Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Welcome to Weirdsville: Green Jaws

It’s coming. If you close your eyes you can hear it: a soft skittering, hovering at the edge of awareness. The sound of rustling leaves, of gravel, of soil being inexorably pushed aside. The crackling of lumber being crushed; the sharp chimes of metal being deforming by a steady, unstoppable force.

There is no escape. Already entire towns have fallen to the green hell, this floral anaconda. Emerald ghosts of buildings, fences, telephone poles, cars -- at first invisible against the verdant wave, but after a point their forms become obvious, the horror present: nothing has escaped, everything is being slowly buried, methodically consumed by its tendrils, their deadly chlorophyll embrace.

Like something from a 50’s B&W late-night horror-fest, the initial intentions were good, the betterment of mankind and all that: well-intentioned scientist seeking to end world hunger, soil erosion, or something same, develops something that Man Was Not Meant To Know and, before the second act or a commercial for some car dealership or other, the terror reaches from its soil to strangle him with cheap special effects, his over-acting as humorous as it is terrifying.

In the case of this horror, though, it wasn’t one but rather several scientists and some well-meaning agricultural agencies, and it wasn’t something plucked from some atomic pile, but rather the natural environment of Japan.

Billed as a wonderful feed for all sorts of farm animals, and just the thing to keep American topsoil from melting away in the next downpour, pueraria lobata was introduced at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876. Attentive participants listened, enraptured by the plant’s near idyllic benefits: not only was it an excellent all-purpose feed, a powerful soil rejuvenator, but it'd been successfully used by the Chinese and the Japanese for at least 2,000 years as a source for tea, cloth, paper, and starch.

It wasn’t just those first farmers that were amazed by the power of this plant. Alabama Polytechnic Institute spent many years heralding its praises and even the U.S. Department of Agriculture went wild trying get it distributed, paying as much as $8 an acre to locals to cultivate it. So insidious was the plant ... er, so enthusiastic were the experts that at first the South bloomed with festivals and fairs dedicated to this incredible vine from the far East.

Meanwhile, in this mountainous lair, Fu Manchu rubs his hands together, cackling with glee: “Those Western fools, soon their lands will be --”

Suffice it to say that there are few, if any, festivals dedicated to Kudzu now.

The physiology of kudzu sounds so much like a plan for green world domination you have to wonder if it has hyptontic persuasion in addition to its regular biological superpowers: Kudzu’s roots can go twelve feet deep, meaning you just can’t pluck it. To kill the demon weed can take as long as 10 years of persistent cutting, burning, grazing, and the liberal use of herbicides. But even with this blitzkrieg of floral doom, there is still no guarantee that this wily vine won’t just sneer and keep right on growing.

Speaking of growing, this little plant can grow so fast you can actullay watch it, and it doesn’t even take glacial patience. Under perfect conditions, say anywhere in the South, Kudzu can push itself along at a foot a day. Go away for the weekend and your house could be gone when you come back, crushed under a blanket of verdant conquest.

To give you an idea of the extent this simple plant has invaded our noble homeland, kudzu now covers not two thousand acres, not two hundred thousand acres, not a million acres, but as far North as Massachusetts, as far West as Texas and Oklahoma, and even down to Florida where it has started to steadily eat the Everglades. Two million acres, people: two million acres of creeping, marching, strangling green.

Its isn’t just the terrain their kudzu that has been invaded: with the same dark sense of humor they exhibit towards everything else that has threatened their turf, Southerners laugh as their farms, homes, cars and even the occasional lethargic citizen is consumed by the tendrils of this green fiend.

James Dickey said it well in his poem, “Kudzu”:

“In Georgia, the legend says
That you must close your windows
At night to keep it out of the house.
The glass is tinged with green, even so...."

But my favorite maxim is one that’s delightfully close to terror, and one that I think conjures the real impact this creeping horror has had on all those it has touched ... or crushed: “A cow,” they say, “won’t eat kudzu, but kudzu will certainly eat a cow.”

No comments: