Archive for August, 2017

The Charge of the Loosestrife Brigade



Half a league, half a league,

Half a league onward,

All in the marsh of Death

Waded the three

Forward the Loosestrife Brigade

Charge for the purple he said

Into the waters of Death

Waded the grim-faced three*


Our squad slipped into the swamp. Cattails, alders and other vegetation screened us from our objective. We slogged through the tangled morass and shin-to-waist deep water. We placed boards ahead of us to make it easier to walk without sinking too deeply in the boggy ground. It was like a short slow conveyor belt across a giant waterbed. Lay down a board. Shuffle a few steps across. Drop a second board, reach into the muck and retrieve the first board and repeat. And repeat.

For three Augusts we have gathered at this swamp to make our assault. This year we had increased our forces by a full third so now we were a trio. Our targets were the formidable and invasive plants labeled purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria).

Like my own ancestors, the first purple loosestrife seeds came across the Atlantic Ocean to North America in the 1800s. No one knows if the seeds were brought intentionally as an ornamental plant or accidentally such as in the wool of sheep or in the ballast of a ship. Once the seeds landed on the east coast they began to creep from wetland to wetland across the continent.

Ferociously fecund, a single spike of loosestrife flowers can produce up to three million tiny seeds. Their viability is equally tenacious, with nearly 100% germination. To advance across the landscape, the small seeds can disperse in the wind or cling to the legs of water birds or hulls of boats. Most experts believe the spread of purple loosestrife and nearly all the harm done to natural habitats by invasive species has come at the hand of arguably most invasive species of all: humans.

In our desire to control landscapes, humans have cut, burned, hoed, plowed, and planted vast acreages or small garden plots with plants of our choosing. The tall spike of pink-purple loosestrife has been cultivated in gardens for years. Most infestations into the wild are the result of garden escaped loosestrife. Domesticated cultivars can successfully cross with the wild variety of loosestrife.

Without any natural predators or diseases, this foreign exotic can overtake a wetland and snuff out existing, native non-woody vegetation. Dominant stands of purple loosestrife can radically decrease the biodiversity of wetlands and affect everything from wildlife usage to nutrient cycling. Ecologists fear that many impacts of loosestrife infestations are still unknown.

Spying the six-to-eight foot spires of purple, we forged forward. Hand-to-stem combat got ugly as we struggled to pull the plant from its tight grip in the marsh. Loosestrife is exceedingly stubborn to pull out, and to assure yourself of complete victory you must extract the fibrous root system. Most of the time we could not.

To prevent this year’s seed crop from sending out tens of millions of seeds, we mostly used hand shears to cut through the tough woody stems. We had to be satisfied with this partial victory. We rolled up dismembered plants and tucked them into garbage bags that we dragged behind us. In short order the tough stems poked through the bags and soon we were pulling bags weighted with plants and water.

We didn’t use chemicals to kill the loosestrife because we were in a wetland and we didn’t want to endanger innocent vegetation and other life.

In the 1990s two species of European beetles were introduced in Minnesota as a bio-control to deal with the loosestrife. It worked. The adult and larvae of one of the species eats the leaves and flowers and another species bores into the roots, killing the plants. The beetles have greatly reduced invasions over several years as large swaths of loosestrife were killed.

In recent years there has been a comeback of loosestrife; hence our brigade’s effort to control it before it gets too thick to handle.

Gritting our teeth, with sweat running down our faces, we wrestled with tough stems. The towering plants were not silent. Scores of bees hurried from flower spike to flower spike. The aromatic nectar attracts these insects to unknowingly help complete the miracle of pollination and plant dispersal.

We were never stung as the bees simply moved to another clump of purple. As I sloshed to the next target, I felt the angst of eliminating the foodstuffs of bees and butterflies. In recent years, pollinating insects have seen frightful decreases in their populations mostly due to modern agricultural practices that include floods of herbicides and pesticides.

I justified my lording over loosestrife in the name of biodiversity. Without biodiversity, natural systems that sustain the world, including humans, collapse.

After five hours of battle we pulled six stuffed bags of mutilated remains out of the marsh. We dragged the bags to the road and heaved them into the bed of a waiting truck. They were going to be hauled away and burned, thus terminating all potential of rising to purpledom.

When can their glory fade? 

O the wild charge they made! 

All the world wonder’d. 

Honour the charge they made!

Honour the Light Brigade,

Noble the grim-faced three!*


*I like to think that Alfred Lord Tennyson would smile in my reformatting his classic 1854 poem, The Charge of the Light Brigade.



Perseverance Overture No. 2


“Only when I experience something do I compose, and only when composing do I experience anything.”

Gustav Mahler, Austrian composer 


Over a lifetime of canoeing into wild places, I’ve known my share of portages.

Portaging requires unloading packs and gear from a canoe and carrying them overland to another body of water then stowing them again in the canoe. The carry-over can be short or it can run for miles. The longest portage I’ve made was a three-mile carry around Kasmere Falls in northern Manitoba while the shortest is literally a handful of steps. Sometimes, like in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, the trails are well worn. In more remote areas, you might find an old hatcheted blaze on a tree that marks a seldom-used portage route. In really remote areas you literally tread your own trail.

Portaging doesn’t get any easier as I age. But with the accumulation of experience I have learned how to cope with the exercise. While fitness and perseverance are handy traits, sometimes you need to use your brain.

Earlier this summer four of us faced a mile and a quarter portage in northern Saskatchewan. It wasn’t a new experience for us since we had made this very portage about ten days earlier. Knowing we had to deal with the carry a second time had me strategizing for a diversion. How could I mask the physical discomforts of the effort?

My strategy was simple. I would shroud the task with an exercise in creativity. The resulting release of painkilling endorphins would blot out any potential pain. I decided to compose a live classical music piece.

I’ve never written music in my life. Birthing an original tune would require sharp focus and increase the odds of successfully masking pain and fatigue. The result was not a well thought out score but rather an improvised collaboration.

Instead of lifting a conductor’s baton, I flipped the canoe upside down onto my shoulders, shrugged it into its comfortable berth and stepped boldly towards my composition.

After fifty foot-sucking steps into a bog, the first inspiration for my symphony descended on me. I love classical pieces that open with only the notes of strings. Mine opened with the sound of wings. Mosquitoes joined in a most energetic chorus as they bounced around my head underneath the canoe canopy.

My wife is an accomplished violinist and fiddler. But never has she been able to reach the high pitches of the genus Aedes. On this overcast day, these female mosquitoes would aptly provide my ostinato in the score. Derived from the Italian word meaning “stubborn” this phrase is persistent with the melody delivered at the same pitch.

How perfect for me to co-create with these spritely musical blood-letters. There was no doubt as to how my symphony must unfold. I had to walk fast to escape the onslaught. This was the perfect place to insert a spirited allegro, a brisk and lively tempo, into my score.

Collectively, mosquitoes’ passionate peals have the power to make grown men weep. And even a single mosquito solo can snap you out of a deep sleep. Now that is pure inspiration.

I tried in vain to step onto hummocks or clumps of leather-leaf bushes but soon my feet were soaked in the muck. There was a tympanic rhythm to the squelching percussion as I pulled each foot from the peaty mire.

With a surprising flourish, a duo of lesser yellowlegs hammered out a string of flat “tu-tu-tu” whistles. The alarm calls of this boreal shorebird added a much-needed fanfare to my piece. I tipped the front of the canoe slightly skyward so I could watch the pair of birds alighting on the tips of black spruce trees. As they fluttered to balance on their perches, I could imagine them dancing in time to the score. They flew from tree to tree, upset at my intrusion into their bog where they probably have their ground nest.

Their musical contribution is nothing compared to their physical efforts during their migration. Amazingly, this year’s young will depart for Central and South America after the adults leave, yet will still find their way to the tropical coastal regions.

As the trail left the wetland, it rose gently upwards. Passing through a screen of alders I encountered birch and aspen trees. The wind rustled the leaves, adding a gentle patter to my composition. My own breathing provided an underlying beat.

I interrupted the rhythm of my piece with a couple syncopated steps to avoid two piles of bear scat.

Soon I crested the slight rise and began heading downslope. At this point there was a poignant shift in energy. The descent to the next lake was quiet. Surrounded by a blackened landscape of burned spruce and jack pine, I felt that my piece had become a dirge.

In the flooded last stretch of the trail, my footsteps splashed like the clashing of cymbals. Finally, I stopped at the lake’s edge and rolled the canoe off my shoulders. I released a sigh. The conductor’s baton was lowered.