We carried our weapons on our backs. The sprayers with three gallons of herbicide (Roundup Pro, Garlon 4, and Habitat) weighed us down, but lightened as we showered the brightly dyed chemicals onto leaves that would then drip with the hot pink or aquamarine blue liquid. For over a week we’d hunted down the many invasive plants that have insidiously infiltrated Mississippi’s Gulf Islands National Seashore. Our hope was that the negative cost of using herbicides would be outweighed by the positive results of protecting fragile wetlands from destructive exotic plants. We’d looked in low marshes for thick patches of torpedo grass, gazed through dense brush for the sneaky curls of drooping honeysuckle vine, and peered up over the canopy for the pale, heart leaves of Chinese tallow. These plants reproduce so quickly they choke out diverse ecosystems and threaten the survival of native plant and animal species. Our hope was that by spraying potentially harmful chemicals we could mitigate the damage our unknowing society had caused by introducing these foreign plants.
As with every work hitch the terrain challenged us in unique ways. The harsh, burning rays of direct sun, the poison ivy, and thorny briars we had encountered before, but the marshlands offered up a new challenge. Mud. Very stinky mud. Each day there were casualties on our crew. We sacrificed dry, clean-ish clothes to the methane, smelly muck. Curtis, our undaunted leader, fell during our first foray into the marshes. After facing down an overfriendly alligator used to yummy handouts from visitors, he reached out to steady a crew member and in the process he himself ended up sideways in the mud. The next day Seth – always a “Johnny-on-the-spot” – sludged around the edges of a pond until a hidden deep spot engulfed him up to his chest and filled up his rubber waders with murky water.
Our relief from the marshes came on the couple days that the winds calmed and our helpful National Park Service guides, Gary and Jeff, took us out to the barrier islands: Sand, Horn, Petit Bois (pronounced “petty boy”) and both West and East Ship Islands. Riding in the boat, feeling the spray of saltwater, and seeing dolphins play in the waves rejuvenated our spirits. On the islands we scrambled over sand dunes with our backpack sprayers until we came across nearly impenetrable stands of tall reeds called phragmites, which we then attacked with herbicide.
As the week wore on it dawned on the crew that this Sisyphean fight against invasives meant we played a small, short-term role. We could see where Chinese tallow trees had been cut just a couple years before and the dry, brown poles of previously treated phragmites. Now they’d returned with a vengeance. With every vehicle carrying exotic seeds into the park and with every hurricane creating sunny opportunities for dormant weeds to spring up our hard efforts would come undone. We needed to trust future conservationists to carry on the work and continue to fight against each fresh wave of harmful sprouts or perhaps find new solutions to the problem.
For me the words of the prominent conservationist, Aldo Leopold, offer encouragement: “We shall never achieve harmony with land, any more than we shall achieve absolute justice or liberty for people. In these higher aspirations the important thing is not to achieve, but to strive.” AmeriCorps members strive. While each of us strives for social justice and freedom, there is that quirky branch made up of Conservation Corps that strives for harmony with our rich and beautiful land. This ragtag group of members consists of types who judge the day’s productivity by the amount of sweat and dirt caked onto their pants, who take humble responsibility for the wounds their society inflicts on the environment, and who have a tendency to romanticize their work as guardians of the wilds.
Kate Saling, Field Crew Leader