Not The Target Market

Bittersweet: A Parable

Our woods are small and began the year terribly overgrown with brush, pokeweed, bittersweet, raspberries and a number of dead trees. The little ones called it “The Forest” in a wide-eyed way, as if expecting to meet Red Riding Hood’s wolf behind one of the larger trees along the path. And really, who could blame them? When even I started to peer cautiously around the pokeweed and in back of the brush before heading down the path to dump a barrow of clippings on the compost pile, it was apparent we needed to start on a tidying-up project. We began it in the late winter and while The Hunter took care of the dead trees, I attacked the bittersweet. Seven months later, this appears to be a project that will last out my lifetime.

Let me state for the record: I HATE bittersweet. It should be outlawed. It is the most abhorrent, abominable, appalling, awful, ghastly, horrible, invasive, nasty, obnoxious,  plant I’ve ever come across. It loves sun; it’s unfazed by shade. It strangles tree trunks; it suffocates foliage. It grows at the speed of light and it refuses to be eradicated. I doubt even carpet bombing the place with agent orange would faze it.

In short, bittersweet has no redeeming qualities – not even the red berry covered vines that swooning Pinteresters turn into must-have autumn wreaths and table decorations. Those berries will inevitably drop off that perfect autumn wreath, aiding and abetting this frightful plant’s ruinous march into new and virgin territory.

Incredibly, there are websites devoted to extolling this thuggish plant and giving instructions on how to cultivate it. While admitting that it can get a wee bit invasive (italics and irony, all mine), the fools who write these articles maintain bittersweet can be controlled with assiduous pruning and vigilance.

Ha! And I’ll say it again – this time in bold caps – HA! What about the birds? What about the wildlife? What about the berries they eat and redistribute? What about the berries scattered in the careful pruning? You can’t control all of that. This hooligan plant needs no help from websites or humans in its ultimate goal of world domination.

There is only one way to control bittersweet: every single scrap of root needs to be grubbed out and burned. The only advantage the “grubber” has in this endeavor is that the roots are all bright orange and can be traced in their devious paths through the dirt. But this is only a small advantage; it’s really more of bittersweet’s way of laughing at you. Of telling you that you have no chance. “You can see me, but you will never get all of me,” it says.

For a while, you may become obsessed and refuse to stop yanking and pulling because you can always see one more fluorescent filament to dig out. But, at some point during the day, your back will simply not allow you to continue. The next day when you can barely walk, let alone bend over, you will decide to take a day off from the project, and the bittersweet will add another 30 miles of roots and vines. And say: “I told you not to bother.”

During the summer, I would rip and dig and rip some more and always find myself sitting on my backside in the dirt as a particular well-entrenched vine suddenly gave way. I would also find myself muttering – like my father before me when inanimate things were fighting him – you bastard.

That phrase escaped from my lips a lot, because, as the woods greened up, I could see all the bittersweet I had missed on earlier go-rounds, looking for all the world like a clutch of pythons waving their myriad tentacles, looking for trees to strangle. Even in places where I had done a pretty thorough job, the smallest of leftover roots of this merciless invader sent up tiny vines, going so far as to twine up delicate lily of the valley stalks.

I had a horticultural ending in mind to this rant when it struck me that if you were to substitute “sin” for “bittersweet,” you would have a pretty good description of how the current and seemingly endless scandal in the church came about.

Sin is invasive, smothering, and happy to grow anywhere. Sin destroys what it touches. Sin can fool you into thinking it’s beautiful so that it will be admired and left to grow. Some people may even think it’s a good idea to cultivate it and invite it into the house. Sin is exhausting to get rid of and, like bittersweet, if it isn’t brutally rooted out – every single scrap – it comes back to haunt you. Again and again and again.

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