The Block Island Times
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Taste of Spring

By Martha Ball | Mar 12, 2013

There has always been a stand of knotweed (spite weed, Lizzy bush, fake bamboo, etc.) at the edge of the yard. It is there, barely visible but there, in photos taken when I was a child in pigtails, the youngest of the lot, more interested in the camera dangling from the hand of a cousin I’d never seen before or since then in the group of visiting relatives posing to be captured for all eternity. The fact of the vegetation was probably old then, growing on the inside of the long gone picket fence we sometimes white-washed in the spring.

The knotweed sprouts little red buds in the late winter and one day in spring, when the sun shines after a rain, it grows. In hours it grows inches which quickly turn to feet, tall and green, and brandishing little white blossoms that disintegrate when shaken. This monster stand I have come to consider proof that vegetation has a thought process unknown to us, turns its abundant energies to sending out runners from which little sprouts pop. They could have been the inspiration for a cartoon prairie dog — it doesn’t matter how many times they are beaten down, sliced off, dug up, they return, defiant or resilient, depending upon my mood.

One year I thought I’d get ahead of it and put a piece of old plywood on the ground. Unbeknownst to me, the stuff kept growing, not straight and green, but twisted and, deprived of sunlight, pink, like so many thick snakes slithering in the dark. Perhaps had I left it in place all summer it would have made a difference but curiosity got the better of me and a sort of morbid curiously made me leave the cover off only to see what weirdness would ensue.

Eventually, as summer’s breath turns arid the pliancy of these great weeds, knuckled hollow stems of fibrous material, is sapped and they dry and turn brittle. Forming a solid wall, they catch the brown paper leaves the old maple sheds from mid-August deep into the fall, then, often, as was case last year, they are felled in one swoop by a great wind.

It was a blow from the northeast and the bamboo flattened on the grass, some stalks broken at the base, others fallen, uprooted in clumps, all capturing the flighty leaves in a protective embrace. And there it lay, all winter, mocking me every time I opened the front door, like the blackberry vines draped over the wall, ever narrowing the lane behind the house, the one I see every time I step on the back stair landing.

One night I went to the door and heard a crash; the wayward cow, startled by my appearance at the door, rammed into the pile of air-filled stalks on her lumbering way back to the north lot. Other nights I think I hear noises that may be the wind or may be creatures that shall not be named scurrying for cover.

Finally, as the first Saturday in March brought a taste of spring I attacked. Today there is a patch of earth, raked clean of leaves and twigs and bamboo so old it had gone from brittle brown to soggy gray. There remain two ragged mounds of dark earth and with hardened stalks protruding, both with profiles that bring to mind photos from my cherished child’s edition of Rachel Carson’s “The Sea Around Us”, Mont St-Michel rising from sand flats of Normandy in one, surrounded by a fast risen tide in another.

It was an illustration of the cyclical nature of the sea; now, I read that the raised causeway connecting the tiny isle to the mainland is being replaced by a bridge, and the historic illustration it will offer will be a cautionary tale of man’s intervention altering the flow of the tide. The aerial maps remind me of our own breakwaters.

Our own beaches are altered with every tide, this winter so many driven by storm winds. The beach has been under assault and is littered with layers of abuse. It seems strewn with twigs, as it has been, but these, I soon realize, are nails, remnants of beach fires, the remains of all those pallets I see flaring in the black night, miraculously never setting the dune grass aflame. Some years are worse than others and this year with all the raging surf and shifting gales, the little pieces of straight metal have surfaced. I put a few in my pocket to see how they will react to a magnet’s tug; they adhere without pause.

I need a bigger magnet.

There are islands on the beach, this winter mangled lobster pots, plastic covered metal, and twine, synthetic material. The father of a classmate was a lobsterman, his yard lined in the cold months with wooden traps stacked upon each other, a wall we scaled with great care. Now they are collector’s items, coffee tables and conversation pieces. Up the hill from this beach one of the walls of the old farm rises over a hill. Its stones are blackened from decades past when nets of twine were spread on them and tarred to keep them from disintegrating. Today all this flotsam and jetsam, and a black boot and a piece of tire, the carcass of a gull and a branch of bayberry both wrapped in seaweed, bright red and green, all lie on the sand, waiting to be covered, to become the new bones of a new beach.

It is early March, come in like a lamb with sunshine and weather not quite warm but temperate enough for me to do battle with the knotweed. On the beach I feel more sun than wind on my face and see patches of sandy beach emerging among the rocky ruins of the winter.

At midweek the forecast is worsening and a coastal flood watch is already posted. It is March as usual, offering up a taste of spring only to retreat behind the gray skirts of winter.

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