Cultural Kudzu

by Joe Thomas

Atlanta Being Invaded

I went and got my hair cut on Monday, a semi-annual event that attracts stupid questions like “Did you get your hair cut?” or “Is there something different about you today?” Moving past the existential crises that a question like that can cause, I began to reflect on kudzu. Not only because the place where I get my hair cut in Atlanta (and have since I was young) is called “The Cut Zoo,” but also because my hair grows at an alarmingly fast rate. Kudzu, a plant species native to Japan introduced to the United States in the late 19th century, is a notorious vine beloved and bedeviled in the South. Our history and culture is inexorably interwoven with the creeping kudzu all around us. The unofficial “Kudzu League” is our answer to the Ivy League, educating some of the South’s (and the North’s) brightest students. Kudzu is featured in magazine titles, company names, academic journals, barber shops, and anything else you can think of. What is it about the nature of the kudzu plant that appeals to so many below the Mason-Dixon line, and what does it say about us as people?

There is a ravine near my house in which kudzu runs rampant. Every summer, we watch as city employees fight a battle of attrition in the sweltering heat, trying to keep the monster from pulling the sidewalk and road into its depths. As a child, I was cautioned not to go to close, as kudzu had a tendency to reach out and grab young Southerners as some sort of ecological Moon-Pie-and-RC-Cola snack. Despite the impending doom my parents tried to correlate with the kudzu, (I later realized that it was because the ravine was dangerous and they didn’t want me to fall in) I’ve always found it to be rather beautiful. There’s something majestic about seeing a vine slowly take over a tree, until it is completely covered and becomes a new species of plant, something you can’t find anywhere else. As a kid I would pretend that these giant trees covered in foliage were dinosaurs, or elephants, massive green beasts battling in the woods. The flowers of the kudzu vine are beautiful, purple spots on the expanse of green that clash and fight to stand out. Kudzu, like all ivy and vines, looks wonderful with brick, unless it’s YOUR brick home that it is covering, in which case good luck.

So what can we say about all this? Southern literature often portrays a certain type of woman as beautiful but with a creeping sense of doom, quietly reaching out to drag you into the depths. This correlation is a bit reductive and stereotypical, but so is much of Southern culture. I prefer to compare the nature of kudzu to the nature of the Southern spirit, tenacious and rebellious. Not the Confederacy mind you, because there is a difference between tenacity and ignorance, but rather a unique mindset that combines creativity and a spirit of doing things “the right way.” The South is beautiful, and if you’re not careful, it’ll pull you in.