THE MONSTERS IN OUR MIDST
(Reprinted from the chapter “The Monsters in Our Midst” from my coffee table book,
“My Journey into the Wilds of Chicago: A Celebration of Chicagoland’s Startling Natural Wonders”)
At Black Partridge Woods, raindrops plummet from the gray onto an autumn canopy of golden sugar maples, dislodging turning leaves from their tentative grasps, sending them into a lighthearted aerial choreography destined for the moving stream—where the water ride begins. There, leaves are taken on a winding, whirling adventure, following the will and whim of the current, gliding with ease around branches and rocks—then twirling as the tip of a lobe glances the side of a mossy stone. Sometimes they’re snagged by twigs along the shore, as if nabbed by outstretched arms of rescue workers. Many come to rest with others of their kind, wedged against rocks in angular heaps, like jumbled piles of playing cards. And, to my delight, a friendly and flirtatious few flow over my boots and between my legs as I crouch in the middle of this rocky stream. Meditative music of cascading water floods the sweet autumn air. It is like a dream. But this being the season of Halloween, a nightmare lies in wait. A demon hides in plain sight.
“La, la la, la la!” we sing, as we frolic through a grove or a field of flowers, oblivious to the monsters that lurk all around us: the alien plant species. No, they are not pursuing you. (Or are they?) I mean, heck, they’re just plants. What harm can they do? A lot, as it turns out. They are as deadly as a murderous scene from a horror flick, except that the stranglehold takes place over years, decades. Ignored, incognito, and beautiful to the eye, the aliens creep. But their beauty is only chlorophyll deep. Slowly, diabolically, they take control and annihilate our native species, severing the fragile filaments that make up the web of life.
After years of photographing local nature, I’m still not privy to every Franken-plant. Yet, there in Black Partridge Woods, I suspected something sinister, knowing that autumn gives warning by revealing a horror in hiding: European buckthorn, with foliage that remains green deep into the fall. Along the roads, neighborhoods, and natural areas, it stands apart from the golds, burgundies, and browns. Buckthorn seems to be everywhere, providing a sobering realization of how badly our preserves have been infested and how much work remains.
In the pictured autumnal scene, the distant greenery is definitely not buckthorn. I checked before I shot it. But afterwards, haunted by the green monsters of the fall, I got an eerie feeling. If change is the message of the season, then it’s possible that other aliens did not receive the memo either. I called the steward of the site, and my fears were confirmed. The green shrub you see is another demon, as vicious as buckthorn, and one that, up until then, was unknown to me: Japanese honeysuckle. So now I know and so do you, but beware. Complacency is the most
dangerous monster of all.
© 2016, Mike MacDonald. All rights reserved.