During the year the sounds emanating from the creek I live next to in Castle Valley may include crows cawing, meadowlarks singing, turkeys gobbling, ringtail cats hissing, coyotes howling, foxes whistling, deer snorting and shrieking (when pounced on by mountain lion), frogs croaking (though I haven’t heard that in a while and I wonder where they went), and, in monsoon summers, the roar of a flashflood flicking boulders and logs downstream.
This year, though, spring is being heralded by the sounds of chainsaws and the grind of a mechanical log-eating brush hog, because D-Day has arrived here in the war against the Russian olive tree. The liberation of Castle Creek has begun.
The offending tree, Elaeagnus angustifolia, invaded the US after it infiltrated America’s waterways in the late 1800s. Originally cultivated in Germany in the 1700s, it swept across southeast Europe and western Asia like a Mongol horde. In America, it conned its way into our back yards with its pretty silvery leaves and sweet-scented flowers, and it became a popular choice for making fast shade and wind breaks. Until recently, the U.S. Soil Conservation Service recommended planting the Russian-olive, and many nurseries sold it. The fools!
While we’ve been sleeping comfortably in our beds in Grand County, the Russian olive has been stabbing every native tree around it in the back. In just a few decades this newcomer has achieved supremacy on the waterways, herding the valiant stands of cottonwoods into reservations, where they are marginalized and reduced to begging for water.
Aiding the Russian olive in this ethnic cleansing of our riverways is the tamarisk, or salt cedar, which signed a treaty with the Russian olive to share world domination. The Colorado, Green and San Juan Rivers have become as occluded with these pests as my father’s cholesterol-caked arteries.
Anyone who has rafted these rivers knows the sandal-penetrating poke of their inch-long thorns, while the scarred forearms of many gardeners show the futility of wrestling with a Russian olive branch.
My own war began the moment I moved into my home in Castle Valley. I initially thought it was cute the way coyotes and foxes munched the fruits of the resident trees, and they sure were a popular food source for birds. As for humans eating the seed pods, I’ve heard rumors of jams being made, and Wikipedia states that in Iran the dried powder of the fruits are mixed with milk to treat rheumatoid arthritis and joint pains. But it’s the seed pods that cause the trouble, because wherever a seed-eating critter poops, a thorny sapling springs up.
In my first efforts to eradicate the invaders, I just chopped them down. The Russian olive laughs at this, and responds by sprouting a hydra-head of spiky tentacles. Surely a proof of intelligent design, these cunning plants seem to actually have brains, because when they see me approach with saw and snip they fight back by sprouting mazes of barbed wire that entrap me even as I slash them. The fact is, they are ideally suited to the mineral soil of Moab because the shrub can fix nitrogen in its roots. Every tree produces thousands of seeds that have low mortality rates. The roots can sense water and snake towards it with rapid accuracy. I finally had to start locking my doors, scared that the Russian olives would break in and take root inside the house.
And so the battle rages on, at the beach head in the creek below. Chainsaw-wielding troops from Wildland Scapes topple trees and use heavy machinery to mulch the debris, while chemical weapons, squirted onto the cut stumps, have been sanctioned for the final victory by the commanders of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, and the Department of Natural Resources. In the evening, after the battle, I stand on the bank above the creek, watching emancipated cottonwoods stretch their limbs and hesitant deer drift back into the freshly cleared area. For decades, the animals have been unable to walk freely down there, as the Russian olive occupation had closed its borders with its dense and ruthless monoculture. The deer sniff the air, smelling the gas-oil vapor of the chainsaws. I smell it too. Smells like victory. Until I see a Russian olive sapling that the offensive has missed.
If that little sprout could talk it would be sneering at us, plotting its counterattack, saying “We’ll be back and we’ll bury you all.”