We sat at a long, cloth-covered table set alongside the marsh as the early spring light began to fade. Roast lamb, devoured, salad consumed. Plenty of beer swallowed. I always wonder about these reeds, I said.
A good friend of mine seated just down the way, a landscape architect, turned to me. They’re common reeds, she said. Phragmites. They only grow in a degraded environment.
Boink. Maybe because my friend is beautiful, wise and knows her stuff, my heart just sank. Our marsh. Degraded? No, it’s not degraded. Turtles migrate through the stalks of the reeds, out of the watersoaked ground to lay eggs in our lawn. Red-winged blackbirds hang on the reeds’ wispy heads doing acrobatic stunts and emitting their check-check call. And what about the black snakes that slither to and fro over the long warm season? That environment isn’t degraded.
Her comment has haunted me ever since, when I look out over my desk to the buff-colored legions of stems – bleak and pale now, in winter – or when I lay prone on the patio in the September dusk and listen to the soft rustle of the blue-green leaves in the breeze. So I just had to see what she meant.
And here it is.
Phragmites australis, the common reed, originated in Europe and came over to North America sometime in the 1800s, probably in ship ballast. There’s a native variety of Phragmites, too, one that Indians used to make ceremonial objects, cigarettes, musical instruments and thatch for mats. But what my friend referrred to is the invasive version, which greedily takes over brackish or freshwater wetlands and pushes out the native variety. They’re quite different than cattails, Typha, those honorable brown-velvet-headed grasses we see when we walk down by the Hudson. Stands of the towering Phragmites abound in these parts.
They’re like the wild rose, Rosa multiflora, that originally came to our shores as an ornamental plant, a flower border staple, and ended up taking over the world, just two weeks of delicious scent offsetting a year-round gift of monster-growth and prickers. It turned out to be a true thing, my friend’s observation, that Phragmites is more likely to be found in disturbed sites, such as along roadsides, near construction sites.
Starting a vegetable garden last summer at the edge of the marsh, I could see the reeds encroach. I couldn’t stop digging up their long pointy rhizomes whenever I planted. Still,working in the shadow of the fluffy plumes, the beauty of the unfortunate marsh grass drew me.
I have a bit of a fascination with trash amid grandeur. I love the idea that priceless architectural treasures come from trash pits, waste recepticles. I’ve always wanted to document the last lonely house, the last one standing between two faceless skyscrapers or next to the crummy highway (Emmy Lou Harris suggests that idea beautifully in her song Gulf Coast Highway: “The only thing we’ve ever owned is this old house here by the road”), the last shabby cottage that refuses to be displaced by shopping mall strips. Ugly and useless as these structures seem now, they once were loved.
Even Phragmites has a mythic past. When Apollo changed King Midas’ ears into the ears of an ass, Midas was ashamed and swore his barber to secrecy, but the barber could not stand to keep the secret and dug a hole in the ground where he whispered the story – and the reeds that grew there repeated the tale in whispers.
Who would be here to tell the tale if not for rude, terrible Phragmites?