Sunday, May 15, 2011

Reluctant Roundup

Two weeks ago, seeds in hand and recommended planting deadline approaching, I did my final review of recommendations for prairie site preparation. Our selected site, the south-facing slope that makes up the approach to our house, was about equal parts bare dirt, weeds (including a healthy sprinkling of poison ivy, multiflora rose, and of course, bittersweet), and mixed grass/clover. Maybe a little less on the grass/clover part. I knew that if I had any hopes of establishing a prairie, I needed a well-prepped site, meaning bare soil -- weeds and competing grasses gone, clots and rocks removed. And though I had started planing for the prairie late fall, other spring projects distracted me and the site was now far from ready.

Nearly every source I consulted recommended the use of Round Up or other chemicals to kill weeds and competing grasses. As an organic (no exceptions!) gardener who is reluctant to reach for any spray - even those with the organic seal of approval - this was not a recommendation I intended to follow. So I braved the hill with my pick and hoe. Several hours later, I had removed the weeds and grass from a strip about 5 feet wide. Only a couple hundred to go!

Round two - Round Up. Not the real stuff (expensive) but the generic equivalent. It's not like I'm a chemical virgin. Last fall, I hired a crew of 10 guys to help triage the trees. Working in teams, we hacked our way through giant bittersweet vines, then carefully painted Round Up on the stumps. This spring I've noticed that the stumps are not sprouting new vines, and I think all the trees are going to survive. I count that as an acceptable trade-off. And I routinely patrol the perimeter and main paths through our woods to spray the poison ivy. As I write, my eyelid is twitching with several small spots of rash from that dreaded ivy. I'm sure I brushed against it with my gloves, then used a gloved hand to swat a gnat. Another trade-off I'll willingly make. And now I've added convenience. It was just faster and easier to carefully spray the unwanted grass and weeds then it was to dig them all out. I can justify this trade-off as well - my prairie will provide great cover and food for birds, butterflies, and other wildlife, and waiting another season to plant would mean a lot of erosion.

My funny ethics of chemical use triggered my thoughts on the trade-offs we all make every day. I freely admit that our choice of 11 acres of woods for a homesite was one of the least green choices we could make. Part of my determination to be a "good steward" of this land stems from this knowledge - we could live more sustainably on a small lot in town, within walking or biking distance from basic necessities. And this drives many choices - building green, sharing the land with my parents, carpooling whenever possible, gardening for high yield of foods we frequently eat, adding chickens, composting and recycling fanatically.

I recently heard historian Adam Goodheart on NPR's Fresh Air program. I won't get the quote right - but he was talking about context for the South's desire to hold onto slavery. At that time the South's economy was built on slavery. It wasn't just about cheap labor. Slaves represented people's daily livelihoods, their savings for the future, their inheritance. He compared this to our dependence on oil, suggesting that the twinge of guilt we feel when we climb behind the wheel of the car is akin to what individuals at that time must have felt. They likely knew slavery was wrong - but couldn't get over the hurdle it took to leave it behind. I simply can't get this out of my mind. I guess I'm looking for the Abe Lincoln of energy. Who has what it will take to lead us through the painful trade-offs we all need to make?

Meanwhile, I'm hoping that the rain, heat, and humidity of the past week will help my seeds sprout. I'm watching for the first tiny hints of green. I'll keep you posted.

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