Kudzu are a breed of spiraling, scaling, spreading vines native to Japan. The plants are, according to legend, the most invasive plant species in the world, possessed with the ability to climb over trees so quickly they suffocate and kill the branches and trunks they shade from the sun.
Somewhere between scientific fact and mythological folklore, the vine is known for its monstrous appetite and unstoppable pace. As Harper's Magazine's Willie Morris wrote: "I thought the whole world would someday be covered by it, that it would grow as fast as Jack’s beanstalk, and that every person on earth would have to live forever knee-deep in its leaves."
Swedish photographer Helene Schmitz is one of the many enraptured by the lush, tangled vines. "It can spread at a rate of 30 centimeters [nearly 12 inches] in 24 hours," she explained to The Huffington Post, "and a single plant can grow 18 to 60 meters [around 60 to 200 feet] during the hot summer months in the American South. According to local mythology, one has to shut the windows at night in order to stop the Kudzu from entering the buildings."
The Kudzu was gifted from Japan to the United States at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, and Americans were taken with the hypnotic, coiling vines that seemed to subsume all in their sight. When botanists raised concerns about the potential deluge of leafage underway, the American people shrugged it off, entranced by the beauty of the all-consuming greens. In the 1950s, authorities officially began attempting to control the beastly flora, but the attempts were fruitless. Today, the plants yawn wildly across Southern landscapes and coil their way into Southern literature, fables and memories.
As time went on, Kudzu became an inexorable aspect of Southern life. As Bill Finch wrote in the Smithsonian Magazine: "In a few decades, a conspicuously Japanese name has come to sound like something straight from the mouth of the South, a natural complement to inscrutable words like Yazoo, gumbo and bayou."
As you can see in Helene's photographs, the plants have taken on a certain Southern spookiness; like an abandoned haunted house with an unseen force within it, the plants appear dormant, but not lifeless.
In 2012, Schmitz traveled throughout Alabama, Georgia, South and North Carolina with her camera, documenting with cinematic intensity the prowess of the invasive green beast. She develops and scans the images in Sweden, and uses the digital files to produce the final photographs.
In the eerie black-and-white images, the colossal plants resemble fairy tale foliage, with lurking faces and limbs that could emerge at any minute. They look bewitching, seeming to hold the possibility of violence.
"I find the notion of a plant being 'invasive' intriguing," Schmitz said, "since the term is normally used to describe actions of war. Bringing war terminology into mankind’s relation to an individual plant and its germination might even describe something about our relation to nature itself. I am also captivated by the cinematographic sense in which Kudzu transforms the landscape into something resembling an apocalyptic film set."
In the end, Schmitz's images don't just capture the Kudzu themselves, but the entire mythology surrounding them -- the fascination, the fear, man's urge to control and mythologize nature. The Kudzu, or at least our understanding of them, concretize our ongoing relationship with the environment, one that is not a backdrop to our daily lives but an active player with incredible and unpredictable power.
"I am interested in how the forces of nature, in a threatening and terrifying way, take over and destroy the fragile social edifices we've built in our vain need to control and dominate," Schmitz explains. Schmitz herself participates in the Kudzu's rapid proliferation, as the stories we tell about natural forces are yet another attempt to take control of the uncontrollable.
Helen Schmitz's "Kudzu Project" was recently on view at Turn Gallery in New York.
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