Unstoppable creeper

In many areas, English ivy is considered an invasive species. It can crowd out native plants, cover and smother trees, and deprive native animals of the flora they need for food and shelter.

While I was going to work in Seattle and Bellevue, the ivy that clung to the Douglas fir tree behind my house and grew in the bed between the foundation of my house and the lawn, spread over the back of my house. The creeping vine crept over the bedroom windows, crawled over the kitchen window, colonized the gutters.

From my back deck in the bright summer the wall of green seemed somehow institutional to me. Ivy covered the brick of the cookie cutter Collegiate Gothic style. The massive buildings with ornate cornices and perpetual ivy signified the liberal education as much as golden arches signified rapidly produced hamburgers.

Whenever I see ivy I think of the University of Washington’s Gothic style, or the phrase Ivy League. I don’t really know much about the ivy league. Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Cornell, Columbia, Dartmouth, Brown, and U Penn, U Penn is an ivy league school. Some of these names have crawled into our vocabulary as a kind of verbal tinsel. These linguistic faux-marbling imply prestige: a development of tract homes in a Cape Cod style named Harvard Heights, a driving school called Princeton Academy of the Wheel, the Dartmouth Grill next door to the movie theater called The Harvard Exit Theatre.

Ivy fills the forests near my house. The vine clings to the trunks of Douglas fir. The vine strangles maple trees and cotton wood trees until they suffocate and become covered in lichen and mushrooms. The vine finally splits the tree into hunks that fall into the bed of ivy on the forest floor. The bed of ivy covers the forest floor in a knee-high blanket of meaty, fibrous leaves. Spiders, raccoon, and rats live under the cover of the ivy. At first, when you enter the forest you feel that you entering a verdant space filled with life, bird song, plants, and the somehow prestigious shape of ivy. The ivy transforms the trees into columns of ivy. Ivy hangs from the canopy.

On my first walk from my house to Puget Sound, I found myself in the bright and green woods. My house is in a subdivision modestly named Pinewood. The division is in a neighborhood with the humble name of Woodmont. The neighborhood is in a city named Des Moines after Des Moines Iowa and distinguished verbally from Iowa by the locals pronouncing the terminal S, as in “Des Moine-sss”. I walked through the fuzzy, vine covered trunks to a steep slope. I could see white caps on Puget Sound and then came out to the rock shore of the sea. The forest stood on the slopes of the hill, a solid mass of vegetation.

Despite densely inhabited strips of apartment buildings, condos, and small lot houses, my neighborhood retains a rural feel. Up until the recent boom in Seattle, much of the neighborhood had green belts required as noise mitigation from Sea-Tac. A constant stream of jets heads north as planes approach Sea-Tac. At other times the stream heads south as planes depart. Around the airport, the neighborhoods seem frozen in the 1960s and 1970s. There are less sports utility vehicles here than in Seattle or the East Side. People drive Ford trucks or newer Toyota Tahomas. There are many Datsun Z80s around. Only recently have the Toyota Camrys from the 1990s given way to Ford Focuses and Toyota Corollas. You find cars with body damage and primer in the parking lots.

The green belts stuffed with all consuming ivy right next to the densely packed urban apartments were dangerous. It is in the green belts that the community dumped toxic trash. It is in the green belts where temporary shelters house meth lab. It is in the green belts where the Green River killer executed his victims and stored (for easy access) their decomposing bodies. The ivy covers these things and gradually gnaws them out of existence. When you enter the forest you feel that you entering a verdant space filled with decay and death.

Occasionally, the community attempts to clear the ivy. Crews cut the veins at the root of the Douglas fir trees. They pull up the sheets of ivy revealing the rat trails, the piles of garbage, the bones of missing people. But within a season the ivy returns.

I realized about five years ago that the ivy was gradually covering my house. It wasn’t going to transform my house into an Ivy League college, but instead the tiny brown roots would finger their way into the siding of the house, crack the cement foundation and rip the house down until I was living among the spiders and rats.

As I cut the vines down, I cut the telephone land line to the house. The land line was no longer in use. I ripped out the copper line. I ripped out the vines. It came back in sheets with the roots clinging to strips of house wood and paint. After a weekend of labor the house was revealed. A few pieces of siding had been ripped up. The window screens held tiny filaments of ivy root that could not be removed. But the house has been restored, sort of, to how it looked when I first moved into it.

But the ivy has started to creep back. It has sent tentative feelers up the wainscoting. It will not rest.

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