Tools frowned upon in the organisation’s other activities were acceptable if used against this particular enemy: herbicides, bulldozers, fume-spewing chippers. Swarms of volunteers, eager to reconnect with nature (or forced to do so, in the case of some students), were encouraged to achieve this communion by uprooting plants and sawing into honeysuckle trunks. Professionals would come by later and paint the exposed wood with glyphosate.
All of this was done in the name of restoring the woodland to its original purity. After the clearings, triumphal pictures were sent out of native wildflowers, lifting up lovely heads after years under the thickets. Nothing was planted in the bare areas, so honeysuckle would naturally show up again in a few years, or sometimes resprout immediately from the roots.
Nature-oriented organisations throughout the region were busy with this task, and no amount of volunteer time seemed to be sufficient. Every cleared section of forest had to be monitored for fresh plants, all while honeysuckle continued taking over new areas.
The long battle had engendered a kind of hatred. Highly moral language was deployed from people who were, in other circumstances, gently mystical about nature finding its own balance, or blandly scientific about species migrating in response to climate change. Honeysuckle, though, was in its own category – it was simply a bad plant. Leaves appeared early in spring and dropped late in winter, robbing other plants of the sunlight that, after so many years of evolution, they surely had a right to expect. Birds ate the berries and spread the seeds – otherwise the plant would not be so successful – but the honeysuckle berries were sugary, I was told, not truly nutritious, the equivalent of junk food. Yes, this duplicitous bush was tricking the birds into eating its berries! Like us, it seems birds need coaching and strict restraints to arrive at a healthy and moral diet.
Honeysuckle rather seemed to relish the conflict itself. Bushes would respond to cuts with more gnarled, luxuriant growth, impeding the progress of any ungainly upright animals who wanted to move through the space. The plant also has what I would describe as a sense of humour. Every American child knows, or at least once knew, how to suck the drop of sweetness at the base of a honeysuckle flower. Nope. Wrong plant. Only the larger flowers on Lonicera vines are sweet; those on invasive bush honeysuckle don’t taste like much of anything. Then, later in summer, the imposter’s beautiful red berries send out every signal of human deliciousness but are as bitter as can be imagined on the tongue. For months, the mocking dots of red poke thickly out of the forests, just at our height.
A few months ago, my son was having terrible nightmares and I read Ann Sayre Wiseman’s two books on dreams. When Wiseman worked with children, she would suggest that they draw the monsters which were stalking them at night, and then ask, what should we do about this? How can we solve this problem? Sometimes the children would suggest shooting or killing the monster. This particular solution, Wiseman notes, never works. The monster always comes back.
So does honeysuckle.
After an extensive bout of removal, as I looked at the carnage on the forest floor from both bulldozers and human uprooting, I started to wonder whether any of this was worthwhile – or, at least, whether it was the best way to spend huge sums of money and volunteer time. When I suggested planting trees on some of the foundation’s many lawns, though, the leadership had serious reservations. Too much maintenance, I was told.
Maintenance – even endless maintenance – is acceptable, I discovered, but only in the service of a holding pattern, the forest as it used to be. Time spent watching an emerging order and responding to it, maybe with some gentle guidance – well, that’s risky, too open-ended.
There is a word for a piece of land that cannot maintain its shape without our constant involvement and which makes almost no decisions for itself. The word is garden.
I like gardens. I have a small one. In a garden, we get to talk a lot about what we want. As we move farther from our plot, though, we have fewer decisions to make. Keep walking towards the trees and the presences grow larger. They don’t demand silence but it is certainly encouraged. Even talkative children, walking into a forest, get a little quieter. Be quiet long enough and you start to receive something. Communications.
Here are some of the messages we received.
Honeysuckle branches, piled up, take ages to biodegrade. The usual solution is to chip the stuff, which is what the organisation did. But chipped honeysuckle discourages the growth of many other plants. What first came back at the sunny edges of clearings, the human entrance points, were things like poison ivy and hemlock, a small piece of which, consumed, will kill a person or a livestock animal.
Then, the spring after the honeysuckle removal, there was an explosion of ticks on the farm. They fell from the trees and latched on from the tall grass. I was constantly finding them on myself and on the children who came for field trips. My friend suggested that deer were abandoning the areas without a honeysuckle understory – this is where the mothers keep their fauns as they browse – and the ticks were fanning out, looking for new hosts.
Two people on the farm contracted Lyme disease, which conventional medicine finds increasingly difficult to treat.
When a forest, or any group of living things, is ignored for long enough, while also being constantly meddled with, it starts to speak more loudly, with sharper edges.
When a forest, or any group of living things, is ignored for long enough, while also being constantly meddled with, it starts to speak more loudly, with sharper edges. The dream monsters return every night, and they start to bring friends. Eventually, the messages get fierce enough that even the marginally attuned can hear them.
This is what I heard the forest saying.
I feel unsettled, much more than usual.
Something deep and serious is changing
So I am changing too. I am on my way somewhere
To a new integrity.
You should know: it won’t look the same as the old one.
I am using what is available to me.
This plant that you brought here is part of this.
So are you.
We are on this journey together.
Be still. Then, if you must move,
Find your place within these changes.
I had planned to write about where our literature has gone in the years since Dark Mountain began. I am perhaps no longer the person to do this. I don’t read many new books, and I read far fewer old books than I used to. I am, in many ways, in the state of the forest that I describe above, crawling on the edges with invasives that I no longer know how to control.
Most forests in the United States are damaged. They were cleared at some point for farm, pasture or timber, and still carry the story of these wounds. Almost all of the established trees are the same size and age, quite young, and only belong to a few species. The patches are too fragmented, cut up by roads and development. These are the woodlands most susceptible to invasives.
In any living system, a dangerous and unstable vitality is preferred to impoverishment.
The nearest old-growth forest is several hours’ drive away from me, in Indiana. I would like to go there someday. If I find the old wholeness, and can still recognise it, I will be very quiet and wait to see what it might say. But right now my neighbours are these patches of young trees and bush honeysuckle. They are what I have to work with, and I am part of what they have to work with.
What we do to the land, we do to our own imaginations. In the forests of our stories too, behind some energy and a few flashes of beauty, there is a hidden sameness that indicates some previous clear-cut, ideological or quite literal. None of this, of course, has changed substantially over the past decade.
What has changed is the presence, on the borders, of the invasives. These creatures can smell weakness and ill-health at an enormous distance. They cluster around sores. The keepers don’t have the energy or resources to control them anymore and suddenly they are everywhere. So they are acknowledged now – but only as a threat, as something outside the real conversation, the true forest. Honeysuckle. Autumn olive. Lesser celandine. Strange, sturdy, tricky little monsters that seem to thrive better than the natives. Each time the guardians of our culture cut or spray them out, they regenerate in more durable and often poisonous forms.
Fresh arguments must be put forth, or old ones repeated. Look – they lack the grandeur of what once grew here. They destroy the health of the whole place. They spread like some kind of disease. And they somehow trick people, like those honeysuckle berries, into using them for sustenance and spreading them elsewhere. The question of why the current landscape isn’t providing adequate sustenance is rarely asked.
For a long time, even after I began writing for Dark Mountain, I would have identified myself as one of these guardians. My general pattern was using some piece of old culture as a stick with which to beat new culture – here, I would say, pounding away, this is what integrity actually looks like. This is how you can recognise these frauds.
Something happened a few years ago, though. Much as it did in the middle of my single day removing honeysuckle, I completely lost my confidence in the usefulness of this particular job. I wasn’t sure the forest needed this kind of help.
The young people I worked with, I noticed, also did not need such guardians. They were quite mixed up, with all sorts of seemingly incompatible ideas, native and foreign, traditional and newfangled, but they did not feel themselves to be damaged or requiring cleansing. Instead, using materials close at hand, they were working towards a new coherence. They hadn’t needed to spend years freeing themselves from conventionality, and had used this time to become significantly more competent than me at everything I now thought important. And like the surrounding patches of forest, I could sense that they were on their way to becoming something else, a mixed-up-ness in the process of building its own integrity. And they were much closer to being rooted and healthy than I was.
I felt worthless for a while, fumbling with leaky hoses, nearly passing out placing squash transplants in the heat, not knowing the names of many common birds or trees. In three years, I wrote nothing that wasn’t for a paycheck. I didn’t feel like I was in possession of knowledge that merited anyone’s attention. Many books turned strange on my shelf. Some were dead; others, I could tell, were just going dormant for a while, like trees facing the winter.
Many books turned strange on my shelf. Some were dead; others, I could tell, were just going dormant for a while, like trees facing the winter.
I have come out of the transition confused, but with plenty of work still to do. And I know what kinds of books have survived; they are among the few that I could recommend to the young people on the farm, and tellingly, none of them is likely to receive a review in the official places. These are all recombinant ecosystems – not possessing a deep stability or integrity, like the old forms, but touch a finger to their wrists and you will feel a strong pulse, not a weakening one.
Some of the best of them are books of skills, how-to books, where philosophy mingles with more practical matters – books that aren’t generally considered literature at all. Masanobu Fukuoka and Euell Gibbons’ books are like this. As is Samuel Thayer’s great trilogy of books on foraging, with their essays on ecology combined with detailed plant accounts, along with instructions on how to process and cook wild food. Or Harlan Hubbard’s memoir and sketchbook, Payne Hollow, detailing a life lived mostly on a half-hidden bend of a river.
One might ask, how can a piece of writing be great if it deals with something like temperate-climate North American plants, or with information that is mostly interesting to people in a particular bioregion? Shouldn’t great literature be more universal?
Not necessarily. I think some part should always remain inaccessible to outsiders. I have always loved the English poet Edward Thomas, but I realise that I can never know a poem like ‘Old Man or Lad’s Love’ at the same depth as a person who has lived with the plant that he is writing about (Artemisia abrotanum) and has known its smell from childhood. A recent Wendell Berry poem about Joe-Pye weed – or, for that matter, this entire essay! – might encounter a similar limit with you.
I say good. We have been too comprehensible to each other for too long. Let us be strange again. There is no love without some distance. Much of my response to ancient Chinese poetry or old Scottish folk songs is based on their mysteriousness, on what I am sure are many profound misunderstandings.
Thayer publishes his books through his own company, along with preserves made from wild food. Hubbard’s memoir, the manuscript of which was almost lost (there was one copy), is now printed by a little Kentucky press. These are not conventional models of how to share books or make a living. I have noticed with joy the tenacious survival of presses like the one that keeps Hubbard’s book alive, all while breaking every rule of how to succeed in the modern world. My local bookstore told me Hubbard’s book was out of print. The publisher, Gnomon, said I just needed to mail them some money and they would send it to me. Places like this, I suspect, will keep cranking on their letterpresses as the civilisations pass.
Payne Hollow (its subtitle, fittingly, is Life on the Fringe of Society) conforms to no particular genre. It is memoir, sketchbook, philosophy, gentle invective, and also a decent guide to river-bottom gardening and goat care in this particular climate, should you be interested. Genres are like forests too. We need to notice when they are unhealthy and welcome something new, even if it seems, at first, as raw and amateurish as the shantyboat on which Hubbard and his wife Anna lived for many years.
I am not, of course, telling anyone what kind of writing is worth doing. I have just noticed many people, myself included, writing novels and poems who do not really want to be writing novels or poems. They are trying to squeeze some not-yet-categorisable utterance into an old form, simply because it seems like what serious writing is supposed to look like.
Writing is not supposed to look like anything. Forests are not supposed to look like anything. Not any more. Things are changing too fast.
There is a farm down the road from me, partially tended by refugees from Bhutan. The Bhutanese have a large garden of their own where they grow native varieties of crops. The farmer, of course, had engaged in a recent bout of honeysuckle removal, and the trunks and branches were lying around in piles.
The Bhutanese asked – can we use them? Of course, they were told – it’s just waste material.
They picked up the wood. They must have noticed its fibrousness (honeysuckle bends, but doesn’t tend to snap), its strange resistance to decay.
A few months later, when I went to visit their garden, walls and trellises had risen up in profusion. Using the abandoned honeysuckle branches, the Bhutanese had built a whole garden city of narrow alleyways and tiny enclosures, with plots of corn and chillies and marigolds. Honeysuckle branches are almost never straight, so all around me, sometimes rising 12 feet into the air, were curving turrets of wood, each waving green with the vines of squash and beans.
It was the most gorgeous and exuberant vegetable garden I have ever seen, with its bones entirely built out of honeysuckle. Back at the foundation, we were getting much worse results using the ugliness of T-posts and hoops and plastic and row cover. I was too enchanted, though, to feel ashamed. These farmers – foreigners, non-natives – had seen the truth. Anything that grows with such tenacity is not a pest to be eradicated but a gift to be used. And, eventually – as we listen to it and speak with it over generations – a gift to be used with increasing skill and beauty.
The nightmare monsters cannot be killed. To kill something, Wiseman says, is just another way of ignoring it. Nor can we simply let the monsters do as they please until our lives are intolerable. They are here for a reason; they are a message. Once we realise this, and listen, the conversation can begin.
Coppice – some light clearing – trellis-building. We can make these statements. They are polite, not at all like bulldozers and poison sprays. What do you think, honeysuckle? Then, every so often, we can stop talking and wait for our turn again. What do the birds have to say? How about the ticks and the mosquitoes?
It will need to be a long conversation – like literature, headed both somewhere and nowhere. And for a while, it won’t be beautiful. It will seem like a mess. But it is the mess we are in, and there is no other place for us to be.
IMAGE Forest Lights by Kate Williamson
Acrylic on canvas
In contrast to humanity’s rigid obsession with order, this painting set in Waipori Falls, New Zealand where I live and is a celebration of biodiversity. All the intricate abundance and variety of life all living together amongst a scintillating kaleidoscope of reflecting surfaces, of broad, shiny leaves, smooth glimmering rocks and sparkling water.
Kate Williamson lives in a nature reserve in the South Island of New Zealand surrounded by native trees, birds and rushing water. Williamson describes herself as ‘a humble cave painter trying to capture the unrivalled splendour of Nature (the real artist) on canvas’ at a time when the body of Gaia, our home, is under threat of collapse. katewilliamsonart.com
If you take out an annual subscription to Dark Mountain you can buy this issue for a reduced price.
Now booking for our book launch at the Poetry in Aldeburgh Festival on 9th November, 7-8pm. Hope to see you there!