There’s a really cool article in the Smithsonian magazine, The True Story of Kudzu, the Vine That Never Truly Ate the South. It talks some about how kudzu got its start, and got intentionally spread, as well as how the perception of the vine’s spread came about (all indented text from article):
. . . The more I investigate, the more I recognize that kudzu’s place in the popular imagination reveals as much about the power of American mythmaking, and the distorted way we see the natural world, as it does about the vine’s threat to the countryside.
Kudzu might have forever remained an obscure front porch ornament had it not been given a boost by one of the most aggressive marketing campaigns in U.S. history.
In the decades that followed kudzu’s formal introduction at the 1876 World’s Fair Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, farmers found little use for a vine that could take years to establish, was nearly impossible to harvest and couldn’t tolerate sustained grazing by horses or cattle. But in 1935, as dust storms damaged the prairies, Congress declared war on soil erosion and enlisted kudzu as a primary weapon. More than 70 million kudzu seedlings were grown in nurseries by the newly created Soil Conservation Service. To overcome the lingering suspicions of farmers, the service offered as much as $8 per acre to anyone willing to plant the vine.
Railroad and highway developers, desperate for something to cover the steep and unstable gashes they were carving into the land, planted the seedlings far and wide.
There were big pushes to convince people to plant it, but by the 1950s, it was becoming obvious it wasn’t the miracle solution many people had originally hoped for (and promoted it as being!). However, that was enough time for it to become embedded in the cultural landscape in ways it never became embedded in the physical landscape.
As the article describes, since it grows very well in sunny areas where there aren’t many grazing animals to eat it, like the clearings alongside roads, people driving through the landscape get the impression that it really does cover EVERYTHING. However, it can’t grow well in any shaded area just beyond the road cut. The view from a car window offers only a partial view of the landscape, but that view, combined with the stories about the plant, are sufficiently convincing to sustain the belief that it is going to cover the whole South, one of the most terrible invasive plants around. The reality is something different:
In news media and scientific accounts and on some government websites, kudzu is typically said to cover seven million to nine million acres across the United States. But scientists reassessing kudzu’s spread have found that it’s nothing like that. In the latest careful sampling, the U.S. Forest Service reports that kudzu occupies, to some degree, about 227,000 acres of forestland, an area about the size of a small county and about one-sixth the size of Atlanta. That’s about one-tenth of 1 percent of the South’s 200 million acres of forest. By way of comparison, the same report estimates that Asian privet had invaded some 3.2 million acres—14 times kudzu’s territory. Invasive roses had covered more than three times as much forestland as kudzu.
In addition, an insect that feeds on kudzu in its native Japan has made its way to American kudzu at last, and is affecting it quite significantly, leaving it unable to out-compete other roadside weeds.
The author concludes that perhaps the real danger of kudzu is the way it – and its myths – have obscured the reality of the South’s landscape:
. . . It veils more serious threats to the countryside, like suburban sprawl, or more destructive invasive plants such as the dense and aggressive cogon grass and the shrubby privet. More important, it obscures the beauty of the South’s original landscape, reducing its rich diversity to a simplistic metaphor.
Conservation biologists are taking a closer look at the natural riches of the Southeastern United States, and they describe it as one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots, in many ways on par with tropical forests. E.O. Wilson, the American biologist and naturalist at Harvard, says the central Gulf Coast states “harbor the most diversity of any part of eastern North America, and probably any part of North America.” Yet when it comes to environmental and conservation funding, the South remains a poor stepchild. It’s as if many have come to view the Southeast as little more than a kudzu desert. A recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reports that while vulnerable species are primarily in the Southeast, most lands protected as federal and state parks are in the West.
Some of this reminds me, perhaps a bit tangentially, of some things John Michael Greer touched on in his essays this summer (especially part 3 and part 2), about the decline of civilizations, and why those declines happen. It has to do with how we perceive the natural world from our perspective within the human-built and managed worlds most of us spend so much time in. Spend so much time within a controlled environment, and you can lose sight of how the rest of the world – that the controlled environment is situated inside of – and you can lose sight of that bigger picture, get caught up in believing the environment you know is the way things ought to be – because that’s how you always experience things – and fail to cope with the inevitable realities of living in a (built) environment that is out of balance with its own greater (wild) environment. I’m summarizing a LOT of words, but that was the sense I got.
Be careful with your myths.