From work I usually go straight home to feed the cubs, who’ve come to depend on me for dinner, which isn’t necessarily healthy but has its gratifying aspects–for all of us, I think. But this had been one of those days of taking too many people on nature hikes around the island, pointing out the fragile wonders of the woods, then watching them motor happily off in clouds of diesel exhaust–in short, wondering what good I was doing–so it was something more than a whim that prompted me to stop at Bark Bay on my way home and see about the purple loosestrife I’d spotted growing there.
Some people would tell you there’s no such thing as a bad plant, but there is, just as there are bad birds, like cowbirds, who lay their eggs in other birds’ nests so their offspring can muscle out the baby birds who belong. Even nature has its villains, and purple loosestrife is one of them. A rank opportunist, it takes over wetlands once it takes hold, as it generally does when someone plants it after ordering it under another name from a nursery that ought to know better. The people who plant it–as I suspected somebody had here, since the loosestrife seemed to be spreading around a mobile home–usually just don’t know any better until someone tells them, which was what I had in mind.
I turned off the highway onto a gravel road that led down to the bay. As it descended, cutting through a stand of arbor vitae, the road got worse and worse, the gravel giving way to wet red clay that sucked at my tires like caramel until, when I finally reached the bottom, a grassy flat fronting the beach, my little car was hardly moving. For all the beauty of the place, the late sun glowing on the water and the sand and etching the tamaracks along in the spit in soft silhouette, it was hard to look at anything except the trailer rising from the middle of this golden setting like a pasty jewel. The mobile home was in fact the only immobile thing within view, sitting white and boxy against the shifting reeds and water and drifting clouds, and I knew to a certainty that it would be sitting there still when its inhabitants moved on, leaving the thing to slowly fall apart, its pieces of metal and foam and plastic persisting even then.
For once I was glad to be wearing my Park Service uniform, even though it makes me look like Smokey the Bear, which isn’t funny, no matter what people say. For once, I thought, the uniform’s authority might serve me. As I got out of the car, a little girl came running along the beach. She was muddy right down to where the water splashed her, and seemed to be having a very good time until she saw me and stopped as suddenly and completely as a frightened squirrel. When I asked her if her mother or father were home, she came to life with a look of alarm and went streaking away toward the trailer.
A woman opened the door just in time to see the child fly past. She had a baby balanced on her hip and another little one clinging to her leg, and she turned her head briefly in the direction the girl had gone, then returned to me with a mild, questioning smile. She was quite pretty, though tired-looking, with hair so fair and frazzled that it looked like a dandelion gone to seed. Standing at the foot of the steps leading up to the door, I offered my hand and introduced myself, telling her that I was from the Park Service, and she shifted the baby’s weight to free one of her hands and shake. “I’m Donna,” she said uncertainly. “This is Matthew, and Dawn, and that’s Heather hiding.”
Feeling that I’d frightened her for no reason I could imagine, I just stood there for a minute smiling harmlessly, and finally she said, “Is Jim–?”
“Jim?” I said.
And she said, “Oh,” apparently reassured by this exchange.
“I came to ask about this loosestrife,” I said, with a wave, which wasn’t really necessary, since the weed was everywhere. Taking in the situation fully for the first time, I was somewhat overwhelmed. The trailer seemed to be afloat in the purple flowers.
“Oh,” she said, “is that what it’s called?” She sounded quite pleased, and when I looked back at her, she was gazing down fondly at the patch at her feet. When she tipped her head like that, her soft hair caught the sun, which had been harsh on her face, and it struck me that she was younger than she’d seemed at first, years younger than I.
“Yes,” I told her, “purple loosestrife. Did you plant it?”
She nodded. “It’s easy to grow. It spreads really fast.” She hesitated, then admitted in a diffident tone, “Actually, I dug some up, from the side of the road. Is that–?”
“What?” I said, then, “Oh, no, that’s all right–digging it up, you mean? Planting it’s the problem. Not a legal thing,” I hurried to assure her, when that anxious look flitted across her face again, “but it’s exotic. It can be really disruptive.” The woman seemed nonplussed. I told her, “Purple loosestrife is a noxious weed.”
“Noxious?” she said, glancing around incredulously. “These flowers?”
“This bay, and the slough on the other side of the spit,” I said, pointing, “are actually very delicate systems. Every plant and insect and fish and bird in them supports each other somehow. But the loosestrife’s an alien species. It doesn’t contribute anything.”
“You mean it’s lazy?” Although she still seemed skeptical, there was a hopeful note in her voice as she proposed this interpretation.
“Not lazy,” I said, “no, not really. Actually, it takes over. It chokes out the native species and wrecks the whole balance–because nothing eats it or builds nests with it or uses it for anything. It’s useless.”
“Useless,” she said, as if the word were an enigma. “It’s so pretty. I thought that’s what flowers did, you know, brighten things up.” Together we looked out at her purple sea. I tend to forget. Once you know this weed, its uglier side is all you can see–but putting aside its insidious behavior, I suppose you could call the plant pretty. Its tall, slender spikes are covered with tiny blossoms, more pink than purple, and together they make a mass of color. “There weren’t any species before I planted it,” Donna informed me.
“You’d be surprised,” I said. She looked at me with interest, as if she’d very much like to be surprised, but just then both of caught the sound of an engine and turned to the road.
“Jim,” she said. “My husband.”
Shortly we could see the machine, an old yellow sedan whose emission system could be judged by the smell that gusted over us as the car came to a clanking halt. Donna’s husband got out with a six-pack of beer in his hand. He was tall and sturdy and tan, wearing workboots caked up to their laces in mud, and he walked in an odd, rolling way, as if he were crossing the deck of a rocking ship. As he approached, he looked at me briefly and then at his wife, as if I were peddling the Watchtower.
“Hi, Honey,” Donna said. Promptly the baby began to cry, and she lifted him to her shoulder. “This is Sandy,” she said. “From the Park Service. She came to talk to me about my flowers.”
Jim was examining my uniform as she spoke; now he looked at my face and said flatly, “What about them?”
“They’re noxious,” Donna said, but he didn’t look at her.
He said, “Oh, they are?”
Though I got the feeling that he didn’t really want to know, I started to tell him what I’d been telling his wife–but I didn’t get far, because suddenly he shook his head, two slow sweeps, as if he were trying to get something off of his neck, and then he hurled the six-pack away. One can burst on the beach. “You goddam people,” he said.
“People?” I repeated dumbly, shocked stiff where I stood. Nervously I glanced at Donna, who was standing above us both, watching her husband with an oddly calm expression.
“First the loggers,” he said. “Then the hunters. And now you’re going after my wife? Can’t a girl have a garden?”
I said, “I’m not–“
“What do you want?” he demanded. “Everybody naked and living in caves? Is that what you want? You people care more about a goddam dragonfly than somebody who spends every day breaking his back trying to keep his family alive. Nature? What do you know about nature? This is nature.” He thrust his hand into the loosestrife and pulled up a fistful, wielded it like a weapon. Suddenly a look of disgust fell over his face, and muttering, “Aw, fuck it,” he threw down the flowers and walked away.
Until he got into the car, Donna didn’t say a word; but as soon as he started the engine, she remarked, “He’s wishing he didn’t throw that beer away now.”
Not knowing what to do or say, I watched him drive off, then finally turned back to her. She was bouncing the baby, who’d stopped fussing. Heather had emerged from around the corner of the mobile home. She said, “Did Daddy have a hernia?”
“Hyper hernia,” Donna told her, and the little girl accepted this with a thoughtful frown. “Don’t mind him,” the woman said. She was talking to me. “He took that spotted owl thing pretty hard.”
“There aren’t any Doug firs around here,” I said.
“Well, he thought it was against all loggers.” She raised her free hand apologetically. “The garden?” She made a funny, dismissive face. “He doesn’t care about that. He hates the flowers. Probably thinks they’re against him, too.” Then she said, “You’d better come in.” At first I took this as a cautionary measure, but her voice was resigned, her smile sympathetic, as if her husband’s outburst had somehow brought us together. “I can give you a beer,” she said, then seemed to rethink this. “Or juice.”
My interest in eradicating the loosestrife had abated somewhat. All I wanted to do was get home; but instead I went in, because Donna was standing there smiling as if the two of us knew about men and their tempers and whims.
Entering the mobile home I got another shock. The woman had the loosestrife all over: stuck in a beer bottle on top of the sink, in a jar on the table, a jug on the floor, a fanned arrangement like witches’ herbs on the wall. Except for the flowers and a small hooked rug, the trailer had no decorations. “I guess you can see why he hates it,” Donna said, and tried to stop staring, but it was everywhere I looked–and I was wondering if her husband was right to think that the loosestrife was somehow against him.
“Pretty,” I said; the word nearly choked me, but it just popped out, a spontaneous product of my upbringing.
“Juice?” Donna said.
She pulled a plastic bottle of orange juice out of the refrigerator. As she was pouring two glassfuls she caught my eye and raised the bottle and earnestly informed me, “I recycle them.” Then she brought the glasses to the table and, sitting down with a sigh, said, “It’s hard to keep up with all that. With the kids and the house and, you know, everything you have to do.”
Matthew started crying again. Donna lifted her shirt, unfastened the cup of her bra, and gave the baby her breast. We spoke at the same time, Donna saying, “You don’t mind?” as I told her, “I know, I have two bear cubs at home.” I only meant to sympathize with her over the difficulties of “keeping up with all that,” as she put it, but she looked at me so quizzically that she must have thought I was talking about breastfeeding.
“I guess it’s hard to think of bears as a handful,” I said, to clear up this misunderstanding, and she said, “Oh, no.” Her expression was so frankly curious that I found myself explaining. The mother bear, I told her, had regularly raided my compost pile, and when she’d started bringing her cubs around in the spring, I’d started putting out treats because they were so charming. “I bet,” Donna said warmly, then asked me, “Treats?”
Blueberries, I told her, hazelnuts and wild cherries, little things that bears relish. “Hazelnuts?” she repeated, as if she thought I were pulling her leg, though it’s true. You can bait them with almost anything, from old doughnuts and bread to lumps of beef fat, but those are the sorts of food the hunters use, and I figured that if the bears got used to their favorites from me, they might be less susceptible to fatal lures.
“She didn’t attack you?” Donna said. “A mother, I mean. I heard–” and she shrugged. I explained that black bears, though they threaten and bluff to a sometimes frightening degree, are not nearly as ferocious as they’re made out to be. There were some researchers I’d read about who would even grab cubs and tag their ears while their mother stood twenty feet off–acting fearsome, but not coming any closer until the cubs were freed. The thing was, this bear, the mother of my cubs, was hit by a car in early April, and so the care of the little ones devolved upon me.
Donna looked past me, and I turned to see Heather standing at the door. “Sandy has two little bear cubs at her house,” her mother told her.
Looking as if she’d been promised a pony, Heather crept a step closer and asked, “Are they cute?”
They were, I assured her, though I had to admit that they were getting big, were by now about as big as she was.
Even though I’d introduced the subject, I felt myself losing control of my visit. And just then–it was almost uncanny–Donna, who’d been reflecting for a few seconds, picked up the beer bottle bouquet of loosestrife and announced, “I’m going to throw these away.”
It was my turn to be nonplussed. Though briefly I could see her dumping the flowers outside the trailer, where they would reseed themselves, I knew that was not entirely it. “How you throw it away is important,” I said finally. I myself would bag the loosestrife and take it to the dump–in fact, that was what I’d been planning to do–but suddenly I was thinking uncomfortably about Donna’s husband. He hated the flowers and they moved into the house; a stranger said a word against them and, poof, they were gone. “You could burn it,” I suggested, knowing that the job of burning generally falls to men. If Jim hated the loosestrife, I thought, let him burn it. “The same for the rest.” I got up and went to the door, feeling the tug of the woman all the way. With the baby still sucking, she followed me, and I took a step out. “It should be dug up,” I said, “then destroyed. You have to get the roots.”
Although I was fleeing, where normally I would have offered to help, I was telling myself that after all I’d still done at least a little good.
“Thanks a lot,” Donna called as I walked to my car, and I turned back to see her making the toddler wave. “And sorry about Jim. He’s just like that.”
“No problem,” I said. This is nature, I kept hearing him say as he brandished the loosestrife, although what I saw was not the fistful of weeds but the man.
When I finally got home, it was long past my usual time for feeding the cubs and I expected to find them waiting, but they weren’t in the yard. The screen door–which, until then, I never locked–was standing wide open. I stood outside listening for a minute before I realized what the sounds inside were–then I ran in and found the bears sitting in the kitchen, tearing through a bag of bread. The place was a wreck, everything knocked off the counters and shelves, all my jars of rice and beans and cereal on the floor, some of them broken, along with the dishes that had been on the sink. When Minnie, seeing me, stood up and huffed, not pleased at all with her findings so far, she knocked over the table, sending the salt and pepper and honey crashing, and that scared a howl out of her and her brother.
In their irritation, they might slap me, I knew, so I sidled by them, murmuring soothing words, and took a bowl of blueberries out of the refrigerator. Minnie and Mooch rustled to attention. Tossing a few berries onto the floor, then passing the bowl in front of the cubs’ faces, I led them out. “Impatient, impatient,” I murmured, “couldn’t you wait? Didn’t you think I was coming? Don’t I always?” and I scattered the blueberries on the ground, just to make it harder for them, an exercise.
What to do about these two? Maybe adopting them wasn’t so wise, but I couldn’t stand the thought of them straying into the path of someone more punctilious, who would ship them right off to a zoo. Zoo life seemed too cruel for these little wild creatures. They should live in their natural habitat, I thought, and if that just happened to verge on my yard, then who was I to interfere? Who was I to flout their natural wish to find blueberries and hazelnuts heaped up in bowls, to find houses safe and humans friendly? And now they’re so trusting, they might just walk right up to some stranger’s house and start looking for food–and no one else will know how trusting they are. The stranger very well might have a rifle. Bear season begins in three months, and by then the cubs might be big enough to attract an unscrupulous hunter who could convince himself they were yearlings, fair game.
If I were only Donna, I thought as I sat there watching the bears nose around in the grass, I could tie handkerchiefs around their necks, something big and gaudy to make people wonder and let them alone. I could spray paint my phone number onto their fur. I could build a huge fence around them for the season and tell myself they would stay put. But I’m not Donna. I know better. Just not enough. I know knowing better isn’t enough.
Ellen Akins is the author of a collection of short stories, World Like a Knife, and five novels, including the forever forthcoming The American Child. Her work has appeared online in Perigee and Serving House Journal, as well as in The Georgia Review, The Southern Review, Southwest Review, and The Missouri Review, which awarded “Loosestrife” its annual William Peden Prize. This story was inspired by naturalist Terry Daulton, then a beleaguered part-time Park Ranger in northernmost Wisconsin, where the author lives in an uneasy standoff with another symbolically rich and tenacious invasive, common buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica). Akins teaches in Fairleigh Dickinson University’s low-residency MFA program.
“Loosestrife” was published in Volume 16, Number 3, 1993 of The Missouri Review.