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Tuesday, June 7, 2016

The Politics of Flowers


Yellow Flag Irises crowd the bank of the Niobrara River at Agate Fossil Beds. It's the same river I canoed in a blizzard when I was nine-years-old, during which my uncle gave my brother and me shots of peppermint schnapps because he said it would keep us warm and a family friend handed us baked potatoes to take into our sleeping bags, for the same reason. But this part of the river looks different. I doubt many people dip a canoe in at this point in the river. But for as narrow as this river is, it is still the river who helped the wind sculpt the rocks, revealed the bones of ancient history, and gave us a history lesson we didn't know we needed.

But did we need it?  Maybe the rock bones are bad medicine.

Erwin Barbour came to Agate Springs Ranch to discover ancient plant roots that were not ancient plant roots. They were the burrows of the paleocaster--a land beaver that is nothing like the modern water beaver. These daemonelices or Devil's Corkscrews were where they lived. But Barbour was convinced they were the roots of massive prehistoric plants and sometimes when you are convinced of something, you forget to keep looking for further possibility.

During one visit, Barbour brought with him some Iris pseudacorus bulbs, as a wedding gift for his daughter, Eleanor newly married to son-in-law, Harold Cook. When gifted flowers, it is normal for the giftees to plant said flowers near a water source--like a river. And, that's what the Cooks did. What a lovely way to add a pop of yellow to the muted hues of the expanse that is Western Nebraska, they must've thought. People are animals after all and animals impact their environment.

Over time, the flowers grew in power, developing a massive rhizome, whilst self-seeding into the water. The flowers produce a seed pod that explodes --scattering fertile confetti into the gentle waters heading downstream. They invade the banks forming a legion, inserting themselves into the fecund soil.

The soil just takes it; it doesn't have a choice. The invader is too strong--too large in number.

The Park Service is doing what they can to stop them. The removal of this mighty flower has come up before, but tourists sometimes come just to see them, and tourists bring money.

These are the politics of the flowers.

The Park Service could just let these soldiers grow invasively, but the irises are poisoning the water. They are drowning the river. Fish, oh-so-observant, have been avoiding this stretch of river for a long time. This is a sign. This is one language the fish speak that we should be able to read: avoidance.

The Park Service has tried spraying the irises with herbicide. Get that? They have tried spraying the poison with poison. The poison is still standing.

These dazzling flowers are as strong as they are lovely.

The Park Service has discovered stomping on the flowers seems to be the most effective course of action because it mimics what cattle would do to it, if cattle were allowed on the land. Cattle would have a negative impact on the land, but the flowers would also have a negative impact on the cattle because the flowers are toxic to cattle as well. They have even invited local high school students out for a flower stomping party.

But these beauties are as strong as they are lovely.

As we walked across the boardwalk today, two of my classmates saw a fish swimming under the bridge in the gentle flowing water of the Niobrara, right there among the irises. Our teacher was surprised, and in turn, we were surprised by his surprise because we didn't know the story of the irises just yet. He explained his response by telling us the origin of the Yellow Flag Iris that grows so fearlessly along the banks of the river. This lonely fish tells a story: The tamping of the flowers is working.

I hope the fish wins.

I hope the river wins.

The Natives deserve a win against this invasion.




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