German Ivy on Albany Hill

German ivy on Albany Hill
German-ivy on Albany Hill

Barbara Ertter
[written in the late 1990’s]

On go the long latex household gloves, then over them leather-palmed garden gloves. Thus armored against dormant poison-oak, I am now prepared for today’s goal: a seek-and-destroy mission against a particularly shocking shade of bright purple. This happens to be the tell-tale color of the creeping stems of german-ivy, buried in the duff under the spreading oaks, elderberries, buckeyes, and hazelnuts. High in the branches above my head are dried dangling strands, reminders of what german-ivy will do if left unchecked. I remember how this area looked two years earlier, before we began our attack, when the german-ivy formed a solid green mass smothering everything on the ground and reaching high up into the trees. The visual result, reminiscent of bayous draped with spanish-moss, belonged in Florida, not California. Not only were the indigenous plants being crowded out, but a fire hazard was created when the greenery turned brown in mid-summer, forming a fire ladder into the vulnerable crowns of the otherwise fire-resistant oaks.

German-ivy, neither a true ivy nor from Germany, is actually a groundsel or ragwort from South Africa. It has the Latin name of Senecio mikanioides, though groundsel experts have reasons to believe that this name should be replaced with Delairia odorata. In its native South Africa, german-ivy is an innocuous component of the cloud forest of the Drakensberg Range, on the border of Lesotho and Natal. I would like to visit there sometime, where I could admire german-ivy (or whatever its local name might be) growing as a harmonious member of a flora as rich as that of California’s. I can easily understand how the winter-blooming sprays of yellow flowers, complementing the bright green semi-succulent foliage, would catch the eye of a horticulturalist looking for novelties with which to brighten gardens during dreary California winters.

Alas, as too frequently turns out to be the case, the invited guest did not settle for being a coddled garden plant, but instead found coastal California to be much to its liking. Whatever mysterious combination of factors (pathogens? parasites? predators?) kept german-ivy in balance seem to have been left behind in the Drakensberg cloud forests, and german-ivy is now on the top hit list of non-indigenous plants that represent the greatest threat to the continued existence of California’s own richly unique flora.

Which brings us to this day in October, in the best of the Bay Area’s fall weather before the winter rains begin. Now is the time when german-ivy is at its most vulnerable, reduced by the summer dry season to feeble fragments, ragged remnants of winter lushness. Soon, however, the rains will begin, and any surviving fragments will explode, recreating the smothering carpet and striving to reclaim the canopy.

So here I am, as I am on the last Saturday of most months, working with a group of other volunteers, learning what stewardship means. This month we tackle german-ivy and algerian ivy; once the rains soften the earth, we will also pull french broom. When the tender new growth of spring wildflowers and ferns makes an appearance, we leave the forest lest our efforts do more harm than good, turning to tasks appropriate to the season. There is no manual telling us what to do and when, no “Owner’s Guide to Albany Hill”. Our own attention to the cycles of the seasons and a willingness to learn from the results of our actions have been the primary sources of the necessary information. I feel like we are letting the hill speak to us directly, telling us what it needs from us in order to heal.

As I spend the next several hours hunting for pernicious purple, my mind reflects on what we are doing. Some of my companions had raised questions that I had never considered, such as “Who are humans to decide which plants have a right to be here and which not?” I realize my response involves ethical components, primarily reparation and responsibility. Humans are responsible for bringing german-ivy to California, which gives us not only the right but the responsibility to keep it from doing harm to that which was already here, including many plants that grow nowhere except coastal California.

Another question that has been raised is: why worry about Albany Hill? Such a tiny piece of habitat, harboring nothing critically rare or of global significance, certainly a far cry from the glamour of ancient redwoods and distant rainforests. Although such awe-inspiring treasures are obviously worth fighting for, our attachment to the earth is superficial, and the long-term battle accordingly futile, if we do not also learn to cherish the ordinary that is part of our daily existence.

I recall the lesson of the fox in The Little Prince, how caring for something is itself the act that transforms the ordinary into the special, and transforms the transformer in return. This hill was undoubtedly special, was in fact home, to the Ohlone who once dwelt here, grinding acorns and feasting on shellfish at the mouth of Cerrito Creek. It occurs to me that the very ordinariness of Albany Hill could be the greatest treasure it has to offer, the opportunity to cherish the ordinary. In doing so, we take the critical first step in the daunting task of regaining what the Ohlone had here, what my ancestors left behind in northern Europe. A sense of place; a sense of nature, not as something separate, but as home.

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