Of vines and villains – the bitter southerner

Of vines and villains – the bitter southerner

Coca-Cola may not have reached the desired level yet, but at least one brave group has. Beyond the backyard crops and local farms that provide momos with fodder to craft new recipes, there are those who make more than just a dent in the overgrowth of kudzu around them. All by way of a little old fashioned persistence and grease.

An hour south of Asheville, in the North Carolina foothills town of Tryon, famous as the birthplace of Nina Simone, you'll find the Kudzu Warriors, a group of passionate nature lovers who spend two hours every Monday morning embarking on a — sometimes Sisyphean — quest. It involves cutting back kudzu overgrowth from steep mountainsides in Norman Wilder's forest.

Since the vines remain dormant in the winter months, it's easier to get in there and dig out the “crowns,” cutting off kudzu's life source where it matters. On this cool but sunny spring day, Pam Torlina, director of community engagement at Conserving Carolina, has gathered a group of about 20 people and is helping to distribute the shears, shovels and other tools they will use once they are booked next to Little Warrior Mountain.

We're heading to a part of the land the group has been striving to clear before spring sets in with the green overgrowth, shoots sprouting like zombies crawling from their graves.

Some, like the EcoForesters who came from Asheville, are there to learn techniques with which they can return to their regular jobs. Some are there because they hate kudzu. Some of them are there for the camaraderie and exercise.

One of those people there for a variety of reasons is AmeriCorps fellow Max Bisaha, who brought a kudzu tincture (essentially bitter) to the group hangout at the Tryon Coffeehouse Co-op afterward. One of Bishaha's friends made it from the tuber, and there aren't many takers. Bisaha began making baskets with kudzu and said that if he found a good vine for these warrior tasks, he would wrap it and bring it back.

“It doesn't mean we're going to weave a kudzu problem, but it's helpful,” he said.

One die-hard veteran, who also sits on the board of Conserving Carolina, is Shuford “Ford” Smith, who worked as a school psychologist in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system earlier in his life, where he helped desegregate during the 1970s. He also spent more than a decade full-time camping on public lands throughout North America while photographing and writing about the continuing influence of European settlers.

Smith speaks quickly and welcomes newbies like me, describing the ground as we walk up. He moved to the Tryon area in the mid-1990s and has lived here longer than anywhere else.

Much of that time was spent in retirement, a time Ford cherishes because it gave him some good final years with his late wife, who died of a rare type of lung cancer. In tribute, Smith recently planted chestnut trees in the area, 20 in total when I spoke with him in March, with more at home waiting to sprout.

As we continue to veer off course for the first 20 minutes of our ride, straining our ankles, Smith points out various sites that to the uninitiated eye might look like a random collection of buds and trees, and shares their history.

Now, walking almost straight uphill, Torlina points out some areas where there is new growth thanks to so much light and space other plants have set aside to survive. We stand on 185 acres of nature preserve in the North Pacolet River Valley that was acquired by Conserving Carolina in the 1990s.

Although many of the volunteers I spoke with grew fearful of accidentally stepping on snakes as they wandered through the green, waist-high kudzu, Torlina says it's not a danger. Since kudzu is a monoculture, nothing stays underneath – and with no prey, there is no reason for snakes to exist. The only animals that tend to stick around kudzu are woodchucks and sometimes swallow-tailed skippers, whose larvae feed on legumes and eat kudzu leaves, although this is not enough to hinder the progress of the vines.

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