by Mimi Hedl
Sometimes it feels good to sigh a big, huge, long sigh of relief. Breathing in, then slowly, ever so slowly, letting that breath go out, out, out. I think of the hours, the energy, the anxiety I spent eradicating a bamboo grove I had loved and then grew to hate when I saw it taking Strawdog, insinuating itself 10, 20, then 50 feet in all directions from the ever-expanding margins of the grove.
With such innocence I planted that pot of yellow groove bamboo, probably fifteen years ago. I bought the small start at a plant sale in Owensville, at a garden club fund raiser. I had tried to start bamboo before, but failed. This time I ran a long hose directly down to the bamboo start, drained the water from the wringer washer onto the bamboo, week after week, without fail. I dreamed of what the bamboo would look like, how it would wave in the wind, how I could learn to paint bamboo by direct observation, the trellises I could make from the canes. No doubt, a love fest. Oh my, oh my, oh my. If only I’d listened to the failure.
Year after year I swelled with pride when I saw how well the bamboo grew. Little by little, the tiny start increased to a clump. Soon it began to do the exponential thing. I felt thrilled and began to train the grove into a tunnel. I wouldn’t let any canes come up in the central pathway, just on either side. A small tunnel, granted, but still, an enclosure, a Monet, that surrounded you with softness and promise as you walked through. And when the snow came and bent it to the ground! Beyond beautiful.
A few more years passed and the canes had grown tall enough to harvest; just a few dozen, but enough to make a couple of bean teepees. What a wonderful material to work with! I loved the way it felt, the way it sounded when you tapped two canes together. And the shade and privacy the grove provided. It couldn’t get any better.
The five years or so I spent worrying and taking care of Ron gave the grove a chance to catapult its rhizomes into security. By the time I woke up from life in this nether world, the bamboo had started throwing up shoots where I didn’t want them. I’d take my hoe, walk down to the grove to chop down the offending shoots. Simple. Chop, chop. Away they go.
Why oh why didn’t I study the morphology of bamboo’s root system? I’ll never understand. I needed to lose my life to the eradication of this renewable resource to respect the life cycle of anything I grow. I thought by cutting down the shoot, I deprived the rhizome of energy, and soon the rhizome would shrivel up in horror and die. I had no idea how much latent energy the rhizomes held, and how many nodes each rhizome had, where it could throw up another shoot. The rhizomes had crawled over, under, through and around each other. The earth, one foot down, had become a web of nothing but rhizomes, as strong as rebar. (The chosen material in Japan for concrete reinforcement!) This fact remained a mystery until later in the summer of this year.
Some time last winter, I wrote about cutting the bamboo canes to thin out the grove. The canes had taken every available inch of space, so that moving around inside the grove became impossible. I wanted to walk inside the grove, for children to play there too. I set 100 cut canes as my daily goal.
If I had known then what the spring would bring, I could’ve saved myself lots of trouble by beginning on the outside of the grove, then moving in, cutting every cane instead of only the big ones. Pulling 20’ long canes out of the grove proved more than difficult. It took longer to drag one cane out than it did to cut six. So one day I’d cut, the next day I’d drag and sort. By the 1000th cane, it didn’t seem like fun anymore. I began to resent the bamboo. My love affair had begun to wane.
According to my journal, when I came back from Georgia in mid-March of this year, I found bamboo shoots far and wide. For a woman who needs order, this unsettled me. I ran for the hoe and started whacking shoots like a mad woman. Granted, I panicked. I saw a looming disaster. I began to imagine the shoots appearing everywhere. If they could go under the driveway with chat down 6”, it could go anywhere. I realized that if I didn’t get rid of the grove, every bit of it, I would lose the farm. My mind reeled. I felt faint. It felt like the invasion of the body snatchers, only bamboo rhizomes played the malevolent part. I had a mission.
Every morning, often before breakfast and coffee, for an hour or more, I’d take the hoe off the clothes line pole, see if it needed sharpening, then go down to attack. I’d whack at shoots until my hand, arms, shoulders and legs felt tired and sore. Then I’d walk back to the house, bent over, and do a yoga pose for 15 minutes to stretch out my poor body. A daily routine. A pathetic, ridiculous desperate routine. And like all obsessions, at the end of the day, before beer, I’d go down and do the erad again. I won’t admit how much time I spent. This went on into July.
My helper, Mark, needed work. When he came over in late July, I had the pick-ax waiting for him. By then I had uncovered some buried rhizomes and saw what I faced. I knew I had to get the rhizomes out of the ground. The hoe failed me. I needed more power. I had to throw something over my head to get enough power to sever a rhizome. My body felt worn out from swinging that monster. I felt grateful to have Mark do the labor. After five minutes, Marks stopped swinging the pick-ax, looked at me, and said, “Miss Mimi, we’re goin’ about this the wrong way.”
Hanging up the hoe
He went on to say that I could work like I’d been working for years and never get rid of the bamboo. He told me I was fighting a losing battle. I felt a little foolish. Desperate people often don’t act rationally. Mark knew someone with a brand-new Kubota front-end loader that he could borrow. He’d come over with that piece of machinery and let the machine do the talking.
And he did. The Kubota scooped out the rhizomes like they were a plate of spaghetti on steroids. I stood around with my mouth open, watching the rhizomes plop on the ground. As Mark moved from one area to another, I’d push my wheel barrow over that rough ground, picking up the rhizomes, hence the photograph of the pile of spaghetti.
The Kubota worked for 16 hours over 4 days on the site of the grove, covering 7500 square feet, where I’d cut 2000 mature canes. It took me weeks to pick up all the rhizomes, and weeks more to pull out rhizomes the Kubota missed. As I picked up the rhizomes, day after day, I thought it would provide a wonderful task for a mathematician to write an equation for the energy the rhizomes used to grow to their mature size and then the energy we used to eradicate the grove. Somehow I think the bamboo used the energy of the sun more efficiently and cost-effectively to grow than the Kubota and I used, combined, to eradicate this beautiful plant.
After I took the photograph of my hoe, I oiled it and hung it up in the wood shed. I still go down to the grove every week or two. I find shoots as thin as one of these letters, and I break them off. Sometimes I find a rhizome I can easily pull out. I won’t plant anything on the site of this eradicated grove until next fall. It will take a year to clean up the weeds that will appear and get rid of all the stumps from the bamboo canes.
The soil already feels wonderful. Each rhizome had feeder rootlets galore. These slowly rot down and mellow the earth. A Transparent apple tree will grow there, along with native plants and grasses. For now, I see lots of stinging nettles and moth mullein. Come spring, I’ll have stinging nettle greens in everything from pasta to soup, then digging up the plants and composting them. That task will seem like a joy.
Ahhhhh…some victories feel sweeter than others. So many lessons in this victory; how to stay calm in the midst of a crisis comes first to mind. The need to know plants another. As I look out at this new canvas, I can hardly believe bamboo once grew there. Even my body forgets the labor. A sweet calmness visits me now. Let it stay, let it stay, I say, as I breathe out again.