PeerSpirit Newsletter – The Owl and the Tree
May 2019


Dear Friends of PeerSpirit,

Spring has sprung on Whidbey Island, and along with the lilacs, peonies and iris, we also have an abundance of…weeds! Christina and Ann reflect on noxious weeds and how to contain them, while also considering larger societal issues and how to discern what is in our power to change.

Finding the Point of Empowerment

by Christina Baldwin and Ann Linnea

Common Groundsel

Walking the dog one morning, Christina noticed a patch of gangly weeds covered with tiny yellow flowers about to go to seed in the neighbor’s backyard directly across the road from our front yard. Our neighbor, now 84, still has a determination to tend his property and regularly volunteers to help in neighborhood upkeep and projects. However, he hadn’t mowed this strip of green in weeks. It was outside his regular fence and lawn – out of sight, out of mind.

Not out of our sight or minds because the weeds, common groundsel (Senecio vulgaris) are toxic invasives classified by the Washington State Noxious Weed Control Board. If not eradicated, within the next few days as the flower heads went to seed (one plant = 1 million seeds), our yard would be fertile ground for the next bloom.

Christina weeding

Time was of the essence. The folks were gone, it was the weekend. Christina grabbed a plastic bag, garden gloves, and headed into the tall grass. It took about 45 minutes to pull the weeds. The next day Ann called the county to ask how to properly dispose of the plants to prevent further contamination: into the landfill they went: 18 pounds of them. In the next few days we kept discovering more patches from several other neighboring properties. These properties are owned by part-time city folks who have no idea what’s happening in their island yards or the consequences of letting their weeds go to seed – light as a dandelion puff, blowing up and down our gravel roadside.

This was an intervention of right timing, right sizing, informed action, and good will. It got us to asking: what other problems are the right size for us to tackle? And what problems have gotten so out of control they are now systemic and epidemic?

Looking into nature around us, we continued to explore how problems get introduced and how they get out of control. Fifteen years ago, it was common practice for the county to spray the road ditches with pesticide. It kept them from having to mow, kept weeds and bushes back from the shoulders, and probably contributed to the cancer deaths of every dog in our neighborhood over a several year period (nose to the ground, they inhaled toxic residue). Health-conscious citizens led a successful campaign to change these practices: the county stopped spraying and started mowing. However, there was not a follow-up communication campaign to educate us locals about the importance of alternative ways to tend the roadside shoulders and ditches of our island home.

Scotch broom on bluff

Along with stands of nodding daisies, poppies, and maritime pea vine came dandelions, thistles, Scotch broom, Himalayan blackberry, and common groundsel. In the 25 years we’ve lived here, we’ve watched, particularly, the Scotch broom invade the region and our island. A successful invasive, it is a woody bush that can grow up to 10 feet tall and reproduce from any bit of its roots left in ground as well as seedpods that can remain dormant for years. The plant takes over grasslands, hillsides, pastures and fields. Its bright yellow blossoms right now in our spring weather are so prolific they can be seen as huge yellow strips along freeways and roadsides, even from thousands of feet in the air.

Broom is a problem that is out of control: a plant that has won. It’s not going away – at least not until the next ice age. Groundsel is not going away either. But we can tackle these problems as long as we understand the size and scope of our empowerment. Together, we talk with neighbors and help develop cooperation as the weeds are a common concern: we who pull, pull: others mow, we watch out, we talk.

This is the world we live in: huge, out of control issues continually spread into our local lives and show up at our doorsteps: we have to be willing to manage what we can manage – to notice and go out of our ways to assist, intervene, communicate and educate.

If the county had educated its citizens on the consequences of stopping pesticide use, we might have been able as a community to stop the proliferation that has occurred. Or if the citizen campaign had included plans for volunteer weed control (like volunteer litter pick up) we might have experienced a much greater scope of empowerment. It’s too late to go back on these issues: we’re down to empowerment being on a yard-by-yard basis. What have we learned that we might apply to a “problem” starting up today, that if caught in time gives us a larger impact? And what problems, though they appear out of control, remain in our power to influence on a small scale?

Enjoy whatever season you find yourself in and keep weeding.

Ann vs. a big thistle