My stack of grief pancakes has grown high over the past year and a half and is toppling over. It started with my friend Wayne’s death early in 2019. I wasn’t ready for it, and it broke my heart. Two weeks later, my father died. It has been a succession of deaths and losses ever since. Wayne was such a dear friend and my illness mentor. His death still doesn’t seem real, and I find myself wanting to call him and tell him about something I know he’d appreciate. This summer, I’ve been looking for a challenge and to shake things up a bit. Something that would have given Wayne a kick in the pants. I was scrolling through Instagram, and the thing I was looking for popped up. The 5th Annual New York iMapping Invasive Species Challenge. Wayne loved the Adirondacks, gardening, plants in general, and life being beautiful. This felt like a good place to start, and I didn’t have much time to contemplate since it was starting the following day.
The next morning I went for a hike, came home, and watched the training webinar. There were four species they wanted us to look for during the challenge, water chestnut, European frogbit, jumping words, and tree of heaven. We learned about the app, which took me a couple of days to get a rhythm using, how to identify these species, and why they’re an issue.
The jumping worm is the one that bothers me the most. Not because it’s a worm that moves like a snake, but because of the damage it does in eating through the duff under the trees (the thick layer of leaves that make a forest floor soft and creates new soil). By eating that, it can destroy the understory (all those plants that grow under the trees) and causing erosion around tree roots because there’s nothing to slow down or absorb the water. It can decimate the newt and salamander population as well because they lose their habitats. I also learned that most of what we think we know about earthworms might not be accurate. North America isn’t known for its native earthworms. What we usually see are from Europe. Go figure.
Each evening I would scour Alltrails and Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy for ideas of where to go the next morning. Since the challenge was to look across the area, I didn’t want to go to the same place twice. My first stop is a favorite of mine, Strawberry Fields Nature Preserve, where I ran into Farmer Jeff, who donated the land to the Conservancy. He was mowing the trail, and I told him what I was doing. I didn’t find any worms on the path, but he said they had been arriving in plants. Which means they’re in the area. And that I’ll be frequently rechecking that preserve. After that, I wore out my regular spots quickly and moved onto new locations.
Each morning was a race against the heat and storms. I would leave just after my husband went to work, or I’d make him get up early on his days off. We had severe thunderstorms most afternoons and heat in the 90s. I was caught in the rain a few times, which doesn’t bother me, it’s lightning that I don’t like. Alltrails gives an idea of how long it should take for a location, but I always take longer. I do all the extra trails and loops. I was inspecting trees, the soil, the water, and uploading images to iNaturalist for identifications of species new to me. I reported on a lot of other invasive species as well. I took my time.
As I read through the reviews posted on Alltrails, I thought about how fast some people wanted to get through these sights. People were rating the quickness of a location, the interest level, and if it was beautiful enough. Participating in a survey forces you to slow down and investigate. Inspect and absorb your surroundings. I take photos as I venture out, so I already slow down and look. The survey forced me to engage on a whole new level. It made me see the difference between sumac, smooth sumac, and tree of heaven even if the leaves were well over my head. All my years of sea glass collecting came in handy; I’m great with shapes even far away from my face.
As for there not being enough beauty. There was one trail that had an upper and lower section. The reviews said the upper was a boring walk in the woods, but the lower was interesting. I did the upper first. The forests were thick and quiet and had a soft path. It felt like where faerie tales take place. The lower was wicked interesting and more of a challenge, but the upper was magical. The comments took me aback with their lack of humanity for the natural world or misunderstanding that nature isn’t there to entertain us.
Each scene, each discovery, each challenge made me think of Wayne and how much I miss him. I could hear his tenor voice saying something poetic about the moments laid out before me. One morning I went to Broomstick Lake on top of a small mountain in Caroga. Reaching the lake on top took my breath. It was so pristine and quiet. The woods were thick and seemed to stand as if to protect this body of water. I could hear him singing a song. This challenge gave me time and space to begin processing the loss of him in my life and in this world. I don’t want to let him go. I love being able to access his voice and his cheeky smile when I reminisce, but a level of peace with his sudden vanishing will suffice.
Every location gave my eyes a new feast. It gave my brain a new place to process and be stimulated. I’ve shared with friends about these little jaunts and my need for vitamin green. Several have told me about the value of nature in wellbeing. I believe it. I missed only one day of the challenge, which ended on July 15th. I came in two first places for jumping worm and water chestnut. I came in third place for tree of heaven and second for frogbit. I’ll take those wins because I’m competitive, but the other aspects of this experience have meant so much more to me.