On the Destruction and Restoration of Habitats

The forest preserve district wants me to cut down trees. With a saw in one hand and loppers in the other, I oblige.

As a child I got my destructive tendencies out in videogames and martial arts. Beating all of my friends at Street Fighter—and gloating about it—was fine. Plucking flowers was not. Even the ubiquitous dandelions like tiny weak suns in the lawn grass were meant to be seen, and only pulled once transmogrified to puffball form, wanting dispersal.

At the beginning of May this year, I ripped those vivid yellow heads off every single dandelion in my parents’ yard, and then when more had bloomed the next day I did it again.

After I’d dumped the pile of them into the trash, I went to the little patch of trees across the street. The grass here was sparse, a bloom of mushrooms welled from the drying mud. I squatted down and took a minute to admire a single violet plant. Heart shaped leaves framed purple flowers. The flowers are easily recognized even when they aren’t purple. The white ones are indigo-streaked to lead in the pollinators, but my favorite, for the irony and more, are the yellow violets. They are bright, though nestled close to the ground, and not as shiny as the five-petaled swamp buttercups that, as their name suggests, thrive alongside Illinois’ transient and permanent wetlands.

All these native plants and more—the mayapples, trillium, spring beauties, Dutchman’s breeches, woodland phlox; and those are only the current season’s more common flowers—evolved to thrive in specific conditions. Varying degrees of sunlight and wetness will even introduce variations within a species. The most vivid specimen of spring beauties I have ever seen, with shocking pink anthers that would put Barbie to shame, was about a minute after my sneaker filled with muddy water because of snowmelt on the unpaved trail. But I’ve also seen them growing in flocks in the grass, out in full sun, the characteristic pink lines on their petals faded to a more solemn hue.

But none of these thrive in the presence of invaders.

Garlic mustard pops up in the spring, leaves somewhat reminiscent of violets’, with little clusters of four-petaled white flowers. The roots smell like garlic, which is how it got the name, and it generates chemicals that kill its neighbors. When I see it, I rip it out—it’s not as persistent as dandelion. My family finds this very annoying when we’re out walking, but how can I squander the privilege of this knowledge, this access to the woodlands?

Before I found the local forest preserve, I joined whatever volunteer opportunities in habitat restoration came my way. Some of these included local youth. They came from various backgrounds, but the important thing was they were interested in the program, even when their destructive tendencies were less delicate than mine.

One year we were supposed to take a group of middle schoolers to plant trees in an impoverished neighborhood, which had its nature overwritten in concrete and scraggly grass. Of course, a group of middle schoolers and a few adults can’t dig all the holes needed for oak saplings. So the plan was—if I remember correctly—for the community service workers to dig the holes, leaving the saplings with their root balls for the kids to plop in and cover with dirt. Satisfying, right?

When we got there, there had been a mix up. The holes were not dug and there were only a few saplings.

Unable to do anything, the leader improvised a plan: cleanup. We would walk around picking up trash. Dime bags the kids didn’t understand (and we didn’t explain), thankfully—that time—no condom wrappers, and the litter of any place, even those where everyone has a reusable tote bag. Organic bars come in the same metallic wraps as their cheaper cousins.

We came to a tree, a slim thing caged by its surroundings, spreading thin leaves despite the mound of cigarette butts around it.

I’ll never forget the look on the kids’ faces. Why would people make such a mess, right there? It was a learning opportunity, to see the bar across the street and recall the order banning indoors smoking. Unintended consequences. Easily changed by being mindful of one’s own behavior. They cared, and I hope still care. I hope that when they are adults out on field trips, they don’t have to try to hide, at the end of an otherwise excellent kayak up our manmade lagoons, surrounded by squawking birds and shy turtles and the sinuous movement of water gliders, in the middle of the clear summer sky a blot of a cormorant dangling from a tree by the fishing line stuck in its throat.

My pathetic diversion didn’t work, because these were curious kids with functioning eyes and senses attuned after a solid hour looking for animals. But it didn’t stop them from continuing to participate in learning about and restoring nature. Not everything we do outside has to be a conquest.

Buckthorn, like garlic mustard, is allelopathic. It releases chemicals that kill its neighbors. There was one morning where, I swear, the second the last virulent orange trunk hit the earth, the frogs struck up their song, sunlight warming the newly cleared space. Thankfully buckthorn doesn’t grow amid standing water, but it had been close to the edge.

While it’s incredibly satisfying to yell “Timber!” as the creaking turns into a crash, the buckthorn isn’t actually dead. The thing about invasives is they’re not immigrants or foreigners, they are colonists. Killing their competitors is only the first step: they have to be able to grow and reproduce, too. As long as its roots are alive, buckthorn has the opportunity to send up whippy shoots en masse. When these have the opportunity to grow, they create a whole tangle that’s hard to cut down, tangled trunks and branches, and of course the thorns they’re named after.

The only solution is to destroy even the roots, by painting a herbicide onto the trunks that will leach through.

You may have heard of this one.

It’s called glyphosate.

When it’s not damaging farm workers and bees, glyphosate is saving habitats by killing off the invasives that destroy our habitats, the rare plants and animals which adapted to their niches over the course of millennia, only to be derailed by a succession of introductions both intentional and otherwise.

Paying extra for organic produce, living in a place with enough volunteers and staff to maintain the woods that release crisp, fresh air from their rich green leaves, the carpet of moss and grass and flowers underfoot attracting birds that sit up in the branches and trill away, with no consideration for an amateur photographer—it is easy to not understand why things like glyphosate still exist, are still used.

But until there is another solution, our options are limited. We cannot go back in time to save that biodiversity before it ever became threatened, before the pale furl of a blue flag iris beneath its stiff proud leaves became a rare event. We must move forward.

Until there are better options, I will be in the forest, sawing down trees and pulling weeds, with the other regular volunteers and student groups that still, in the middle of a million other assaults on nature, take the time to try and heal this piece.

You’re invited.