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A Summer Afternoon With Knapweed

by Joe Riederer 
Copyright © 2000 Big Bluestem Press

    "Remind me again why I'm riding a bike all the way to the park when I could be sitting in an air-conditioned house watching TV?" Don asked, as his stocky legs struggled to keep up with Corey. He somehow managed to hold the handle bar of his bike with one hand and an extra large soda in the other.

    Coasting to let his out-of-breath friend catch up, Corey recited the list one more time. "Because," he shouted over his shoulder, "you heard that Jenny was the first to volunteer, because you haven't gone ten minutes without asking me if I think she likes you, and because the poster in the library said they'd have food."

    "Oh yea." Don adjusted his tattered baseball cap using the same hand that held his soda. The result was predictable. Wiping the sticky brown liquid from his face, he added, "I just can't believe I agreed to help you and a bunch of old geeks weed weeds."

    "We're not weeding weeds!" Corey fired back. "We're helping to get rid of the knapweed that's taking over the park."

    The two teens turned down the bike path at the entrance to Memorial Park, rode between the softball field and the playground, and came to a stop in a parking lot on the edge of a small natural area. Other volunteers were already waiting in the shade. As Corey took off his bike helmet, Don asked again, "So, do you think Jenny likes me?"

    "Ask her yourself—here she comes."

    "Hi, Corey," Jenny said with a smile. Turning to Don, her smile faded. "I never figured you'd volunteer for something that involved hard work."

    "Hey, give me a break!" Don protested. "I'm into all this nature junk. So, when do we eat?"

    Corey laughed as Kim, Jenny's best friend, joined the group. "We're supposed to meet by that field of purple flowers," Kim announced, without saying hello. She seemed as out of place working outdoors as Don was. Shopping was more her style. If Kim couldn't buy it in a mall, she didn't need it. So why was she here? The answer came quickly as half of the high school football team piled out of the back of two pickup trucks.

    "I would like to thank you all for volunteering to help us with this eradication project," said Mrs. Corky Rana, a short woman with a beat-up clipboard. Anything else she had to say was lost to the teenagers in the group due to the unfortunate resemblance she had to the large leopard frog pictured on her tee shirt. It was the type of shirt you could only find in one of those "nature" catalogs. Don saw it first—it was hard to miss. Not only did she have eyes that bulged outward, but also there was something about the shape of her face that just had "amphibian" written all over it. A tiger swallowtail butterfly fluttered its way through the group, passing a few inches from her head. Corey wondered if a long tongue might fly out of her mouth and quickly snatch it up. Don began singing in a whisper, "It's not easy being green..." Corey laughed aloud.

    "Boys, I do hope you'll take this more seriously."

    "Sorry, Ma'am, " Corey said out of reflex.

    A red-haired man with a freckled face stood next to Mrs. Rana. She introduced him as Mr. Geum. His long, wispy strands of hair changed direction with the slightest breeze and gave him a clown-like appearance. He wore the dull green shirt that served as the official uniform of the Adams County Park Department. "It's wonderful to have so many people here," he said in a theatrical voice.

    Spotted knapweed has become a major environmental problem in the Midwest and it's heartening to see that you care enough to help with the difficult job of getting rid of it."

    "What have you gotten me into?" Don grumbled, turning to Corey.

    Nodding towards Jenny, who seemed to be hanging on every word Mr. Geum uttered, Corey said, "Looks like you've got some competition this afternoon. If you want Jenny to talk to you, you'll have to get her to believe you really care about this stuff."

    "What do you mean?"

    "Fake it."

    The theatrical voice started again. "Before we get to work I would like to give you a little background. The problem started back in the 1890's. Farmers planting hay and alfalfa imported from Europe unknowingly planted spotted knapweed seed that was hiding in the mix. Knapweed gradually spread to nearby fields and then to roadsides." Mr. Geum held up some of the purple flowers and then asked the group to pass them around. To Corey, they looked like the bachelor buttons his mother used to plant around the house.

    "It's just a stupid flower. What's the big deal?" Don blurted out. Jenny scowled at him and then quickly turned back to the speaker.

    "Smooth move, Romeo," Corey said out of the side of his mouth.

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