We could remember Phillip Franz von Siebold as an adventurer, the father of the first female doctor in Japan, and an advocate for public health. He would probably have preferred it that way and that’s certainly the article I could be writing, had he not plucked a single specimen of Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica) from the side of a volcano in Japan and began distributing it commercially in the Netherlands. By 1850, samples of this graceful, bamboo-like plant had been included in the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, England. And now here we are, with knotweed representing as one of the most prevalent invasive species in the world, appearing throughout East Asia, Europe, Canada, the United States, Australia and New Zealand, lowering property values in Britain, and stymying all efforts at permanent eradication. Sorry Phillip, but you made choices and now we are living with the consequences of them.
I try, very consciously, not to begin too many sentences with, “I read in the New York Times that…” It’s a struggle (and frankly, my fallback—“I heard on NPR that…”—isn’t really much better). It’s not my only source of information in the world, but it is usually the one I check first in the morning. A few days ago, two headlines stood out to me. One promised to show me any number of ways to reduce my carbon footprint, the other asked if dirt could save the Earth.
A friend invited me over to help identify the trees in the backyard of his new house. Lichen coated the trunks, rendering bark a less than useful tool, so I looked skyward for other clues. Like any good naturalist, I squinted in an effort to see if the branches were alternate or opposite, trying to follow the twigs with my eyes out to a point where individual lines were visible from the mass of branches. As I leaned even further back for a better look, Jared interrupted my focus by asking, “And why do the trees on the left still have their leaves?” I widened my gaze to take in the whole stand and realized that the three trees to the left were all topped with a halo of brown leaves, while the ones on the right stood bare. Aha! Who needs the fine, botanist-approved details of opposite/alternate when a much more obvious clue looms overhead?
I spent a few days in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts last week, where fall was just starting to show up. I hadn’t really thought too much of the colors I saw on the surrounding ridgelines, which seemed like the usual mixture of greens with the occasional red or yellow upstart shining through, until I overheard a woman describe this fall as being “kind of meh”. Let me acknowledge up front that my former environmental educator, nature-is-all-that’s-good-in-the-world, reaction was to be somewhat affronted by the use of a single rather derogatory syllable to describe one of the greatest shows on Earth. So I borrowed her perspective for a moment, took another look around, and began to wonder if what she saw as “meh” was really just a forest that hadn’t quite realized it was fall yet. This fall isn’t boring…it’s late.