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
I have to admit, even with a BS Biology degree as an undergrad, I never paid much attention to plants. I was more into vertebrates and their physiology. Mow the roadsides, cut the forests, pesticide use – these things were not in my crosshairs. It took almost 60 years for the interconnectivity of life to sink in. Now it is impossible for me to look at an organism and not see it within a much larger web of life.
I also realize I am a hypocrite as well. I do not lead a life off the grid and much of my daily life choices are implicated one way or another in harming Nature and natural webs. But I do try to reduce my impact more every day, and support natural cycles and webs when I can. It takes knowledge of these systems and insights into how we harm them to make a difference. But I have to think – as I sit here swatting mosquitoes on this warm October day – am I doing enough? Some things are just a conditioned reflex.
Hmmm – roadside mowing is done by NYS DOT for State roads, County roads are mowed by the local County DPW, and lastly the Town roads are mowed by the local Highway Dept. If anything there isn’t enough roadside mowing! Invasive species could be better controlled with timely mowing especially purple loosestrife and Wild Parsnip (especially ubiquitous in Eastern Essex County). The larger high speed state routes benefit from better visibility for drivers to see animal incursions. Of late, budgets and manpower have been strained and I see less than normal mowing.
Hmmm, that’s strange. I’ve seen a lot more roadkill than skid marks from cars braking for animals.
Braking hard and swerving to avoid small critters may be extremely dangerous to PEOPLE. I’ll take my foot off the gas or brake lightly and make an attempt not to hit them, but will almost never swerve or slam on the brakes to avoid a squirrel/rabbit/possum etc. People are more important (check next to last paragraph of attached article). That’s just me.
Really? An ad for personal injury attorneys? I’ll just stick with the animals, thank you very much.
Hi Anita. I’m not sure why you think the people that have to pay for drivers mistakes should be disqualified, but below is another source that you MAY approve of. Actually, all one really needs is some common sense to know that suddenly swerving or slamming on the brakes AND swerving to save a cat or dog is dangerous to yourself and others on the road. No-one wants to hit animals, but it’s better than killing your friend or neighbor, or even a stranger. Since you’ve already announced your loyalty is to the animals, I’ll be especially careful if I know you’re on the road when I am.
I feel the same way about a hill I live near. It wasn’t getting mowed and all manner of wildflowers and milkweed were flourishing, supporting an array of butterflies and bees. I would walk my granddaughter by and show her how lovely and full of life that hill was. But the Village decided it was a disgrace and one day mowed the entire hill down. Murder …was the word that came to mind.
written so beautifully !
so true, wishing you luck on your quest to stop the scythe !
Roadsides are only one potential target of mowing changes. Port Kent has a several acre open space that faces the Lake Champlain, and gets a great deal of eastern exposure. It would be a wonderful wildflower/pollinator field, but is planted with grass and mowed biannually. It is a waste. Milkweed is slowly moving into the field, and gets mowed at critical times in summer, wiping out any pollinator caterpillars (Monarchs, etc.) using them.
While it would be expensive to convert the field to a pollinator haven, simply switching to early-spring mowing only would allow for greater plant and insect diversity and less harmful to pollinator propagation.
Virtually every village has these open spaces owned by the town or individuals that could be either converted to pollinator spaces, or at least mowing only in early spring if fire danger and tree encroachment is a consideration. It is considered desirable to leave plants with seeds standing for wildlife that can use them over the winter when there is snow cover. I encourage people to contact their village/town supervisors to “rewild” these open spaces where practical. Even converting a small portion of the field to pollinator species is beneficial to wildlife.
Hey Moe! Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk!
An email today from https://www.environmental-action.org/ talking about the decline in monarch butterflies states:
“In 2021, volunteers tallied a mere 5% of what the populations looked like in the 1980s.The main reason for the sharp population decline? A lack of these butterflies’ main food source: Milkweed.5
Milkweed, also known as a “mega food market for insects,” is the monarchs’ primary food source. Not only does it give them the sustenance they need to embark on their yearly migrations, but milkweed also offers them a unique form of protection.6
When monarch caterpillars digest the milkweed, they produce an enzyme that makes them toxic to predators. Unfortunately, monarchs have no natural ability to protect themselves from starvation, a state of existence they’re becoming accustomed to with the 1.3 billion dead milkweed stems.7
Calling on the Senate to pass the MONARCH Act will help ensure that proper funding and resources are dedicated to saving this endangered species.8 Urge your U.S. senators today to pass this bill.”
We can either sit around watching old TV comedies, or take action to assure a habitable planet for our children and grandchildren.
Thanks for posting! I didn’t know about the Monarch Act.
It’s fine. If you want to not mow a dirt road like this on in the picture – just take a look at a pretty wide logging road where they don’t mow. It only takes a matter of a few years for the road to be “eaten” up by the vegetation on the sides. Then if you want to open it up for any kind of travel it takes a ton of work and lots of branch cutting and small tree cutting etc. to make it passable again.
Wow! Don’t mow the road! I’ve always lived on a dirt road. The narrow swath that they mow keeps your road open and accessible. If they don’t mow, foliage overcomes the road – FAST – and it becomes impassable. There would be no place to put the snowfall; the fire truck or ambulance might not be able to get there in an emergency. It’s happened, even with the plows doing their best.
The monarchs are doing as well as they can, in this polluted world. They find the milkweed. Even if it’s not right next to the road, it’s there in the overgrown fields and hedges. So, enjoy; you have the best of both worlds.
If the population of mankind diminished as quickly as the monarchs have, you’d be a little more concerned (assuming you survive, that is.) Mowing a couple of feet at the edge of the road is a lot different than mowing all the way back to the tree line.
I think an important point that is usually NOT mentioned is WHERE milkweed grows, or is planted. If we just drive around like Johnny Appleseed and plant milkweed everywhere it will grow, it doesn’t necessarily help Monarchs as a species. If we allow milkweed to grow right up to the blacktop, so to speak, between necessary mowing (killing eggs and caterpillars) and car collisions, are we helping Monarchs?? Or even other pollinators that sweep in to get nectar from any roadside plants? If we keep milkweed and other host plants growing in the kill zone, we are not doing these species any favors, and just drawing them away from safer natural areas farther back from the roads. It is obviously not good to attract pollinators to the roadside (intentionally or unintentionally) only to kill them directly or hurt their reproductive success.
I also don’t have a problem with departments sowing low-grow grass or other plant types say perhaps within a 15 foot right-of-way (ROW), and mowing the bejeezus out of that – but keep in mind what deer like to eat and will be attracted to like clover and such. But planting pollinator species immediately next to high-speed traffic is most likely a bad thing. Nor do I see simple mowing as a cure for slowing invasive species. But beyond that ROW – open areas like medians, large shoulders and such on interstate highways – perhaps different pollinator species can be used and perhaps only mowed occasionally when things are brown and most pollinators aren’t actively using them for food or reproduction.
Perhaps something other than plants could be used within that 10-15 foot ROW. Perhaps some sort of semi-permanent yet safe and judiciously applied herbicide would minimize the amount of mowing. Don’t know if there is such a thing.
Yet another factor is all roadsides are not equal. A dirt country road with a likely 40 mph speed limit is different than urban and high-speed roadways. They all don’t have to be managed the same way, and usually are not managed by the same federal/state/county/local governments anyway. Use what makes sense for any particular roadway. But let’s just try to be a little more thoughtful about pollinators while we do so.