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Monday, July 18, 2011

Wild Parsnip

We’ll know by tomorrow whether the back of Linda’s legs---or her face god forbid---blister and turn rash-purple.  24 to 48 hours after contact.  Not only painful but unprofessional:  what client wants to see their psychologist disfigured so?  They did last year:  sickly purple patches behind her knee.  Lasted for 3 months.  
You’d think she be safe, so high on the seat of her old beloved John Deere 2510.  And the MX6---our John Deere radial mower capable of chopping up an 8’ tall boxelder tree---whirs noisily and mightily far behind her.  Yet, when she finished the deed yesterday and returned to the tractor shed,  clumps of grassy debris coated the rear of the tractor, as if she’d backed into a hay mound and out again.   At least we hoped it was just grass.  But why would it be?  She’d just sweated the last 10 hours mowing 4 acres of the dreaded wild parsnip.

She’s hopeful this year.  In spite of a 110 degree heat index and a furnace-hot engine in front of her, she wore long pants.  Last year she figures the tallest parsnip bent beneath the tractor’s front axle then snapped upright as she drove by, slapping behind her knee.  Revenge of the wild parsnip! 
Wild only because no one plants it.  It's good old garden-variety parsnip, Pastinaca sativa, long escaped from cultivation, now readily seeding itself on its jolly northward expansion.  Rampant in and around the Land, it hasn’t managed to reach the Twin Cities.  Not yet.  But it will.  I spied the familiar yellow flowers in a Lakeville ditch along I-35 this year.   Whether cut with a mower or by machete, parsnip lives on.   We only hope to prevent it from making more children.  Birth control, not genocide.
Unlike Linda, I suffer no serious threat from wild parsnip’s phytophotodermatitis, meaning if you get the leaf or stem juice on your skin then add sunlight, hey presto! blisters and rash.   I cover everything, head to toe, except for my face.  See, I’m machete man.  My assignment:  seek and destroy the parsnip thousands slipping through our tractor perimeter.  Armed with a 24” blade in each leather-gloved hand, I whirl and whack at the invading forces like some hybrid cross between a ninja warrior and John Boy.  The worst wounds I’ll take are heat, exhaustion and perhaps some sore shoulders.  Except this year.
This year the gnats (or midges or no-see-ums or whatever dreaded name you give these smaller-than-a-pinhead fly devils) were the worst.  Whether months of rain or Satan himself are to blame the results are the same:  a nerve-wracking cloud swarming overhead, buzzing deep into my ears, crawling down my neck, sticking in my eyelashes , choking me as I breathed.  It was to be a contest between me and the swarming forces of evil.
To beat the heat I slogged into the dew-soaked grass at 5AM, when it was only 81 degrees.  The gnats must have spied out my plan in advance, waiting for me, pouncing the moment I crossed Calico Hill Road.  “Ha!  I can handle anything you little biters can dish out,” I said to myself as I felled a few practice parsnip on my way across the pasture. 
I returned to the cabin at 7:30.  Gnats 1--Mike 0.   Desperate, I did what I hadn’t done in years:  bathed my hat, shirt color and ears in max strength Muskol, pretty much 100% Deet.  Returning to the scene of the battle, I fought the good fight---hacking and felling parsnip by the hundreds---but not good enough.  In shame I retreated, screaming in gnat-induced madness, back to the cabin.  It was only 10AM.  Gnats 2--Mike 0.  
When Linda returned for lunch after a successful morning of parsnip mowing, my shame turned to anger, rekindling my battle spirit.  I washed the stinging repellent out my eyes and vowed to try one more time, life-sucking afternoon heat or no. 
From my days canoeing the Boundary Water Wilderness---where all manner of biters rule the sky day and night---I recalled a defense I’d seen.  I’d always laughed then, such a ridiculous look.  But a desperate man does desperate things.  As I searched the closet, Linda probably hoped I’d fail to find it:  my old blue Boundary Waters bandana.    “Aha!" I cried.  She’d have to deal with her embarrassment. 
Bandana in one hand, filthy cap in the other, I pondered their marriage.    With a resigned shrug, I draped the bandana over my head so that one pointy end touched the top of my nose. Completing the look I donned the cap, tucked the pointy end under the brim and swallowed my pride.  With a bandana draped over my neck, topped by a farmer hat, I felt like John Boy meets Lawrence of Arabia. 
But it worked!  Swarming, the gnats buzzed in frustration as they failed to penetrate my defenses.  Up and down the prairie I marched.  Whack! Whack!  Down came the parsnip.  Reinvigorated, I recalled my yoga training:  side-body long, shoulder blades back, tailbone scooped.  My feet rooted, I felt the power of the earth pulsing up through my legs, shining out through my arms and blade as they rose with joyful focus and fell with flower-head splitting precision.  Finally---having hacked my way across the entire half- mile northern border of our emerging prairie---I swung for, hit and felled the easternmost parsnip. 
Yet that was merely the northern border, only 100 yards wide perhaps.  I gazed south, where Linda mowed on through dense yellow swathes of parsnip alongside the cattail pond.  I heard a buzz.  Annoying.  Disturbing.  Not just the gnats.  Not just the distant tractor.  This buzz came from the inside.  A dizziness or perhaps a warning.  Stop!  Stop before you overheat.  I swung, swooned, shrugged.  By some sense given to couples, Linda raised her eyes off her work and looked my way as I signaled my intention with my machete. 
As I dragged my feet up the hill, I took a few perfunctory parsnip whacks, then stopped swinging altogether.  The sun beat on.  Heat 1--Mike 0.
But just you wait, parsnip!  Wait until next year when we’re living on the Land.  Full time.  I’ll start whacking on 4th of July morn and everyday thereafter until the deed is done.  Not that parsnip cares.  He’ll be back, flinging in his seeds.  We’re a prairie island amidst a sea of weedy parsnip fields.
And that’s OK.  Healing the Land, this 41 acre prairie, is a thousand year project.  And we’re just coaxing it along, tipping the balance toward its true self. 

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