Tamarisk is one of the most vilified plants in the country. Scientists have referred to its presence in the western U.S. as an “invasion” or “occupation.” In 2006, Congress weighed in with the “Salt Cedar and Russian Olive Control Demonstration Act,” which essentially declared those two plants destructive foreigners in need of removal. Scott’s Roundup touts its products by warning “Tamarisk infestations are yet another example of what happens when people think their back yards are not connected to the natural world.” And a non-profit whose mission is to “advance the restoration of riparian lands” chose to name themselves the Tamarisk Coalition.
At the same time, Tamarisk might be the most frustratingly beautiful plant in the American Southwest. Its elegant green foliage and oft-blooming flowers give it a pleasant pink hue for much of the year. Even the bark is attractive, especially the young bark, a deep, deep red that taunts you to take a cutting and plant it in your own backyard. And if you live in the Southwest, that cutting is likely to do well—give it some water and it will grow as high and bushy as you’d like, up to 50 feet tall. In the desert, large fast-growing trees are prized commodities.
Underneath the surface, though, there is a sinister side to tamarisk that makes it frustrating to, or even abhorred by, many desert inhabitants. Well-meaning entrepreneurs brought tamarisk to the U.S. in the 19th century hoping it would provide shade, firewood, soil stabilization, and landscaping potential in a place where few plants can easily accomplish those tasks. They were right.
It also brought a problem: saltiness. Another common name for tamarisk is salt cedar, so called because it is literally salty. Tamarisks have deep, aggressive taproots that suck up salt from deep below the surface, store it in their foliage, and then drop the salt-laden leaves onto the ground, where the salt leaches into the soil. Most plants do not like much salt in their soil, and will die if they get too much, or at least be outmatched by salt-tolerant plants such as tamarisk. The results are plainly evident along many western watercourses, where there are abundant groves of tamarisk, but little else.
It is a foreign, salty plant, which is reason enough for many people to despise it. I am, on most days, one of those people.
But it is hard to hate something for very long, especially as you spend more time around it. For the past seven years my job has taken me to dozens of tamarisk groves, and while I still don’t like the plant, I have more pertinent worries: I take groups of kids on backpacking trips into the wilderness through an organization called Cottonwood Gulch, and in making sure the kids are hydrated, wearing sunscreen, not hurting each other, and maintaining a healthy body temperature, I often don’t have leftover energy to care about invasive species.
This summer provided some poignant moments for tamarisk reflection. I had the pleasure of leading a small group of teenagers through the red rock canyons of southern Utah, where tamarisk abounds. Not everyone would consider it a pleasure to hike with eight teenagers through an otherwise peaceful canyon, but I have grown to enjoy the challenge. Despite the teenage angst, I find this method of teaching—outdoor education, or experiential education—exceptionally rewarding. It allows us, for example, to look at a tamarisk tree and ask questions about ecology, natural history, human history, art, archaeology, and invasion. The Gulch thrives on this multi-faceted approach to learning. The tamarisk, like us, has a story, and it is much more exciting to learn that story while exploring a canyon than, say, browsing internet pictures on an iPad.
As we began our hike along the Boulder Mail Trail, one of the boys in our group, Luc, began grumbling about the heat. This was normal. He is a grumbler, though I have come to realize that his grumbling does not necessarily mean he is unhappy—he keeps coming back to the Gulch year after year, gripes and all—but he likes to grumble for comic effect. Sometimes we think he is an aggrieved old man disguised as a teenage boy. He is very smart and capable of being mature for his age, but he doesn’t like to show it. Instead, he usually makes concerted efforts to avoid looking smart, or like he cares about anything. For years, Luc has been writing nonsense accounts of his experiences, which are kept in a group journal for all to see. For example:
Hi thur lawg. I iz stil havin da fun at da catwud guch. Todai I builded a road. It wud fun. I done wit mi friend Ncik. It wud vury vury fuun. Tumurra it is da forth of July. We is gon go to a rodeo. Imma get me some gud food. Well back to speaking normally. That was fun. Hope you enjoyed this log entry.
He thinks this is funny, but it is not. The first entry like this might earn a little chuckle; the eleventh one, after three years of similar drivel, is not funny. Nonetheless, he occasionally hits on something that is funny, sincerely funny, like when he and his friend Nick (who was also on the Utah hike with us) rewrote all the words to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’”, changing the chorus to “Don’t Stop Hikin’” and singing it, with their group, in front of 150 people. Sometimes the boys’ humor is spot on, but as we began our hike that July afternoon, Luc was simply grumbling. Maybe it helped him push through the pain of carrying a backpack, or maybe it helped others forget their own pain. I like to think it helped others. Some of the girls in our group found him funny, which is worth something, especially to Luc.
The Boulder Mail Trail is a tough hike, and has been since it was first created in 1902. As with many things in the West, it was not so much “created” as “appropriated” from a Native American trail that was in use for some unknown number of years prior to 1902. We might say it was “redefined” as a mail route between the larger town of Escalante and the smaller hamlet of Boulder. The trail is mostly over red Navajo sandstone, and it winds through a country where life is abundant but spread thin. Unless you’re willing to crawl under a small piñon or juniper tree, shade is rare. Rock cairns mark the length of the trail, along with the occasional abandoned strand of phone wire, which a century ago had been strung for 26 miles between Escalante and Boulder on trees and rocks. It would have been absurd to put telephone poles up in country like this, so they just pulled it along and hung it where they could. Nobody was going to live there, they reasoned, so nobody seemed to care if it looked shoddy.
After a few miles we sat down for a snack of peanuts and candy and talked about the phone line as a historical artifact. We tried to imagine what it would be like to hang that line, or be a mail carrier on this route 100 years ago. There were three girls from Brooklyn, Teja, Dixie, and Mary, all friends before they came, who were especially amused by that thought. Looking back, they might have been more confused than amused. They came from a place where life was stacked on top of itself and natural beauty took a different form. Here they saw a broken phone line stretched for miles in order to connect a few people to another few people. Everything was horizontal, spread out and naked to the sun and wind. The girls didn’t know what to make of this place, and they often resorted to gossiping among themselves about Brooklyn matters. In their minds, Brooklyn was comfortable, while Utah was magnificent but foreign and unforgiving. They weren’t sure what to do with it.
We were late getting to our campsite that night, due to a slow start that involved shuttling some vehicles, repacking food, finding more drinking water, and what had become a routine 30 minute bathroom break by an oddly charming young man named Sam. Before the group began doing anything, Sam somehow always needed to go to the bathroom. He wasn’t trying to get out of anything, we were sure. He didn’t have a manipulative bone in his body. He was one of the most sincere kids you’ll ever meet, but also one of the most oblivious. His pre-anything bathroom routine was indicative of what it was like to travel with him—he never tried to upset anyone, and though he did, it was hard to stay angry because you knew he meant no harm.
Sam is also stupendously, fanatically obsessed with movies in a way that is both impressive and exasperating. As we went to bed that night on the Boulder Mail Trail, he asked me if I had seen Pulp Fiction. I had, I told him, though I hastened to add that I thought it was a little violent and dissolute for someone his age. He ignored my parental comment and asked me if I remembered Actor Y from Scene Z, and how Actor Y was also in Movie H with Actor F and Actor W, which reminded him of this other scene… it went on like that for a while.
The next morning, accompanied by snippets of movie trivia, Brooklyn gossip, and grumbling, we scrambled down the side of a cliff into ominously named Death Hollow, a spectacular desert canyon. I don’t know why the canyon is named Death Hollow, but the trekkers happily made up morbid stories to explain its history. I countered that it was possibly an ironic name, because Death Hollow was the only place for miles around with a reliable source of water.
Consequently, Death Hollow was teeming with life, a sinuous stripe of green carved from a landscape of red and brown, and as we stumbled into the canyon (the marked trail disappeared for a stretch), we discovered a different version of the desert: 10-inch long fish, trees 80 feet tall, insects of untold shapes and colors, and undergrowth so dense that we often found it easier to walk through the water than on land.
As we hiked through Death Hollow and the Escalante River, we also saw massive piles of recently cut tamarisk trees. I learned later that this chainsaw-induced destruction was part of a joint effort by several organizations, both federal and private, to mitigate the tamarisk outbreak. Tamarisk is a water-hungry plant, and a healthy one will consume dozens, or even hundreds, of gallons of water each day. This is similar water usage to many native plants like cottonwoods, but tamarisk grows in such dense thickets that its total water usage per acre is often higher than a native plant community’s (though those facts are, unsurprisingly, undergoing further research). The tamarisk’s salt dropping habit also makes it hard for native seedlings to survive, which opens up space for more tamarisks to sprout. The overall result is miles of stream banks that are handsomely adorned with mature tamarisks, but little else.
We also saw a green powdery residue on several stumps, which was an herbicide that should prevent the tree from resprouting. As Scotts is quick to tell us, this is an important step, and for those of us who are disinclined toward chemical solutions, a necessary evil. Tamarisks’ deep root system allows the trees to survive any other violent act that occurs above the surface; without the herbicide, they have little trouble resprouting.
Chainsaws and herbicides are one potential solution. Beetles are another. In recent years, authorities have released what they hope is an aptly named “tamarisk beetle,” which supposedly feeds only on tamarisk leaves. The hope is that once they finish feasting on tamarisk, they will simply die off, and the ecosystem will return to something like what it was 100 or 1,000 years ago. Many consider this wishful and shortsighted thinking. A July 14, 2014 New York Times article (“Arizona Enlists a Beetle in Its Campaign for Water”) warns of the unintended consequences of removing such a prominent species, and a lack of evidence that removing tamarisk will do any good to conserve water or increase biodiversity. Moreover, the tamarisk’s ability to reproduce even in the aftermath of fire, flood, insects, and chainsaws led one biologist to lament “You’ll never get the last tree.” They are ruthless survivors, precisely the sort of life that flourishes in the desert.
People, even ruthless survivors, don’t often live in canyons though. You’d think we might, for canyons offer much of what humans need to survive. Especially in arid lands, they can be oases where water collects and life concentrates. They are astonishingly attractive, carved by generations of assiduous rivers, punctuated by an occasional flash flood. But as we soon discovered, flash floods, maybe more than anything else, are why we don’t tend to live in desert canyons.
As we continued to hike through Death Hollow, Sam, in the midst of a breath during a long series of movie questions, uncharacteristically started to notice a few details about the landscape. He pointed to a large cluster of sticks that were wedged between a tree and the rock cliff about 10 feet above our head. He asked me what that was.
“A pterodactyl nest,” I said.
He was not amused—he never is—but it opened up the door for me to ask him questions of my own. This is as good as it gets for an educator, especially an outdoor educator who relies on students’ curiosity about their surroundings to encourage learning. Feeling invigorated, I asked Sam (and the rest of the group, all of whom I had brought over to look) how and why that woody debris got up there. Fairly quickly, they figured out that it was deposited by a massive flash flood. They were intrigued by the thought of water flowing through the very canyon in which they stood, rising several feet above their heads. They asked what caused it, how plants survived such an “event” (as flash floods are casually known), and if it was likely to happen while we were there. It was extremely unlikely, I assured them, but we would choose a safe, elevated campsite just in case.
Their fears were mostly assuaged, but not entirely. This innocuous little creek was suddenly full of more violent potential than a crew of chainsaws. Every one of them looked up at that debris with wonder, and for a while at least, no one was grumbling or gossiping. They were beginning to read the landscape and the story it had to tell us. They might have even figured out why it was named Death Hollow.
That night we found suitably safe campsite above the creek and underneath some cottonwood trees. As the sun disappeared, we gathered for a “campfire,” which is a ritual that doesn’t actually require a real fire. Local regulations prohibited an open fire, so we compromised by strapping a headlamp around a clear water bottle so that the water inside the bottle was lit up—no warmth, but it creates a gentle ambience, good for reflecting on the day. We were exhausted from the hike, but in a satisfied way, and the gentle evening light (from the sun, not the water bottle) led us into a reflective mood.
Several of the trekkers commented on the beauty around us, the power of water that carved these canyons, and how confident they felt after completing a challenging day of backpacking. At one point, Mary, one of the Brooklyn girls, spoke up. Her eyes exuded intensity and joy, and she mumbled for a few seconds before her thoughts coalesced into words.
“I’ve never been to any place like this,” she said. “It makes me want to… I don’t know… It’s so different from New York, so peaceful, so beautiful… but I love New York, too… I’ve just never been anywhere like this.”
As the sky grew darker, our energy waned. Before retiring, we asked about the group log. The kids were, as usual, several days behind on their entries, and there was nothing new to read. But Nick spoke up, inspired by the glow of the sunset he said, and reminded us of an entry that Luc, resident grumbler, had previously written. I looked down at my feet and breathed deeply, mustering patience. But Nick shared was something different than what I expected, a time when Luc decided to forego his comical aspirations:
The rain was pouring down so heavily that small streams had begun to form in our tarps… After 15 minutes of battling the precipitation we started to dig a small ditch along the side of the tarp. Eventually we had formed a small channel that led the water out away from our stuff. After we sat in marvel of our little creation, we deemed it a good time to emerge from our newly waterproofed home. What greeted us was perhaps the most fantastical and stunning scene that I had ever laid eyes upon. The sky seemed almost a battlefield between light and darkness. It was dashed almost exactly down the center with a raging storm on one side and a sunset that seemed to have been sent from the heavens themselves on the other.
As the two waged their battle across the skyline, we noticed something else. Amidst all of the chaos and beauty, a double rainbow had formed, illuminating the mountain beneath it. Some of us simply stood in awe, not uttering a word as if the breath had been stolen from us, others shouted out cries of joy and amazement, and some even went sprinting up the hill to see if they could catch the end of the rainbow before it disappeared back into nothingness.
I was stunned, mind blown. I had always held out hope that Luc was capable of writing something that eloquent. He so often acts younger than his age, intentionally so, maybe out of insecurity, maybe out of a feigned sense of comic genius. But right then he had a moment, an awe-induced moment of clarity that was infinitely more mature and moving than his usual rubbish. He was coming to a new understanding of his abilities. We were all reimagining him, right in that moment. He is going to be a heartbreaker.
The next day, the kids had begun to notice the tamarisk stumps. You couldn’t miss them, of course, but it was no guarantee they would be curious enough to say anything. Dixie, one of the Brooklyn girls, spoke up.
“Why are there all these trees cut down?”
This was unusual, because when I encounter tamarisk I immediately experience acute visceral hatred, which I rarely fail to share. Moreover, Dixie’s question about tamarisk stumps was normally the kind of thing that juiced up my educator instincts. I wasn’t forcing her to become interested in something, she arrived there on her own. I knew all about tamarisks, I knew that I hated these trees because of the ecological ruin they caused, and whenever I saw them alive I regretted not hauling a chainsaw and bucket of herbicides through the desert on a goodwill mission of healthy eradication.
I hesitated in front of those stumps because I didn’t want to ruin her Edenic view of this canyon, its spectacular beauty, swimming holes, fecundity, and awesome deadly power. The presence of tamarisks made the canyon less beautiful to me, and it felt cruel to taint her experience of splendor and awe.
So I ignored Dixie’s question for a while, asked her something else instead, and quickly fell to the back of the hiking line to contemplate these stumps. And as I contemplated, perhaps influenced by the state of quasi-nirvana that exercise and solitude in a gorgeous canyon can bring, I began to feel something profoundly disconcerting: sympathy, though just a little, for the tamarisk. Tamarisks are trying to survive and thrive, just like us, and before chainsaws came into this canyon, they were happy and healthy. They were harming the surrounding ecosystem, sure, using up precious water, and failing to acknowledge the presence or worth of any other living thing.
In honest moments, however, I admit that I am similarly insensitive. I try to live in a non-destructive way and respect other species, but I often fall short of those goals. As a teenager, I was especially bad, a painful combination of ignorance and apathy. I was, and often still am, self-centered, not unlike a tamarisk tree, and not unlike many teenagers who have hiked with me through tamarisk-infested canyons. Teenagers can be enraging, full of hormones and unfounded confidence and inclined to make rash decisions about what is beautiful, what is worthless, and what deserves to live or die. They have little sense of their own mortality, or anything else’s. And they can be saltier than a tamarisk.
And then, when you least expect it, they have moments of beauty, like a fetching new sprout emerging from a seemingly barren landscape. They have insights, moments of kindness and sincere maturity. Tamarisks have those moments, too, though maybe unconsciously: providing shade to a weary hiker, an extraordinary red stem, or the only blooming flowers for miles around.
But there is a distinct difference between an adolescent tamarisk and an adolescent human: tamarisks don’t seem to have the capacity to change as they grow older. As time goes on, they become consumers at an even greater scale, incapable of reflecting on their unwittingly destructive nature. To their credit, we don’t exactly know how altruistic or merciless they are, and perhaps those concepts are inappropriate for understanding a plant.
Even if we cannot fully understand a tamarisk’s moral aptitude, we do know that Sam and Luc and the Brooklyn girls and I have the ability to stand in the depths of a canyon and learn to read the land. We can comprehend the stories embedded in tamarisk stumps about history, ecology and rampage. The knowledge we gain from those stories can inspire us to cut down the tamarisk in order to, ostensibly, improve the ecosystem. Or that knowledge can inspire us to do nothing, and to see that sometimes it makes sense to let a tamarisk alone. That knowledge can give us the power to question whether more of something is necessarily better, and give us the ability to prioritize our lives in a way that is not incessantly centered on growth and domination. The story of the tamarisk can show us that beauty on the surface is sometimes wrought with problems underneath, and vice versa. We learn that we are, in many ways, just like the tamarisk, transplanted from a different place, resourceful yet ignorantly destructive. We have been known to barge in, suck out all the water, spoil the soil, push out the Natives, and reproduce with vigorous fecundity. Who deserves to live or die in this canyon, and how do we decide? And do we have a right to answer that question?
The following day we hiked out of the canyon, and at some point I returned to Dixie’s question about the tamarisk stumps. The discussion that followed was perhaps trite. I was confused, wanting to impart my longstanding hatred of this plant to my students, but simultaneously wanting to appreciate its beauty alongside its destruction.
It’s hard to say how much knowledge or wisdom they will retain about the tamarisk, but I know, with great confidence, that we piqued their interest about the canyons, trees, flowers, rocks, light, and awe-inducing power of this landscape. They will return home with new questions, and maybe a new concept of normal. Even if they don’t have a clear opinion on tamarisk in the West, they have begun to learn that beauty can be deceptive.
by Jordan Stone