Last summer shortly after Bethesda Workshops had first contracted for our building, David and I spent most of the Fourth of July weekend pulling the green growth from the back exterior wall. The vines clung with an invisible, plant Velcro to the peeling paint on the concrete surface. It was mostly easy and satisfying work (although beastly hot). You could dislodge a flowering vine at the ground, and if you kept the right tension, it would peel from the wall in long stretches until it got tangled in the surrounding vegetation.


The vines on the tired chain link fence flanking the back parking lot were another matter. They were braided through the steel spaces like tight dreadlocks, some as thick as my wrist. Many must have started growing when the fence was first installed who knows how long ago, because they filled the diamond openings completely.


I wondered how the strong vines had survived. Most were growing through cracks in the pavement at the base of the fence. There was little soil and brutal full sun. It seemed impossible to dislodge them, and we quickly gave up. David sawed through the vines where they came out of the ground, sprayed vegetation killer, and we left them for another day.


“Another day” came a couple of weeks ago as Nicole Hobson, the ministry’s marketing and development director, David and I worked on sprucing up the outside of the building in preparation for our open house. Knowing the difficulty of cleaning out the trash trapped at the base of the fence and the vines that entangled it, we came prepared with a Sawzall and various sizes of clippers and rakes.


The fresh growth on the fence wasn’t thick and thus was fairly easy to detach. I thought removing the rest couldn’t be that hard. The stout vines had been amputated at the roots and torpedoed with poison. After almost a year, surely they would be rotted and agreeable to releasing their hold.


I was waaaay wrong. The web of wood was hard as the pavement. The Sawzall was somewhat helpful, but only where the vines had enough thickness to keep the tool from contacting the metal. The clippers couldn’t get around the pieces because the trunks were embedded in the wire. The tenacious wood wouldn’t budge.


A man who worked at the adjacent property came over to survey the situation and explained his other job was landscaping. I knew we were in trouble when he said the only way to remove the labyrinth of vines was to burn them off with a blowtorch. (We decided that was beyond our skill set and insurance limits.)


But we were determined to neaten the fence, since for now, it’s too expensive to replace. The three of us kept snipping and pulling and swapping tools. We discovered that cutting the branches in every other hole usually made it possible to pull them through one small piece at a time. Cut-unbraid-pull-toss-repeat. Over and over. For nearly 30 feet of a six-foot-tall fence.


The final result isn’t perfect: there are still a few pieces of wood clamped tightly around the wire. Those obstinate chunks will need another year of rot, probably, before they surrender. For the most part, though, the fence is clean. It gleams in the sunshine with a freshness that matches our new space.


Often as we worked I thought of the word tenacious. The wild vegetation was certainly steadfast in its mission to survive and spread. Despite our hacking and choking, it remained inflexibly bound to the fence, even after its source of meager nourishment had been severed.


Yet, we who sought to eradicate the vines were equally resolute. We had a vision of a clean slate of steel, and we kept focused on each narrow opening until it was accomplished.


The process of transformation is like that. Old patterns are tenacious and their roots are deep. They don’t die easily or quickly and some hang on forever. Removing them requires a persistence that is similarly determined. When you keep plugging away at the old beliefs and behaviors, you free up more spaces for something new.


The process isn’t easy, but it’s constructive and is actually fun when done in the community of dear friends. Don’t give up.


Marnie C. Ferree