A Modern Greek Saga: Sisyphus And The Ivy | St. Louis Public Radio

A Modern Greek Saga: Sisyphus And The Ivy

Originally published on January 14, 2014 4:14 pm

Some causes just seem hopeless some days. But you’ve no doubt met people who insist on tackling intractable problems locally and around the world.

From the Here & Now Contributors Network, Tom Banse of the Northwest News Network introduces us to a particularly dedicated fellow who wages a solo fight each weekday morning against invasive English ivy vines in his home state of Washington.


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A core of dedicated volunteers in Oregon started their new year by helping to stave off an invader: English ivy. Oregon banned the sale or transport of English ivy in 2010 because it's smothering native habitat. Weed killers don't work, so volunteers go into state parks to pull off the weed by hand. From the HERE AND NOW Contributors Network, Tom Banse of the Northwest News Network introduces us to one determined ivy fighter.

TOM BANSE, BYLINE: Most of us have a workday morning routine. For some, a stop to the gym comes first. For others, it's two cups of coffee over the sports pages. In Olympia, Washington, teacher Kevin Head rises long before dawn on school days to go alone to a city park. There, his routine begins by asking the rampant ivy vines for forgiveness.

KEVIN HEAD: Thank you, ivy, for your tenaciousness, your strength. And I ask you to let me take you out for the benefit of the world, here.

BANSE: And then Head leans down with gloved hands and rips and yanks as much ivy as he can slay for the next half hour. The 56-year-old works by the light of a single headlamp. Pretty much anything he grabs in this grove of big leaf maples is bound to be ivy.

HEAD: So, ivy all through here, all down to the bay, all through the trees in there.

BANSE: Head says he's motivated by a desire to restore habitat for native plants and birds. Thick mats of English or Irish ivy crowd out all other greenery. And climbing vines can practically suffocate trees.

This task reminds me of the Greek myth about Sisyphus, the cruel king condemned for eternity to push a huge stone uphill only to see it roll back down every time. Head says he relates more to the kid in "The Star Thrower." That' a children's story in which a boy and his father come upon thousands of starfish washed ashore on a beach.

HEAD: The little boy takes the starfish and throws it into the water. And the dad says: Why are you doing that? There are so many. It's not going to help. And the little boy says: Well, it helped that one. And that's the idea.

BANSE: English ivy is one of the most widespread invasive plants in the U.S. It's present in about 30 states and has also invaded parts of South America, Australia and New Zealand. At the same time, some gardening societies and nurseries still promote the ivy as a useful ornamental plant. Responsibility for combating escaped ivy generally rests at the local level. Land owners typically take the approach described here by Sylvana Niehuser, the City of Olympia's park ranger.

SYLVANA NIEHUSER: With English ivy, it's got a waxy property to the leaves. So spraying is not very effective at all. And you can't mow it because it is just a tangley(ph) mess. And so you're left with manual control by pulling it.

BANSE: Niehuser figures it could take decades - if not a century - to pull all the ivy in Priest Point Park alone. That's the park where Kevin Head volunteers.

NIEHUSER: It can be overwhelming when look at it overall.

BANSE: But she says the battle is winnable when you set your sights on smaller plots and saving individual trees.

NIEHUSER: So we try to focus on prioritizing in large parks like this. And then in our small parks, we try to work on getting it completely eradicated.

BANSE: Niehuser mostly relies on volunteers for ivy control in Olympia parks because of staff cutbacks and tight budgets. Same story elsewhere on the Atlantic and Pacific seaboards, where escaped ivy is most common. The infestation peters out as soon as you cross into the drier terrain of the American heartland.

Oregon is home to one of the biggest and oldest anti-ivy campaigns in the country. Mary Verrilli manages the No Ivy League, a program within the Portland Parks & Recreation Department.

MARY VERRILLI: One other thing that stands out is how much square feet of ivy we have removed. And this is ivy from the ground, and it's been over 4 million square feet of ivy. So it's really impressive to see these stats since 1994.

BANSE: Which is when the No Ivy League started. The non-native vines have had a big head start. Botanical researchers believe English colonists first brought the plant to the New World as early as 1727. Super-volunteer Kevin Head says he's committed to his ivy pulling routine at least until he retires later this decade. One thing that keeps him going is the pleasure of seeing native plants and birds return.

HEAD: I can only get about 10 square feet a day. But it's thrilling to see it start to uncover.

BANSE: For HERE AND NOW, I'm Tom Banse in Olympia, Washington.

YOUNG: Escaped ivy. Why knew? Now we do. You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.