Kudzu is growing, a foot a day in some places, down the retaining wall in my back yard. The dog tumbles into the thick, waxy maze of dark green vines to relieve herself, and to chase the little birds that nest way down deep, where the ground is red and cool.
In some places the vine has turned hundred year old trees into ghostly animal topiaries. An oak becomes a stag, raised up on its hind legs. Two dark and fragrant firs are melted together to make horse, bending his head to eat the vine that has created him, and that’s devouring everything else. It blankets, it invades, and it curls and bends and changes the topography. I love it.
Initially introduced by Japan in the late 19th century as an easy to grow and exotic ornamental, the US government promoted using the vine to cheaply feed cattle in the 1920’s, and by the 1930’s the Civilian Conservation Corps was setting kudzu loose to aid restoring the soil that had been so depleted (we tilled the land too deeply, and then it bled, so black dust rose up from the corpse of the earth and howled in sorrow and in grief). The plant grew too well, and now it covers so much of the south, choking old forests as it climbs up trees, chasing the sun away from flowers that grow near the ground. It is relentless.
In some places wisteria will climb up to meet and tangle with the kudzu. Wisteria is another invasive vine, but since it blooms a fragrant purple, we allow it to stay without reproach. Sometimes the kudzu and wisteria will trail up a metal light post, turning something grey and industrial into something wild and beautiful.
Some people don’t like it. They might feel as though they’re living deep inside of a darkly written Flannery O’Connor short story, where the heat and vines start to snake around their bare and vulnerable shoulders. They might have crops that must be kept from being crushed beneath the weight of the kudzu monster’s blind and rapid march; they might buy a goat or two to chomp and munch away at the sweet vine. The goats eat until their bellies are full and round, tumbling in at the end of the day drunk as Dionysus.
When I was a girl here, some ambitious southerners held a small festival in honor of the rubbery vine. Surrounding the little field where it was held was a hillside that was just choked with it, and beneath our feet the vine curled and unfurled as if in response to our human acknowledgement of its existence. A few vendors served culinary oddities made with the leaves: kudzu cobbler (the kudzu leaves almost completely hidden beneath cherries and raspberries), kudzu ice cream, kudzu tea steeped until it was as green and cloudy as an algae-covered pond. My family and I tried one of each, and laughed as we gagged and choked. Everything needed more sugar. Later, while seated at a white plastic folding table on a grey metal folding chair (which scorched and seared my bare, skinny legs) I made a wreath out of the vine which I later used in a 4H project. A Tennessee childhood in portraiture.
On the banks of the Tennessee River, just downhill from the quiet, relaxed sort of bustle that is our downtown here in Knoxville, there is a placard that marks the spot where Frances Hodgson Burnett lived (with her siblings and widowed mother) and wrote many of her early published works. She called it Vagabondia. If you stand at the river bank and look up toward the site of where Vagabondia once stood, your eyes will be met with a sea of kudzu. It fills up the hillside, and partially keeps the ruins of old homes and the newer, sleeker buildings that sit on top of those old homes, from falling into the river below. I think Frances would have liked the kudzu. I think she would have liked the way it turned everything green, even in the winter. If there’s one thing I’ve noticed about living in the south, as compared to other parts of the country, is that green is the color that survives the bleakest grey of winter. The emerald colored kudzu may darken and brown when the weather turns cold, but it’s almost always the first thing to clamber back up to the surface, craving attention, almost as though it’s saying look at me go.
** I was looking up photos of kudzu on pinterest, and someone commented on one of the shots that kudzu is, “the green monster that’s eating the south”. God, I love that.