It was a summer full of odd jobs, from cleaning restrooms at the Community Service Center to cleaning the trash piled up around Dumpsters from people with poor aim and/or discount garbage bags that fell apart at the seams, spreading their contents to ripen in the heat, awaiting Jim and his pitchfork.
Those were the pleasant jobs.
The unpleasant job was combating “mile-a-minute” vine, commonly known as kudzu.
Being from Jackson County, I was plenty familiar with kudzu. It was the plant that ate abandoned barns or any unoccupied homestead. It also seemed to have a taste for telephone poles.
We had some county fair prize-winning patches around here, many that really haven’t changed over the years, resembling snapshots from memories of them from the 1960s onward.
That puzzled me a bit, as the stuff should’ve taken over the entire county by now. When I lived in a shack in Cullowhee that bordered a small branch, we had a patch climbing up the bank into the yard, and were able to observe that the stuff could grow a foot overnight when the heat and moisture were right. We talked, not entirely jokingly, of shutting the windows at night to avoid being eaten in our sleep.
There was a tale of a group of Cub Scouts whose adult leader was a bit careless in picking a campsite, a group that was never heard from again. It’s assumed they were entirely consumed.
Kudzilla came in the night, leaving only Cubzu behind.
Seriously, the stuff has been recorded as growing up to 60 feet a year.
I poked around a bit and found credible sources that state instead of the millions of acres rumored, kudzu only covers about 227,000 acres, and spreads only a couple thousand acres a year.
I’m not sure of the square acreage of the county, but we must have a good chunk of the total acreage of kudzu. I’m not surprised to see the tourism folks promoting that fact. Once you’ve seen kudzu you’ve seen kudzu.
I’d seen kudzu but had the good sense to avoid wading into it, as it was common knowledge among kids that every leaf had a snake hiding under it.
That was until this particular summer, when somebody in power decided to take out the longstanding patch at Mark Watson Park. A gang of us young ’uns were dispatched with scythes to do the dirty work. That work involved wading right into it, scythe in hand.
I’d worked some with scythes before, but never developed a professional swing. I was as good with a scythe as I am with a golf club – that is to say I swing with a fury, but the results don’t match the ambition. My golf shot resembles the knuckleball of the great Braves star Phil Niekro – it bobs, it weaves, it does things a round object shouldn’t be capable of.
It made Phil a lot of money, ’cause Phil knew how to make a baseball go over the plate.
It’s cost me a lot of money, ’cause my ball might go over the green, or a creek, or a four-lane.
On one occasion I was playing with a foursome on a par 3 bordering a highway. The guy playing fourth didn’t see me when I winged one across the suicide lane, into a concrete barrier and ran it down the road with the traffic.
Looking at the green and seeing two balls there, he asked me what I hit. I told him a Lincoln Continental.
Anyway, with the scythe the swing was just plain dangerous to everyone involved except the kudzu, so I got tasked to tending to the roots. It was quite an education. I had no idea kudzu roots could run a dozen feet deep. Ideal snake den depth, if anyone cared to ask.
All in all, it was a humbling experience, because you just knew that if you turned your back on the stuff in a few weeks it would be back. You can fight nature, but nature is nothing if not persistent, and when it puts its tiny kudzu mind to it it’s going to win.
On the job satisfaction scale, cleaning toilets was a lot more satisfying.
Buchanan is editor of The Sylva Herald.