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Thursday, January 31, 2019

Dispatch from La Isla del Encanto

My partner and I recently returned from a trip to Puerto Rico, the island we hope to soon call home. My sister joined us, too, and she and I spent several days exploring El Yunque, Puerto Rico’s lush rainforest that is full of endemic species of birds and insects. We enjoyed hiking in the forest and taking in the waterfalls, epiphytes, birds, and magnificent views of the Atlantic Ocean in the distance.

While talking to inhabitants of the island, whether it was waiting in line for Hamilton tickets or visiting with the manager of our Air BnB, the main message was always this: the island before Maria and after Maria. Life before and after the hurricane.



These words were constant whispers as we made our way around the island.

Also, Hamilton, but that’s because Lin-Manuel Miranda (local hero of Puerto Rican descent) was in town to play the lead in his hit musical for an exclusive and limited run.

One thing that my sister kept pointing out was the kudzu. As a resident of Georgia and fellow plant lover, she knows this vines well—and counts it as her enemy. On a personal note, I’ve enjoyed watching my sister’s growth into a knowledgeable gardener and advocate of native plants.

For those of you who have never heard of kudzu, it’s a vine native to Asia that is considered a noxious, invasive weed in many parts of the world, including the U.S., where it was introduced in the 1930’s as a method of soil erosion. Since then, it has spread at the rate of 150,000 acres annually.

The reason why it’s so dangerous is because the vine climbs healthy trees and smothers them to the point where they cannot receive sunlight, causing native and healthy trees to die.

When I think of an apocalyptic vision of the planet, it is a world blanketed in kudzu.

As avid plant people, my sister and I were dismayed to find it all over the island, including in the supposedly pristine national forest. Speaking with the permaculturist who ran our AirBnB, we learned that kudzu is another unfortunate consequence of the hurricane. Before the hurricane, no kudzu. After the hurricane, kudzu everywhere.

After being hit by two hurricanes back to back, many of the parks hiking paths were closed to visitors, as well as its main visitor center, El Portal. I can imagine that park staff has a lot of work on their hands, and destroying the invasive kudzu vine might not be high on their list. But as I see huge stretches of rainforest disappear the green blanket, the species beneath it without a chance at life, I wonder how far it will spread unchecked.

This may look like a beautiful sunset, but all I could see was the kudzu vine creeping up the tree fern!
My sister told me stories about her neighborhood in Georgia, where she’s become something of a kudzu police. More like a friendly invasive plant educator. She takes any opportunity she gets to tell her neighbors about why they shouldn’t allow this vine free reign in their yards. Most people don’t know its awful repercussions, and some even find its lushness alluring. In fact, kudzu is still sold at many Home Depots around the country!

It’s not all bad. In traditional Chinese medicine, it is considered one of the 50 fundamental herbs. In some countries, the roots and flowers are used in cooking. It’s not a bad plant—it’s just that in places where it is naturalized and not native, it can destroy the ecosystem. A weed is by definition a plant you don’t wish to have growing where it is growing. In another circumstance, a weed might be a food source or a medicine.

I encourage you all to research a bit about what plants around you might be native or not. It’s another way to be an engaged citizen of the world we live in. I recently put in a butterfly garden full of native plants and the flowers are always buzzing with bees and mariposas! (For those of you wanting a monarch update—they’re fine! I ran out to my friend’s house and cut a couple pieces of milkweed off of her plant to satisfy the hungry beasts!)

Not monarchs but still special

And while we’re on the subject of kudzu, I might as well post the link to a short story, “Gringa,” that I had published in Kudzu House literary magazine.

I hope you've all enjoyed a lovely (and hopefully not too freezing) month of January!

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Monarch Madness

I'm worried about our caterpillars.

A few months ago, I bought native pollinator plants and put in a butterfly garden in my mother's backyard. I wanted to attract native and beneficial insects, and I was surprised when the butterflies started visiting my flowers almost immediately. The main butterflies that I've seen flitting around in the garden are monarchs and zebra longwings, both beautiful in their own way. I was over the moon when I found the first caterpillar on the milkweed, the monarch butterfly's favorite food. These soon-to-be monarchs (fingers crossed) must eat almost constantly to become butterflies. It was amazing to see the caterpillars grow as they chomped on the milkweed leaves, often leaving the plants barren within a day. But by the next day or two, the plants' leaves had usually replenished.

I never thought too much about it, until our caterpillar population exploded. Now it's not one or two caterpillars, but 4 or 5 crawling around on the milkweed in various stages of growth, from babies to fatties nearly ready to turn into a chrysalis before becoming a butterfly. Yesterday morning, the milkweed plant that the caterpillars had been feasted on was completely decimated and the caterpillars were nowhere to be found. I have another milkweed plant but the two are far enough away from each other that the caterpillars had not found their way over, except for one. So Norbert and I hunted around the butterfly until we located each and every caterpillar and placed them gently on the last remaining milkweed plant. At this point, its 3 stems were all full of green leaves, but I knew it wouldn't last long.

This morning, the last of my milkweed was decimated and the other plant didn't miraculously come back with lush greenery over night, as I had hoped. I only located two caterpillars and they seem distraught. One was crawling around on the wood shavings looking a bit skinny, in my eyes. Another one was checking out the scorpiontail, a native flower but not one that is food for monarchs.

Somehow, however strangely, I feel responsible for their lives since, in a way, I brought them here by planting milkweed. And now my supply has dwindled! I think my only option is to go out and find/buy more milkweed plants. Like any pet owner, the life of our animals is in our hands!

Wish these babies luck!

PS We saw our first hummingbird in the garden! Plant flowers and magic follows!

Friday, January 4, 2019

Winter Wonderland at Vermont Studio Center

I had the good fortune to spend the month of December at the Vermont Studio Center, a residency for writers and artists. Every month, a new group of about 50 artists and writers take over the campus and make some incredible art. 

We each have our own bedroom and studio space and we share all of our meals together at the Red Mill. I must say—it felt a bit like being back in college, especially considering my New England alma mater! 

The weather was perfectly wintry, with straight snow the first two weeks. There’s nothing like the silence of snow draping the land. My studio looked out onto the Gihon River so I could watch the chunks of ice float down the river whenever I need inspiration. Certainly a far cry from my tropical world back home!

My studio

View from my studio

I loved getting to know my fellow artists and writers. I connected with several fantastic writers, many of whom are also working on family-related projects. It’s been intriguing getting to know the visual artists and picking their brains about the work they make and the thought process behind it. 

Many times, I feel like they’re speaking a whole different—and fascinating—language. This time has made me connect further with myself as a writer. Not only have I had so much time to devote to my practice and connect with other writers, but being surrounded by visual art and visual artists makes me understand deeply that words are my craft. Still, it has been incredibly inspiring to spend the last month with people who spend their life in the pursuit of truth through art.

I can now say in earnest that I’m working on a memoir. It’s something I’ve never done before and the learning curve is huge, but it feels good to chip away at it every day, learning by way of the process. This experience has been a creative exchange, one that has invigorated me as a writer and an artist.

winter solstice 

Happy New Year!!