This Canada

The green green slime of home

David Weinberger April 28 1980
This Canada

The green green slime of home

David Weinberger April 28 1980

The green green slime of home

This Canada

David Weinberger

It is hard not to ascribe malevolence to it. In the past decade it has spread from one end of Canada to the other like a plague. In the scientific journals it is Myriophyllum spicatum L., or Eurasian water milfoil. To the residents of Chemong Lake, three miles from Peterborough and 80 miles northeast of Toronto, it is just “the weed.” From the Edlinger’s kitchen table the southern four miles of the lake are visible; so far this year the weeds have not made their appearance. They will, though. Cottages are strewn along the banks, and here and there in the hilly terrain a barn shows itself. Even after the ice melts, even after the summer tourists have spent half of their holidays on the lake, no one will be sure just how bad the weeds will be this year. Not till midAugust will they know if the crop will be excessively excessive or just moderately so. In nearly every description of the situation the vocabulary of malevolence presses itself forward: beneath the surface the weeds lurk, they threaten to choke the shoreline and to create impenetrable patches in the middle of the lake. In fact, if the residents

did not fight back against these vegetal predators they would take over the whole lake.

Thirty years after leaving Austria, Max and Antoinette Edlinger find they have a comfortable life—which for them means one including hard workrunning the 40 trailers and nine cabins of Lancaster Cottage and Trailer Park. For 18 years Max worked in a factory

for Canadian Westinghouse in Hamilton, Ontario. When it became clear he was not advancing, the couple bought their present business on the southern tip of Chemong Lake, part of the Kawartha district, an important vacation spot for thousands of southern Ontarians. “Kawartha means ‘land of the shining waters,’ ” Antoinette says in her accented English. “It sounds funny, but it’s true. You wake up on a summer morning and the lake is just shining. We have herons and loons,” she says, taking out a snapshot of purple martins clustered around a three-storey birdhouse. “You can sit on the lawn and watch the baby loons being taught to dive.” Her eyes now are like the lake she has been describing. These stories of beauty contrast sharply with the rest of their tale. With a rake and wheelbarrow they have at times pulled from the lake a wall of weeds five feet high and up to 450 feet long. Through assiduous labor they keep their swimming area clear, but the weeds are relentless. Last year was, in fact, the worst year since 1969. And it is not likely to get better: the natural life cycle of Chemong Lake, as well as most others in the district, has been inadvertently accelerated by the presence of civilization. Chemong Lake is growing old in an alarming hurry.

Michael Murphy, central area manager of the Trent-Severn Waterway of which Chemong is a part, calls the aging eutrophication. Left to themselves, lakes slowly become enriched with nutrients which stimulate plant growth. “Geologically it would take thousands and thousands of years to happen by itself,” he says in his office overlooking the broad neat channels which are part of his responsibility, but “we’re speeding it up.” The “we” refers to everybody in the community. The farmers use fertilizer, the cattle leave their own fertilizer, septic tanks hold rich compost, 60 to 80 per cent of which eventually washes into the Kawartha

Lakes system. Water weeds thrive in the rich broth. When the weeds die, they dissolve and further enrich the lake.

This is not to say that Chemong Lake is by any means polluted. There are no industries on its shores dumping chemicals into it. The water is clear—in fact, milfoil helps make the water clearer by inhibiting the growth of algae in many instances—and some residents say that in the springtime it is even drinkable. (Murphy has not heard this, but is skeptical: “Personally, I wouldn’t drink it.”) Its fish are uncontaminated by the chemicals poisoning other lakes in the area. “Our fish are edible” is a common,

and ultimately depressing,boast of Chemong’s residents.

Besides the Edlingers, who fight the stuff with a cheerful determination supported by their love of the lake, and people like Murphy who have the scientist’s concern as well, there is a third personality here: that of milfoil itself. According to a study in the Canadian Journal of Plant Science in 1979, Eurasian milfoil was only introduced to this continent in the late 19th century, appearing first in the Chesapeake Bay area of Virginia. In 1961 it was first spotted in Canada in Rondeau Provincial Park on Lake Erie. By the early 1970s milfoil was recognized as a problem, not only in the Kawartha Lakes, but also in Gatineau Park in Quebec. It is an implacable foe: in 1970 the weed was identified in Okanagan Lake in B.C. and by 1978 the provincial government had given up hopes of eradicating it, concentrating instead on merely controlling the infestation before it clogged drains and sewers. Milfoil is as ugly as it is relentless. The individual plant consists of several stems, which can grow to 15 feet in height, from which sprout feathery leaves (milfoil means a thousand leaves). When the plant reaches the lake surface it keeps growing, mingling with its kin like a plate of slimy spaghetti, forming islands which can support frogs and small birds. The leaves get so thick they can stop the propellers of speedboats. Uprooted plants wash onto the beaches

and decay into smelly green slime. Obnoxious insects breed in the islands. Even waterfowl do not like to eat the stuff. The islands have been known to cover 80 per cent of the water surface of a lake. Biologically speaking, it is a splendidly successful species.

It is a problem no one in the Kawartha area wants to play up, for tourism brings in $50 million every year. The owner of a marina on Chemong Lake seems almost unaware of the weed. “Oh, I hear some

people, maybe at the south end of

the lake, have some.” Fishing, many say, has never been better. Antoinette Edlinger says, “Last year people would go out in a boat for an hour and come back with their limit, six pickerel.” Bass fishing is supposed to be good by the weed beds. Tourism does not seem to have been seriously affected at Chemong, although there are expressions of concern about the future of the lake.

The provincial government shares the concern. In 1973 the ministry of the environment began harvesting the weeds using machine-like floating combines, at a yearly budget of $150,000. They then found that after a week in the composter the weeds yielded a mixture which, when added to soil, was extremely good for growing vegetables. The Edlingers knew this already. It is the only fertilizer they use in their garden. But the experiment on Chemong ended in 1978, and now no one is harvesting. Max Edlinger thinks the province has shown commendable interest in the lake. There is more worry than rebuke when he says, “They told us if they harvested for a certain number of years it would decrease,but it hasn’t yet.” He would like to see the province continue the harvesting program.

In place of harvesting, many resi-

dents have turned to Regione A, a chemical which sinks to the bottom and kills the weeds. It seems to work well on the isolated patches that are treated; in fact, the Trent-Severn canal system is kept navigable by it. But government permission must be had to use the chemical, and people must stay out of the water—and not let animals drink from it—for 24 hours after its application. It is not a permanent solution.

A permanent solution is difficult to envisage, for the problem is in a sense a natural one. The lake is polluted, not with something artificial, but with something as natural as crabgrass on a lawn. Eutrophication is natural; it would go on eventually even if humans never graced the scene. But the environment now includes man, and the border between a natural and a man-made problem is impossible to set. How does one keep a lake ringed by civilization from picking up what spills over from that civilization? Certainly a better sewer system would help. But farmers will continue to use fertilizer. If man does not intervene, Chemong Lake will become more and more enriched, eutrophication will speed up and the weeds will be the natural victors. Man will continue to intervene, however, attempting to keep nature from following its natural—or unnatural?—course. “People complain about business, but ours is on the upswing because we help ourselves by doing a lot of work,” says Max Edlinger. In a snapshot his wife provides, his back is bent over the lakeshore as he rakes in a green mass. Beside him is one of his two chubby German shepherds and a wheelbarrow already full of the stuff. It is a photograph of the blurred border between nature and artifice.