Flash News from Milwaukee
Most people in New York, where I grew up, and Maryland, where I went to college, have never been to Wisconsin, and don’t know much about it.
Some confuse it with Minnesota, others believe it’s the capital of Saskatchewan. One friend mentioned exile to the steppes, and offered to write the Tsar for a pardon.
Most visualize Life In The Land of Bland – – a monochromatic, mayo-white-bread place, awash in Schlitz, bratwurst, jello salad, Sons of Norway lodges, and endless “Laverne & Shirley” re-runs. And cheese. “Processed American Cheese Food,” that yellowish stuff the Dept of Agriculture is always stockpiling in Area 51 warehouses and old missile silos.
Yeah, Milwaukee does have its share of bland – smiling but reserved Midwesterners, making guarded, ambiguous comments – but the city is also a lively, interesting, multicultural place, and a great place to find good food. A vibrant, diverse, “minority-majority” town – comprised not just of German/English/Irish stock, but Polish, Hispanic/Latino, African-American, Asian (especially Hmong), Persians, Arabs, Syrians, Serbs, Scandinavians, etc. They host one of the biggest Native American gatherings every year.
And I was happy to find there are a least a few people of Greek and Italian descent, and some Mediterranean-style eating places. You may have seen the Greek flags waving in the stands, since Giannis Antetokounmpo started playing for the Bucks.
So while the city has all the usual delivery and ride-hailing services – Uber, Lyft, Grubhub, etc. – the ride service I use is staffed entirely by Greek and Italian immigrants. And it changes its name weekly.
In its first incarnation, it was Quicksilver Messenger Service, but that was already taken, by a hippie band in the ‘60’s. So the next week, it was Mercruiser, but that’s the outboard motor company in Fond du Lac. Then MoussakaKar, followed by Quo Vadis, Dude?, Ben Hur’ry, ToGaToGo, and currently, Bona Fide Ride.
Saturday, I was starving for Greek food – gyros, souvlaki, and the local classic, Spam-ikopita – and kept chanting under my breath, “I wanna go to Golden Acropolis,” and somehow summoned this weird old driver, Hermès. He skidded to the curb in a beat-up old Zephyr, once silver-colored, and he had this whole Mercury theme going, wearing a cap with little wings on it.
He jumped out with an Olympus point-and-shoot, mouth going a-mile-a-minute.
“A quick snapshot of each passenger, my memory is fleeting, c’mon, jump in, your chariot awaits and all that, you can call me Hermes, Quicksilver, whatever, just don’t call me Freddy Mercury, alright?”
There were little wings on his sandals, too.
I figured he must be from Minneapolis.
He popped a Styx 8-track in the player, put his foot down, and his bucket of bolts peeled out. I heard Sirens wailing, but we made it to the gyro place faster than was humanly possible.
He waved off the tip, “Save it for the ferryman, at my age, I don’t need drachmas, I don’t need drama, I don’t need…” and off he went, like a silvery streak of extra-virgin-olive-oil-greased lightning.
Yeah, I’m just gonna take the bus next time.
But I recognized him, of course. Hermes/Mercury, The Messenger. A lot of the old Greco-Roman gods, semi-retired now, live around Brady St, or the Shorewood area of Milwaukee. Tzatziki sauce and lightning storms all over that neighborhood.
Ceres has a vegan place called “Ancient Grains,” Vulcan has forged a chain of body shops. Bacchus tried opening a wine bar (dude, in Milwaukee?), went broke, and I think is in rehab somewhere. Hermes opened a seafood place with another guy, but “Neptune & Mercury Fish” didn’t go over well for some reason.
I was surprised to see Hermes just driving around, especially with a V8 getting 12 mpg, but he told me, yeah, he’s the Patron of Thieves, Liars, and Tricksters, but his Titanic success in Washington had actually scared him a bit. “I’m not really a bad guy, just kinda fickle, y’know, mercurial, who needs The Messenger when everyone’s texting, right now I’m focused on Auto-Mobiles and Transporting…”
A real live wire. But riding shotgun in the cab, was some glum, totally boring type, humming tunelessly, that I didn’t recognize. At home, I looked for him in my Big Book of Forgotten Deities, riffling through a whole horde of lesser Greek & Roman gods, demi-gods, heroes, satyrs, etc.
After a half-hour, I’d gotten as far as Hypnos, the somnolent god of sleep, and his semi-famous sons, Morpheus & Phantasos, the gods of dreams – – at least a nodding acquaintance for most people.
Hypnos had literally a thousand other offspring – – one thousand kids to keep in sandals, he’d say, and they had to share their birthday parties – – always joint affairs at Chuck-E Cheese, to save money. And then, in a photo from one of the parties, skulking in the corner, with no one talking to him, was the guy from the ride:
Phragmites, The God of Monotony.
Hypnos can make us sleep, Morpheus & Phantasos can shape our dreams, but Phragmites is so very dull, he can induce a coma.
And I realized, as if waking from a dream, that’s what I wanted to write about today.
Phragmites australis, a/k/a common reeds, are now everywhere.
You may wonder, along with countless screaming Argonauts, why did I wander
so far into the weeds,
to just talk about reeds
Yeah, it’s a ridiculous segue, but honestly, I cannot hear Phragmites without thinking it’s some sort of Greco-Roman hero. One that fights Hydras, or at least Hydrilla.
(So, just to be clear, this is a segue, not a digression, ok? I’m not digressing anymore. It would be cool to work a Segway in here, as a modern-day chariot for Mercury, but that would be a digression.)
I am seeing phragmites everywhere. Ponds, marshes, ditches, drainage swales, unused parking lots, etc. – – it’s like hearing Justin Bieber songs on the radio, why is this reedy crap everywhere I go? Chesapeake Bay, all around upstate NY, and now in Wisconsin.
There are several varieties of these reeds, including one native to the eastern U.S., but the ones I’m talking about are aggressive and invasive. The native plants are not a problem. They mix, they mingle, they get along well with the other plants.
The invasive strain, which can spread ten feet in a summer, crushes diversity, crowding out cattails and other native marsh plants, and forms dense, pretty much lifeless thickets.
Just like some of the talking heads on TV, you ask yourself, how can anything this monotonous, dull, and boring, be so successful at taking over?
They poison the neighbors.
This is called “allelopathy” and you probably already know that. I’d heard about this tactic, because there’s black walnut trees all over New York, and you’re always told, don’t try growing a garden anywhere near them. But the walnut trees seem to practice restraint, because often there’s ferns etc. , thriving all around their trunks, and anyways, the nuts are delicious.
The invasive phragmites seem to be much more zealous – – the plant equivalent of Assad, pursuing total war with chemical attacks. They poison and disintegrate neighboring plants, and I’ve seen cattails, for example, be eliminated from some small marshes in just a few years.
Here’s a good succinct article:
University of Delaware. “Invasive Plant Secretes Acid To Kill Nearby Plants And Spread.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 15 October 2007. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/10/071012084128.htm>.
And how to tell the native vs invasive reeds:
Monocultures, whether it’s farming, fields, or woodlands, are a problem. There are marshes overrun with purple loosestrife, and others with nothing but these reeds. Some woods in the Finger Lakes now have nothing but garlic mustard as the undergrowth.
Now, “The Naturian” blog just listed some recipes for garlic mustard pesto, so there’s a positive, and you can certainly find beauty, and a kind of calming music, in a rustling thicket of reeds.
It’s the lack of balance that’s the issue. A lot of things beginning with “mono” kind of stink, if you think about it. Monotonous, monopolize, monotone, “Kissing disease,” monocles, etc. Gardeners tell me that monocots are OK, but I prefer a regular size bed. There’s wonderful monotone of course, B&W photography, but a lot of the time, I’m hungry for color, kind of a Kodachrome guy, makes you think all the world’s a sunny day.
I hope I’m not being too subtle, so >here’s another segue< . (I heard that Barry Manilow song “Copacabana” and at some point, he yells out “Key change!” so I guess it’s ok to announce a segue.) It’s a pretty obvious analogy here today. Monocultures are boring, whether it’s in cities or wetlands, and it’s not good for you, it poisons the land.
I grew up around marshes full of iris, ferns, Joe-Pye weed, arrowhead, cattails, salamanders & sycamores, willows, pussy willows & winterberry, redwing blackbirds, egrets, milkweed & muskrats – – and I don’t enjoy going back to find a expanse of unbroken, lifeless, dun-colored boredom. And then moving 500 miles west, and finding the same dreary reeds have spread here, too.
Life should be a variety show. There’s something wonderful and stimulating about places with a teeming mix of plants and animals, people and cultures. A complex mosaic, not the dull monotonous prosaic. I like to hear new music, sample fantastic new foods, maybe learn a few new words, or even new ideas. Hear the full orchestra, not just the reeds. I’m happy to live in a town enlivened by immigrants, old-time and new.
But what’s to be done about these pesky plants? I’m in talks with Mercury about a food delivery “Pesto Presto” and already lined up some guys in Parks & Recreation to start yanking the garlic mustard. The reeds, I guess if Washington succeeds in returning us to the Dark Ages, we’ll be glad to have materials for thatched huts.
49 thoughts on “Mercury & Poisoning”
From the praise of multiculturalism to the lament over the destructive influence of monocultures – a great post, Robert!
Thank you, Peter!
I have often thought they would make admirable building material. I did not know they poison their neighbors. I have good news and bad news for you…Here, in our forest preserves, the garlic mustard is mysteriously disappearing. Years of volunteer workdays pulling it had limited results but suddenly this year, it is in retreat. We’re not sure why. And for the loosestrife, we’ve imported a beetle that eats it, and only it. It will die before eating native loosestrife. At least, so far. So now we get to enjoy the purple wands waving in our wetlands, confident they can no longer get the upper hand. I don’t know whether the beetles have spread to Wisconsin. They may need help getting past the cheese curtain.
We learned about phragmites in one of my garden design classes. It seems humans at some point thought it would be a swell plant in Europe, and so sent it over there. I don’t remember the details but somewhere along the way it became triploid. Or quadriploid, even? Don’t remember. I just remember it is now literally a freak of nature and pretty much unstoppable. Also, there is buckthorn. It also poisons its neighbors. It even takes out amphibians! Oh and don’t forget reed canary grass. I foresee a future where these three thugs are all that’s left to duke it out among themselves.
If you venture down this way, you’ll see some wonderful preserves bursting with diversity. They are maintained by the forest preserve staff and an army of volunteers. I do worry, because the volunteers are aging fast and we are beginning to lose them. I believe the WDNR is doing good work up in your area as well but I’m not as familiar with it.
I’m pretty sure this variety of phragmites is the one they use for thatched roofs in Europe. I like your description as The Three Thugs. I have seen a ton of buckthorn around the Finger Lakes, for some time, but it took a long time before I realized it wasn’t a variety of hawthorn, and then someone confused me by calling it Inkberry, which is a different plant altogether. Well I’m really glad to hear the garlic mustard is retreating somewhere, even if it screws up my imaginary Pesto Presto plans!
Pesto Presto is a practically perfect project, I agree. There have been some attempts to make furniture out of buckthorn.
Wow, Melissa, I wish I had thought of that sentence, great alliteration! It’s too bad the buckthorn berries are toxic, there’s always a lot of them, but that’s interesting about using the wood.
Rhamnus cathartica is the latin for one of the species we have here. I seem to remember a story of the berries being used as a prank on others in early days….
Wisconsin as the capital of Saskatchewan: now that’s funny. You may also know that many Americans confuse the three states with vowelly names taken from Indian languages: Iowa, Idaho, and Ohio—and for all I know, people in each one of those may mix up the other two. If the three merged to form Ohidowa that might end the confusion, assuming anyone could remember how to spell the new name.
I think that’s pretty catchy! O-Hi-Do-Wa, I like it!
Love this post, Robert! Great fun to read it.
I could really do with an AirB&B (beer & bratwurst by drone) here! 😉
Have a great weekend,
Thanks, Pit! Yes, especially sometimes on a walk, or bicycling away from town, wouldn’t it be great to get a drone delivery like that?!
That’s for sure! 😀
Big Book of Forgotten Deities : I thought that I was the only one with a copy of this tome!
Great post Robert!
Thank you! A little bit weird but I hope a little bit fun
After reading this post, I think I need a new screen name — “Breathless in Brazoria” might do it. The post was like a ride in Hermès’s modern day, souped-up velocipede; thank goodness he wasn’t a veloci-rapper, although that would have added to the variety. I laughed at the line, ” “I wanna go to Golden Acropolis.” It reminded me of the old, old joke: “What’s the favorite wine in New York?” “I wanna go to Miami.”
I was interested in your comments about the buckthorn. It must be a different species from ours. We have Carolina buckthorn (Frangula caroliniana) which is native, and not at all a problem. I didn’t find Phragmites australis on the Texas state list of invasive plants, but I did find Arundo donax, which sounds exactly like what you’ve described. Maybe the taxonomists have been busy again.
This weekend’s the Greek Festival in Houston. I’m not going into town for it, but I might stop by our local Greek café for some Dolmadakia and Galactorbouriko — a custard made in house and out of this world. Have you tried the avgolemono yet? You know the old saying: if life gives you lemons, make avgolemono!
No, I haven’t found the avgolemono yet, but I found a great Italian restaurant/deli/store, and hooked on their homemade tomato-cream sauce. I really like “veloci-rapper” that sounds like the basis for a good dinosaur story!
As for the common reed, I found the following in Wikipedia: “In North America, the status of Phragmites australis was a source of confusion and debate. It was commonly considered an exotic species and often invasive species, introduced from Europe. However, there is evidence of the existence of Phragmites as a native plant in North America long before European colonization of the continent. It is now known that the North American native forms of P. a. subsp. americanus are markedly less vigorous than European forms. The recent marked expansion of Phragmites in North America may be due to the more vigorous, but similar-looking European subsp. australis.”
The stuff really has become omnipresent, like a bad sci-fi movie
I will sleep better knowing that a thatched roof is still a possibility when preparing for the Dark Ages. And btw I think the Dark Ages are much closer than we like to think!
Thank you, Anne, I’ll miss planes, electricity, and antibiotics, but a thatched cottage really is very appealing
Well…today as I am driving on the 8 lane freeway into Toronto what do I see…..phragmites! And on our two lane road driving to the barn, passing a large boggy area …phragmites and all along the grass verge little clusters of them. This plant is a wolf in sheep’s clothing disguising itself as an ornamental grass of some sort. However….there is plenty of material for thatching!!
It seems to be everywhere, at least in the Northeast. At least we’ll have a roof over our heads!
In case you didn’t realize, I wish to point out that you are absolutely nuts! More! More! I want more!
Haha 😆 thanks Michael. Yes I was diagnosed years ago.
It’s actually quite wonderful.
There’s a hypothesis that the words mercantile, merchant, and commerce developed from the same linguistic root found in Mercury. Mercury was, after all, the Roman god of commerce and communication.
That rang a bell. I just added a photo (from the Library of Congress) of the statues on Grand Central “The Glory of Commerce”
As entertaining as ever Robert. Indeed, a great reed!
Haha, I wish I’d thought of that pun! Thank you, Denzil, nice to hear from you, hope all is well.
Yes Robert, all fine here. Usual freelance challenges!
Glad to hear it. I’m getting ready for our busiest time at work, no vacations during the summer, so feeling a bit envious of freelancers. 🙂
Wow, you were wonderfully all over the place and at first I read the title in my notification and came to a totally, I thought, unrelated article until the riffs filled in the gap. This was a great read and your sense of humor shines throughout.
I am pretty sure I’ve mentioned my dislike of mono-cultures, whether the human kind, or the lawn kind, or the meadow kind, or the forest kind, or for that matter any kind.
We’ve our own spots of phragmites and, this was a leaning moment for me, their poisoning of competitors seems sadly very successful.
Thanks for commenting, Steve, yeah, this was kind of a crazy post. I don’t know what’s going to happen with the phragmites invasion – -the only control I see mentioned is hand-digging, and, not to sound defeatist, but that seems like an overwhelmingly massive task. I guess if you catch it early at a particular marsh, and then police the area, it’s do-able.
So many introduced invasives. We shouldn’t be messing with our environment. Mother Nature knows best.
So much food for thought here. Being that it’s my dinner time, I kinda got stuck on whether I should start praying to pizza dieties…
May the goddess Margherita Pomodora grant you two free toppings.
That was quite the ramble through the bramble. A read through the reeds. A salve from boredom, reading with a Mercury-Chrome browser. A story of the Godly pursuing ungodly pursuits. An ode to winging it. Something I couldn’t possibly Pan. 😉
Haha, thanks Dave! That’s a pretty neat collection of puns right there!
Several years ago we got cooped up in a Podunk airport motel after a high flighttimes fiasco and it turned out Styx was staying just down the hall from us. The morning we left they were observed shuffling out to their tour bus. Think they were headed up to Traverse City to play the Cherry Blossom Festival. We’ve got all the horsetail you could ever want. Some gardeners think it’s flat-out the end of the world. It’s easy to admire in the forest, though. It’ll get waist high around here and it’s not difficult to imagine what it must have been like during the time of the dinosaurs. Your essay brings to mind the out-of-control Bishop’s weed in my next door neighbor’s backyard, it’s threating march continues down the slope into my own and if you want to talk about a monoculture……there we’ll have one!
Splendid, smart essay, Robert. For what it’s worth, I always look forward to your brilliantly serpentine, playful segues. They’re part of the charm for this thunderheaded dolt.
I had to look up Bishop’s Weed, but recognize it as “Snow on the Mountain,” I’ve seen it as a groundcover, but it doesn’t seem to have gotten too out of hand in upstate NY, or at least, not that I’ve noticed so far. Thanks for the kind words on my “essay,” I think “wild swerves” may be more accurate than “segues” but maybe someday an actual pattern will emerge.
OK, I’m breathless! I just don’t know what to say, but your segue-laden prose delights me. If you go to the north side of Grand Central, the old Helmsley Building still stands, and has a similar clock and statue sculpture to the one you show above. Originally the New York Central Building, it was a wonderful sight from Park Avenue in the 50’s, especially before the PanAm Building went up. Anyway, Mercury is there again, to the left of the clock, and just behind his head was my grandfather’s office. (We called him Daddygramp) That’s where I first stared in awe and wonder at NYC traffic – all the yellow cabs – at the age of five. We were visiting from Syracuse. You could see the wings on Mercury’s head outside the window….and so much more. I fell in love and went back to live there as soon as I could, which was thirteen years later. Thought you’d like that bit of personal history triggered by your post. 🙂 Thanks again for the mind-boggling entertainment, this foggy Thursday morning.
There it is –
Yes I do like that personal history, very much! How great! One of my grandfathers had an office on Lexington Ave, but he didn’t have a view from Mercury’s head, that’s so cool. There’s a nice statue in Rochester, they put up in the 1880’s on the Kimball tobacco factory, on the river. In the ’50’s, it was stuck in storage, and when they put it back up in the ’70’s, there was a big tsimmis over which neighborhood Mercury’s tush was going to face!
Oh good, glad you enjoyed, and how cool that you too had a grandfather with a midtown office. Oh, good story about which way Mercury faces, using a word I don’t get to hear anymore since moving west. Actually two words! Not too many people ever say tush around here either. I miss the Yiddish expressions, the Italian explosiveness, and the Caribbean lilt and the heart in all three cultures.
I’m always happy to see a Barry Manilow Copacabana reference in a post about Milwaukee, Greek mythology, and monocultures. 🙂 I also think “key change” should be an acceptable and correct transitional word/phrase between paragraphs.
Thank you, Cecilia, and I think Mr. Manilow will be thrilled to know he not only writes the songs, but is rewriting grammar!
I must admit I am one of those who don’t know much about Wisconsin. All the more I enjoyed reading your post. Thanks.
Thank you, Otto. I’m not sure anyone has gained any additional knowledge about Wisconsin, reading my nonsense. 🙂