Mike talked to us about the watershed, about the Association's work on Morris Creek, about how they have recently been able to stock the creek with trout. We asked Mike about his connection to the watershed and why he works so hard to preserve it.
"Because I live here," he said (as best I remember his words; this is not direct transcription). "Because my grandchildren live here." He told us how every household--every single household--along the hollow (pronounced "holler") was dealing with some sort of cancer. Mike described a bit of his childhood, playing in those forests. So why does he care about the watershed? "Everyone should have their own bit of forest."
After a lunch hosted by Mike, his wife, and his mother-in-law, we were to do some hands-on service for the Morris Creek Watershed Association; Mike had wanted us to get into the creek and do some repairs on the k-dams that help regulate water flow. It had been a bit rainy, however, and the creek was too high for us to do that work. Instead, Mike offered us an alternate project: taking down some Japanese knot weed.
In the early coal-mining days, coal barons brought in Japanese knot weed to help cover up and hide the damage they were doing to West Virginia. The knot weed is similar to kudzu in many ways--viney, quick to take over, and incredibly hard to be rid of. They Association has done all they can think of to destroy the knot weed, all unsuccessfully.
And so the Japanese knot weed is, and has been, killing off all the local flora that originally lined the watershed and played a part in the health of the water. The Association has begun to replant along the creek, but the weeds must be regulated to give any native plants a chance.
Mike had a meeting to attend, so he handed us over to Dustin, and employee of the DEP (?) who has been working with the Watershed Association on some of their projects. Dustin showed us the watershed's treatment system for the acid mine drainage that must be dealt with, and showed us the fields of knot weed we were to pull. As we walked out to the fields, tools in hands, Dustin expressed his opinion of our task.
Shaking his head, he said, "It's not going to do any good. I mean, you guys can go at the weeds if you want, but they're just going to come back. You're not going to do any good."
We wanted to do something, anything, and so we passed around the tools and went at the knot weed. When Mike had first mentioned weeds, I thought we were going to be pulling weeds, on hands and knees. This was not the case. This knot weed was at least up to our knees, and in some cases shoulder high. We were clearing around the American chestnut trees the Association had planted, and most of the trees were more slender than the knot weeds around them.
This was not weed-puling; this was weed-whacking by hand. We had rakes and hoes; I had one of two or three mini-scythes; some of us improvised with sticks. With full-body swings, we decimated the fields of knot weed, making light of the task with the obvious word-play presented to us. "I'm a not-weed, not a knot weed!"
In an astonishingly short amount of time, we turned around to realize that we had cleared the field of the knot weeds--and by cleared, I mean that they were flattened to the ground, broken close to the ground or pulled up by the roots--and so we moved on to the next patch. Two seconds later, the weeds there were demolished as well. You could look over this stretch of land and see the young, scrawny trees, no longer drowned in an ocean of knot weed.
Dustin is right; these weeds are going to come back. We made no eternal, or even long-lasting, difference in this field. But we gave those trees another taste of sunlight, another season of unimpeded growth. It was a baby step for the trees, but with Japanese knot weed to fight against, all we can take are baby steps.