Written by J. Mitchell Brown
t being July Fourth and all, I think it fitting to remember all of the fighting men and women of the United States Armed Forces – both current and previous – who have fought for the freedom of each of us. I know that in today’s news, the big-ticket items generally include stories about the soldiers who are in the Middle East. I certainly thank them and pray for them daily, but it would be remiss of each of us if we didn’t remember and consider the folks who served in wars past.
I’ve got this friend of mine, Mr. Bill Baker. He is ninety years old this year. He is more spry and has more energy than many people a third his age, including me. I guarantee he can out-fish you, handle launching and piloting a boat better than most, and catch more crab on a handline than most people by setting a couple of traps for a week or so.
Daloo, as he is known to his family, and now to me, grew up in Estill, just up the road. He loves to tell the story of having bought the house he and his wife live in for just $1000. He built a summer home down on Estill Beach back some 65 years ago when Bluffton was the “real” Bluffton, known only by a privileged few. On one of the wonderful Sundays when I was sitting in one of his half dozen rocking chairs on the front porch of his summer home, enjoying a cocktail and feeling the breezes of the May River, he was telling stories of some of the better early days of Bluffton.
One of my favorites was of the time he came down from Estill, after working in his furniture store during the week. His wife and three children were already down in Bluffton and were not at the house when he arrived. Daloo trotted down to the dock to see if they were down there fishing or swimming. What he found was his boat gone and his family hanging out at “the beach” (the classic name for the sandbar that everyone knows now). Not wanting to miss any of the fun, Daloo trotted back up to the house, put on his swim trunks and went back down to the dock and jumped in the river to begin a swim to the sandbar that would simply drown all but the strongest Olympic swimmer. As he approached the sandbar, a friend of the family pulled up in the boat and called to him.
“Mr. Baker?” he said.
“Yes?” Daloo answered between strokes.
“You can put your feet down now,” the neighbor informed him.
Daloo had swum so far that he was only knee deep in the water. And he wasn’t even breathing hard. (Next time you’re on the river, go check out the distance between the Estill Beach dock and the fat part of the sandbar and see if you’re not impressed.)
That Sunday, Daloo, a veteran, shared with me some of the stories of his experiences in World War II, when he was stationed in the south pacific on active duty. He was newly married when he was shipped off to war, and I can’t decide which is more impressive, being man enough to leave your new bride, or Mrs. Baker being strong enough to endure his absence for so long. Daloo was awarded a leave for R&R and he came back to America for a brief visit (and the story surrounding that return is an epic in and of itself). He told me that the loneliest and lowest he ever felt in his life was when the transport ship he was on that was taking him back to war slid under the Golden Gate Bridge towards the open oceans. He knew his wife and his heart were behind him, and getting further away with every sweep of the second hand on his watch.
Daloo, like untold thousands before him and since him, have made that same sacrifice. And they made it for us. It is our most basic obligation to offer a prayer of safe return for them.
Daloo went to war to fight the Japanese during World War II. He told me once that he can still hear the bombs whistling through the air as they dropped around him. When I asked him if he was scared, he told me, “If you could hear the bombs, you knew it wasn’t going to be you. It was the bombs you couldn’t hear that would scare you.” (Those were the bombs that by the time you heard them, they would have already exploded over you.) America, and more specifically, the southeast, is in another war with Japan. And like those bombs, once you see this enemy it is too late. We’re talking about cogon grass, also known as Japanese blood grass, jap grass, and Red Baron grass (notice the insinuation of these names).
Cogon grass, in it’s own way, is a beautiful spiky grass. If it weren’t for its incredibly invasive nature, it would be a fantastic addition to any garden, including mine. It consists of leaves that grow directly from the ground that are about 6 feet long at maturity and about an inch wide. The leaves have a lighter colored midrib along the entire leaf and super-fine serrations along the edges. The show is with the seed head. During the blooming season (March through June), the grass is topped with a silvery white head that measures about two to eight inches long. Think a more cottony version of a dandelion. It is truly a spectacular grass.
But its problem is that it will simply choke out anything that it is near...and by “anything,” I mean anything. This grass is capable of spreading into almost any habitat. Cogon grass will spread through seed dispersion and underground rhizomes to choke out any native ground growth, and even choke nesting habitats for ground birds! The rhizomes are so strong and sharp that even if a plant on top of the ground was healthy and strong enough to survive the spread above the earth, the rhizome will penetrate the root system of the native plant and kill it from the ground up. The plant has virtually zero nutritional significance for wildlife; the leaves themselves have silica in them, which wear down and become painful to the teeth of anything that is gnawing on it. As such, deer, rabbits, raccoons and other vegetarian animals avoid it.
Even for established forests, cogon grass can be a problem. As the plant dies back in the winter, it creates a massive mat of fuel that, when ignited, burns hotter than normal ground waste and thus eliminates the possibility of native grasses reseeding. These fires, in fact, increase the growth and encroachment opportunities for this invader due to its rapid reseeding and regrowth patterns, which are faster than most of our native groundcovers; not to mention its prolific underground rhizomes, which are virtually untouched after a forest fire.
Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida are overrun with cogon grass already, and these states are conducting massive research programs to find a way to eliminate the threat the grass imposes. Cogon grass is establishing itself in Texas, Louisiana, Georgia, and South Carolina, and our states, too, are trying to find a way to cope with the impending problem. (There are recorded accounts of cogon grass in Beaufort County, by the way, so keep your eyes open.) To date, the eradication programs that are being studied are nothing simple. We’re talking multiple years of chemical depletion, ground tilling, and active reseeding of native plants to eradicate this stuff. Interestingly enough, Ted Turner, arguably the nation’s largest private landowner, and his son Beau Turner, an established and respected conservationist, have eradicated stands of cogon grass on their property...perhaps someone should be talking to them!
And perhaps even more interesting, there are actually commercial varieties of cogon grass that are available for retail sale. Alabama is the only state that has shown the wherewithal and moxie to make the sale or possession of the grass illegal. This stuff, while pretty, is not something to be toyed with. Think kudzu on steroids.
Cogon grass was originally brought to this country from Japan as a packing material for a crate of goods that landed in Mobile, Alabama, in 1912. In less than 100 years, it has had a death grip on three states, and a stronghold on four more. Remember from last month those seeds my sister brought back from Australia. This is why I get concerned.
We can thank Daloo and his brothers for protecting us from the invasion of the Japanese during World War II. We can thank the soldiers standing in harm’s way this Fourth of July so that you and I can enjoy hot dogs and inner tube rides on the river. Which soldiers will we be thanking for the elimination of a beautiful but deadly grass that is spreading around us?