by Bibi Wein
We’d been walking since dawn. The midday sun was hot, but the night we’d spent in the forest under a makeshift shelter of hemlock boughs had been cold and long. It was our second summer here. My husband and I had stepped out of our cabin for a short walk before dinner, lost our way. Sixteen hours later, we were still lost in the woods. We’d trudged uphill and down, slogged through swamps, followed old logging roads that led nowhere. Now we were on yet another narrow, winding track, dense with shrubs and wildflowers. Suddenly: a power pole. We were home! Or very nearly so.Until that moment, we hadn’t realized our own road was as wild as the forest around it.
Over a decade of summers that followed, I walked that road almost daily. Its native plants in all the stages of their lives became familiar as human neighbors. I looked forward to their first shoots and noted the timing of their bud and bloom. In June I knew which clumps of brambles would produce the best berry crop in August, and where the milkweed would mature to bring swarms of butterflies.
For better or worse, I’ve developed a 19th century view of wild plants “as fellow creatures, with their own life plans and dwelling places,” as Richard Mabey puts it in his book “Weeds.” Which is why I can no longer bear to take my roadside walks. One summer, everything changed. In early July this roadside—and every other road in Essex County–will be reduced to a coarse stubble by the arm of a mowing machine, leaving broken stalks of tall meadow rue, white sweet clover, evening primrose, joe pye weed, boneset, milkweed, and countless other native species in its wake.
The mowing began without warning. Away for an hour, we returned to find the soft edges of our property leveled like a corn field. Even a plastic tub of transplants I’d left out had been shredded by an indiscriminate scythe left me feeling I’d had a visit from Death himself.
Every spring, I mull and fume about how I can prevent the devastation. I’ve considered lying down in front of the machine, but so far, I haven’t. I’d like to complain that the destruction of the road’s berry bushes deprives my family of homemade pies and jams and and the pleasures of picking and preparing. I’d like to point out not only that the severed milkweed leaves were laden with the eggs of monarch butterflies, that the adult monarchs rely on roadside flowers to fuel their two-thousand mile migration, but also that the plants deserve to live for their own sakes.
The mowers are assigned by the local highway superintendent, with whom I’ve tried to reason about other pointless policies of roadside plant destruction–tree-cutting, ditching —to no avail. Motorist safety and “noxious weed prevention” are typically cited as the reasons for roadside mowing. With only three houses, this road rarely sees a dozen vehicles a week. And no authority here could distinguish a noxious weed from an endangered species.
I mourn for the plants that have been my companions and teachers, and for the cornucopia of nectars lost by bees and butterflies and other pollinators. And I mourn the loss of my solitary wildflower walks, my time-honored source of solace and renewal. Lady Bird Johnson marshalled many arguments when, half a century ago, she persuaded the President and Congress to pass the Highway Beautification Act. But I’m convinced the power of her passionate advocacy came from her belief in the importance of wild beauty for the human spirit. Now, who will speak for the backroads? Pollinators desperately need their diverse, untrammelled habitat. So do humans.
Originally published in Wildflower, the magazine of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, Spring 2015.
Bibi Wein’s environmental memoir about getting lost in her neighborhood woods, The Way Home: A Wilderness Odyssey is published by Tupelo Press. She has been a frequent contributor to Wildflower, Adirondack Life and many other publications. She divides her time between Manhattan and a log cabin in Olmstedville.
Photo by Bob Fisher