The Perplexing Case of the Tan Gardening Glove: Episode 1

The Perplexing Case of the Tan Gardening Glove: Episode 1

1

The trouble started one mid-June day near Rockport, Maine along Penobscot Bay.  Maria Solidago had returned from three weeks in Virginia visiting her five grandchildren.  The trip had been exhilarating and exhausting, and Maria was looking forward to escaping Virginia’s heat and humidity and returning to Maine’s cooler climes.  She especially missed her native plant friends with whom she had developed such a fond relationship over the last few years.

Maria had lived in the area for fifteen years.  While she resided in town, she spent most of her time of late volunteering at a nearby nature preserve managed by the Coastal Maine Land Trust.  She was particularly attracted to the preserve’s seventeen acres of coastal woodlands and Maritime bogs.

On that June morning, Maria put on a pair of faded jeans, a navy blue long-sleeve T-shirt, a light blue windbreaker, a turquoise hat with a wide brim, and a pair of calf-height, purple rubber boots.  The high temperature for the day was projected to be 65 degrees, a welcome change from the 90 degree sticky days she had endured in Virginia.

Maria arrived at the preserve, stood at the edge of the bog, and took a long, deep breath.  Looking out over the bog’s low-growing Spruce trees and Cranberry and Laurel shrubs, she could see the rocky coastline.  The sky was blue, turning intermittently greyish when low clouds scuttled by on the breeze.  Several weathered clapboard fishing shacks dotted the shore.   Out in the Bay, she could see a number of schooners, windjammers, and fishing boats, white sails offsetting the improbably dark blue waters.  The rounded humps of scattered small, forested islands emerged from the water, and a dark green woodland ridgeline framed the view on the horizon.

“Wow,” Maria uttered reverently.

Looking down, she marveled at the interplay of the small view at her feet and the broad view of the surrounding landscape.  It was that small view that had occupied her time and attention in recent years.  Bog plants of different colors, textures, heights, and shapes created a tapestry that was remarkable in its complexity.

Since her retirement as a high school science teacher in Virginia, Maria had poured herself into experimenting with different types of plants in her new home in Maine.  She was learning as she went, helping to plant the local native vegetation.  She tenderly nurtured her Dwarf huckleberry, Sheep laurel, Bog goldenrod, Round-leaved sundews, and other native plants.  She would often pause in her work and sit on the ground to watch the bees, wasps, butterflies, dragonflies, and birds busy at their work, together creating a buzzing and chirping orchestral arrangement.  Sometimes, she would sing or hum along, inserting her own voice into the arrangement with long, slow notes.  A kind of nature meditation.

Left: Photo by Ekaterina Bolovtsova from Pexels. Right: Photo by Leslie Middleton.

At times, Maria found the work at the preserve to be hard, even back-breaking for someone in their retirement years.  Preserving the bog included trying to beat back a slew of invasive plants.  Maria was continuing to learn about invasive plants by taking several workshops and studying on her own.  She had learned that the invasives did not evolve in the local ecosystem, having originated on other continents.  They were introduced as ornamental plants, on trade ships, or through other unintended consequences of commerce.

Once established in the area, the invasive plants had few or no local predators.  They also tended to be aggressive as they muscled out the locally adapted species in competition for space, soil, light, water, and nutrients.  This was a lesson all too familiar to Maria, reinforced every time she crawled on hands and knees through the bog, yanking, cutting, pruning, and sawing at the invasives that seemed to re-emerge a few days later by sheer force of will.  Bent to her work, she would feel the sweat arise on her brow and in the small of her back, and instinctively recall her home back in Virginia.  “Sweating in Maine on a cool, summer day,” she mused.  It would make a good song title.

For Maria, the work was essential.  Sadly, the invasives did not have the same ecological companionship with the bees, butterflies, and birds that were an essential part of the local food chain and that also created the beautiful music to which she enjoyed humming along.

On the mid-June after Maria’s return from Virginia, she walked through the bog, her purple rubber boots squishing through the soggy ground.  She reacquainting herself with her bog plant friends and made a mental list of tasks to try to accomplish for the day.  Stopping at a patch of bog plants where she had previously fought back the invasive plants and replanted some natives, she noticed that things had changed, and not in a good way, during her absence.

Many of the native plants were either dug up and left on the ground or missing completely.  Oddly, in their place, there seemed to have been a deliberate attempt to replant the invasive species that Maria had spent the past few years trying to eradicate.  Little sprouts and seedlings of Creeping Jenny, Beach Rose, Purple Loosestrife, and her arch foe, Bittersweet were planted, as if these species needed any help invading the unique habitats of Maine.  Who would do such a thing and what could be the motive?

Poking around in the leaf litter of the disturbed area with her gardening trowel, Maria noticed two fingers of a tan, leather gardening glove protruding from the soil.  Prying the glove from the ground, Maria observed a crimson “W” handwritten on the back of the glove, perhaps painted on with nail polish.  Apparently, whomever had perpetrated this cruel act had inadvertently dropped one gardening glove and left it behind.   But what was up with the crimson “W?”

Maria felt a wave of consternation, confusion, anger.  She couldn’t quite peg it, as the situation evaded any immediate sense of understanding.  Not knowing where to turn, she instinctively reached into her back pocket for her cell phone.  Fumbling with the phone, she dropped it into the mud.

“Damnit,” she barked in frustration.  Wiping the phone with the bottom of her T-shirt, she strode at a rapid pace towards a small rise where she knew the cell reception was a little better.  She called the local Sheriff.

2

In the late afternoon, the Sheriff’s patrol car pulled into the preserve’s small gravel parking lot, and out stepped Albion Australis.  Albion had grown up in the area.  Several generations of his family had been engaged in commercial lobstering, and he had served as Sheriff for going on forty years.

Maria explained, somewhat breathlessly, what had occurred, leading Albion around the disturbed area.

“Look,” she explained, “these Goldenrod and Sundew plants were yanked right out the ground.  Yanked right out.”  Albion looked down to where Maria was pointing.  His gaze was diverted to the mud accumulating on his recently shined-up black shoes.  He felt cold water seeping into his socks.

Maria continued, bending over and pointing, moving with nervous energy from plant to plant.  “These invasive plants were planted.  On purpose!  See the Beach Rose?  Purple Loosestrife?  And Bittersweet.  Can you even believe they planted Bittersweet!”  She looked up at Albion, her face expectant and focused.

During Albion’s tenure as Sheriff, he had dealt with a variety of petty larcenies, disorderly conduct incidents, and an occasional robbery, but nothing like the crime that Maria was describing.  In fact, Albion wasn’t even sure it was a crime at all.  He glanced at the newly planted invasive plants without comprehension.  He took off his Sheriff’s hat, tentatively scratched his balding head a bit, looked away towards the rocky shoreline and then back at Maria.

“That’s certainly a wicked pissah of a thing to do,” he allowed, attempting to sympathize with Maria. “I’ll be happy to look around at the local gardening centers to see who sells those types of gardening gloves, and maybe. . .,” his voice trailed off.

After a few more half-hearted promises to investigate the incident, Albion left Maria standing alone at the edge of the bog in the fading light of dusk.

Maria pulled on her windbreaker as the air became chilly and peered out over the bog. “Pissah?” she inquired of the bog.  The bog did not reply.

Ultimately, the incident went down as an odd and random event.  Unbeknownst to Maria, a couple of weeks later, a hiker in the backcountry of Great Smoky Mountain National Park also discovered a tan gardening glove with a crimson “W” on the back lying on the ground, half buried in leaf litter, next to a mountain stream.

3

Aliyah Aurea sat at her desk at the FBI, finishing up some paperwork from the Koi smuggling case.  As the head of the nascent Division of Invasive and Injurious Species, she was involved in cracking the case of the smuggling ring in violation of the Lacey Act.  She had learned that when ornamental Koi escape from fishponds, they destroy the habitats of native fish and vegetation.  The case had been a collaborative effort between the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the FBI.

The personnel involved soon discovered that this type of criminal activity did not fall neatly into any agency’s purview, so the main role was assigned to the FBI, and Aliyah was the natural choice to head the new division.  However, as bureaucratic processes go, this assignment was an add-on to her otherwise more than full-time counterintelligence responsibilities, focusing on cases related to public health threats and stolen trade secrets.

Her interest in the natural world, and plants in particular, could be traced to her great-grandmother, Patrice Aurea, whom they called “Packy.”  Packy had been a root doctor in a rural part of Georgia in the 1920s.  In those days of Jim Crow, the Black population in the rural areas did not have access to health care, so the practitioners like Packy served as pharmacists and healers for the community.  Packy knew all of the local plants and which parts could be used for certain medicinal purposes.  She also gathered many wild foods to help sustain her family, and all this wisdom was not lost on her children and even her grandchildren.

Photo: David J. Hirschman

The family moved to the Washington D.C. area in 1954.  Aliyah’s mother, Asha, Packy’s granddaughter, would often take the children on hikes, nature study, and foraging adventures through the woodlands along Rock Creek Park and up into the West Virginia highlands on weekends.   On these adventures, they also took note of the expanding footprint of the invasive Kudzu and Honeysuckle plants, as well as residential escapees such as English Ivy, in the woodlands closest to the residential areas.

Asha by profession, however, was a public defender, and this interest in the criminal justice system also transmitted to Aliyah.  For college, Aliyah decided to enroll at George Washington University for a dual Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in Criminal Justice and Criminology.

One day while walking across campus, Aliyah witnessed a group of students on hands and knees or crouching down to identify plants in the landscape beds as well as the nearby patch of woods by a small stream.  She watched the students with their field guides and plant identification keys.  They were pulling magnifying glasses out of their backpacks to make detailed observations of flower parts, leaf shapes and arrangements, and other plant characteristics in order to successfully identify plants using the keys.  They were fully engrossed in the task, and Aliyah was intrigued.

She approached a small group of the students sitting on the ground next to a small stream.  Of various ages, genders, and ethnicities, the members of the group seemed to sport a sort of common field uniform consisting of tan or navy blue cargo pants, rubber boots or hiking shoes, plaid shirts, and straw hats or ballcaps, with the younger ones turning the latter with the bill to the back.  From the mud and dirt on their pants and shirts, Aliyah knew that these were people that spent time in gardens, woodlands, marshes, and meadows.

“Hey, can I help,” asked Aliyah, “this looks fun.”

“Sure,” replied several, but not all, of the students.

“Here,” one of the students said, handing her the plant identification key.  “We have no idea what this little sedge is here where the seep flows into the stream.”

Aliyah glanced around at the students.  Three or four of them stood to the side, evidently flummoxed by the key.  They were turning the pages of the key back and forth too rapidly in a fruitless search for the right plant, several furrowing their brows in obvious frustration.

“You have to be more systematic about these things,” Aliyah thought to herself, immersing herself in the task.  After several minutes, she announced to the group with a bit too much excitement in her voice, “It’s Carex comosa!”

 She was already familiar with this odd bit of Latin expressing the “Genus-species” of all known living things.  The naming convention was developed by Swedish naturalist, Carl Linnaeus in the 1700s, and was still a mainstay of scientific classification.

“Thanks a lot,” one of the students from the side group replied, with more sarcasm than appreciation.  The student had on a hoody sweatshirt with the hood pulled up over her head, peering out with glasses that were just a bit too large for her face. Glancing at the student’s worksheet, Aliyah noticed that she had written the identification down as Comosa carex, reversing the correct order of genus and species

“It’s not easy, but you’ll get the hang of it,” Aliyah comforted the student.

The student that had lent her the identification key turned to Aliyah, “You’re a ringer at this.  You ought to be in our program.”

The seed of the idea planted, Aliyah discovered that George Washington University also offered a Masters of Professional Studies in Sustainable Landscaping.  She had had no idea that this kind of curriculum was available right under her nose.  She enrolled in the program right after completing her Criminal Justice degree, and thus, somehow, and unexpectedly, melded her education to match the two chief interests from her youth — criminal justice and botany.  After graduation, she interned for the FBI in the Counterintelligence Division, and this soon became a full-time job.

As a result of the Koi smuggling case, she became the head, and in fact the only agent assigned to the Division of Invasive and Injurious Species.  Funding for the division was a paltry sum, as the FBI had big ticket items, such as terrorism, cybercrime, and white-collar crime, to attend to.  Aliyah knew all of this, but her interest in the subject compelled her to take on the new duties.

With all the stress of her professional life, Aliyah appreciated attending her Taekwondo classes in the evenings.  She valued the physical and mental renewal, and the practice also helped her hone her sense of focus and discipline.   During her workout, she systematically reviewed the Koi case in her head, and wondered what could be next for the Division of Invasive and Injurious Species.  The Division would probably lay dormant for a time, but you never knew.

4

The hiker in Smoky Mountain National Park thought it unusual to see a gardening glove out here in the wilderness but didn’t think too much about it.  She picked it up and stowed it in the side pocket of her pack as she had with the occasional energy bar wrapper or blue plastic bottle top.  When she got to the ranger station at the end of the hike, she decided the show the glove to the ranger on duty.  The Ranger turned to throw the glove in the trash, but then decided to place it on the counter to show to one of the Park botanists, who was stopping by later that day.

The Botanist, Benjamin Benzoin, had been on the job for five years, and was particularly interested in identifying and eradicating invasive species in the Park.  Benjamin looked at the gardening glove and at the scarlet “W” and also turned to toss the glove in the trash, but hesitated.  “Do you know what trail this glove was found on?” he asked the Ranger.

“Not certain,” replied the Ranger, “but I think the hiker mentioned the Bradley Fork Trail.”

“Hmm.  Over by Cherokee.  Not many people hike that area.  Thanks for the info,” replied Benjamin.    Later that day, Benjamin decided to take this as an opportunity to survey the vegetation on the Bradley Fork Trail, as he hadn’t been on that side of the park for quite some time.

It was a pleasant mid-summer afternoon, with a slight breeze, billowy clouds scuttling across the sky, and cool shade along the creek as the trail ascended.  As he warmed up and beads of sweat formed on his brow and in the small of his back, he stopped to peel off his long-sleeve, gray Park Service issue collared shirt he wore over a beige T-shirt.  Stowing the long-sleeve shirt in his pack, he took a long swig of water from his water bottle, wiped his brow and around his short-cropped reddish-brown beard with a bandana, and proceeded up the path.

Benjamin recognized the area adjacent to the stream as one of the Park’s prime examples of the Montane Alluvial Forest.  Only about one percent of the mountainous park was characterized by this ecosystem, as it hugged the narrow stream valleys.  Benjamin looked around at the canopy of Sweetgum, Sycamore, Tulip Poplar, Black Tupelo, and Black Birch trees with their leaves nodding in the breeze.  As he walked along, he reached out his hands on both sides of the trail and let them gently brush along the understory Rhododendron, Witch-Hazel, Serviceberry, Red Cedar, and Spicebush shrubs and saplings.  The whole scene cast a cool, dappled shade that Benjamin found to be a welcome respite in early July.

Photo: David J. Hirschman

Looking up in a small clearing, Benjamin saw the towering mountains above, held up by billion-year-old rocks.  The heath-covered balds and Spruce-Fir forests that hug the misty mountaintops from which the Smoky Mountains derive their name couldn’t be any different than the protected stream valley forest he was now traversing.

He experienced a wave of gratitude for his employment at such an amazing place.  With all its variety of elevations, climates, and geology, this Park’s biology was more diverse than any other park in national park system.  During his tenure in the job, Benjamin had identified nearly 400 individual species, but he was keenly aware that over 19,000 species of plants and animals had been identified in the park.  He pondered how many more were out there awaiting discovery.

Photos: David J. Hirschman

About five miles in, Benjamin noticed an unusual area along the left bank.  It appeared that the leaf litter had been disturbed, some plants were lying on the ground, and turned-up soil was visible in a few places.  The extracted plants included Black Cohosh, Columbine, and Black-Eyed Susan, among other of the ground-hugging plants that stabilized the soil and added a dynamic mosaic of color and variety to the forest floor.  He also noticed several of the higher-growing Witch-Hazel, Spicebush, and other saplings hacked off at few feet above the ground.

Of particular interest, some plants had been planted where others had been pulled up. With shock, Benjamin identified specimens of newly planted and highly invasive Garlic Mustard, Japanese stiltgrass, and even a few Bush Honeysuckles.  To add insult to injury, the area was scattered about with food wrappers and several water bottle caps.  Whoever had done this was not only disturbing an ecosystem but was also a litterbug!  The planted invasives, the litter.  This was a crazy thing to find five miles into the wilderness, and why someone would undertake this act in a deliberate manner was certainly perplexing.

Among the other litter, he found a business card, half-buried in leaf litter.  It was from the Toyota Dealership in Wilkesboro, North Carolina.  There was a hand-written phone number on the back of the card.  The area code was 202.  “Just like National Park Service headquarters in D.C.,” Benjamin thought in a passing manner.  While cleaning up the area, Benjamin thought to slip the business card into his pocket, and then promptly forgot about it.

Returning to his office, Benjamin notified the Ranger’s office and asked if there was a record of everyone who had hiked the Bradley Fork Trail in the past month.

“Not unless they happened to sign the trail log,” responded the Ranger.  “But most don’t bother.”

It seemed that Benjamin would not be able to find the hiker that had originally found the tan gardening glove with the crimson “W.”  In a rather hopeless search for any additional clues, Benjamin checked out a variety of national and state park Facebook pages.  After an hour of fruitless scrolling, he noticed a post from Saugatuck Dunes Natural Area near Holland, Michigan along the shores of Lake Michigan.  Staff from Saugatuck Dunes State Park were asking visitors to please stay on the designated trails and not disturb the habitat of the threatened Pitcher’s Thistle.  Several of these plants had been found trampled and pulled right out of the sandy dunes.

This could be simply circumstantial, but Benjamin thought he’d try to find the contact information for the State Park naturalist at Saugatuck Dunes.

END OF EPISODE ONE.  LOOK FOR EPISODE TWO ON 01/20/22

David J. Hirschman, dave@hirschmanwater.com

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