Adventures in Hack-and-Squirt: True Confessions of an Occasional Herbicider


I am writing about herbicide here, and I am aware that my discussion may alienate some people, and yet I believe that in some circumstances when managing lands, herbicides are the best alternative. Note, however, that I’m not an expert on this.

My brief statement of support for the sparing use of for herbicides in land management:

  • I, Land Manager, am managing for (timber, wildlife habitat, erosion control, aesthetic backdrops).
  • My target (plant, population, community) cannot (get established, thrive, produce seed, grow fast) unless I help it by removing or beating back competing vegetation.
  • The other potential means to remove or beat back the competing vegetation (a tractor, a weed-eater, or shovel; growing something to shade it out; flooding, mulching, or burning the area, girdling the stem, hand-picking or letting goats or geese do the work) will not work in this circumstance.
  • They will not work because (the competing vegetation has a biology or morphology such that it cannot be controlled with those mean;, those means would risk causing too much damage to the resource I am managing for; overall, those means would use more time, tools, labor, or materials than the herbicide.)

My brief statement against the use of herbicides:

  • I, Land manager, can afford to lose some of (my crop, my crop’s growth rate).
  • The purchase herbicides and all the gear, plus the labor to apply them, may be quite expensive
  • We know that some herbicides have harmed humans and other species in the past. I don’t want to expose (myself, others, other species, soil and water resources) to chemicals that will do harm to humans or elsewhere throughout the food chain.
  • I recognize that even though good people tell me that their product acts in such a way that it won’t harm the resources I value, I know that these good people may not know everything.

Now for hack-and-squirt.

If you heard about hack-and-squirt and your last name was lock-in-brook, you might think it sounds enough like your name that it is destiny to try it. If you were teaching Forest Biology and an undergraduate forestry student brought in this mystery slice of wood and asked you what caused the pattern,* and on your third or fourth colleague you found someone who explained it as hack-and squirt damage, you might be intrigued with the physiology. But when you went to learn about how to do it, you may have backed off a little. If you were to anthropomorphize, you might think it’s like a slow torture that ends in death if you do it right. Of course, hand-pulling weeds or whacking them with a blade, smothering them with mulch, or even spraying them with something else are other forms of plant murder, but this one is … just a little strange.

You have a management issue in which you wish to favor some overtopped conifers, ones that could have a chance if you removed the competition, in an upper corner of your plantation. There are large patches of maple, alder, and cherry that you will leave—they are doing well. You consult sources and buy the right herbicide, one that will enter your target tree and kill the plant from within. Then you fill a squirt bottle, like a ketchup one, with the herbicide, and you dilute it to the correct concentration. You label the bottle with a sharpie. Then you sharpen your hatchet—really well. You sheath the hatchet and put flagging on the hatchet handle. Then you hike to the starting point and climb up a hill that reminds you of an elliptical trainer set at level 30: for every few lunges up you find yourself almost in the same place but with a different leg forward. You try to hold the bottle and hatchet in the same hand so you can use the other hand to pull yourself up by grasping at ferns and understory stems. The ascent is slow.

And you arrive. It’s still early morning. You are in the shadow of the ridge you have partly climbed. You sit in a re-findable clearing and look around. In splotches, you can see through the canopy to the opposite slope, now bright with the yellows and greens from the morning sun. Well below you and out of your view, is the year-round creek in which several species of juvenile salmon and lamprey dart from spot to spot, beavers work the bark off sticks for food, and native mussels and crawdads reproduce and grow. Data suggest that creeks like this one are too warm in the summer and so fish and mollusks and crustaceans are suffering. Their populations decline.

  1. You open the backpack to pull out the wash-up materials and your protective gear. You make a new tight ponytail, draw on the rain pants, take the sheath off the hatchet, and put on your eye protection and gloves.
  2. You try to find your trees. You seek cherry and bigleaf maple saplings that had come in alongside some western redcedars near the top of this planted Douglas-fir plantation. The largest Douglas-fir are 30 feet tall, but some of them are overtopped by cherries and maples. If you look at the spacing of the branch whorls, you see that the growth is depressed, and increasingly so, in the heavily-shaded Douglas-firs. On this north-facing slope, the competing trees to the north that are the most damaging. You stare at the bark and the branching, and if you are lucky, the foliage, to confirm the species.
  3. You judge whether a particular tree is really a threat to the light interception of the target tree. If not, let it be. You are not so concerned here in the Oregon Coast Range with competition for water. But it it’s a threat, you decide if the Douglas-fir looks as if it can recover or if it’s too far gone. If you think that removal of the maple or cherry will help, you tell yourself, “I’m ready.”
  4. You take the hatchet and wing it down at the tree to skin off a little flap of bark. It has to go in deep enough to expose the inner bark (phloem)—that soft, gushy tissue just outside of where the wood (xylem) begins. You also need the bark to stay attached, to make what others call a “skirt,” to hold the little puddle of herbicide you will then dribble in with the ketchup bottle. Why not a “cuff” or a “collar,” you snicker, thinking perhaps it was men who chose that decorative term. In theory, your hack was effective and your squirt well-aimed and of the right volume. You will now make another hack 2 to 4” away, and continue around the circumference. You need only two or three hacks for most of these trees. The herbicide enters the phloem (that inner bark), which is the tissue in which sugars from photosynthesis, growth signals, and some nutrients move up and down a tree. The herbicide moves in the phloem downward toward the roots and upward toward the canopy, and depending on its mode of action, kills or confuses processes in living cells along the way and at the termini. Many herbicides disrupt molecular pathways that are particular to plants—that you don’t even have, but that isn’t to say it would be a healthy thing to slop those chemicals into hacks on your own body.The tree will die standing—slowly. Because it is fall, like the hardwoods around it, the hacked tree the will lose its leaves. It won’t be until spring that you will see the effect. The herbicide will leave a snag (a standing dead tree) for several years that you may find attractive, that wildlife might live in, and that birds may use for perches. After it topples, the tree may become shelter to rodents and amphibians, and then be food for fungi and bacteria that decompose it back into the soil.But what really happens is this: the hatchet goes too shallow and takes a slab off the tree. The hatchet goes too deep and you have to wrestle to get it out. The hatchet hits the tree but makes no appreciable mark, and bounces back, grazing the Helly-Hansens on your legs. Your head is pushed into a neighboring plant, and your hair is now attached to a number of different branches in a way that Gulliver, upon awakening in Lilliput, could relate. A stiff dead branch keeps you from lifting your arm enough to strike, and now your face itches, but you can’t scratch with your herbicidy glove. You rub your face on bark to relieve the itch. You back out, your hair following you. And whereas you had a place to stand for the first blow, there’s no place to stand for the second one. You’re on your knees, your hair still back at the first location and your head pulled to the side. Eventually, you stand for a third blow, and then your floor disappears. You go from 5’8” to a 7’ tall in a slow-motion stretch. When your feet have stopped lowering, you find the herbicide still in your clutch, but the hatchet is gone. You are glad for its blue ribbon, which you see far below.

    You chose to descend the slope with the herbicide in your hand because you fear you will lose it if you put it down.

    And finally, hatchet and herbicide in hands, you are back.

  1. You repeat step 4, over and over. You can’t remember which trees you’ve done. Your tracks are confused with other forest floor disturbances, probably mostly from elk. You duck, stride, pull, hug trees to sling yourself around. You look up, down, and around to identify cherries, oaks, Douglas-fir, and western redcedar. You evaluate, you inspect to see if you’ve already hacked-and-squirted here. You work your way that direction, not by choice but because that’s where your cumulative impulses have taken you. You almost strike a Douglas-fir tree. Ok, you admit, you did. You try to remember whether the herbicide is effective on conifers, but for good measure you spit and spit and spit on the hack-and-squirt you made, hoping to dilute it.
  1. Your ketchup bottle is empty: when the herbicide is gone, the herbicide is gone.
  2. You descend to the wash-up place where you clean up and then sit. You see that it is pretty here. The opposite slope has lost its morning blaze. You decide it is a more familiar forest over there now, one that is more approachable, less heavenly, more mortal. A light breeze dries the wash-water from your face. You lie for a moment. You are part of the plantation floor. Even the ferns are above you.
  3. You assess your conscience. How do feel about having tried to kill those trees? Is it the same feeling as back in college, when you cooked up a container of chicken hearts and distributed them into two sandwiches that you ate, but as they went down, you felt the presence of all those chicken at once? In the spring, these trees may not wake up. Will you have put them into a coma and then killed them while they were out? Perhaps they will wake up, but lack the vitality to fill their buds, push out their leaves, and extend their stems and roots. Maybe, you tell yourself, the trees aren’t smarting yet– that is, if trees have a version of ‘smarting.’ But that’s a delusion, you are pretty sure. The parenchyma cells of the phloem are likely to be sensing the herbicide already.Mowitch
  4. You then remember your goal. You are trying to encourage the conifers, while leaving patches of hardwoods, for the super-long-term health of critters in and around the valley, and most especially, in the creek. The creeks in the Coast Range need conifer stems, big ones, to fall into them 200, 400, 600 years from now. The conifer stems decay more slowly than the hardwoods, which means they will stay in the creeks long enough to slow the flow. Slowing the flow will increase siltation and decrease streams becoming cut more deeply, with the result that the stream elevation will stay higher and more water will be stored in the streambank and floodplain soils. That way the cool stored water can seep slowly into the creek all summer and keep the water cool enough for the juvenile fish. It’s really true—that’s is your goal. But why do you need conifers that far up the hill, you wonder; is this cleansing based on science? You think it is, you know a tree can fall a long, long way. You reach for other justifications: back when nature caused the stand-initiating disturbance rather than loggers, this hillside would have regenerated mostly to conifers. But you need to learn more about this, about why, or even if, the community composition matters so much up here. Having diverse communities is important, you know, but you already have that; why are you managing in favor of conifers up here? You have slipped off to a different consciousness when you hear your name. “Barb? Barb?” You respond, glad that your husband is coming up toward you. Maybe he’ll join you in a sit. You’re ready to call it a day.“I brought you more herbicide,” he says.So you pull back your hair, even tighter this time, and go graze the bark off another set of trees in the tangible hope that you have improved your technique, and in the more nebulous hope you are helping fish in the year 2518.

~ ~ ~

  1. It is almost April. You did your hack-and-squirt last fall. The maples buds haven’t opened yet, but they will soon swell and open. If you find a vantage point, you may be able to see if your hack-and-squirt zone hosts verdant or blossoming trees, or the slender remnants that stand dead. In a way, you don ‘t want to look: let it be an act of nature if it turned out you were an ineffective hack-and-squirter, and let it be for the best if you were effective. You will get back up there some day and that will be soon enough. You don’t think you will hack-and-squirt again. You aren’t sure why.

*Thirty-five or forty years ago, the oak tree was about an inch smaller in radius. Someone hack-and-squirted it in at least seven spots around the circumference, and probably well below the level from which this “cookie” (the term educators use) was taken. The tree didn’t die, but the parenchyma cells in the wood got became discolored in tall columns that would have extended up and down from the place where the hatchet nicked the bark and the herbicide was squirted in. The bark and the cambium (the tissue that makes wood and inner bark) died adjacent to these columns, but between them, the tissues survived. The healthier strips of tree were enough to keep it alive. Eventually, the cambium grows over the dead zones and made wood on the inside and phloem on the outside again.

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