A Modern Greek Saga: Sisyphus And The Ivy

Dec 31, 2013

Some causes just seem hopeless some days. Like world peace. Or ending poverty. Or in a different vein, getting rid of non-native plants.

But you've no doubt met people who insist on tackling intractable problems here locally and around the world. One particularly dedicated fellow wages a solo fight each weekday morning against English ivy.

Most of us have a workday morning routine. For some, a stop at the gym comes first. For others, it's two cups of coffee over the sports pages. In Olympia, teacher Kevin Head rises long before dawn on school days to go alone to a city park.

‘Giving Service To The Forest’

Head’s routine begins by asking the rampant ivy vines for forgiveness.

"Thank you ivy for your tenaciousness, your strength," he says. "I ask you to let me take you out for the benefit of the world here."

Volunteer Kevin Head clears ivy in the pre-dawn darkness.
Volunteer Kevin Head clears ivy in the pre-dawn darkness.
Credit Tom Banse

  And then Head leans down with gloved hands and rips and yanks as much ivy as he can slay for the next half hour.

The 56-year-old works by the light of a single headlamp. Pretty much anything he grabs in this grove of big leaf maples is bound to be ivy.

"Ivy all through here," Head said. "All down to the bay, all through the trees in there."

Head says he was inspired to action nearly three years ago by a guest speaker in his classroom. The topic was invasive plants.

"I just said I need to use some of my time to give service to the forest that I love, and to bring back a little bit for the native plants and the native birds,” he said.

This task reminds me of the Greek myth about Sisyphus, the cruel king who was condemned for eternity to push a huge stone uphill only to see it roll back down every time. Head says he relates more to the kid in "The Star Thrower,” a children's story in which a boy and his father come upon thousands of starfish washed ashore on a beach.

"The little boy takes a starfish and throws it into the water. And the dad says, 'Why you doing that? There are so many, it's not going to help.' The little boy says, 'Well, it helped that one.' And that is the idea,” said Head.

An Uphill — But Winnable — Battle

Oregon and Washington classify English ivy as a lower priority noxious weed statewide, in part because eradication on a landscape scale just seems hopeless. Responsibility for combating ivy generally filters to the local level.

Land owners in the Northwest typically take the approach described by Sylvana Niehuser, the city of Olympia's park ranger: "English ivy has a waxy property to the leaves. So spraying is not very effective at all. You can't mow it because it is just a tangly mess. So you are left with manual control by pulling it."

Niehuser figures it could take decades, if not a century, to pull all the ivy in Priest Point Park alone where Head volunteers.

"It can be overwhelming when you look at it overall,” she said. But, she added, the battle is winnable when you set your sights on smaller plots and saving individual trees.

"So we try to focus on prioritizing in large parks like this," said Niehuser. "Then in our small parks, we try to work on getting it completely eradicated."

Niehuser mostly relies on volunteers for ivy control in Olympia parks because of staff cutbacks and tight budgets. It’s the same story elsewhere in western Washington and western Oregon where escaped ivy is pervasive. The infestation peters out as soon as you cross the Cascade Crest into the more arid Inland Northwest.

Volunteer Army

Oregon is home to one of the biggest and oldest anti-ivy campaigns in the country.

"One thing that stands out is how much square feet of ivy we have removed," said Mary Verrilli, manager of the No Ivy League, a program within the Portland Parks & Recreation Department.

"This is ivy from the ground. It's been over 4 million square feet of ivy. It's really impressive to see these stats since 1994."

Which is when the No Ivy League started. The non-native vines have had a big head start. Botanical researchers believe the English ivy was introduced to the Northwest by early settlers, probably before 1890.

Super-volunteer Head says he's committed to his ivy pulling routine at least until he retires later this decade. One thing that keeps him going is the pleasure of seeing native plants and birds return.

"I can only get about 10 square feet a day," said Head. "But it is thrilling to see it start to uncover."