Today’s post blends some of my favorite things: obscure people who changed the course of history in some way, and abandoned ruins where nature is taking over again.
First, a question for you. Can you think of any case in which a non-native species of plant/insect/reptile/animal was introduced into the wild and it worked out really well? It seems like this is a disaster every time it’s tried.
Think of orange ladybugs (aka Asian Lady Beetle or harmonia axyridis), which were introduced as a means of pest control.. Similar to adorable red ladybugs, except they’re orange, they smell awful, they leave yellowish stains, and they bite.
Another example are the Burmese pythons in the Everglades. People would buy them as exotic pets and, upon discovering that it’s impossible to have a 15-foot deadly reptile as a pet, they thoughtfully released the snakes into the swamp. Hurricanes Andrew and Katrina blew many more pythons out into the wild and now Florida’s got a big problem with them. Besides, the danger to humans, the snakes have devastated the biodiversity of the Everglades, wiping out raccoons, opossum, and bobcats by 87%-99%. Marsh rabbits, cottontail rabbits and foxes are gone as well. The snakes are a nuisance, and Florida has declared open season on the reptiles.
I recently came across a 1906 ad selling kudzu. If you’re from the south, or you’ve spent any amount of time there, the idea of selling kudzu like it’s a geranium plant is pretty funny.
Kudzu, if you’re unfamiliar with it, is an invasive species of vine (technically a legume) that has seemingly swallowed the south whole over the past century. Kudzu is ubiquitous in the south, but it’s a Japanese plant. In other words, it’s not native to the region, and it’s not part of the natural ecosystem. Kudzu is sometimes referred to as a scourge, but it seems to flourish everywhere it’s introduced.
In a 1909 article extolling the wonders of kudzu, a photographer named Charles Earl Pleas smugly took credit for introducing the plant to the south. The plant grows rapidly and luxuriantly, Pleas explained. He said proudly that he had studied the plant for years, planting it and propagating it, exhibiting it at fairs, shipping it to farmers everywhere, and urging them to plant it.
In an early warning sign, the federal government publicly endorsed the spread of kudzu. The government even bribed farmers to plant kudzu for $8 an acre, resulting in 46 million acres of kudzu.
The problem with kudzu is that it grows very rapidly (60-70 ft. a year) and it takes over everything. When it covers a tree, for instance, generally the tree can’t survive. It’s actually a pretty plant–and I like to see it overtake abandoned buildings and cover ugly man-made structures. But it’s destructive. It strangles all other growth, and even leads to houses and cars, amongst other things, getting lodged in impenetrable walls of kudzu. Keeping the vine at bay is a real difficulty. It’s not like Burmese pythons and orange ladybugs eat the kudzu. (The current solution seems to come in the unlikely form of hungry goats. Goats will eat anything.)
It’s bizarre to think of actually identifying the individual who introduced kudzu to the south. That’s like being able to name the first Californian to eat an avocado, or pinpointing the date of the first barbecue ever held in Texas.
Mr. Pleas died in 1955. I’m sure he was a wonderful person, but I wonder if his opinion of his kudzu revolution had at all dimmed by the time he passed away. If he were alive today, we can be pretty certain he would not be bragging about how he personally introduced kudzu and transformed the American south.
Many people who have introduced something that radically changed the world in some way later backed away from their creation. Henry Ford’s inexpensive automobiles thrust humanity into a new, modern world dominated by noisy cars that could reach unbelievable speeds. Ford subsequently spent his later years trying to revive enthusiasm for by-gone pursuits like waltzing and polka dances.
Perhaps the person who brought email to the masses is living off the grid somewhere and spends their days practicing calligraphy.
In closing, here’s a bit more of Mr. Pleas’ handiwork: