Thursday, June 28, 2012

`Beautiful Us'

It’s a musical word for an insidiously beautiful flower: loosestrife. Fishermen and ecological purists detest its tough rapacity. Most states classify it as a “noxious weed,” an uninvited guest who took over the party. In English, the word dates from the mid-sixteenth century, a mistranslation from the Greek by way of Latin. The name invites an allegorical reading: “loosening battle.”

Knowing the threat it poses, I fell in love with loosestrife anyway, more than twenty years ago. The barge canal along the Mohawk River in upstate New York was choked with the magenta weed. The infestation had a certain justice to it. Botanists believe the Old World plant was a stowaway in the 1820s in the ballast and cargo of ships from Europe that made their way up the Hudson River to the Erie Canal. Without natural insect or fungal predators, it flourished. At the start of the new millennium, in an article about upstate New York at the start of the previous millennium, 999 A.D., I wrote:

“There was no ragweed, red clover, purple loosestrife. Queen Anne’s lace, black locust or chicory; no starlings, house sparrows, Norway rats or house mice. All of those species, common as rain today in the Capital Region and throughout the Northeast, are Eurasian natives, transplanted by Old World settlers.”

Eight hundred years later, it had all changed. I’ve photographed marshy fields of loosestrife sprawling magenta to the horizon, one of the glories of summer in the Northeast. The flower is established in all forty-eighty of the lower fifty states, despite costly eradication programs. Does the profile sound familiar? Beautiful but relentlessly overweening in ambition? A glory and a blight? The Irish poet Greg Delanty sees us in it in “Loosestrife” (Collected Poems 1986-2006):

“You have become your name, loosestrife,
         carried on sheep, spurting up out of ballast,
 a cure brought across the deep
         to treat wounds, soothe trouble.
 There have been others like you, the rhododendron,
         the cattails that you in your turn overrun.
 Voices praise your magenta spread, your ability
         to propagate by seed, by stem, by root,
 and how you adjust to light, to soil, spreading
         your glory across the earth even as you kill
 by boat, by air, by land, all before you: the hardy iris,
         the rare orchids, the spawning ground of fish.
 You'll overtake the earth and destroy even yourself.
         Ah, our loosestrife, purple plague, beautiful us.”

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