Three hours of work, so far, piled next to my garage. Julia Hubbel

The surprising health benefits of waging a war on an invasive species

I met my neighbor, Emily, yesterday afternoon. She's a tiny slip of a girl, with a toddler. I was getting mail, she was putting her youngster in the car. I asked if she minded if I went after the enormous, overwhelming blackberry thicket that separated our houses in this part of Eugene. She beamed. "Not at all," she said. "I've been trying to get the landlord to take care of it."

Emily isn't the kind of person to weigh into that thicket with a hoe, shovel, clippers and digging tools. I am. In fact, the moment she drove away, I unloaded my instruments of destruction and went to work with the gusto of the determined.

When I moved here last year I had knocked on my neighbors' doors only to greeted with silence. Probably Covid, probably that overwhelming existential fear of an unknown killer stalking the world. People had battened down the hatches. I was largely left to my own devices. In this case, as my neighbor's wild and untended yard sported enormous berry bushes, the thirty and forty-foot long vines were strangling my rhodies. They would kill off everything in their path, and I had just bought one of the nicest properties on the block.

My landscaper and I snuck into the thicket last summer and cut back the worst of it, clearing away the killing plants which allowed mine to flourish. I know something about blackberries, and love/hate relationship we have with them.

Some background. I grew up in Florida. We had a blackberry thicket on our lake. That mass of pain produced a few weeks of pure joy every May, and I grew up loving the taste of blackberries in half and half and in pies. Still do. However as a landowner, I don't care to have the local crop, which is considered an invasive species, take over my bushes, lilies and evergreens. They will, too.

This is one of the thinner "stems" from yesterday's battle. Julia Hubbel

I spent a few years traveling around New Zealand in the 1980s. Ask any Kiwi their opinion about blackberries, which are the bane of their existence. It isn't just that the rich volcanic soil (which we also have here in Oregon) is catnip to an invasive species, the friendly weather produces berries that are something like four times the size of those we have here. The problem is that the thickets are gruesome, and they  are very aggressive. The regular rains and bright sunshine which produce the healthiest cows and richest milk on earth are also friendly to the blackberry.

Depending on what kind of berries you're battling, you might be dealing with the invasive Himalayan blackberry (Rubus bifrons)  or the cultivated kind. What's in our yards isn't the cultivated kind. This article gives some background history. And while it recommends that we don't clear this out in spring, the problem with the common area between Emily's place and mine is that the mature vines were strangling our trees. They had to come down. Besides, wasps love to build nests here, and the ones we have are aggressive. A toddler playing in her yard isn't just at risk for scratches. Wasps and  hornets can do much worse.

The hardest part of clearing out these bushes is getting down to the root balls. To even get that far took several  hours of clipping and hauling the long vines. When you get to the base of the plant, that's when the real work begins. You have to remove the root ball in its entirety, if at all possible. In our case, it's probably not. The plants have woven themselves deeply into a stone wall that likely neither of us even knew existed. That said, using a hoe and shovel, I was able to pry out most of the enormous root balls that had given rise to the spiked skyscrapers which now lay in a wilting heap in my driveway. There is much satisfaction in unearthing the source of the problem, then pulling the offender up in its entirety by the roots.

One of the smaller root balls. Julia Hubbel

If you're old enough like I am you might remember the now very campy scary movie The Day of the Triffids, a 1962 utterly silly horror film which scared the holy bejesus out of me. After that movie I was terrified of hollyhocks. These blackberries are my Triffids, which I take great pleasure in unearthing from Emily's and my yards. Besides, our HOA, which is tasked with the responsibility for the bits of land that we share but don't own, don't bother. So, it's up to us to deal with the invading forces. I'm not willing to lose my lovely rhodies for three weeks' worth of tasty berries.

But wait, there's more.

Here's why this is so good for my health. It's not just that being outside in the gorgeous sunshine is good for me, even if I am sporting hundreds of small and large tears in my flesh from the thorns. For those for whom quarantine was an invitation to learn to garden, digging our hands into the soil is actually part of how we improve our moods, deal with depression and in the case of growing our food, give ourselves far better quality nutrition all in one felled swoop. No really.

Please see this.

From the article:

oil Microbes and Human  Health:  Did you know that there’s a natural antidepressant in soil? It’s true.  Mycobacterium vaccae is the substance under study and has indeed been  found to mirror the effect on neurons that drugs like Prozac provide.  The bacterium is found in soil and may stimulate serotonin production,  which makes you relaxed and happier. Studies were conducted on cancer  patients and they reported a better quality of life and less stress.

While you could legitimately argue (and I would wholeheartedly agree) that my full-on battle with the big fat blackberries isn't exactly soothing in the sense that a quiet afternoon harvesting fresh carrots might be, the simple truth is that being in Nature, immersing my hands in her soil actually helps my immune system. We are made to get dirty. In fact, our propensity to sanitize every damned thing has made us far more susceptible to nasty bacteria.

Those of us who grew up on farms, had our hands immersed in manure and all the plant and animal substances that come with that life tend to be more hardy than those who didn't. In that same way that a child birthed naturally is bathed in  her mother's microbiome as part of the process of providing protection to the newborn (which Ceasarean section does not provide, by the way), Mother Nature herself bathes us with healing, soothing microbes which can go a long way towards healing our hurts.

Also from the article:Mycobacterium  antidepressant microbes in soil are also being investigated for  improving cognitive function, Crohn’s disease and even rheumatoid  arthritis.

To that, armed with my hoe, my shovel, and my clippers, I head back out to finish the job today. I need my daily fix of Mycobacterium microbes.

Photo by Alex Smith on Unsplash