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A Modern Greek Saga: Sisyphus and the Ivy

Some causes just seem hopeless some days. Like world peace. Or ending poverty. Or in a different vein, getting rid of non-native plants.

But you've no doubt met people who insist on tackling intractable problems here locally and around the world. One particularly dedicated fellow wages a solo fight each weekday morning against English ivy.

Most of us have a workday morning routine. For some, a stop at the gym comes first. For others, it's two cups of coffee over the sports pages. In Olympia, teacher Kevin Head rises long before dawn on school days to go alone to a city park.

"Giving service to the forest"

There, his routine begins by asking the rampant ivy vines for forgiveness.

Volunteer Kevin Head clears ivy in the pre-dawn darkness.
Credit Tom Banse / Northwest News Network
Northwest News Network

"Thank you ivy for your tenaciousness, your strength," he says. "I ask you to let me take you out for the benefit of the world here."

And then Head leans down with gloved hands and rips and yanks as much ivy as he can slay for the next half hour.

The 56-year-old works by the light of a single headlamp. Pretty much anything he grabs in this grove of big leaf maples is bound to be ivy.

"Ivy all through here," Head says. "All down to the bay, all through the trees in there..."

Head says he was inspired to action nearly three years ago by a guest speaker in his classroom. The topic was invasive plants.

"I just said I need to use some of my time to give service to the forest that I love and to bring back a little bit for the native plants and the native birds."

This task reminds me of the Greek myth about Sisyphus, the cruel king who was condemned for eternity to push a huge stone uphill only to see it roll back down every time. Head says he relates more to the kid in "The Star Thrower." That is a children's story in which a boy and his father come upon thousands of starfish washed ashore on a beach.

"The little boy takes a starfish and throws it into the water. And the dad says, 'Why you doing that? There are so many, it's not going to help.' The little boy says, 'Well it helped that one.' And that is the idea."

Overwhelming ... but winnable

Oregon and Washington classify English ivy as a lower priority noxious weed statewide - in part because eradication on a landscape scale just seems hopeless. Responsibility for combating ivy generally filters to the local level.

Land owners in the Northwest typically take the approach described here by Sylvana Niehuser, the City of Olympia's park ranger.

"English ivy has a waxy property to the leaves. So spraying is not very effective at all," she explains. "You can't mow it because it is just a tangle-ly mess. So you are left with manual control by pulling it."

Niehuser figures it could take decades -- if not a century -- to pull all the ivy in Priest Point Park alone where Kevin Head volunteers.

"It can be overwhelming when you look at it overall."

But she says the battle is winnable when you set your sights on smaller plots and saving individual trees. "So we try to focus on prioritizing in large parks like this," says Niehuser. "Then in our small parks, we try to work on getting it completely eradicated."

Credit Oregon Dept. of Agriculture/ Washington Dept. of Agriculture
Oregon Dept. of Agriculture/ Washington Dept. of Agriculture

Niehuser mostly relies on volunteers for ivy control in Olympia parks because of staff cutbacks and tight budgets. Same story elsewhere in western Washington and western Oregon where escaped ivy is pervasive. The infestation peters out as soon as you cross the Cascade Crest into the more arid Inland Northwest.

Volunteer army

Oregon is home to one of the biggest and oldest anti-ivy campaigns in the country.

"One thing that stands out is how much square feet of ivy we have removed," says Mary Verrilli, manager of the No Ivy League, a program within the Portland Parks & Recreation Department.

"This is ivy from the ground. It's been over 4 million square feet of ivy. It's really impressive to see these stats since 1994."

Which is when the No Ivy League started. The non-native vines have had a big head start. Botanical researchers believe English ivy was introduced to the Northwest by early settlers, probably before 1890.

Super-volunteer Kevin Head says he's committed to his ivy pulling routine at least until he retires later this decade. One thing that keeps him going is the pleasure of seeing native plants and birds return.

"I can only get about 10 square feet a day," says Head. "But it is thrilling to see it start to uncover."

Tom Banse covers national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reports from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events are unfolding. Tom's stories can be found online and heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.