Now and then I’ve ragged on Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank, but in 2023 we’ve become the same person. Possibly we both originated in cities, but now we've retired to rural compounds on "the Virginia piedmont," as he puts it. I think he bought his place to fulfill the DC dream, which is to wind up near Shenandoah Park on the weekends. I just retired too, and stand to inherit this 20 acres in Rappahannock County from my 98-year-old mother.
As Milbank writes about his rural transition, he's a little obscure about exactly where he is. But from various little indications, I feel that it's right around here near Woodville, maybe just over that hill. I haven't run into him at the Corner Store in Sperryville yet, but it's only a matter of time.
Despite all the coincidences, the differences between our approaches are considerable, and also represent something about our respective politics and our respective economic classes. We're both trying to clear out some of the thick brush and undergrowth. But we're going about it in very different ways.
Milbank intends to spend the next five years on his place eliminating invasive plants. When he has, he pictures an open forest featuring only the right sort of vegetation: we might call the project "rural regentrification." The same thing is happening in Philly's Fishtown neighborhood, for instance: the wrong people are moving out. The neighborhood is getting more expensive. The right people are moving in.
Milbank writes: "I consulted far and wide, asking botanists, naturalists, academics and federal and state scientists what to do. Buy a Bush Hog? Rent a herd of goats? Move back to the city? One consistent, counterintuitive answer came back: The best thing I can do for nature is to fight the invaders with herbicides." He'll administer his woods by consulting a squad of scientists, accepting their authority even if what they tell him appears "counter-intuitive." The scientism is characteristic of his demographic. Milbank's politics is driving his approach to brush. Maybe it's directing him toward destruction.
It really is an emergency over here in our beautiful area, he argues: "It comes down to this: Without chemical treatments, the invaders would take over much of the park in the coming decades. Herbicides might be the difference between whether or not there will even be a forest in Shenandoah National Park in the future. If invasive plants kill off the oaks, hickories, walnuts and pines on my land, and all the sedges and asters and shrubs that live beneath them, that’s a problem for me. If they do the same to Shenandoah National Park, that’s a problem for all of us in this region. If they are allowed to devastate the forests of Appalachia, and other woodlands and grasslands of the United States, that’s a catastrophe."
He’s picturing the forest leveled by invasive plants. Putting it mildly, there’s no sign of that. I could prove that through Milbank's own experience: Dana! Step outside and look around.
Milbank brought in a squad of workers to spray the Roundup. That's not one of my options, being land-rich and cash-strapped. But the glyphosate (which is likely carcinogenic) is only the beginning. "Next, for the worst-affected areas, I’m bringing in ‘forest mulchers,’ dystopian tractors that chew up everything—even whole trees—in their path. After that (if I haven’t bankrupted myself), it’s time for the ‘foliar treatment,’ spraying the leaves of the smaller, herbaceous invaders." The forest mulchers sound pretty dystopian and expensive, or rather like the Leveler that destroyed Ferngully.
All of this, the herbicides and the levelers and the squads of workers, appear directly destructive. Milbank quotes authorities, however, as insisting that they’re "settled science." That, for Milbank, puts the whole thing beyond quibble and well beyond reflection. I’s going to quibble anyway and ask you to reflect. First, I think you should get out there and live with your brushy place for awhile before you start defoliating. Maybe you should live in Fishtown for a bit before you tear down that place on the corner and build a condo.
I’ve come to this region my whole life. It’s no less, or maybe considerably more, alive than when I was a child. Life is flourishing all around us, all day every day. I just saw three pileated woodpeckers fly across the yard. There are deer, foxes, bears, coyotes, and every smaller animal: as much or more than 50 years ago. The forest in the whole region is thriving despite some issues: it's far healthier now than it was during the acid-rain 1970s or the gypsy-moth infestation of the early-1990s, which defoliated whole mountainsides here.
The region, and certainly the park, is approaching "old-growth" status: Shenandoah had been logged early in the century, but the whole woods is much bigger and more mature now. Milbank portrays the vegetable and animal life of this region as in decline. I say open your eyes. And when you do, maybe the first thing you see shouldn't be "good plant, bad plant" but just the luxuriant life, the total fecundity of this region.
Plants have invaded new regions as long as there have been plants. I acknowledge that some of the invasives (tree-of-heaven, for example, and multiflora roses) are aggressive, and have changed the edges and understory of this region. They've also integrated into it in such a way that if you sprayed them all with glyphosate, which is exactly what Milbank proposes in phase 3, you would’ve disturbed the current situation. Whatever else may be going on with bees, for example, they’re very happy about the fact that Virginia (and Pennsylvania, e.g.) are covered in roses. They'd be less happy with roses coated in glyphosate.
Milbank habitually reaches for the most extreme formulation, and he pictures invasive vines growing up over the trees here and pulling them all down: he pictures his place and my place and Shenandoah Park deforested ("there might not be a forest"). The Post should’ve factchecked assertions like that. They’re bizarrely detached from the reality we’re experiencing as we live here.
It's true that the vines seem bigger and more luxuriant now than 50 years ago. In fact, I think the area feels more tropical or is becoming a jungle, perhaps partly due to climate change. But if there are vines growing into the tops of large trees over there at Milbank's place, I can assure you that they’re North American grape and poison ivy. These are very annoying plants, especially the poison ivy, which is terrible in Piedmont VA. Vines as thick as my arm grow 100 feet into the canopy, replacing the branches of the tree with their own branches.
But grape and poison ivy are native species. The process by which they exist symbiotically with a tree until they kill it decades later is just the sort of natural process that would be occurring right here and now if no person had ever seen North America. Your problem is not invasive species: it's aesthetics. But eliminate all the invasives by Round Up and forest leveler, and the vines will still be growing up over the trees.
But okay, work for five years to eliminate all the invasive species: you'll be five years older then, Dana, and you’ll have to start again immediately. The bees will be angry. The poison ivy will be enthusiastic. Your place won't be any more alive; it can't be. You’ll have experienced it all that time as something to be subdued and transformed. Try to experience it as something to be known and cherished instead.
I realize that these are pretty hard issues that Dana and I are dealing with on our places. I did buy a bush hog (or rather, got the old one here repaired); I'm using it to clear parts of the woods of brush bit by bit. I also use herbicides (for one purpose, so I don't have to don coveralls and start cutting or pulling poison ivy). I grew up in the city (though I've lived country for 30 years) and am not completely sure about what the right approach is.
But one thing I'm sure of is that life here in Rappahannock County, Virginia isn’t endangered. It's interesting and complex to watch newly-arriving organisms attack and then slowly integrate, like the invasive brown marmorated stink bugs that were a plague for two years and are now an annoyance. Natural systems are dynamic, not static or permanently "balanced," whether we’re in them or not.
I feel you should’ve lived on and with your place for some years before resolving to totally transform it, Dana, by science or mulcher or glyphosate or whatever else. You should’ve had more respect for what you found, for the plants that were already living in your neighborhood, wherever they immigrated from, before you started the evictions.
The approach you’re taking is destructive and disingenuous: You think you're doing science; I think you're doing upper-end landscape gardening, you “weekender.” I'm not entirely certain I'm right. But you’re certain that you’re right. Either way, before we engage in a wide transformation and destruction at our places, I think we'd better slow down and cultivate patience and connection.
My approach likewise reflects my politics (which I describe as “anti-authoritarian” as well as anti-gentrification); I want to see what the woods do if left to their own devices, more or less, while I'm also participating, as the mammal and bush-hogger I am.
—Follow Crispin Sartwell on Twitter: @CrispinSartwell