Tuesday, August 18, 2015


They're not what they seem, these giant plants that have sprouted under water, creatures from the green lagoon, growing fast to mammoth proportions on whatever the earth gives them.

Each morning now I must swim over them — sometimes through them — because they ring the shoal around the boat launch at the upper end of my beloved Lake Natoma.

They have made of themselves a vegetative atoll, their many, many bunchy fronds glowing and waving beneath me, wreathing my arms with theirs as I climb and chop over one bush, then dart between two more, huffing and puffing and writhing to find deeper barren water.

It takes a minute to swim through their gauntlet. Their bulk darkens the dark waters. When the water suddenly turns to night, I know a bush hulks ahead, and to zig or zag around it if I can. I don't relax and ease into a rhythm until I'm almost to the other side of the narrow lake.

It makes no sense to me that the bushes flourish around the boat launch, where human traffic is heaviest — not just me, of course, but putt-putt fishing boats and recreational and racing kayaks and canoes and rowing shells and big slobbering dogs and little slobbering children.

But if ducks and geese won't scurry under all that traffic, neither would these plants, I suppose. Fowl are pooping their seeds where they hang out, I suppose, and the plants get a boost from the poop and the sun seeping through the warming water.

A few years ago we swimmers simply dubbed them "big scary plants," a seasonal rite of passage. They all but disappear in winter. In this unusually warm, dry summer, they have grown boldly, the tips of some bushes rising through the water's surface.

A swimmer on my favorite facebook®™© suggested "triffids," after venomous and mobile plants from a John Wyndham science fiction novel and subsequent movie adaptations.

But I know their real name now, and I feel different.

One morning last week I grabbed a rising stem and pulled. It snapped so delicately that it practically jumped into my hand. I was going to photograph and use the Internet to identify it.

It wasn't what I expected. Out of the water it was a limp reddish tube on which hung dozens of thin dark green tubules. They clung weak and thin to the reddish stem by the tension of the water, as if desperate for protection.

In the water the little tubules spread full and dense, seeming to lift and float the stems in bright green glowing clouds, their edges indeterminate but their bodies thick and foreboding.

Milfoil, it's called. I know only because I'd heard the name months before and dismissed it. I was sure it was hydrilla or hydrangea, the carcasses of which I had seen in spring, ringing beaches.

I Googled®™ and voila! Milfoil. Eurasian milfoil, probably, an invasive species.

They exist because of water, full and robust, their tiny fronds billowing and spreading, because of the water. They are not meant for land; they are limp and almost invisible on land.

Kind of like myself.

In the water, I am always present; I must be. The water envelops me, requiring my attention, needing me to be mindful of temperature and density and current, of the streaks of cold which my feet occasionally touch. I cannot take it for granted. I float and glow in the water. I'm sure other swimmers share this feeling.

On land sometimes I feel unsteady and less, somehow. Not always, just sometimes. Not present, not needing to. Distracted. Unmindful.

I know these plants now. They are not scary.

I will miss them come winter.

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