The invader

water chestnuts HZTYou grow up with adults telling you not to judge a book by its cover, not to make a decision about something until you understand its intentions. And it’s a truism, an unavoidable absolute that everyone has made at least one false judgment based on someone’s outlook or demeanor.

Ninety percent of the time, though, you’re right in deciding that someone or something looks too unfriendly or unkind to learn more about. Ninety percent of the time the cautious, judging section of your brain is right. Ninety percent of the time the angry-looking guy on the bus is not secretly a gentle soul. Ninety percent of the time your first call, your gut decision, that flash of affirmation or doubt that speeds along your cerebral cortex is more right than wrong.

Like the first time you were introduced to a drug dealer or the first time you played hookie, those impulses, those strings of bad vibes, sent you for a loop. They gave you the feeling that you were meeting or doing something evil, no matter how harmless it seemed in the short term. It’s the same first impression you feel when you sit down and spend time with a water chestnut pod – a feeling of unease; a pang of confusion mingled with concern.

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In the early fall of 2011, I waded out into the mighty Hudson to help my brother recover the remainder of his boat which had been torn apart by Hurricane Irene. The water was still warm, and where the river wasn’t green it was that classic Hudson color, somewhere between milk chocolate brown and the glimmering evergreen of smashed-up old Coke bottles. There were water chestnuts everywhere, stranded on the beach and sitting sinister like bite-sized Belgian gates waiting to stop an assaulting force. I walked cautiously and dragged my feet along the muck as we fished the ship’s mast from the river, trying not to step on any of the thousand million pods that had sunk into the sediment; one pierced my heel as we made for the beach once we had secured the metal pole, my punishment for daring to amble into its home turf. Rivergoers would tell me about water chestnuts and what a scourge they were, how they were eating up the Hudson, claiming it in the name of invasive species everywhere and singing the death knell of a once great river now as known for its body count, staggering PCB levels, and parasite-ridden fish as it was once for its staggering natural beauty. I didn’t believe them until I was physically harmed by one.

Valley dwellers don’t pay a lot of attention to the water chestnut, probably because it sounds boring. There are invasive species in the world that are interesting; the Burmese python has overtaken swaths of Florida swampland, giant, cat-sized cane toads have all but taken control of Parliament in Australia, Africanized bees are a real threat to insect populations and barbecues everywhere. The water chestnut cannot eat your child. The water chestnut will not assault you when you try to play catch with your buddies. The water chestnut is not a constant annoyance.

But if you take time to look at a water chestnut pod, you’ll form that first impression, a tiny seizure of foreboding that brings the distinct feeling over you that you’re looking at something that shouldn’t be at all — or at least something that shouldn’t be in the river. But water chestnuts are ruthless invaders, and they don’t care what we think of them.

If you make your way down to the banks of the river, you’ll see it — football fields of green pads stretching up and down the riverside like a sick-colored, never-ending nervous system. Watch a science fiction movie about an alien invader and in about half of them, the invaders come on sweet, hiding their true intent under a false mission of peace or the promise of human advancement; the white flower of the water chestnut, present from July until the first frost, the graceful white dot that lends the plant a subtle sense of beauty, is that mission of peace.

Below it all, under the white flower and the green nerves hugging the Hudson’s shore, is the seed pod itself, the real evil of the water chestnut plant, the hidden villain. It’s horned. Of course it’s horned. Like the Minotaur and Mephistopheles, like loads of other villains, it’s horned. Four ragged, prehistoric horns come off of the body, which is textured with baroque looking crags and valleys. If the water chestnut pod had a face, it could easily sit out front of a medieval column, all grotesque and foreboding, intricate and sinister, black like space and unlike just about anything else that grows free.

The water chestnut could be the villain in a creature feature if it could crawl out of the water, if the plant, its sick tangle of vines, was its body and the seed pod itself was its head. Imagine: legions of vegetable aliens climbing out of the river that they’ve decided to possess to conquer the earth.

That movie would probably only work if it was made in the ’80s. But in truth, water chestnuts are the attacking villain. They stall the growth of native aquatic vegetation, they make the Hudson nearly un-swimmable in places, they ruin watercraft and they reproduce exponentially. They are cruel. They take and take. They are an unfeeling and foreign conqueror. And the problem of their invasion isn’t getting any better with complacency. Water chestnuts seed pods remain viable for up to 12 years, and there are now millions of them up and down the banks of the Hudson, waiting to grow up into a full-fledged alien invader and parent more devil pods or, alternatively, shoot through the soles of the feet of anyone crazy enough to walk into their backyard river.

The bad juju flows when you meet a water chestnut pod, the sinister little death’s head that now owns the Hudson.

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