know to come then. I guess you could say there’s a “pecking order.” If you try the raisins you may want to soak them in water to soften them. I’m so close by I can see her swallowing them. Julie, my birds love your “Zick Dough! I’m so happy to have it because of all the Snow we are having here in Ohio this year! Thank you 🙏

wow... nothing like COVID anxiety to beat invasives. I tore out mountains of garlic mustard this spring... every late afternoon- and the once insurmountable acres of it shrink!

can you promote your book in some ZOOM presentations? Not as good as in person but better than nothing... maybe through some of the venues at which you were going to appear? I do not like ZOOM that much but after months of lockdown, a video face to face is better than never seeing anyone.

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