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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.

And What About Oscar?

Monday, January 25, 2021



Just a little escape to a warm, sunny's right before Christmas, 2019, and Liam and I have flown to see Phoebe and Oscar at their home on La Gomera, Canary Islands. I'm so fascinated with this bit of basalt out in the middle of the Atlantic. Who lives there? What grows there? 

Well, the dry, rocky red soil is covered in Euphorbias, those relatives of poinsettias and crown of thorns, with their milky sap and interesting growth forms. There are some, like Euphorbia bravoana, which are endemic to the Canary Island chain.

And there's another that's more delicate-looking, more gracile, with thinner leaves, called Euphorbia berthelotii, that's endemic to La Gomera itself. It grows in the succulent shrub zones of La Gomera and nowhere else. 

I was captivated by the treelike forms of these chest-high shrubs. They were just so rubbery-cool! And they looked like stately shade trees, but were shorter than me. What a growth habit!

We saw some growing along the trail on the most beautiful hike high above the sea. 

Some were dropping seeds.

The views anywhere you go on La Gomera are spectacular. Roads wind like serpents high along the mountainsides, and the ocean is all around, the sun hitting off the water and the rocks.

But the most beautiful thing, aside from the views, was seeing Phoebe at home with her love, Oscar. She had left briefly to meet us in Madrid and have a mainland adventure, then escort Liam and me through the many hoops and hops and planes that it takes to get from Madrid to La Gomera. It's not trivial; it takes a whole darn day!

But oh, was it worth it. Our time there, right at Christmas, was such a dream. We walked and hiked and drove around the island, and we got to spend time with Oscar and his family, too. 

Needless to say, Phoebe and Oscar were inseparable. He has been her rock through all the hard times. His sweet, gentle spirit casts the steadiest of lights.

March 13, 2019. Oscar's first trip to America--and out of the Canary Islands-- was to meet Bill, Liam, Curtis and me--and to hold Phoebe together. He accomplished both goals, though he almost froze solid.

Hanging out with Oscar on this tiny island is like walking into Cheers with Norm.
Everyone seems to know him and like him.  When he rides his bike through town, he's constantly whistling and waving. It's so sweet. 

We went out to eat! What a thing that was. 

We hiked the beautiful laurel forest, where two species of endemic fruit pigeons live. We saw them both! Not well, but we saw them. Oh, Liam. I know how you feel...

We watched the sunset every night. 

And we got ice cream a lot. Sigh. I miss it all so much. I miss Oscar! Not even half as much as Phoebe does, but still. 

We ate our cones and looked at the colorful dinghies pulled up in the harbor.

It was so nice to bask in the reflected glow of the sea, and their love. Phoebe seemed completely at home on this tiny island, and she was, because she was with Oscar. 


From high on a cliff face, a tiny seed traveled

to Ohio, where a year later it is going for a meter tall. It's a bona fide Euphorbia berthelotii, but we know it simply as Oscar. 

Waist high, and only a year old! Ack! 

Time to branch out, Oscar!

Oscar nestles amidst the kalanchoes, both domestic and exotic, grabbing what little sun he can in a dreary Ohio winter

and dreaming of life on the island.

Needless to say, Phoebe and Oscar miss each other deeply, and the cruel pandemic rages on. We have no idea when he'll be able to come for a good long visit, but we're hoping it can be when it's warm. The two will have been separated for a year in March. Facetime saves them, but it can only go so far--it's time these two were reunited! Come ON, vaccines. Come ON.

November, 2018--a Facetime screenshot when they were living on La Gomera. 

Fast forwarding...

The latest from Oscar is that someone brought him a weak, starved baby rock pigeon  a couple of days ago. Phoebe refers to Oscar as "the Julie Zickefoose of La Gomera" and there's some truth to that; Oscar will do anything to help the helpless; home the homeless creatures. Because he had helped Phoebe raise an orphaned Eurasian collared-dove last year, he knew just what to do; he even had the right powdered hand-rearing formula in the refrigerator! After only a day in Oscar's care, the baby pigeon, who had been too weak to raise its head, had a new lease on life. 


And here they are last evening. He's soothing the pigeon to sleep. 


Sorry, I can't write any more. I've melted. And that's the deal on Oscar, the tree and the man.

Here's a tickler (if Oscar with a baby pigeon isn't enough)...

ZICK ALERT: I have just taped a VERY cool interview from the Birding and Lettuce Tower in Whipple with my new BFF,  the fabulous Kristi Dranginis, as a speaker for a brand new virtual festival! My segment airs Friday, Jan. 29, but the festival lineup throughout is jaw-dropping and so fresh! (Like Kristi herself!)  You can check it out and register here--it's only $12 for the whole event!

                                                        For the Love of Birds Festival
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