Knotweed for Schach, Maine Jews and the “Eat Invasives” Movement

I believe that Jewish tradition makes me a better person, and I appreciate the ways it encourages me to engage critically with the world around me. Even the performance of age-old rituals offers small opportunities to make the world a better, sometimes greener, place. This was the case at Sukkot several weeks ago as we built our sukkah and looked for material for our schach, or the porous sukkah roof.

What if the act of building a sukkah could connect us with Jewish tradition while also combating invasive species in Maine, and raising awareness about their harm to native flora and fauna in one fell swoop? Many birds, many stones.

Knotweed for Schach, Maine Jews and the “Eat Invasives” Movement

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, “an invasive species is an organism that causes ecological or economic harm in a new environment where it is not native.” During the past century with the rise in global travel, connection and contact, animals, plants and diseases have hitchhiked their way around the globe with us. Taking hold where deposited, they crowd out native ecosystems, reduce biodiversity, and cause enormous economic damage—billions of dollars worth each year. Yet one of the biggest challenges in the effort to kill alien species has been convincing people to put in time, energy, and resources toward removing the invaders—often tedious and physically demanding work.

But what if there was demand for these species? The Eat the Invadersmovement seeks to cultivate a cultural taste for them by educating the public about uses for invasive species at home: from cooking to building to creating art, the options are endless.

Unfortunately, many of the tastiest and easiest-to-find invasive species in Maine are not kosher. Few Jews are likely to head down to their favorite coastal jetty to forage for green crabs and scavenge snails called periwinkles.

Something I love about Judaism here in Maine is the syncretism between Jewish tradition and Maine culture, which I think of as self-sufficient, land-oriented, and hardy. In this spirit, we too joined the rally against invasive species this past Sukkot. For evidence, one had only to look up at the schach,or roof, of the sukkah at Melanie Weiss and Rabbi Rachel Isaacs’ home a couple of weeks ago.

Melanie was the chief sukkah architect and scoured the web for plans for a sukkah frame built out of PVC piping. The plans and calculations for the structure were reminiscent of a geometry problem concocted by a teacher seeking to stump a high-school math class. The structure was, however a great success and stood freely.

When it came time to cast about for fallen branches and material for the roof (which, according to Jewish law, must shade the interior without restricting a view of the stars or the fall of raindrops) I noticed a small stand of knotweed. If you didn’t know what knotweed was, you might mistake it for pleasant green foliage.Originally from eastern Asia, knotweed was introduced to the U.S. in the 1800s as an ornamental plant. The leaves are broad and grow from a bamboo-like hollow stock at staggered intervals—ideal schachmaterial. But pleasant foliage knotweed is not! Knotweed is ubiquitous along Maine’s roadsides, where it grows in dense thickets that deprive the surrounding plants of sunlight, space, and nutrients—threatening biological diversity. Tenacious, difficult to uproot, and insidious —knotweed is a very successful invader.

Cutting the stalks for schachis not alone an effective management strategy for combatting the invasive weed. According to the Northwoods Cooperative Weed Management Area: “Cutting alone is not an effective tool for managing knotweed. However, cutting can be an integral part of managing this plant, particularly when combined with a follow-up herbicide application.” Knotweed spreads through rhizomes in its tenacious root network, so treating the problem underground complements the removal of stalks above ground.

What if next year every sukkah in the state of Maine had a knotweed schachand we also made an effort to eradicate the roots of the plant, hindering its spread through the observance of Jewish tradition? How many square feet of knotweed could Maine Jews eradicate? I believe there is the making of a new Jewish subculture in the Eat the Invaders movement— the rallying cry is Knotweed for Schach!

-Sam Sessions Colby ’21, Sarah Rockford Program Coordinator for the Center for Small Town Jewish Life