Rob Plowes, an ecologist at UT Austin’s Brackenridge Field Laboratory, chanted, “Thou Shalt Not Kill the Elbow Bush,” as he marched several paces ahead of White Crew on The Old Quarry Trail. Rob, who studies invasive species behavior, gave White Crew (a.k.a The Polar Pack) a quick lesson on plant taxonomy before the crew began its task of removing Nandina, and Chinese and Japanese ligustrum. Testing the crew’s taxonomic skills, Rob asked each member to identify the three invasive species. Satisfied that his pupils knew which species to remove, Rob turned to two plants that resemble the Chinese ligustrum: an elbow bush and a Carolina laurel cherry, which is a relative of wild almonds. Rob proclaimed, “Thou shalt not eat wild almonds,” and in the same tone he repeated the command for the elbow bush. 

As White Crew’s first project, the removal of invasive species at Brackenridge presented several challenges. Despite Rob’s mandate and lesson, White Crew was hesitant to identify and remove Chinese ligustrum, preferring to fell Japanese ligustrum and use weed wrenches against tiny Nandina plants. However, by Wednesday the crew was confident in its knowledge of the Chinese colonizer, which resembles the Lernaean Hydra in its mature form. Hesitant at first, White Crew soon gained confidence in its ability to identify all the three target species.

Inexperience with tools and equipment was another challenge White Crew overcame during its first project. The weed wrench was a novelty to most. Yet, by Monday afternoon Saunders and Jake were wrenching out the tallest of Japanese ligustrum trees. In addition, White Crew was fresh off its chainsaw training hitch. Some were hesitant to wield the saw, but by the end of the week almost every member had the opportunity to sharpen their sawyer skills in the battle against ligustrum (Shout out to Ashleigh for becoming a superstar sawyer). 

The work and Texas heat tested White Crew’s mental and physical toughness. Members struggled with the moral implications and visually upsetting effects of using herbicide and eradicating seemingly innocuous organisms. Some of us said prayers for the plants we removed and talked openly to cope with our reservations. In our battle against nature, we learned how to pace ourselves under the blazing Texas sun, to bring extra food in case someone forgets his or her lunch, to drink lots of water, and to be mindful of one another’s work habits. 

We also grew as a team as we learned more about one another. Mel maintains her bubbliness throughout the day; Carlos is obsessed with dinosaurs; Saunders is a quick-witted storyteller; Jake is always willing to lend a hand; Sage is a magician with bungee cords; Ebony is allergic to hornets (stay away from the hill with ground bees); John can fall asleep next to loud chainsaws; Phoebe is intense; and Ashleigh is a great sawyer. 

White Crew ended its week with a welcome respite at the LBJ Auditorium, where, along with breakfast tacos and coffee, AmeriCorps members in the Austin area, promised, for the twenty-fifth time, “to get things done.”

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