Back to Nature (Published on - July 19, 2006)
It’s not the cattails that are different
Photo by Rick Tremmel
A common sight, cattails gently swaying in the breeze. Cattails have been a natural source of food, bedding, habitat, nursery and basket making for thousands of years.
Comedians are notorious for having a special talent for finding that pinpoint, raw hotspot of our collective guilty consciousness and exploiting that point to our chagrin with great guffaws.

Better to laugh than cry. Pain is easier to tolerate than a persistent itch.

The other night I overheard a comedian appearing as a zoned airhead, proclaiming, “Yeah man. Everything’s a circle in the circle of life. We’re all one. We’re all connected.”

Ouch. How many times have I said that? How many times have others said that? Audubon, Conservation International, Defenders, Green Peace, National Geographic, National Wildlife Federation, Nature Conservancy, Sierra Club, Wildlands Project, World Wildlife Fund, to name a few. Is anyone listening?

I work with children a great deal of my time. It’s common knowledge that if you repeatedly say the same thing to a child they will turn off, become deaf, and discontinue hearing that phrase anymore. Are we turned off? Has the itch become so intolerable that we’d rather put up with the pain?

You are going to hear a lot about cattails in the future. The poor old cattail has become quite the controversy. Although somehow this 9-foot tall native, Typha latifolia, remained in check for thousands of years as a useful source of food, bedding, basket weaving, refuge and nursery for wildlife, it’s now reproducing out of control, spreading like wildfire, pushing out other natives, blocking channels and overtaking the Everglades. Scientists estimate it is spreading at the rate of 2 to 9 acres a day.

Scratching your head about now? What changed? Did the cattails evolve to become a new superstar cattail with bionic properties? Nope, still the same old cattail. The environment the cattail lives within has changed. Cattails have evolved to live in harmony within a low nutrient environment such as the Everglades. That environment has vastly been altered over the past 100 years. The key words here are: excessive and phosphorus. Origin of excessive phosphorus: fertilizer used by sugarcane growers and other agricultural operations, as well as construction runoff from overdevelopment.

The now necessary removal of cattail invasion has become of national concern, in other words: a very big itch. Perform an Internet search with this string of words: “phosphorus sugar cane Florida Everglades” and you will find fodder for either the next science fiction movie or gritty comedy sketch.

Fertilizers and pesticides are used in excess. The overuse of these chemicals is directly affecting our physical and environmental health. These chemicals are being poured into our environment in vast quantities and alarming rates. They are used beyond our need for survival, protection of food sources and livelihood, but to maintain swathes of green grass lawns, the perfect rose or weedless playing field.

As veteran activist Merryl Hammond puts it, “Why would anyone spray chemical poisons in a suburb, where the only crop people are trying to grow is children?”

Are we making the connections, drawing the line from point A to B? The problem, the “pain,” has become the “cattails.” That pain isn’t going to disappear until the source of the “itch” is resolved. Connect the dots … back to nature.

Karen can be reached at

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