Vine Intervention

Vine Intervention

During the height of the shutdown in 2020, Chris Ozyck, a landscape practitioner and the associate director of the Urban Resources Initiative, began thinking, If I only have so much time on this planet, what do I want to be working on? His answer was “the bittersweet problem.” Bittersweet is a rapidly growing invasive vine that, along with others like multiflora rose and porcelain, pulls down trees. Each toppled tree means less natural beauty, less habitat for wildlife and less storage and capture of carbon.

Ozyck could see the destruction along highways and in city parks. He decided to cut some bittersweet every day in 2021 and began documenting his clipping habit on Instagram. Being out in the woods while helping the environment felt especially good during the pandemic. He wanted to share that feeling, while educating and empowering others to protect New Haven’s tree canopy, and started engaging with community groups all over the city—at Beaver Pond, Edgewood Park, Fairmont Park and East Rock Park. People showed up eager to learn, help the local environment, and socialize outdoors and distanced.

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On a recent Saturday morning, Ozyck and Friends of East Rock, a volunteer group with ties to the URI’s Community Greenspace program, were doing just that where the park borders Cedar Hill and the Mill River. A group of first-time and long-term volunteers first gathered in a circle to discuss the whys and hows of devining. One why: Invasive vines drive out native ones, which has wider impacts. We learned, for example, that the primary foodstuff cardinals feed their babies are the larvae of moths that eat Virginia creeper, a noninvasive vine that grows on local trees. Invasive vines, in contrast, host many fewer insects—and not the ones cardinals need—which leads to a decrease in the local bird population. (Devining is only done in the winter months when birds aren’t nesting.)

Because trees take what invasives need to thrive—sunlight, water and nutrients—a healthy tree canopy resists invasive plants. But even the healthiest canopies are vulnerable at their edges where people—or the Mill River, in this case—tend to be. As we walked toward one such edge with clippers, loppers and saws, Ozyck pointed out how it’s often hard to see individual trees because they’re so enveloped. It can also be hard to reach them, with volunteers frequently having to clip back thickets of multiflora rose vines—smaller, thornier—and stomp those into the ground. The bittersweet is then cut away at both ground and eye level, the vines left hanging to gradually decompose and attract more insects before dropping to the forest floor. This stops the bittersweet’s seed cycle, prevents smaller vines from using it as a ladder and usually requires just a minimal second clipping the following year.

As volunteers dispersed, chatting, through the woods, Ozyck tied pink ribbons around native hickory and oak trees and used spray paint to mark large bittersweet vines that can look like trees to the untrained eye. White oaks are one of Ozyck’s favorite trees as “they support between 1,200 to 1,500 species.” Everyone spent the next couple of hours getting to know each other, trying out various tools and freeing trees. The work was immediately rewarding, especially with our new knowledge that one 30-inch-diameter tree traps the amount of carbon that an average person would use in a day.

When our morning session ended, everyone walked out of the woods looking happier and more relaxed. David Schimchick, the leader of Friends of East Rock, conferred with Ozyck about other tasks needing doing in the park. Earlier, one of the first-time volunteers, Gerri Mauhs, had remarked that she was going to tell her pastor, “I participated in devine intervention.” While the term “devining” is amusing, it’s becoming the mainstream word for all work centered around removing invasive vines.

The next time you go by Rice Field, look toward the Mill River. There you can see sections of woods before and after devining. Volunteer sessions are open for signup throughout the city, and—who knows?—the idea of becoming part of the solution to “the bittersweet problem” might just grow on you.

Written and photographed by Heather Jessen. Image 1 features Chris Ozyck among white oak and bittersweet.

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