In the woods behind our home here in western Pennsylvania, we have found another menace in the forest besides the deer ticks. Actually, it is a menace to the forest. It is Celastrus orbiculatus, or “oriental bittersweet.” This Asian vine was introduced in the United States back in the mid-19th century for ornamental purposes, but like the kudzu vine of the south has spread in an invasive fashion in northeastern states. Though bluebird watchers and fall wreath makers may disagree, the beauty of the vine is no substitute for its insidious ways. Like a slow-moving army of orcs from Saruman, the bittersweet is killing the woods.
With ropes anywhere from pencil thin to two inches or more in diameter, the bittersweet sends its vines spiraling up the tree trunks of the pines, walnuts, oaks, and maples, reaching heights of thirty feet or more. Shoots branch out, twirling around and smothering branches and limbs. The trees groan under the weight of the bittersweet’s canopy, and the thick, twisting tendrils around the trunks seem to squeeze the life right out of the trees. Along the ground, many places have tangled webs of the vine that have choked out native plants, and they block the ability to either walk through or view further into the woods.
Several solutions to this problem ruled themselves out. As the situation is obviously decades old, I could just leave it and try to enjoy having a bittersweet patch instead of woods. Yet I want to use the woods, and, besides, that approach fails to live up to the dominion mandate. Herbicide helped me blaze a trail through a long patch of it, but using too much would endanger the trees, other vegetation, and my wallet. A few people suggested goats, claiming they would munch down the bittersweet until the ground was clear of it. This answer was supported by my animal-loving youngest and even had a certain charm to it, undoubtedly from some gene passed down from an unknown farming forefather. However, in discussing this with a friend who actually grew up on a goat farm, it sounded like penning and caring for the goats would end up being more work than the only solution left to me, which was my chosen option.
I decided to cut, hack, and, where possible, pull out the stuff by the roots.
What a battle that has turned out to be! Usually a few times a week, for an hour or two here and there, I choose a small area to tackle. Sometimes alone, sometimes with a family member recruited to fight, I approach an ensnared tree, tripping repeatedly over the vine patch covering the ground as I do. Upon reaching the tree, I nip the vines that have twisted around the trunk as high above my head as possible, revealing black scars on the bark. I pull the lower section of the vines away from the tree, and yank down whatever vines will come that are hanging from the limbs above. However, many of them, strong enough to support my weight, remain. As I do this work, you can almost hear the tree sighing with its new found freedom, the scars and the tattered skirt of the dying bittersweet left hanging reminders of its former slavery.
Sometimes I have arrived too late to save a tree, the broken and dead limbs along with the numerous woodpecker holes the signs of its casualty. I rev up the chainsaw and bring it down, then section it into firewood to at least redeem its sacrificed life for that good cause. On several occasions, I have cut through the trunk only to have the tree not crash to the ground, the canopy of bittersweet above, clinging to neighboring trees, unwilling to relinquish the captive hung in its netting. Other vines then have to be snipped or another tree also cut through in order to bring it down. The strength of the bittersweet amazes me.
As I start working on the vines rooted into the ground or snarled around other vines or small trees, I feel as if I am in a tug-of-war where my opponent gives me ever-so-small advances, knowing they have a never-ending rope on their side. Often as the vine is pulled or pried with a pickax, the forest floor opens up like a snake is emerging as the twisted roots come popping out of the ground. One day, when I thought I had finally gotten to the end of a vine, with what looked like one last small root remaining in the ground, I ended up pulling out an additional length over four times my own height. When a large heap of detached bittersweet has accumulated, we drag it down into a brush pile further into the woods. As I finish for that day’s time, I am always soaked and every muscle exhausted by the effort. Looking at what I have accomplished, I am almost discouraged by the smallness of the progress.
Yet not entirely. Over time a walking path has emerged. The woods are brighter and more open. We are seeing more deer and other wildlife now, which were surely there before but hidden from our view. My woodpile has grown. Though no wild-eyed tree hugger, a sense of saving some of the trees is satisfying. Despite the aggravation of it all – encountering more ticks, bruises from falls when vines give way suddenly, numerous scratches and cuts from the encounters – the work itself is cleansing in nature, both to body and mind. This bittersweet battle teaches as it is fought.
For the bittersweet is a message, a reminder of my original forefather and the curse he brought to the ground, to work, and to me. The vines are showing me what sin does when left untreated: roots grow deeper, hidden, tougher to extricate; one sin grows and twists together with others; life is choked out; neighbors are ruined; and death ensues. Owen’s words come to mind about the need to be killing sin before it kills you, and the text his classic work is based upon. “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Romans 8:13). The vigorous effort sanctification requires is being impressed upon me with every jerk, snip, and failure. So as I breathe in deeply the cool, fall air, I ask for more of his sin-killing Spirit. And when I stand there utterly exhausted in the midst of trees, twisted vines, and thorns from briers still growing in the patches, with no more strength to press on, imagery of a curse-bearer on a rough cross with an ugly crown comes to mind. His cross tells me he is assuredly committed to removing all sin from my soul, though the process is slow and painful. In that I find more strength to press on.
That, indeed, is bittersweet.