The Perplexing Case of the Tan Gardening Glove: FINAL EPISODE

Links to Past Episodes: EPISODE 1, EPISODE 2, EPISODE 3, EPISODE 4, EPISODE 5

14

Aliyah was crouched down in the prairie pothole at the Des Lacs Refuge. The pothole seemed to have been drained somehow, with sedges and grasses emerging from the muddy soil. She apparently was too late. The tan, leather gardening glove with the crimson “W” was poking fingers-up out the muddy ground. She sat on the wet ground for a long minute thinking about her options.

She heard a rustling sound to her rear.  An animal or perhaps another park visitor was coming through the tall prairie grasses, or. . .  It was then that she heard a cold voice say, “Aliyah, I hoped that I might find you here.”

Aliyah sprang to her feet and wheeled around, her motions fluid and quick by instinct and training.  “Wanda!” she gasped with surprise, “what are you doing here?”

Wanda Weedle had been one of her classmates at the George Washington University Sustainable Landscaping program.  She had been quiet, always sitting at the back of the room.  She seemed fond of hoody sweatshirts with the hood pulled up over her head, her freckled face peering out through dark-rimmed glasses, and wisps of her auburn hair dancing out around her cheeks and neck.  Despite her retiring demeanor, when it came time for the students to review each other’s landscape designs, Wanda’s were exquisite.  They had a kind of organic beauty that made a bunch of messy plants look inviting and downright inspirational.

Now, Wanda stood five paces away from Aliyah, and she was wearing the hoody sweatshirt with the hood pulled up.  Aliyah did not take much note of the sweatshirt, though, focusing on what Wanda held in her hands.  In her left hand, she clutched a gardening trowel with a serrated edge.  The trowel glinted in the sunlight as if sharpened and polished, and Wanda held it up at arm’s length like a weapon, which in fact it had become.  In Wanda’s right hand was a pair of gardening clippers, also appearing sharpened and held in the same threatening manner in front of her.

Wanda stood there, tense and trembling.  “You would know me as Wanda Weedle from our George Washington days, but I changed my legal name to Wander Weed.”

“You’re Professor Wander Weed?  Why are you doing this? Aliyah asked in as calm a tone as she could muster.

“So you want to know why,” continued Wander bitterly.  “I found that whole landscaping program humiliating, and you, smarty pants Aliyah, didn’t help much.  I have been dyslexic since childhood, but it went undiagnosed.  I was not a good student and was held back in school.  I was discouraged, and spent my afternoons outside in the woods instead of doing my homework.  I came to love plants, and to know them, even their thoughts and their spirits.  I imagined botany and landscaping would give me refuge from my humiliation.”

“I’m sorry,” replied Aliyah, feeling the inadequacy of this response as soon as she uttered it.  She had the passing notion that empathy was not always her strong suit before turning her attention back to Wander.

Wander, now on a roll, continued.  “Despite my hopes, the Sustainable Landscaping program only added to my despair.  When it came time to identify plants, the identification keys were a torment, and I often confused genus and species.  The other students would look at me with either pity or condescension.  You didn’t help much, Aliyah.  Do you remember that afternoon, even before you enrolled in the program.  You inserted yourself into our little group down by the creek.  I was having a terrible time trying to key out Carex comosa, having a bad day, and you popped in and showed us all up. You tried to comfort me, but I took it as an insult.

“From that day on, you always knew the answers.  I followed your career as a sort of obsession, almost as an alternative universe from my own experience.  This, even as my students at the community college continued to mock me for my misidentifications and mistakes.  I don’t know what led me to believe that I could be a botanist.  What kind of botanist needs to the use Seek app?” she added bitterly.  She paused, and her voice hardened, “Aliyah, the rising star.  As smart as you are, I knew you would follow my trail of tan gardening gloves, and now I have you trapped in this prairie pothole!”

Aliyah, dumbfounded by Wander’s striking confessional, uttered, “but Wanda. . .”

At that, Wander lunged forward with the sharpened trowel and clippers held stiffly in front of her charge.  Aliyah’s Taekwondo instincts kicked in.  She dodged left, narrowly avoiding the stab of the sharpened trowel by deflecting Wander’s advance with her forearm.  Wander’s right hand swung wide with the clippers, and Aliyah ducked and moved fluidly to her right, ending up to Wander’s left side.  With a swift roundhouse kick, she sent the trowel flying, catching sunlight as it pirouetted through the air and landed point up in the soggy prairie grass.  Wander moved to recover the trowel, and Aliyah caught her right hand, deftly disarming Wander of the clippers.  By that time, Wander had recovered the trowel, but sliced her hand on the sharp edge in the process.

Photo: D. Hirschman

Wander gazed for a long moment at the small trickle of blood flowing down her arm.  As if deflating, she sat down on the wet ground, and folded her legs in front of her lotus style.  Aliyah rushed to her backpack and took out the first-aid kit.

“Wander, you may not have been very good at plant identification or knowing the Latin names,” Aliyah said in a low, calm voice as she reached for Wander’s bleeding hand and raised it above Wander’s head, pressing a piece of gauze against the wound to stop the bleeding.  Wander sat passively, allowing Aliyah to tend to her wound, staring at the ground.

Aliyah continued, “But I thought your designs surpassed everyone else’s in pure artistry.  The others did too.  I also loved your designs because they were mini-ecosystems, using plants that complemented each other in color and the pollinators that they attracted.”  Aliyah cleaned the wound, applied some first-aid ointment, and then a bandage.  “You could even make something look beautiful in the middle of the winter.”

Aliyah moved slowly and deliberately to where the trowel and clippers lay in the mud, picked them up, and wiped the dirt away with a red bandana that had been in her back pocket.  She placed both tools into a large Ziplock bag and then into her own backpack.

Only then did she return to where Wander sat and lowered herself, also in the lotus position, about three feet to the front.  Wander kept her gaze the whole time on a patch of sedges a few feet in front of her.

The two sat that way for several long moments.

Aliyah broke the calm silence.  “Look, I had no problem with the identifications or Latin names, but that was mere technical stuff.  I think your talents captured the real soul of what we were trying to do in that class.  My designs, by contrast, would have been fine for a shopping mall parking lot, but –” Aliyah’s voice trailed away.

Wander looked away at the prairie landscape, taking in the long view.  Being intuitive about landscapes, she could see in her mind’s eye the glaciers receding 10,000 years ago, gouging the landscape as they retreated, and leaving this pocked landscape that was now a beautiful array of wetlands.  The tall grasses were rippling in the late afternoon breeze, like a vast inland sea.  The migrating geese and ducks that would sojourn in this spot on their way from the boreal forests of Canada to their winter homes along the Gulf Coast had not yet arrived, but surely would in a few weeks when autumn set in.  Wander marveled at the thought of this ancient and mysterious seasonal migration, with one-third of the entire Continent’s waterfowl dependent on this region and its shrinking complex of wetlands.

Credit: iStock, eurotravel

She felt like she had been migrating herself, with her wanderings starting in Maine in late June, but with less sense of purpose than the geese and ducks.

Then she looked back at Aliyah, and said nothing, but her eyes offered something like surrender, or perhaps comprehension.  She raised her hand to slip the hood off her head, but then saw the bandage and lowered her hand back down to her lap.

“Wander,” Aliyah continued, “I know you have a real passion for plants and landscapes.  How could you have brought yourself to destroy all those natural plants for the sake of this game of cat and mouse?  It just doesn’t make sense.”

15

Wander then spoke, the hard edge still apparent but her voice low and even.  “I applied an organic, slow-release herbicide to all of the roots of those invasive plants I planted.  They will all die if they haven’t already done so.  I also gathered the seeds from the local native plants and spread them around where the ground had been churned up.  All those locations had already been disturbed.

“In Penobscot Bay, Maria Solidago was passionate and worked tirelessly to get rid of the invasives.  But she is still learning.  She made some mistakes, like using cultivated varieties that changed the bloom color and even some species that are not native to that area.  The seeds I left behind should fill in that ecosystem quite well.”

“Hmm, interesting,” Aliyah nodded, not sure what to make of this information.

Wander continued. “On the way to the Smokies, I had to stop at a Toyota place in Wilkesboro to replace my alternator.  That’s the only repair I’ve had to make to that old rust bucket in ten years,” she added with an almost laugh.  “On that trail in the Smokies, some campers had set up camp in a spot not designated for it.  They had pitched their tents on a wonderful patch of native groundcovers, and crudely sawed off low-hanging Spicebush and Witch-Hazel branches for their firewood.  I’m sure that was a very smoky fire if it got lit at all,” Wander added with condescension.  “I picked up most of the litter they had left behind, but had to leave a few pieces because a group of hikers was coming up the path, and I had to get out of there.”

At this point, Wander raised her non-wounded hand and slid the hood off her head.  She rustled her hair a bit and turned towards the horizon where the sun would be setting in about an hour.  “The breeze feels good,” she said in a low and much calmer tone.

Aliyah gazed off in the same direction, and raised her chin a bit to catch more of the breeze on her face.  She sniffed softly at the breeze, sensing something like newly-cut hay.  “Yeah,” she agreed.

Wander drew in a full breath and continued.   “I loved visiting the Lake Michigan sand dunes.  Such an austere landscape with all the hidden jewels in the sand.  Walking up and down those dunes was also a good workout.  My foot slid backwards a few inches with every step forward.  The Pitcher’s Thistle had already been destroyed by some fools on off-road-vehicles.  I hope the seeds I collected from a nearby patch can take root in the sand.  We’ll see,” added Wander, thinking about the mysterious impulse of those tiny seeds simultaneously rooting downwards while seeking the daylight above.

Wander resumed.  “I went back a week later to help with one of Pamela Pitcheri’s volunteer crews.  We disposed of all the Asiatic Sand Sedge and I combed the rest of the dunes looking for any evidence of other colonies that may have come in.

“The Ozark caves are my kind of landscape. . .perfect for the introverts like me.  Some ill-trained spelunkers had cut the overhanging branches to make access to the cave easier.  They also put all their heavy gear bags on top of the Bryophytes.  As fast as that forest grows, they should recover, but I did make a donation to the Arkansas chapter of the National Speleological Society for their education program.  They could certainly use it.”

Wander let out a long, slow breath, her shoulders relaxing a bit.

She concluded, “And now here we are in North Dakota at the prairie potholes.  I had nothing to do with the water level in this pothole.  They fluctuate seasonally based on runoff and the groundwater table, and some dry out naturally in the late summer.  Look around,” she said, sweeping her arm in an arc around the surrounding landscape.

Aliyah saw that some of the potholes had standing water, some were vegetated wetlands, and others had reverted, at least temporarily, to drier prairie grasses.  She also saw how the prairie grasses gave way in the near distance to the geometric shapes of wheat fields.  Combines kicked up clouds of dust as they ran down the orderly rows.  “The ducks need more prairie than a postage stamp here and there,” Aliyah thought, inspired by her new-found appreciation for waterfowl.  Wander broke into her thoughts,

“Aliyah, I placed the tan gardening glove here just for you.”

Aliyah looked back at Wander, her thoughts in disarray.  As a criminologist, she had missed the important clues and believed what had appeared true on the surface.  She had also been tracking a suspect who was, in turn, tracking her, a dangerous miscalculation for any investigation.  But of course, that seems to have been Wander’s plan all along, leaving behind the tan gardening gloves, the huge “W” on the U.S. map, and even the Toyota dealership business card with Aliyah’s freakin’ phone number on it!  “But Wander,” she asked curiously, “why did you change your name to Wander Weed?  After all of your efforts to eradicate invasive weeds?”

For the first time, Wander looked at Aliyah straight in the eyes and with an expression verging on amusement.  “Aliyah, you all of all people know that the biggest problem with getting people to plant native species is that many consider them to be weeds.  I chose the name Wander Weed in the hopes that all these native species could wander more freely across our landscapes.  You really aren’t as smart as I thought you were,” she said jokingly.  Aliyah and Wander shared a laugh.  They sat quietly together, their bottoms getting well soaked in the soggy pothole soil, but neither caring very much about that.

“Wander,” Aliyah added, “my only disappointment is that this could have been the biggest case yet for the Division of Invasive and Injurious Species.  It could have been notorious and maybe even led to a budget increase for the Division,” she mused.  “I guess I’ll have to go back to tracking down illegal Koi and white-collar criminals.”

Wander reached into her backpack and extracted something and tossed it on the ground in front of Aliyah.  “Here,” she said, “keep this is as souvenir, I won’t be needing it.”  It was a clean, left-handed tan, leather gardening glove with a crimson “W.”  “Hmm,” thought Aliyah.  Wander has visited five locations, and of course gardening gloves come in pairs.  This was the sixth, unused glove.  A fitting souvenir indeed for the adventure of the tan gardening glove.

THE END

THANK YOU FOR READING!  Please see the Author’s Notes below about the character names.

David J. Hirschman, dave@hirschmanwater.com

AUTHOR’S NOTES

The Perplexing Story of the Tan Gardening Glove is dedicated to the Chesapeake Conservation Landscaping Council (CCLC) and its Chesapeake Bay Landscape Professional (CBLP) program.  While all characters in this story are utterly fictitious, as is the FBI Division of Invasive and Injurious Species, I have drawn on the passion and Earth wisdom of so many CCLC/CBLP friends and colleagues I have met and learned from over the years.

While the characters are fictitious, they are all named after real plants (except one, which is a salamander), each with their own unique character traits.  They are listed below, generally in order of appearance in the story.

Aliyah, Asha, and Packy Aurea – Packera aurea, Golden Ragwort.  One of the more optimistic and tenacious of the Spring and early Summer wildflowers, spreading in the understory along floodplains, wet meadows, and even mountain ridges.  See my previous blog post on this plant, Packera Pursuit.

Maria Solidago – Solidago, Genus of Goldenrods, of which there are many species, some adapted to swamps and floodplains, and others to drier meadows, woods, and thickets.  Solidago attracts many types of pollinators, including an abundance of caterpillars.  It’s golden plumes are welcome sights in late Summer and early Fall.

Albion Australis — Phragmites australis, Common Reed.  One of the most invasive plants in wetlands and swamps, they tend to take over and squeeze out the native plant community and alter the water balance of aquatic systems.  They are a common sight in wet areas, road ditches, stormwater ponds, and brackish and freshwater wetlands along the Coastal Plain.  The invasive Phragmites was likely introduced accidentally to North America in ballast material of ships originating from Europe in the late 1700s.

Benjamin Benzoin – Lindera benzoin, Northern Spicebush.  A very common shrub along floodplains and in upland forests.  One of those early blooming plants that signal the arrival of Spring.  The twigs and leaves have a citrus aroma which is quite pleasant to humans, but the deer don’t like it, so this shrub is quite prolific in the understory while others are subject to deer browse.

Pamela Pitcheri – Cirsium pitcheri, Pitcher’s or Dune Thistle.  This is a threatened species that grows on dunes in the Great Lakes region.  It is a patient plant, as it only flowers after growing five to eight years.  The stems and leaves have white hairs that help it adapt to the beach environment by retaining water and reflecting the sun’s rays.

Pellia Endivy – Pellia endiviifolia, a type of liverwort that grows at cave entrances and other wet, nutrient-rich areas, such as springs, waterfalls, seeps, and streambanks. Liverworts are rather ancient, non-vascular plants that are widespread in the Northern Hemisphere. While this story lumps them with mosses in the Bryophyte division, more recent taxonomy puts them with their own order, Jungermanniales.

Dr. Lucian Lucifuga – Eurycea lucifuga, Cave Salamander.  Not a plant, but one of the remarkable creatures associated with caves.  This creature with extra large eyes dwells in caves that have streams running through them and other very damp habitats.

Daniel Didyma – Monarda didyma, Scarlet Beebalm.  Square-stemmed like its mint family relatives, its red flowers are a favorite for hummingbirds and also valued by bees and butterflies.  The name “Beebalm” was derived from the use of the crushed leaves to treat bee stings, and other traditional medicinal purposes included expelling worms, and treating for gas, fever and stomach ailments.  It was also used as a tea by the Oswego Native Americans from New York, thus the alternative name, Oswego Tea.

Riku Tatarica – Lonicera tatarica, Asian Bush Honeysuckle.  Just like the character in the story, this plant is a visitor from Asia, but has become wildly invasive in our woods, fields, and hedgerows, being adaptable to almost any kind of soil and light conditions and resistant to most insect predation.  It produces a heavy crop of bright, red berries in early June when birds are searching for food.  As a result, birds and deer help to spread the plant around, adding to its invasive characteristics.  For those doing residential or commercial landscaping, there are thankfully many native alternatives to the Bush Honeysuckles.

Pablo Patens – Juncus Patens or Salvia Patens, California Grey Rush or Gentian Sage.  These are actually two different plants with the “patens” species names.  The former, as the name implies, is from California, and the latter from Mexico.  I believe both are used in the horticultural trade, as the former can tolerate both wet and dry conditions and latter has deep, blue flowers.

Avery Arvense – Cirsium arvense, Canada Thistle.  One of the most invasive plants in North America, it was introduced accidentally in the 1600s.  It is reported as a serious invasive in twenty national parks.  Once established, it takes over a variety of habitats, displacing many native species.

Rhonda Rubus – Rubus genus.  Includes Blackberries, Raspberries, Black Raspberries, and over 250 other species in the Rose Family.  These are valued for their flowers, edible fruits, and often colorful but prickly or brambly stems.

Saul Salicaria — Lythrum salicaria L., Purple Loosestrife.  Surely an attractive but highly invasive plants in wetlands, this species originated in Europe and Asia, but colonized certain estuaries in the U.S. Northeast in the 1800s, and from there spread across most of the country.  Perhaps some plant nurseries may sell “sterile” varieties, but there are many, many native alternatives that don’t carry the risk of spreading uncontrollably.

Sam Smithii – Pascopyrum smithii, Western Wheatgrass.  A cool-season grass from the Western states, its leaves have a silvery caste.  It forms dense clumps, and thus is handy for erosion control in poorly-drained areas, but can also crowd out other valuable prairie species.

Gramma Galax’s Family Restaurant — Galax urceolata, Beetleweed.  Gramma Galax is far from home in North Dakota, as the plant namesake is a Southern woodland plant, especially in cool, moist environments.  The shiny, leathery, heart-shaped, evergreen leaves produce a flowering stalk of delicate white flowers in May and June.  I am not certain, but I believe that the City of Galax, Virginia, along the Blue Ridge Mountains, is named after this plant.

Wander Weed – Well, just about any native plants that has beneficial qualities for a variety of ecosystems, but that many may consider to be a weed.

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