-- The monster creeps closer by the hour.
Dense and coiling, it throbs almost visibly with the virulence and primordial energy of the first jungles from which it crawled. It's a ruthless invader, indiscriminate in its victims, awe-inspiring in its resilience and unyielding in its advance. It's nature's revenge for every farmer who has ever slashed and burned -- the iceberg to the modern Titanic of development and expansion.
For nearly a century, kudzu has strengthened its grip on the South, coiling its vines around guy wires in muscular knots, strangling trees and choking railroad embankments. Men have hacked at it, ripped it from the ground, burned it and splashed it with poison. And still the creature pushes on, stalking the fringes of towns from Washington to Dallas, moving steadily. Reasserting nature's dominion over the earth. Blotting out the vanity of men.
Who would dare stand in its way?
Newt Hardie slowed his burgundy Buick LeSabre to a crawl on the busy roadway and glared at the kudzu clogging a roadside ravine.
There the creature writhed quietly, plunging its roots deeper into the soil, conspiring to commit murder.
A sudden angry blaring from behind shook Hardie from his reverie.
"My bad," Hardie said, motioning an apology to the scowling driver in his rear-view mirror. "I'm sorry."
He mashed the accelerator hard enough to rattle the weed whacker against the roll of thick plastic sheeting in his backseat, and his 31/2-pound Pulaski ax thudded as it shifted with the pruning saws and hand plows in the trunk.
Some men take up golf when they retire. Others go fishing. Hardie, 71, likes to rise at dawn, slip on a bright orange vest and clamber around in the dirt under interstate overpasses, grubbing for kudzu root crowns.
He attacks the work, which often entails precarious climbs up slippery embankments, with the speed and dexterity of a well-conditioned 20-year-old. He doesn't care that other folks say kudzu can't be controlled. He refuses to use herbicides because of their impact on the environment. Something deeper than post-retirement boredom drives the former Milliken & Co. executive.
"Men are supposed to have dominion, but the kudzu's taking over," Hardie said during his routine patrol one Friday morning. "I feel called to it, believe it or not. Kudzu's kind of like sin. It's underneath, and it's hard to get rid of, and it's everywhere."
Hardie embarked on what he calls his kudzu odyssey in 2001, when, as a master gardener and member of the Spartanburg Men's Garden Club, he set out to save a row of cherry trees from the vine's clutches. He spent years experimenting with tools and developing techniques to combat kudzu. Last October, he assembled a motley gang of kudzu killers -- the Coalition to Control Kudzu -- to aid in his crusade.
"They are the ones that, when I'm dead and gone, will have to carry the ball," Hardie said.
The group comprises a botanist, an industrial physicist, a chemical engineer, an environmentalist, a community activist, a horticulturist, a landscaper, a neighborhood leader and an inventor. Together they wage war on kudzu in urban areas, refining methods that might someday help towns across the country contain the plant without the use of chemicals.
As part of the fight, the coalition dispatches Saturday morning work parties to target neighborhood eyesores. For research purposes, Hardie tends a 10-plot site behind the Spartanburg YMCA, where the group experiments with vine-killing techniques. So far they've learned to use sheets of thick, clear plastic as a defoliant and to attack root crowns with pruning saws and hand plows.
It's the root crowns -- fibrous, baseball-sized nodes just under the soil's surface -- that spur the plant's growth. Unchecked, the crowns can push roots as deep as 16 feet and unfurl vines at the rate of about a foot per day.
When the coalition squared off against such a potent foe, it attracted attention from within the kudzu-fighting community.
"Before Newt Hardie and his gang of kudzu slayers came on, there was little information on how long it would take to just cut it back, dig it out, and how effective that would be," said James H. Miller, a U.S. Forest Service researcher and leading authority on invasive plants, who has a lab in Auburn, Ala. "Their efforts there in Spartanburg will make a difference."
To Hardie, Miller's support comes almost as a benediction -- "He is sort of my mentor, in a sense," Hardie said of the ecologist -- and it makes him work harder. He spends time formulating theories on how kudzu came to grow in certain spots. He just finished teaching a kudzu course at the local technical college. Nell, his wife of 49 years, rolls her eyes at her husband's single-mindedness.
"She thinks I'm compulsive," he said.
But Hardie understands the enormity of what he has undertaken. Every morning, he puts on his flashy orange vest and hops into the Buick to patrol the 25 marked kudzu-control sites the coalition has set up in Spartanburg.
Driving around, it's easy to see why this city sits at the forefront of anti-kudzu research. The invader slithers across the landscape here, up trees and telephone poles and roadside ditches, like a roiling and malignant green tide.
Yet coalition efforts seem to be paying off.
"We have lost a lot of acreage to kudzu, and there's a lot of damage that kudzu can do to trees," said Spartanburg Mayor William Barnet III. "They're making a contribution to a part of our world that a lot of people are frustrated about, and not many have spent time trying to corral."
While the plant is an inexhaustible foe for the coalition, the humans are battling it equally tenaciously -- and they're gaining ground on the monster a few inches at a time.
Hardie leads the way. He races from site to site in his Buick, rolling through stop signs and cranking U-turns.
When talking about his work, he uses a mixture of military and sports terminology -- "If you work on the crown, it's offense; if you just roll it back, it's defense" -- and like any good wartime commander, he operates with a deep respect for his enemy.
"It has a tremendous will for survival in nature," he said as he slashed at a vine with a pruning saw. Moving across the street, he paused in a 30-by-10-foot rectangle the coalition has carved from the dense green foliage.
"This is our perimeter," he said, with the gruffness of a general touring the front. "We took this ground back from the enemy."
Beyond the cleared patch, the ground bristled with the color-coded plastic flags the coalition uses to mark buried root crowns.
Despite the progress the coalition has made, the city has responded ambivalently. When Hardie approached another site for a drive-by, he had to stop the Buick short.
"Okay, somebody stole our sign," he said. "That happens a lot."
He jumps out and sticks a new one into the ground.
As a result of mixed reactions, Hardie's personal crusade has become as much about making believers of a skeptical community as it is about taming kudzu.
During one roadside stop, a lifted green Ford F-350 rumbled up.
"What's the best way y'all found to control that?" the young driver asked from the cab. "Why don't y'all just spray something on it?"
Hardie took a breath and answered patiently. He handed the driver a green card on which he has printed the coalition credo. The driver grinned.
"Good luck," he said.
As the truck pulled away, Hardie hauled the big ax from the Buick's trunk and fiercely dismembered a half-buried crown.
"It's kind of like hitting a punching bag, I guess -- attacking the kudzu," he said later.
At another overgrown patch off Park Road, he tossed an uprooted crown into the street, for all to see.
"I guess after Columbus proved the Earth was round, there were still people who said, 'No, it's flat,' " he said with a shrug.
So he keeps at it.
He stopped at one corner to scout a Saturday work site and walked over to a network of wiry vines crisscrossing a barren stretch of dirt. Months ago, he and the others spent hours working the narrow plot to clear it of kudzu. But now, beneath the soil, trouble brewed again.
"See those vines?" Hardie said. "If we don't get those up, they'll take root -- some of them have already started to take root. And next year, it will own this area."
He stood for a moment, studying the runners in the dust. Then he jabbed a little plastic flag into the ground, hopped into his Buick and took off.