THE AVERY ISLAND GROVE CLEANUP AND HOW IT GREW
By Ken Ringle
When my parents built their retirement home on Avery Island, La., in 1954, no one in the family gave much thought to the acres of bamboo stretching south from the gully behind the house. In the first place, most of it was a tangled mess one could barely walk through. In the second place, Avery Island is such a magically beautiful place there were always other things to think about: majestic live oaks and snowy egrets to wonder at, alligators and armadillos to chase, ponds to fish and swim in and white tail deer gamboling balletically over the green fields and hillsides.
At the same time, our unconcern seems surprising in retrospect. There was big bamboo in there and my naval officer father had lived in Japan for three years, spoke fluent Japanese and was more than conversant with Japanese culture and the signal place in it occupied by bamboo. Asian art and artifacts had always been part of our homes, many of them featuring bamboo themes. But aside from shaping an occasional planter or fireplace screen from our bamboo (and using it to slipcover a barbed wire pasture fence) he pretty much ignored it, as did we all. We knew almost nothing about it. It was just one of the many exotic plants that peopled the lushly beautiful salt dome in Southwest Louisiana which my mother’s Avery family had owned for more than 150 years.
Shortly before her death, however, Mother divided her 30-acre homesite among her three children. My 10 acres held that mess of bamboo overlooking the fish pond. Thanks a lot, Mom, I said to myself: what will I ever do with that?
Then in the late 1990s, I got a call from a man named Marler Spence who said he understood I owned “the historic grove of Moso bamboo” on Avery Island. I said, well, I owned a grove of bamboo on the east side of Prospect Hill, but I didn’t know how historic it was. Oh, he said, it’s very historic. I’m with the American Bamboo Society and we would like to come clean it up for you.
Impatiently, I told him I was not going to pay anyone to clean up that bamboo, which would be one hell of a job.
“Oh, we wouldn’t accept any money,” he said. “But we’d love it if we could possibly take a little of the bamboo we remove.”
“If you’re going to take a little, you can’t come,” I said. “If you’ll take a lot, you’re more than welcome.” When a dozen or so counter-culture types showed up a few months later and plunged happily into the grove, I turned to some houseguests and shook my head dismissively. “What do those people know about fun?” I asked.
A few hours later the scales fell from my eyes. When Marler led me shyly into the grove to show what he and his workers had done, I was suddenly back in Japan in the sacred groves of Kyoto. Instead of the rat’s nest of tangled culms, I found a graceful path winding through a forest of 60-foot bamboo giants that tonked against each other like wind chimes in the soft spring breeze. I had never noticed the soft blue-green of this particular species of bamboo, or the way the sun dappled the floor through the lacy branches above. I was standing in a cathedral, dumbstruck and spellbound.
Whatever apologies and appreciation I babbled, the one thing I asked I knew could never be answered: How in the world can we ever, EVER repay you?
Marler just smiled knowingly: “You can let us come back next year and do it again.”
Thus was born the annual Avery Island Moso Grove Clearing, one of the celebrated events on the ABS yearly calendar and the seminal highlight of the Louisiana Gulf Coast Chapter. Each year for the past 18, from 25 to 60 bamboo pilgrims from as far away as Maine, Oregon and New Mexico descend on Avery Island to give our 2 ½ acre Moso grove it’s annual rebirth. They have cleaned it up after hurricanes. They have dodged sinkholes. They have come despite storms and drought and hardship at their own homes. And with the beauty they create, my God have they brought joy! Architects and engineers, college professors and farmers, librarians and—for several years—a hard-charging mail-order Russian bride. In 2016 we had Florian Klamer, an agriculture student from Munich. Prof. Fumiyo Iwamatsu from Kokura, Japan was heartbroken to miss the cleanup, but was here the month after to marvel at what’s been done. The Avery Island Grove Cleanup has truly gone international.
Where did this bamboo come from? For that I refer you with great pride to the fine paper my brother Andy delivered to the ABS Convention in New Orleans in 2002. (www.bamboocentral.net/image/EAMcilhennyBamboo.pdf) It tells of the extraordinary work of our extraordinary cousin, E.A. McIlhenny—explorer, ethnologist, botanist, poet, savior of the egret, biologist of the alligator and so much more—in planting some 60 species of bamboo on Avery Island, including my Moso grove, more than a century ago. That’s a great story, but it’s his story.
The story I want to tell is YOUR story: about the priceless gift ABS members have given to Andy, to me and to Avery Island, not just with your labor but with your passion and intellectual elan.
After the first couple of years, Andy said “These people come all this way for this. Shouldn’t we organize a meal for them?” So we did, and that became two meals, one before the cleanup and one after. And then Carole Meckes—the diminutive Wonder Woman of the Texas bambuseros (the idea was actually Mark Meckes's idea)—suggested we stretch the event into Sunday and have craft demonstrations and maybe even speeches and seminars. That led to the annual auction of everything from plants to walking sticks. The auction actually sort of started itself, out of the insistence of the bamboo-crazed to swap and share what they care most about. Then the auction migrated to the Saturday night dinner. We discovered that wine-soaked bidders raise more money for the chapter, and one year that included a fetchingly pregnant chapter member performing a hilarious pole dance with a culm of Nigra.
But even more memorable each year is the Friday night dinner which Andy was inspired to shape into something like a good-natured 12-step program, with each attendee standing up to testify to how he contracted his “problem” with bamboo.
The stories each year are remarkable. They include an Army veteran working off post-traumatic stress, a retired lawyer in search of bamboo wilderness, a bamboo-curious petroleum geologist, a Boy Scout leader lobbying for a bamboo merit badge, and Anne Butts, who each year arranges green Moso on the altar of her church in Covington, La., for Palm Sunday and changes it for the gold of Robert Young on Easter.
Karen Horan, an EMT nurse from Austin, comes almost every year and labors joyfully to near exhaustion. She does so, she says, just to be able to sit alone afterward in the serenity of the Moso grove and drink in its distinctive karma. “That’s my church,” she says.
“Each of these people is profoundly different from every other,” said Dain Sansome of Oregon after this year’s dinner. “I’ve never seen a more diverse group. And yet they are a genuine—and very passionate-- community.”
The ABS members have taught Andy and me how to thin our grove and better space our culms to improve their size. We’ve learned about rhizomes and taxonomy, and that our grove is one of the nation’s oldest and largest from the most ancient Japanese clone. We’ve graphed the two-foot per day growth rate of Moso shoots and collected the furry soft brown slippers that cloak the new arrivals. We’ve learned to treasure and nurture as well our neighboring species of Bambusoides and Henon. We’ve discovered that the bamboo culture is inexhaustible. We have dug and cooked Moso shoots, built bamboo bridges and indoctrinated young nieces and nephews into the treasure they share. While we’ve been able to make wine bottle holders from a few culms for several years, last year’s Moso sprouts were almost uniformly more than 4 inches in diameter. One big mother measures 5 5/8 inches across.
And we’ve had a hell of a lot of fun. One year Suzanne Apple, a friend who worked for the World Wildlife Fund, borrowed the panda suit used by the WWF to promote it’s conservation projects around the world. Installed secretly on my delightful panda-shaped brother-in-law Ed Hotchkiss, it led to ABS workers laboring blindly through a tangled bamboo jungle suddenly encountering an apparently grazing panda bear. Applause and photo ops all around.
The greatest revolution has been not just in bamboo growth but in those who experience it. Already the ABS work on Avery Island has rekindled bamboo consciousness in Jungle Gardens, the horticultural mecca where McIlhenny planted his most prized plants in the 1930s and 40s, and where ABS workers have also labored during our weekends. It had been neglected in recent years, but is now charging ahead anew. Bamboo has been worked into the design –as well as the lunch plates--of the new museum and café at the Tabasco factory as well, and plans are afoot to have a trail through bamboo groves there. There’s been new attention to bamboo all over the Island, and the Iberia Parish visitors’ bureau now lists the ABS grove cleanup as one of the parish special events. Teenagers who have seen the grove lobby to pose for class photos in its evocative beauty.
And while many ABS workers—particularly the sainted Texans (what would we do without them?)—return each year, each year we also win new converts to the bamboo fold as the word gets out. Sixteen newcomers in 2016!
Marler’s living in China now. But look what he—and you in the ABS-- hath wrought! How can we ever, ever repay you? Well, next year….
Author-journalist Ken Ringle splits his time among his home in Washington, D.C., his second home on Avery Island, and a 40-foot sloop named Winsome based on Chesapeake Bay.