BERKSON: Fighting the burdock seems to be my mission

Life Sketches

Fighting the burdock
seems to be my mission

Terry Berkson, who has an MFA in creative writing from Brooklyn College, lives on a farm outside Richfield Springs. His articles have appeared in New York magazine, the New York Daily News Sunday Magazine, Automobile and other publications.

Burdock is an enemy I’ve been trying to eradicate since we moved to the farm. It was growing thick all around the barn, so, first I weed-whacked it and later mowed it and now there’s only grass where there once stood a Velcro-like mob waiting to take hold of your pants, socks and bootlaces.

When these sticky weeds are at the edge of a hayfield or in a hedgerow it’s a different story. Without constant mowing, they are much harder to get rid of. During the spring and summer of our first year on the farm, I’d stop work on the house, to Alice’s protests, and go out almost daily, armed with a squirt bottle of Roundup, spraying the young elephant-eared leaves. In a day or two they’d begin to shrivel, but it seemed that for every one that wilted, another would spring up. I hate to admit it but, like William Kennedy’s “Ironweed,” there’s something admirable about burdock’s ability to survive.

After a couple of years, I changed tactics. Instead of using poison, I cut down the whole plant and threw it into the back of our pickup. Sometimes the load would be so big I’d have to tie it down. Then, I’d drive into the woods and dump it. Marty Brannigan, the farmer who used to take hay off of our place, told me because of seeds dropping there would be a trail of new burdock wherever I drove the truck. He was right. From then on I took loads of the weed to the dump.

Not giving up, I tried a different method in a neglected, weedy corner that I’d been working to reclaim. I cut and stacked the burdock and then burned it right there in the field. Surprisingly, the next year there was a heavy concentration of the weed, growing right where I had made the fire.

Brannigan did concede that as a result of my efforts there seemed to be less burdock on my place. That in no way was a victory, so I continue the battle.

Last year, I tried clipping off just the Velcro part of the weed and carefully dropping it into a plastic bag so no seeds would fall to the ground. Then I cut down the whole plant. Time will tell if it was an effective method.

Alice thinks she’s got me figured out. She says that what I’m doing is a perverted form of outdoor editing. “You like to write,” she says. “And, you like to be outdoors. I think that, for you, weeding is like editing. Getting rid of a burdock is like cutting out a word that doesn’t belong in a sentence.”

After 10 years, we were still not finished working on the house. I could understand my wife’s frustration, but when I left my desk to look out the window and saw milkweed taking over a field, I couldn’t help but go out to the tool shed to get a spade to slice the intruders off at the root.

One summer, I put many days into this effort but, alas, after a couple of rains, the lactate army was back stronger than ever. I was truly defeated in this battle but there was one consolation.

Monarch butterflies like milkweed and I like monarch butterflies. In spite of my weeding efforts, hundreds landed in our fields that year.

Wild grapevines also drive me crazy. They grow on trees so aggressively that eventually they block the light and strangle them. In the winter, their woven branches gather so much snow that they make the trees collapse.

I found a lot of vines growing in our woods and hedgerows and, of course, to my wife’s chagrin, I went to work with a bow saw cutting the constrictors off at the root. Some of them were four inches in diameter. All of these efforts may seem foolish but they help make me feel in touch with the land.

Occasionally, Alice joins me in these forays. I guess she figures the sooner I’m done doing battle, the sooner I’ll be back doing what she wants me to do.

When deer season is about to begin my wife braces herself for yet another of my desertions from duty. One November I was surprised when after looking out the window with a pair of binoculars, Alice said, “There’s a buck in the lower field. You better go out and get him!”

I was in the midst of taping sheetrock and wondered why she was willing to let me off the ladder. “Why tell me about a buck now?” I asked suspiciously.

Alice cocked her head and quipped, “He’s got burdock in his tail!”


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