MCDOWELL CREEK, Kan. - After each recent rain, I have been up to my knees in our wetland, cutting cattails. I have been told that cutting below the waterline provides a good non-chemical control. A few cattails are great for wildlife, but if not burned, cut, or flooded, a small stand can quickly spread into a monoculture, sucking up available water and pushing out all other wetland vegetation.
Once I got over my fear of being sucked down into the muck and never heard from again, I enjoyed my task. I had a great pair of shears that allowed me to reach the base of the plants without too much stooping. I learned to use a mat of fallen cattails as a raft to stand on, like a wetland version of snowshoes. However, these "shoes" could suddenly tip, and then locomotion became a challenge -- a matter of extracting one foot from deep muck before the other foot lost its balance. Several times I had to hang onto uncut cattails to keep from falling; I did feel guilty when a few minutes later I cut down those very plants. Atonement (is it ever complete?) came in the form of a surge in biodiversity, with arrowhead, spike rush and smartweed taking hold in the cleared space, and frogs, snakes, and dragonflies moving in to fill the gaps.
On really hot days I waited until sunset to get started and sometimes continued working under the light of the moon. The cicadas would already be singing loudly when I arrived, katydids trilling, and frogs and toads beginning their evening choruses. As I trudged and clipped in the deepening dusk, and row after row of cattails fell with a splash, the vocalizations intensified.
Additional amphibian species joined in, and soon I was surrounded by clicks, squeals, clacks, hums, trills, and whines. I had tunnel vision for cattails alone, and perhaps I missed a lot that was going on around me -- but at the same time I felt at the center of the universe. How could there be more to creation than this moonlit patch of water, enclosed in sound? The noises were so deafening that they defined the very ends of the earth. If anything else existed, it was in another dimension, one impenetrable by human senses -- at least as exemplified in that moment by my one pair of ears.
One night it dawned on me that so much of my husband's and my life on this native prairie preserve has been spent just like this -- weeding. We passed the winter cutting volunteer elms and cottonwoods out of our crop buffers, the spring burning brush and spot spraying musk thistle, and the early summer pulling garlic mustard from the creek buffers and removing poison hemlock from an old brome field restored to native.
Somehow all of this wrestling with intrusives and invasives has felt good -- a reverse irony. It should be ironic that in the midst of beautiful healthy prairie, we are spending so much time on the edges, in the disturbed areas. But -- backwards back, no forwards front, no hogwash -- the actual irony is that grappling with what's wrong is a way of embracing what's right. The native prairie sets the standard for vibrant biodiversity, and that standard inspires our actions.
Those actions themselves heighten our connection to nature. Like cowboying, "weeding" is physically intense, an "in" to the landscape for the whole person, body as well as soul. And also like cowboying, it is intellectually engaging, the practice of an art. What should we do and when? These questions demand learning from the expertise of others and then adding to the accumulated lore through our own humbling experiences.
Indeed, it may take all our human gifts to figure out how to interact with the landscape in a way that allows both ourselves and our environment to flourish.
And so I weed. I put my whole self in and I shake it all about. I do so in hopes that I am working with and not against nature, that I am doing more good than harm.
I have sometimes thought that nature would be better off without us humans -- we should set it aside, leave it alone. But completely apart from the impossibility of such a goal, something deep in me insists that I am a part of nature, and that not only my body but my mind, heart, and soul evolved to be part of it.
Something in me was born to cut cattails in August.