Bamboozled on Long Island

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How exotic! That's what I thought when I spotted a small stand of bamboo at the far end of the lawn. We had just moved into our house in the Hamptons, never expecting to find vegetation usually associated with the Far East thriving on the eastern end of Long Island.

Over the next several years, I coexisted peacefully with the bamboo, including it in house tours for visitors, and occasionally cutting down a few stalks to use as stakes in the garden. The bamboo reacted benignly, growing replacements in a most unthreatening manner and generally seeming to know its place.

The trouble started a few years ago after an unusually mild winter, warm spring and stiflingly hot summer. From my terrace, I stared in disbelief. The bamboo, apparently with some genetic memory of its roots in steamy Asiatic climes, was spreading ferociously, its roots stealthily undermining surrounding shrubs and sending up a multitude of shoots in their midst. I began to comprehend the origin of the word "bamboozle," which my dictionary defines as "To take in by elaborate methods of deceit."

The new stalks skyrocketed, some to heights of 16 and 18 feet, obscuring the view of the neighboring golf course and a nearby, picturesque pond. Was this what they meant by the Bamboo Curtain? Frantic, I sprayed a powerful herbicide on every bamboo leaf I could reach. Was it my imagination, or did the leaves make a slightly derisive sound as they rustled in the chemical mist?

Two weeks later, I understood. Nearby vegetation had browned and withered. But the bamboo stalks, unaffected, even taller and spreading faster than ever, waved defiantly in the breeze. In desperation, I checked with experts at an agriculture college. How do you kill bamboo? Well, I was informed, you can't kill bamboo. But you can find the person who planted it and kill him.

Perhaps a frontal attack would work. Arming myself with a pair of long-handled shears, I began cutting down the encroaching stalks at their base, one by one, setting a quota of 200, then 300, a day. The dead stalks, their leaves turning brown, accumulated into a monstrous pile, my muscle tone improved, and I felt a sense of accomplishment. But it was a futile exercise. Only days after I had cleared an area, new shoots had sprouted up, seemingly growing as much as a foot a day.

I was becoming obsessed. How to cope? A flamethrower? No, our town bans any open fires. Agent Orange? After all, it worked in Viet Nam. But no, that notorious defoliant might upset, and sicken, our neighbors. One night, the idea popped into my head. I would negotiate with Beijing for permission to buy and import a creature whose dietary mainstay is bamboo — a panda!

What fun! I began to fantasize. "And how do you control your bamboo," I'd be asked. "With my panda, of course," I'd reply snootily. That would make me the envy of the East End and, more important, it would be sooo Hamptons!

Then came the letdown. True, pandas do eat bamboo. It turns out, however, that they do not chew and indeed eschew the Long Island variety.

My last hope shattered, I'm now resigned to a mere holding action, cutting my daily quota of tall stalks and regularly mowing the little shoots that have been emerging further and further up the lawn toward my house. But I can't spend all of my time worrying about bamboo. Maintaining a house is a full-time job, and I must begin re-glazing the dining room windows. And, oh yes, I'm also going to look more closely at those bulges that have begun appearing in the basement wall.