Sending in the Child Soldiers

Child soldiers, sent into the breach.

The season for eradicating Italian thistle can begin as early as December, or as late as early or even mid-January. For at least four months after that, we essentially pull and drop it, as it isn’t yet going to flower, let alone seed. But now it is flowering, and some is even going to seed, so we must bag it up and carry it out. We use contractor debris bags from Friedman’s, which last for multiple years.

The contents of the bag are emptied into a pile beside a dumpster in Mountain Cemetery, and eventually the City of Sonoma hauls it all away.

In this period of the thistle pulling season we pull out other tools, such as weed whackers, in our desperate attempt to keep the thistle from fully going to seed. Let’s just say it’s an act of total desperation, as the thistle can still put on blooms, which means we need to weed-whack it again later.

It’s also the season when Italian thistle ups its game, and sends its child soldiers into the battle, just like Nazi Germany went both up and down the age range of males to send into battle toward the end, to try to win the war, in a total act of desperation.

These are truly tiny plants (see picture), which barely clear the soil and go directly to bloom, which of course makes them hard to see, challenging to pull, and frustratingly difficult to eradicate. This is part of what makes Italian thistle the hardest invasive species I’ve yet battled — far harder than Yellow Star thistle, which is all but eradicated except along Norrbom Road.

The only good angle on this is that since they are so low to the ground, it’s not all that likely that they will spread their seeds a long way. At least unless there is a strong wind. Oh, right, we’ve never had a strong wind in Sonoma Valley. 😦

It Seems Impossible, Until Suddenly It Isn’t

New findings could improve diagnosis, treatment of depression | Berkeley NewsToday, as most days, I was out pulling Italian thistle on the Montini Preserve. This is what I call a “long game,” and if anyone knows how such games are played, it’s me. I’ve even written my own (as yet unpublished) essay about it. Long games are played by long, concerted effort over years and decades, one day at a time. I’ve also called it being gently powerful. I know this. But I still have my good days and my bad. Today was the latter.

I decided to tackle a patch that I figured I could knock out in an hour of concerted effort (think simultaneous two-handed pulling). I was wrong. When I realized how wrong I was, I had to walk away. As I left the trailside to go down the hill, I noticed a rock above Red Quarry that was perfect for sitting — flat and at the right height. I was right, the rock was perfect. I sat down and looked around. I inevitably looked down and that’s when I saw yet even more Italian thistle. The area also looked a bit trampled, as if this was a familiar rock to one or more people who visited it to smoke dope or just hang out.

Since invasive species work can be an obsession, I pulled what I saw and then moved back toward the trail, where I found yet another patch that I mostly pulled. But that’s when the depression really set in. In this one small area, I had a big patch and two smaller patches. I then mentally multiplied it by the size of the two properties (the Sonoma Overlook Trail and the Montini Preserve) where I have committed to do this work. Let’s just say I’ve had better days.

Later, at home, I decided to rewatch the trail movie that I made last year. Not only do I enjoy seeing the trail scenes and all of the flowers, insects, mammals, and birds of the trail I also feel like it naturally lowers my blood pressure (let’s just say it’s a theory). But I made an astonishing (to me) discovery. One of the photos in the movie is from several years ago, and as soon as I saw it, I recognized a spot on the trail that was covered in Italian thistle. THEN. Not NOW. This clear evidence of progress literally brought tears to my eyes. I AM making a difference.

I was then reminded of something Nelson Mandela once said, that I will take the liberty of rephrasing, without changing the meaning: “Something can seem impossible until suddenly it isn’t.” I just had to have my down day, and then move on. As one does, when playing the long game.

All Clear, For Now

Poison oak.

Today I finished inspecting all of the maintained trails of the Sonoma Overlook Trail and Montini Preserve properties. As of today, the trails are clear of Italian thistle and poison oak to about three feet away from the trail. We achieved this milestone more than two months earlier than last season, which now means we can move on to other tasks and goals in our Vegetation Management Program. Trailside can now be moved to “maintenance” status from “attack,” which means we will need to continually check and monitor the trails, as new thistle comes in all the time, and poison oak keeps growing, of course, but we will now begin attacking other areas.

This essentially means a couple tasks: 1) continuing to push Italian thistle away from the trail, and perhaps eradicating it completely in some areas, and 2) being opportunistic in attacking patches that are in danger of furthering the spread of thistle on both properties. In general, the Overlook is in better shape than the Montini, so typically I spend more time on the Montini, although my goal this year is to eradicate thistle from some specific areas on the Overlook where it appears we have a chance to completely eradicate it.

Be sure to let me know if you want to help with this exciting (haha) work!

Ten Plants a Hike

A young Italian thistle plant.

January (and sometimes even December) is the beginning of what is essentially an eight-month season of invasive species removal work. Beginning with Italian thistle (pictured), work proceeds against a variety of non-native plants that threaten our trails and the lands they traverse. Although we’ve made great progress against Yellow Star thistle, Italian thistle is much more prevalent and dispersed, and it is now the primary species we are working to control.

The problem is that it has a big head start. It can be found in many areas of both the Sonoma Overlook Trail and the Montini Preserve, and is especially prevalent along the trails on the Montini. Meanwhile, we have little person power to throw at it. Until now.

I have a simple ask. Every time you hike the trails, do us all a favor and pull ten plants. That’s all I ask. Ten plants. Anyone can do that. You can do that. Imagine this: if ten hikers do this for ten days they will have collectively pulled one thousand plants. That represents substantial progress.

And now is the perfect time to do it – the soil is damp and soft, the plants are small and can be just pulled and tossed aside, and their roots are not yet well developed. They are easy to spot, as they are bright green, and they have spiny leaves, whereas most other plants do not (see photo).

Tell you what, you can even tell it that it’s days are numbered as you pull, or “We’re coming for you!” Whatever floats your boat. Plus, I won’t actually make you count. I trust you. Just do what you think is likely ten plants and we’re good. But if you do what I think you might, soon you’ll find yourself drifting past ten with nary a second thought. And that’s just fine too.

Ten plants a hike, that’s all I ask.

A Long Day’s Journey Into the Fight

Those of you who read this blog regularly (thank you both!) know that I have, well, an obsession about ridding these properties of invasive species — particularly invasive thistle, as it can create entire “no go zones” for wildlife, and completely up-end the natural ecosystem. If you want to know more about why we fight it so hard, here is the chapter and verse about why we do what we do.

But at the moment, in December, we are still in the “down period,” when we can rest, and recuperate from the long removal season. You see, the thistle season begins in January — or even the end of December — and it extends well into August. Thus, we have eight months on, essentially, and four off.

So perhaps you can understand what I’m feeling as I spend my last few weeks as a free person before buckling down in January for another eight months. I’ve enjoyed hiking the last several months a lot. I’ll still hike during thistle season, but usually just when a friend can come along. Otherwise, I’ll be out there, pulling like always. I rush to say, however, that every year it gets better, and there may come a time when there is even no thistle at all. But we’re not there yet.

That’s why, if you see me out there in January, pulling Italian Thistle (pictured), you’ll know it’s a long game, fought over years and decades, and at least I’ve had four months off to simply enjoy the properties that we are fighting to save. And like I said, every year it gets better. Before very long, I believe, I will have 12 months to hike. I can’t wait.