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A 155,000-acre expanse of forest thriving with diverse habitats can be found in northern Mississippi. Deep within the woodland is a sea of impenetrable kudzu. (Courtesy of Gina Profetto/The Xylom Illustration)

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Perspective: Am I Invasive?

Lush fields unfold under a midday sun, emerald hues glinting off blades of bermudagrass. A swarm of dragonflies ascends into unhurried clouds, indiscernible wings moving back and forth in a mechanical dance, armed with needlelike precision.

I step forward with false bravado, watching a damp carpet of soil cushion my foot. In and out my breath stutters as I force myself to move, my tunnel-­vision sight trained on a thicket of trees a couple hundred yards ahead. Old bottles and faded pieces of trash litter the ground I walk upon, evidence of the humans who continue to invade this ecosystem flashing in my peripheral view. 


My destination is a plot of oaks, an untamed haven bordering a nature reserve and a bustling freeway, just outside of Athens, Georgia. Woven within the wild expanse of greenery is a timeless relic, a bewildering being enshrouded in over a century of magic and mystery. 

Here will mark my first up-­close encounter with kudzu — ­a bristly, leafy vine famed in the American South for its propensity to smother other plants at an unparalleled pace. Its lasting influence on popular culture can be traced back to the twentieth century. Ever since, the “vine that ate the South” has been immortalized in poems, books, movies, and nursery rhymes. 

I have no way of knowing if the stories about kudzu’s thirst for destruction and unstoppable growth are spun from threads of truth. What I understand about the tickings of the terrestrial biome I find myself in is limited to the musings and recollections of those who came before me. 


Firsthand accounts chronicling daring expeditions into old-­growth forests and epic showdowns with grizzly bears line my bookshelves back home. A soothing monologue voices over dreamlike moving pictures capturing the perennial dance between predators and prey; images melding with underwater footage drenched in enhanced colors as courageous explorers spend a year tracking a wild octopus off a South African coast or documenting the rapid decline of coral reefs in the Caribbean. Set amidst green palaces and aquatic realms, these recordings of others’ adventures are all I know of the wild: the nearly one-­quarter of the planet’s terrestrial surface unharmed by human activities.

Beyond those reports is nothing but my incandescent imagination, where a war wordlessly wages within. One part of me desires a stronger connection with nature — while the other ferociously fears it.

It’s this precipice I stand before, my perceptions of this environment vanishing into an impenetrable fog. A hologram of despair rises slowly from the forested floor as I continue roving ahead, pulse ricocheting as my phobias threaten to swallow me whole. Those days of finding comfort and stability in the sheltered, carefully structured human ecosystem I grew up in are but a memory. There, I watched the world come alive from indoors, every interaction within my control. Here, wildlife roams freely on every visible surface —­ and in many hidden ones. 

This domain I am walking into is entirely unfamiliar. Like a bottlenose dolphin that’s strayed too far from its pod, I feel exposed, as if I were navigating strange waters swarming with apex predators. I have no semblance of power in this uncharted space. 

My dread has gripped me in a chokehold, overruling my ability to be calm and collected in this untamed thicket. Caught in a conflicting wave of apprehension and curiosity, here in Georgia’s Oconee Forest Park, I am hundreds of miles from the concrete jungle I call home. All in pursuit of one impressionable vine.


 


Where I grew up, swaths of kudzu reigned supreme. Driving along any number of interstates in Florida meant witnessing an overabundance of the perennial weed, found everywhere from Tallahassee to Miami, draped languidly over trees dotted along roadways, open fields, and abandoned buildings. As familiar and forgettable as a palm frond, kudzu is as synonymous with the South as Spanish moss—­the only other plant commonly spotted enveloping everything from train tracks to powerlines. But I was never drawn to Spanish moss —­ another aesthetically compelling invasive —­ the same way I gravitated toward kudzu and its towering leafy palaces. 

Perhaps it was personal. While I was raised to live in fear of the unmapped plots of nature’s playground, what struck me about the proverbial vine was the story embedded within it. For years, the plant has danced under an American limelight, as a sweeping fixture of southern culture. It wasn’t long before I was hooked on the antiquated fables once whispered at twilight, warning of one plant’s superhuman-­like strength or the way it smothered anything unlucky enough to stray into its path of vengeance. What drew me to kudzu was the way it was humanized —­ how one prodigious little vine morphed into a daunting creature that eventually ate an entire geographic region. An influence that has withstood the test of time. 

How could we ascribe such fantastical qualities to one weed? Could this noteworthy shift in cultural perception have something to do with the plant’s distant origins? And what might this say about the American relationship with racial and ethnic diversity, with this country’s condemnation of plants —­ and people —­ with roots from elsewhere?

From there, I fell headfirst in love, as the muse that sowed the seeds of these harrowing visions burrowed into my soul, begging to be investigated beyond these one-­dimensional characterizations. I began to wonder: How could we ascribe such fantastical qualities to one weed? Could this noteworthy shift in cultural perception have something to do with the plant’s distant origins? And what might this say about the American relationship with racial and ethnic diversity, with this country’s condemnation of plants —­ and people —­ with roots from elsewhere?

Perhaps that dichotomy is what first truly attracted me to the narrative of a noxious weed. After all, kudzu’s war with cultural perception in the States is something I identify with. A second-generation American, I grew up in a household where Asian traditions mixed with Mediterranean ones, several languages were spoken freely, and diverse cultures blended, producing racially ambiguous results. 

When I was just a kid in a sea of youthful peers blissfully void of prejudice, being unique was a novelty. My skin, my hair, my eyes — each were distinct parts of me that were praised, and sometimes coveted. It was even deemed darling the way I confused other languages for English, a habit I had picked up unknowingly. But with time comes wisdom. Or at least a candid awareness. The older I got, the more the reception to the things that set me apart soured, like a flame violet left to the mercy of the unruly sun. 

People began commenting on the distinction of my look, as assumptions were leveled at my backstory. They’d ask: “Where are you really from?” Strangers balked at pronouncing my name: “Wait, how do I say that?” People I considered allies even started pointing out the way my mom spoke: “What a strong accent she has!” 

Perhaps, in reality, nothing had changed, and all of those things had always been staples of my existence, simple byproducts of what it means to live in a nation as inherently anti-­immigrant as this one, but with each year of life, I began to grasp how they ostracized me from the rest. Perhaps I just became more observant of the strands separating my peers and myself — ­differences that had always been there, simmering below the surface.

Maybe it’s the consequence of being treated like a consequence. Much like kudzu, the former pulsing heart of a green, southern kingdom, I felt as if I was diminished and criminalized by the very living descendants of communities that had once welcomed the arrival of those similar to me. It’s hard not to see parts of myself reflected in the stand of kudzu I stand before. First embraced, then shunned, and eventually accepted with lasting disregard. Unable to escape the otherness that brands us—­the ones from distant places. But still thriving, against all odds, labels, and unjust expectations.


 

Once beloved, then feared, and eventually just tolerated, kudzu can be found nearly everywhere across the American South. Populations have long persisted in Florida, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Louisiana, Kentucky, Virginia, Mississippi, and Oklahoma. Although it has been part of the natural topography in one American region known for its dense wetlands and unforgiving humidity, plots of land engulfed in the legendary plant have been spotted as far north as the rocky coastlines of British Columbia and as far west as the desert landscape in Nevada. Its influence on the ecosystems it arrives in spreads far and wide. 

It’s hard not to see parts of myself reflected in the stand of kudzu I stand before. First embraced, then shunned, and eventually accepted with lasting disregard. Unable to escape the otherness that brands us — ­the ones from distant places. But still thriving, against all odds, labels, and unjust expectations.

But kudzu’s real power is in the way it thrives in our collective consciousness, the way this vine with origins in East Asia has been swallowed up and remade into an American narrative, a Southern storyline. It remains a symbol of a region it once enthralled, deployed by some as a way to “other” communities that they believe do not belong. To many, it is a curse of mortality driven by the harbinger of devastation to the natural world, an enduring legacy as the “vine that ate the South.” For a select few, it has begun to morph into something else entirely. In its roots, a network of people sees a chance at redemption and an opportunity to remedy a fragment of troubled history.

Set in the South, but starring characters spread out across a nation, this is a tale of cause and effect, as well as danger and downfall. It features a peculiar cast: an ecologist, a farmer, an architect, a chef, an influencer, a doctor, an author, a biologist, an entrepreneur, a forager, an entomologist, a historian, an analyst, a teacher, an artist, a scientist, and an engineer. The list stretches on, as long as an unbridled kudzu root trailing into tropical soils. All hail from different parts of the globe. All represent different cultures, languages, and perspectives. All are linked by one perpetually ascending, voracious vine.

From architecture teams using it as a building material in pursuit of a low-­carbon supply chain to clinical applications treating binge drinking and restaurants even serving it as delicacies, these pages will bring to life the ways kudzu is being wielded across the US. By detangling the complicated dimensions of one country’s relationship with kudzu, this story deciphers how the plant has evolved with the passage of time, as well as what we know about the impacts of climate change on its boundless presence. It bears witness to the remarkable ways public perception of kudzu has morphed — ­as the people living in terrains overrun by the vine have bounced between embracing its abundance and fighting to destroy it.

With little understood about one of the most notorious invasive weeds in southern history, a lack of knowledge that compounds with the heightening polarizing rhetoric on otherness in America, there’s never been a more opportune time to look more closely at an emblematic vine a long way from home. What lies between these pages is the unbelievable record stemming from kudzu — ­the lives, traditions, and communities it brought together and those it seamlessly wrenched apart. It is a chronicle following one weed’s culturally chaotic journey from southern celebrity to American castaway and the people behind its undoing.

By detangling the complicated dimensions of one country’s relationship with kudzu, this story bears witness to the remarkable ways public perception of kudzu has morphed — ­as the people living in terrains overrun by the vine have bounced between embracing its abundance and fighting to destroy it.

This is a narrative of belonging, outsiders and insiders, and the path from universal acceptance to undesirability. It is a deeply reported tale of mystery, an investigation into the past, present, and future of a quintessential plant. This is a story of sacrifice —­ an account of the ways a nation turned its back on those that did not belong. It is a saga of intrigue —­ a dive into the farthest reaches and darkest depths of the landscapes housing the many species we fight to control. At last, this is an ode to the earth around us, a quest for meaning in today’s imperiled world.

All found woven within kudzu’s luminous, leafy vines.


 


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Ayurella Horn-Muller

Based in Florida, Ayurella is an award-winning journalist and the author of "Devoured: The Extraordinary Story of Kudzu, the Vine That Ate the South". She has written for CNN, National Geographic, The Atlantic, The Guardian, NPR, USA TODAY, and PBS NewsHour, among other publications. Reach her at www.ayurella.com.

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