A Day in the Field

So today was my day off.

Now I’m not sure what most of you do on your days off. Perhaps you roll over in bed at around eleven o’clock in order to scratch your balls and pass out. Maybe you lie abed until noon or one recovering from a hangover due to your adventures the night before. Perhaps sometimes you feel very industrious indeed and you wake up at ten or so to clean house and tidy up a bit so that later you can go lie on the beach with a towel and a mai tai.

But here’s what I did, being a masochist at heart: I participated in some invasive weed removal. I dressed up in some heavy jeans and I dug out my logging boots and a stylish long sleeve button-down shirt, I donned a dorky bright orange vest and a white helmet, and I laboured for five hours in the interest of the beauty of the golden state.

Now, the story requires some background. In California, the budget is not really large enough to fully care for all of our highways, so business and service groups are invited by CalTrans to Adopt a Highway. Now, ostensibly the program is designed as a community service opportunity, kind of like adopting a whale or adopting Amazonian forest. Of course, it also serves an advertising function because CalTrans puts up a little sign that says “Adopt a Highway: Your Business Here.” I happen to be a fan of the adopt a highway program. I know a lot of schools and service organizations participate in it with the pure goal of doing some public good. Most people who adopt a highway opt to do litter removal, which means you wander around filling giant white bags with trash. And collecting trash is good. It’s something that I’m a big fan of, and I think it does make a difference. Yay Adopt A Highway. So the business I work for decided to adopt a highway, and my boss volunteered us for a pilot program–invasive plant removal.

And there is where the California Native Plant Society comes in. You see, if the CNPS wasn’t so fired up about invasive species, I could have swanned about with a garbage grabber for a few hours and called it a day. And indeed there was some garbage grabbing—we netted three beer bottles, a sheet of bubblewrap, and four miscellaneous plastic things along the stretch of road we worked today. But primarily, I did battle with ferocious plants for five hours.

And when I say ferocious, I mean ferocious. You see, I live in an area which is beset by gorse. Look at the pictures and laugh now, but if you’ve ever seen gorse, you understand what I was up against. Gorse grows a massive underground root system, which makes it a bitch to uproot. Not only that, but the little bastards are thorny. Hard thorny, like pierce car tires thorny, and my little leather gloves and jeans were no use against the might of the gorse plant. I pickaxed it, I shoveled it, and I wrenched it from the earth by hand. I am shredded. There is a chunk of thorn embedded in my finger that I can’t get out. The five of us covered fifty feet in the first two hours, because every time we thought we had cleared an area, more gorse would appear. It was like battling a hydra. Which I said, several times, very loudly, only no one paid any attention to me because they were too busy being savaged by the gorse. (Gorse, by the way, was brought into this country to be used as fencing. It makes really good fencing. If we were using it as fencing, it wouldn’t be a problem. But unfortunately yuppie pieces of shit bought the farmland the gorse used to fence and built houses on it, and the gorse has come for revenge. I appreciate that. Secretly, I cheer it on, and hopes it envelops every vacation home, excessive mansion, and altar to tourism. It’s a rather pretty plant, really, and it smells like coconuts in the summertime.)

And because everything is in bloom, I was alternately sneezing and wheezing. Every now and then I would drag a thorn encrusted glove across my face to clear the trails of snot pouring from my nose, and I would moan softly as the thorns scourged my face.

Four others suffered alongside me today, and it was an impressive effort. We actually cleared a substantial chunk of roadside once we got into it, although we were discomfited to learn that the neat piles we were making would be left to rot. And re-sprout. The state doesn’t have enough money to manage the piles, so they simply get left behind, as the helpful plump CalTrans representative who dropped by to check on us told us. (He may have had his doubts about us—the first time he came by we were working industriously, but the second time he arrived to find myself and one of my companions prostrate on the middle of a service road, using our vests for pillows while we napped.) You see, the ground had been “preworked” for us by the California Conservation Corps, who had helpfully rotatilled the ground and thrown gorse everywhere. Now, gorse has a strong will to live, so it simply sprouted sideways, reaching tentacles into the earth and clinging to it. Thus, we found a number of supposedly dead branches with fresh new green growth running along their length. And a number of half collapsed piles from previous efforts sprouting fresh gorse like bizarre tophats.

We also cleared Scotch Broom, another pernicious invader. Luckily, the plant is extremely easy to uproot and we merrily trundled along forming massive piles of the stuff at a high rate of speed once we got out of the gorse.

Afterwards, we plied ourselves with food and then collapsed, moaning softly, into a hot tub. It was the only rational response to our day, especially when we realized we had gotten approximately one third of our section of highway done today, and that we have to do this every six months for the next five years. Not only that, but the worst of the gorse is yet to come—for locals, let me tell you that we have adopted a section of highway which is proximate to Caspar. If that doesn’t strike terror into your heart, I don’t know what will.

And I have some words for you, CNPS, speaking of gorse, so hear this:

The battle against gorse cannot be won in conventional ways. If we are willing to plant and tend seedlings of larger plants, shrubs, or trees, we may be able to choke the gorse out. But the methods currently being used don’t work. When uprooted, it resprouts. Burn it, and it germinates. It forms an extensive underground root system which really must be seen to be believed. So it’s all very well for you to sit in your native plant offices moaning about it, but you need to come up with more realistic solutions, including follow through. Seriously. I am all for eradicating harmful invasive species, but I feel like my efforts today were entirely wasted, that six months from now, the verge will be overgrown with gorse again.

[Adopt A Highway]