Reflections on Earth Day, Blackberry Bushes, & Biodiversity

by Emma Jornlin, SCA Seattle
As I learn more and more about the history of Earth Day, I get the feeling that Gaylord Nelson did not intend for the day to be about blackberries. Yet year after year, for the past five years of my life, Earth Day here in Seattle has always involved this prickly plant.

Emma Twitters

Now, let’s be clear. I’m not talking about Rubus ursinus, the quiet, feeble blackberry whose slender, slightly spiky vines you’ll find creeping across the forest, bearing a trail of juicy berries in the summertime. This species of blackberry you can (and should) differentiate by its petite white flowers and elongated leaves. No, the plant I am referring to, with whom I have spent so much time, is Rubus discolor (or Rubus armeniacus, as it is known to some).

My first Earth Day with the Student Conservation Association, I was expecting something a bit more…friendly. I envisioned planting trees or watering flowers. Needless to say, this was not the case.

I did get my sun. That day, the water of Lake Washington was a sparkling aqua blue, with bleach-white daisies dotting the lawn beside the beach. But my site was located deep within the woods, on a path you had to traipse on overgrown salal bushes in order to get to.

After a brief overview of what we would be doing that day, the SCA site leader handed us our gloves and encouraged us to get to work. It was then that I turned around and faced the largest, most monstrous blackberry plant I had ever seen: thick, rhubarb-sized stalks stretching way up over my head, all the way up into a nearby conifer tree.  Our site leader had instructed us to pull on the smoothest part of each stalk by the ground, to remove the plant’s roots and avoid getting stabbed by thorns. But even as I tried to do this, other prickly branches seemed to come out of nowhere, sticking to and cutting into my bare, exposed arms.

Though I am ashamed to say it, my friends and I left early that day. After yanking on thorny branches that seemed to go on forever, wincing, and watching each other bleed, we decided that this was not the work we had been expecting and regrettably, retired to the beach.

Later that year however, I spent a lot of time with my school’s Earth Corps club learning about invasive species. I learned that seemingly harmful plants such as Himalayan Blackberry and English Ivy were introduced into the Seattle area years ago because of their beauty or fruit. But whoever brought them here obviously did not research the nature of these plants, and shortly afterwards, they began to grow out of control. As I learned more about blackberry, I gained a much greater appreciation for the service SCA was doing. I realized that blackberry removal is not only important for preserving the Arboretum’s beauty, but more importantly, for protecting its biodiversity.

The following Earth Day, I came prepared for the task ahead of me. This time, equipped with pliers and long-sleeves, I barreled into the blackberry plants. Ripping out their stubborn, thorn-covered stalks, I could almost hear the trees sighing in relief. The end of the day, my fellow site members and I were exhausted, but looking at the area we had cleared around the native plants, agreed that we shared a tremendous sense of accomplishment.

This Earth Day 2010, I was proud to see so many young people working on the variety of projects the SCA had planned, but of course my favorite to see was the group working on blackberries. There they were, ripping out thorny stalks that seemed to branch out endlessly. I hoped that this group would gain a sense of satisfaction out of getting their hands dirty and working together to accomplish their project that day. But even more, I hoped that over time they would come to understand the true value of their work, as I had after my first Earth Day.

A lot of times we get caught up in the idea of making the world better by making it a more beautiful place, when the real issues are those that are often more difficult to see. A perfectly green yard may seem healthy, just as a plant bearing juicy berries may seem harmless and sweet. Gaylord Nelson may not have intended Earth Day to be about blackberries, but by establishing this holiday, he has succeeded in raising awareness of issues that sometimes lie beneath a seemingly beautiful thing. Thanks to Nelson and organizations like the SCA, one day we might just see a world devoid of invasive blackberries, among many other things.