By Michael Fanelli
If the branches of a dead tree set against the sky are the gestures of a conductor reaching the climax of Beethoven's "Pastoral Symphony," the common buckthorn spreading out beside the trunk is that pop song you've always hated but can't get out of your head. (For me, it would be “Pictures of Matchstick Men” by Status Quo.)
The common buckthorn is an invasive plant introduced to North America 200 years ago as an ornamental shrub, so it's been around almost as long as the equally invasive dandelion. This “shrub” gives bamboo a run for its money. It takes over open land, growing to 25 feet. It is the Asian carp of the woods, not to be confused with the blooming, equally armed hawthorn, which graces Marcel Proust's novels.
War has become a relative term. I am in conflict with this organism. I don't mind weeds. In fact I find them more interesting and appealing than plain old grass. But buckthorns challenge me physically as well as my relationship to nature. Like war, this conflict involves pain on both sides.
When I chainsaw the limbs, they bleed. When I carry off the carcasses, the thorns stab me and I bleed. Our sap, being composed of sugar, water and energy cells, is essentially the same. Hemoglobin's molecular structure is identical to chlorophyll with iron taking the place of magnesium.
Nobody dies in this conflict, however. Buckthorns are indestructible. Cut one down to the ground and it's reborn. Now I know how the Spartans felt during the Peloponnesian War, burning Athens' olive trees at the end of the campaign season, only to return the next year and finding them resprouted.
I have not burned the buckthorns, although I've considered dousing them with jalapeño juice. In my zeal to occupy the moral high ground in this conflict, I can't even blame buckthorns for killing other plants. They take the place of already-dead trees – emerald-bored ash trees and the elm, doomed to premature death by its fatal fungus. (Ironically, those elms live long enough to make my top 10 nuisance list, native or not.)
On the plus side – to be fair, what living organism sharing this green Earth doesn't deserve a thumbs-up in the surplus column? – I have seen birds nest safely within its prickly confines. Of course, birds, opportunists that they are, don't mind setting up shop on a ledge at the Statler.
To me the buckthorn's most odious characteristic is that its berries serve no purpose other than its own propagation. They are purple-black, and provide no nutrition to any animals. They pass through birds' digestive systems nearly intact to be scattered all over my property. Once planted, they outperform all other native species and march to the edge of my patio.
Why can't I admire the industrious buckthorn like I do migrant workers, filling parts of the economy that well-off citizens eschew? Why can't I get along with these entrepreneurial plants whose only flaw is being successful? Perhaps the problem is the fence around my patio that protects the last bastion of “native” species – my Dutch tulips, English roses and Japanese maple. Something tells me that if the fence came down, the artificial shield of separation will also be removed. Then I can accept what I already suspect – that buckthorns are marvels of nature, deserving of wonder and respect. To paraphrase Carl Sagan's line in the “Cosmos” episode on evolution, as he stood before a mighty oak tree: The lowly buckthorn can read my DNA. If I could find the words to ask about its preferences, the buckthorn would say that it's a Bills fan.
Michael Fanelli, of Elma, is a retired Customs and Border Protection officer and playwright.