Although the depths of January keep most people indoors, the several week window of bitter temperatures allows for one unique activity that can only be carried out at this time of year, when ponds and marshes are frozen solid enough to walk out on, into stands of rustling reeds, phragmites australis. The reeds which have grown tall over the past year, often 10,12 feet in height, stand as bare beige stalks, and both the climate conditions and condition of the reeds make it a perfect time of year for their harvest.
Phragmites australis is a now common grass in the New England wetlands, although it has been part of the American landscape for only the past four hundred years, having been introduced in the colonial period for its use in colonial roof thatching. Prior to the introduction of phragmites australis into the Americas, the reed was used for thousands of years in Europe as a roofing material for homes and barns.
As is the case with certain non-native species, once phragmites australis was introduced, it began spreading invasively throughout wetlands along the east coast, and in many environments shaded and outcompeted native wetland species, decreasing both plant and animal biodiversity in the wetlands it moved into. As such, many state conservation organizations including the NRCS dedicate resources to remove the phragmites, through means of chemical herbicides and mowing machinery.
On a small parcel of wetland in CT, on land protected by the Newtown Forest Association Land Trust, a different approach is being used to manage phragmites, one that is more in line with the reeds’ traditional uses. For the past four years, a small group of volunteers from the NFA has been going out in mid January onto the frozen marshes on land stewarded by the land trust, and cut phragmites reed grass with hand sickles and jute string, gathering bundle by bundle, and using those reeds for small local roof thatching projects.
Back in 2014, several of the volunteers, including Brett Lehner and Adam Geriak, spent a month in Oxford, Michigan learning traditional roof thatching from Deanne Bednar, a traditional skills teacher at the nonprofit, “Strawbale Studio.” Through that experience they learned roof thatching, as well as other natural building techniques including straw bale construction, lashing and timber framing.
Over the past four years of harvesting phragmites in Newtown, something interesting has occurred in the wetland ecosystem where regular harvest has been employed. The phragmites still grows in the marsh, but much less densely than before. It has allowed for other species such as native cattails to get a better foothold in the environment. More sunlight penetrates through the grasses to get to the water, supporting greater biodiversity of the ecosystem of both plants and animals. Harvesting in this manner will never completely remove the phragmites, but it will bring it into better balance within the ecosystem, while providing a sustainable local roofing material for small projects. When harvesting, the volunteers are careful to remove the seed pods before transporting the reeds, so as to not spread them to new wetlands.
The relationship between humans and phragmites, similar to many ecological balances, is complex, and our human interaction with the plant may ask us to find balanced reciprocity with it, as stewards of the land as they are now, in context with the health of our ecosystems and the human built environment.
This year, 2023, the annual reed harvesting event happened again, and a group of volunteers spent a day in mid January harvesting the phragmites. The reeds were then donated to an indigenous non-profit, “Taino Woods Sanctuary”, working to improve ecological literacy and relationships, for use in the construction of the roof of a traditional prayer lodge.