Glory to thorns, prickers, stickers, spines, and prickles. These adaptive branches are nature’s armor for a variety of plants. Plants that have thorns tend also to grow in large groups. This “protection in numbers” survival trait creates a fortress that is nearly impenetrable. Originally intended to repel herbivores, this natural modification has provided unintended benefits for animals thought of as prey. They seek refuge in these fortresses to avoid being consumed by predators. Smaller animals, both birds and mammals, use these coveys as an effective hiding place from those that seek their flesh. Cottontail rabbits, voles, mice, as well as a variety of song birds easily can maneuver withing these dense thickets while larger predators like hawks, owls, coyotes, and fox would rather go hungry that risk the punishment of plants that are capable of defending themselves. In general, small animals are welcome whereas large animals are to be excluded.
Case in point. About fifteen years ago I was asked to conduct an ecological assessment of a section of electrical transmission line in central Massachusetts. At the time this was a regular part of my business and traveled all over New England to do work on these public utility rights-of-way. When I received the phone call asking me to do the job I inquired if there were any unusual circumstances. I always did this as a way of preparing myself for the worse possible conditions, or to become aware of special problems, especially those related to the angry human variety. The engineer asking me to do the job described the site as a “benign brushy area”. I laughed to myself when he said this trying to imagine what a “benign brushy area” would look like.
After about a two hour drive, my business partner, Ward, and I found the power line and the specific areas to be evaluated. We quickly assessed which areas would require a detailed look and we split up. He was going to look at an area near a structure that needed repair on a open hillside and I was going to look at the area that was low and brushy adjacent to another structure that was to be repaired or replaced.
As I approached the area where I would conduct my investigation I immediately recognized that the area was a massive and dense thicket. My primary obstacle, or so it would seem, would be a few acres of multiflora rose. This ornery, non-native plant, was first put into use by the US Department of Agriculture. It was suggested that the plant was so dense and has so many thorns that cows and sheep could not penetrate it and could be used as a natural fence to contain animals. This was, for the most part, true. What they failed to mention was that this plant could grow almost anywhere, was more prolific that a ship full of rats, and would not only protect your cows or sheep from escaping but, in fact, render the entire field where they used to graze useless. This plant can spreads like wild fire and is capable of covering acres within a few years.
I have a lot of experience with these types of thickets and I am wary of them. On this particular day I did not have any brush chaps with me as I was expecting a “benign brushy area”. But years of navigating in the field had taught me that if one was patient there as usually one path, created by larger mammals, that could be used to access the interior area in order to evaluate it. I circled the tangled landscape in search of an entrance. Just as I was about to give up I found a low, narrow, tunnel that was likely used by coyotes in search of prey. There was one problem, however, I am neither low nor narrow. Thinking ahead I took off my field pack, filled the pockets in my field vest with notebooks, a small soil sampler, surveyors flagging tape, a camera, and writing utensils. As I got down on my hands and knees to crawl through the dense thicket the first thing that happened was that everything, and I mean everything, fell out of my pockets. Trying to pick up about 25 different articles while on my hands and knees was, to say the least, challenging. I had one hand on the ground to steady myself so that I could use the other hand to gather up the items. I immediately felt a sharp stabbing pain as I pressed my palm directly onto a thick and nasty multiflora rose thorn. I fell to my elbows and attempted to pull the thorn out. Naturally my elbows and forearms landed on the same multiflora rose branch and now I had multiple wounds that needed attention. Figuring that I had probably used up every thorn that was laying on the ground I carefully pulled each thorn out, a challenging and painful task to say the least. I hadn’t traveled into the thicket for more than three feet and I already had more prickles than a porcupine!
I decided that this was going to be a miserable experience and adjusted my attitude. If this was going to be that difficult I figured I might as well put myself in a hardened state of mind and tough it out! After pulling out the thorns in my hands and arms and watching the blood run across my skin I decided it couldn’t get much worse and started moving forward. I managed to carefully crawl into this tunnel about ten feet without further pain. I did this by carefully pushing prickly branches aside and keeping an eye out for wayward stickers. Just as I though that I was figuring this out I noticed that the multiflora rose was not the only plant in front of me. I looked up in horror as I noticed both blackberries and greenbrier joining the party. We all know that blackberries can have some formidable prickers. The older canes can hold massive thorns that are capable of making a grown man (namely me) cry. And the greenbrier, my all time favorite thicket material (NOT) has the added benefit of having nearly endless stickers running up and down the long sinuous vines that love to hover in a low position over the ground. Given I was just getting started I decided that I should keep going. After all, no one likes a ninny, least of all me. I extracted a pair of hand pruners that I had in my field vest and started to widen the opening so that I could slide my very unsvelte body between this gauntlet of thorny branches and stems. At the moment I wished I was a completely different person. I was wishing my six foot three two hundred and fifty pound body could be transformed into someone like Woody Allen. I mean that guy has to run around in the shower just to get wet. He could easily navigate this tangle of sharp spines. Deciding that fantasy would not improve my present situation I focused on the task before me. I cut one branch at a time, tried to find a place to tuck it into on one side of the other, and move forward at a snails pace. It is amazingly hard to tuck thorny branches into the a thicket of equally prickley stems. The task requires determination of almost unknown quantities. And with this I proceeded. About fifteen minutes later, and I must admit some reasonable progress, I came upon another obstacle. As far as I could see the ground was covered with swamp dewberry. This member of the blackberry family grows as a dense ground cover, usually in open light. I suspected that someone had planted it there years ago in anticipation of my arrival, but a clearer head suggested it was there for many years and the overhead thicket of multiflora rose, greenbrier, and blackberries grew over it. Dewberry stems are covered with a dense cover of never ending, very fine and narrow, prickles that point down the stem. They can get wedged under your fingernail, or if they penetrate your skin can be almost impossible to remove given their fine and delicate nature. I could feel my blood starting to boil but I decided this was just a little adrenaline and the last thing I needed to do was panic. I knew I couldn’t crawl over this plant without thick gloves and leg chaps so I paused while I tried to come up with a solution. I pulled on one by using the leaves for a shield over the bristly stem. It came out readily and so I proceeded, clipping branches with my hand held pruning tool, and pulling swamp dewberry where necessary in order to continue on my journey.
The heat of the day was building. I was sweating profusely. I noticed when I wiped my brow that I was bleeding. No doubt my forehead had taken a few scratches from this very unkind environment. I noticed a good number of deer ticks crawling all over my clothes. Now was not the time to deal with them. I stopped for a moment to gather some patience. Surely this thicket couldn’t go on for much longer. I’d been in here for nearly an hour trying to find my way to the utility line structure and it was still nowhere in sight. I managed to clear out a space around me with my trusty pruning tool so that I could sit on my rear end. A new position for my aging body was welcomed and I used the time to assess my situation. I reasoned that my persevering would pay off and sooner of later I would get to my destination. Crawling, one hand and one knee at a time, I moved forward slowly, ever so slowly.
After another fifteen minutes of clipping, cutting, and pulling I looked up. I could see a horde of thick gray shrubs, perhaps a sign that the tangle was thinning out. My heart soared as I anticipated an improvement. Only another 30 yards and perhaps I was going to be “out of the woods”. I increased my pace to a steadfast, clip, pull, and stash. Over and over again repeating this process I moved forward at previously unrecorded speed. My spirit soared as I wrestled towards my new found goal. As I approached the gray shrubs my eyes focused on their silhouette. At first I thought it was just a bad mirage, and then I refocused my eyes and it was clear that what I was seeing were clearly sharp, stout spines erupting out of the bark and branches like a statue of misery. I was staring directly at a major group of hawthorn, one of the spiniest, nastiest, most discouraging shrubs in the northeaster United States. Even wild hogs avoid these masters of destruction. My short lived ecstasy sank like the Titanic in the North Atlantic Ocean. I stared at this tangle, only three yards in front of me, and wondered what in hell made me think that I could penetrate this armory of plants. I couldn’t imagine turning around when I must be so close to my destination!
Using my hawk like vision, and peering through the blood, sweat, and tears that filled my eyes I looked for another route. Surely this mass of hawthorn could not cover the entire access. I looked to the left. I looked to the right. From this position on my hands and knees I realized I couldn’t see any clear way through this mess. I decided to proceed parallel to the hawthorns to my right hand side, in hopes that I would find a way through. I hadn’t moved along too far when I started noticing another culprit. This invasive species, another “beauty” with a crown of triple thorns, was here and there, but did not form a dense mat that would stop me. Japanese barberry can grow densely, but here it was being out competed by the other noxious plants. It added a little variety to my cut, snip, pull, stash routine. I notice that my resolve was returning and my heart felt just a little bit lighter (although that could have been from all of the blood that I had lost). At one point I felt a tugging at my waistline. I thought my that my belt might have snagged a pricker and moved forward. The tugging became more severe. Trusting that the pricker would let go I still proceeded forward. And then there was a loud THWAP and a sharp pain against my lower back. I looked over my shoulder and realized I had caught the elastic in my underwear. The result was underwear that would likely no longer stay up when I was vertical and an ego that was bruised far worse than my lower back. My journey parallel to the thicket of hawthorn proceeded, slowly, and I wondered if I was getting off track. I no longer had any confidence as to the exact location of the power line structure I was looking for.
My hands ached from the thorns that had pierced my skin. My pants and shirt were tattered and torn from crawling through the dense jungle of prickers. My face was covered with scratches and yet I proceeded on one thorny movement at a time. And finally, up ahead I could see some light. Perhaps it was a clearing around the structure! I felt a rush of adrenaline, victory was at hand. I snipped, cut, and pulled prickers madly. I was like Edward Scissorhands moving though this challenging tangle. As I neared the edge I was taking a cut with my hand held pruners and they stopped dead! I gripped the hand pruners again and they failed to cut through that which they held in their jaws. I looked at their jaws and saw them gripping a piece of wire, not just any old wire, but barbed wire. And not just one strand either. I was looking at a impenetrable fence of barbed wire that had parallel strands every six inches to a height of about six feet!
The next few moments will go down in my personal history as a time I would rather forget. I completely lost my cool, although in retrospect there was really no cool to loose. I was temporarily enraged. I began swearing like a drunken sailor, I jumped up through the prickers without a care for any pain they would inflict on my face or body and exited the top of the thicket with my head like a submarine’s periscope breaks through the waves of the sea. I’m sure my face was red and swollen with rage. I’m sure it was scratched and bloody. I was still yelling at the top of my lungs. I was so infuriated I had my eyes closed!
I opened my eyes and what I saw before me was nearly unbelievable. There, only 30 yards away, was a mother and two young children standing in their yard. They just looked at me without saying a word. She was hanging out laundry and the children, perhaps 3 or 4 years old, were by her side. Time stood still, they stared at me and I stared back not knowing what to say. After a few moments I sank back into the thorny brush seeking refuge from my embarrassment.
I never did reappear to these onlookers, but just yelled “Sorry” out through the thick brush hoping my words would reach them. I began a quick back track along the tunnel trail that I had created on my way in. Evidently my blind wanderings in the thorny thicket had led me to the edge of a nearby neighborhood. The heavy barbed wire fence was probably an old property line. I navigated my way back to my truck. It only took about twenty minutes. I was now immune to pain and any more prickers that found their way into my skin went unnoticed.
When I arrived back at my vehicle Ward was standing by the tail gate, his work already completed.
I was scratched, bloody, my clothes torn to shreds. But Ward didn’t question any of that. He did, though, inquire about something else.
“What was all the commotion about?” he asked.
“Never mind, I’ll tell you later.” I said and started to laugh uncontrollably and then I began to pull a multitude of ticks off of my skin, clothes, and hair.
During the drive home I laughed on and off throughout the two hour drive. The comedy of life overwhelmed the pain I felt from the many wounds caused by the many, many thorns.
I still wonder what that poor woman and her innocent children thought when my head poked through an impenetrable weave of prickers; yelling, shouting, swearing. I guess I’ll never know.
Glory to thorns, prickers, stickers, spines, and prickles. They have their place in this world. And from that point on I have done my best to stay out of it.
Written for www.wildramblings.com in March 2012. Another title for this piece might have been “It’s Not Always Fun Being an Ecologist”!