If your neighborhood is anything like mine, many of the households and individuals have a very specific identity.
My neighborhood, for example, has a Harley family, a couple of Packers families, a fireworks family, a backyard sports family, the dirt bikers, the landscapers, the partiers, etc. These identities can change with the seasons, as the dirt bikers become snowmobilers, and the landscapers become the snowblowing angels who clear your driveway while you are at work. (You know who you are. Thank you.)
Right now, I'm probably known as “crazy old guy with the golf club.”
I live on the southern edge of Rochester. Behind our house is an undeveloped field for about 150 yards, then woods.
For 14 years, that field has been our neighborhood's de facto park. I used to mow out a baseball field in it every year. Kids have launched model rockets out there, built plywood forts and had paintball battles. My son shot a doe with a bow less than 100 yards from our back door, and I took my only bow-killed gobbler out there. Today the field is a maze of trails used by both people and wildlife.
Each spring, before the grass begins to grow, this field becomes my personal golf driving range. On most days I'll hit 50 or 60 balls, then take my yellow Lab, Roxie, for a walk while I retrieve them.
Once the grass is knee-high I stop hitting balls, but Roxie and I remain a daily fixture out there. Neighbors could almost set their clocks by our morning routines, and when they have their windows open, I'm sure they hear me hollering, “Roxie, stop eating the grass!”
About two weeks ago, I started carrying a golf club with me on these twice-daily walks, but not because I'm hitting balls again.
I'm on thistle patrol.
A few years back, patches of Canada thistle erupted right behind our house and several others in our development. I knocked down the ones near my home, but the next year thistles invaded my lawn, vegetable garden and flower beds.
That's when I declared all-out war against thistles – much to the amusement of my wife.
Her father, Merv, was a farmer. He raised crops, hogs and cattle on the Mississippi River blufflands south of Dubuque, Iowa, and he was known as a quick-witted, generous chap who was never too busy to chat and was always ready to help a neighbor.
But he also was the area's top crusader against noxious weeds, and that trait sometimes put a dent in his popularity.
He'd spend hours out in the mid-August heat, cutting or spraying every Canada thistle that dared to encroach into his fencelines, pastures and waterways. Weed control was mandated by the county, and Merv took that requirement very seriously, but not all of his neighbors did.
Many was the time Merv slammed on the brakes in the middle of a gravel road and pointed out a patch of thistles on a hillside. If that patch was near Merv's farm, he'd give the landowner a call – “just in case he hadn't seen 'em” – and if the thistles weren't cut down in short order, Merv wasn't timid about reporting this violation to the county weed-control officer.
This strained a few friendships over the years, but Merv didn't back off. Thistles were bad for his pastures and crowded out the native prairie grasses he was trying to restore in his CRP strips and terraces. Merv wanted better habitat for pheasants, quail and deer – and one negligent neighbor could nullify his efforts to stop the spread of invasive plants.
Merv died three years ago, and while this might sound like a strange tribute, I think of him every time I see a thistle's characteristic purple flowers. It's in his honor that I carry a golf club with as I walk my dog.
In the past two weeks I've used that 6-iron to clobber more than 100 Canada thistles before they had a chance to send their seeds off on the winds of early autumn.
It's rather satisfying, actually. I'm examining the landscape much more closely than I once did, and I'm amazed by how well a thistle can camouflage itself until its flowers emerge. Many times I've walked a trail in the morning, and then that evening discovered a four-foot thistle that seemed to have materialized out of nowhere in just a few hours.
Am I accomplishing anything? Only time will tell. My reading tells me that thistle seeds are viable for years, and the roots of the plants I slash will likely send up new thistles at some point, but I'd like to believe I'm seeing fewer thistles in my yard and garden than I did a couple years ago.
Of course, I could use a little help. Patches of thistles can be found pretty much anywhere you look for them, even in town, especially near stormwater ponds and unmowed areas along trails.
Why not carry a golf club or a heavy walking stick and knock down a few prickly weeds the next time you go out for an evening stroll? You'll be helping wildlife and the natural landscape – and if you're worried what the neighbors might think, just know that they probably think you're quirky already.