Essay | Arundo donax: A musician’s reflection on an invasive species

Volunteers from Watershed Management Group, University of Arizona oboe and bassoon studios, removing Arundo donax from the Tanque Verde Watershed, Tucson, Az.
Volunteers from Watershed Management Group, University of Arizona oboe and bassoon studios, removing Arundo donax from the Tanque Verde Watershed, Tucson, Az.

Chris Zatarain

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Have you ever played a woodwind instrument? Maybe around the 4th or 5th grade you might have picked up the clarinet or the saxophone, or for some of us, the oboe or the bassoon. If the answer to that question is “yes”, then you have come in contact with Arundo donax, or the giant reed cane, a plant that has been used since ancient times in the making of music. 

Arundo donax is a bamboo-like species of grass believed to be indigenous to eastern Asia, though it has been cultivated for millennia in areas of northern Africa, central Asia, and the Mediterranean. It was introduced to warmer regions of the United States in the early 19th century from the Mediterranean as an ornamental plant, as well as to control erosion along waterways and drainage canals, though it subsequently escaped cultivation, becoming invasive along watersheds across the country. In its spread, Arundo donax poses significant problems in arid regions, such as in Tucson, where I live.  

Connecting music to the environment

English horn reeds made of processed Arundo donax tied onto metal tubes, illuminated to display unique architecture of each reed. (Chris Zatarain)

For me, as an oboe/English horn player—a double-reed player—my life has become inextricably linked to this plant. Those of us who are oboists or bassoonists have a particularly complex and special relationship to Arundo. We are cursed with the task of reed-making, an elaborate process of crafting mouthpieces from the giant reed cane. 

The semi-hard, flexible structure and malleability of the material allows us, through years of practice, as well as through trial and error, to develop our own unique voices and tone colors, as well as to develop a system that works for us based on our own specific needs. Through the tradition, we develop a kinship with this living, organic being; shaping it, manipulating it, embedding ourselves into its structure, and working to make it sing, day after day. It is a labor of love, of necessity, and of much frustration.

Ordinarily, cane cultivated for use in reed-making must be grown in the south of France or more recently in areas of Spain, Turkey, Argentina, Mexico, and China. It is grown under specific conditions to create high quality products of desirable shape, thickness, and quality and can easily sell for around $200/pound of tube cane, a good amount of which nevertheless varies in quality or is often unusable.

In comparison, wild-growing Arundo would typically not be considered a viable option for reed-making.

Taking a stand against invasive species

In January of this year, myself and other members of the oboe and bassoon studios at the University of Arizona woke up bright and early on a crisp, cool Saturday morning to volunteer our time and effort with the Watershed Management Group to help eradicate this plant that is so integral to our lives as musicians, from the edges of the Tanque Verde Watershed on the Eastside of Tucson. 

I distinctly remember the ground, white with frost blanketing patches of crabgrass and wild mustard. To my surprise, I could hear the sound of water flowing in the creek. It is not often that we get to experience water flowing in the Sonaran Desert, except for during times when we are blessed with heavy rainfall or snowmelt from our many surrounding mountains. It is a magical and serene experience to witness water in the desert.

Springing up in massive clumps dotted around the creek, Arundo sprawled, reaching for the sky and nearly touching it, towering 20 ft above the ground. They were giant straws, glutinously sucking up the precious water below ground. It was a daunting mess made up of layers of sickly gray rods woven together sideways within a forest of fresh green and purple shoots. There were two small trees choked within the entanglement. 

Large pile of dead Arundo donax. (Chris Zatarain)

We were armed with gardening gloves and loppers. Splitting off into teams, we got to work cutting down fresh shoots at the base and hauling off the dead matter in huge bundles that take two to carry. Even in this form, the wood was resonant and sanghollowly as it was handled, passed around, and removed. 

By the end of our day, we had cleared nearly half of the clump that we had begun working on, and I even managed to free one of the small trees I had set out to emancipate. At one point, a hawk came to sit up in its branches, presumably waiting for some poor creature to scurry out from the unraveling heap. It was hard but incredibly satisfying work and the pile of dead stems we managed to collect was an impressive sight. 

However, half of the initial clump still remained and several more of comparable size could be seen looming around the edges of the creek. Too much for one day, certainly, but the Watershed Management Group has already been highly successful in eradicating Arundo from nearby Sabino Canyon. There is much work to do, but there is also much hope.

An experiment in green instrumentation

Historically speaking, the musical instruments of cultures around the world are often built from materials found in their environments, their physical form and music made from them informed by their ecologies. My instrument, the oboe, like Arundo donax, is an import from the European and Mediterranean world. Its bore is built of Dalbergia melanoxylon, grenadilla or African black wood, its keys are made of silver mined from some unknown mountain, its joints are lined with the dead tissue of cork trees, then assembled in a small factory on the Swiss-Italian border before it found its way to me. It is a product of many different environments and ecologies.

Water flowing in Tanque Verde creek, Sonoran Desert, Tucson, AZ. (Chris Zatarain)

My teacher, Sara Fraker, D.M.A., Professor of Oboe at the University of Arizona, had us set out  to collect trimmings of fresh green cane that is relatively straight and roughly around 10-10.5 millimeters in diameter, similar to what we purchase from commercial growers around the world. The intention for these cuttings is for them to cure for around a year or two, in which case we might experiment making them into reeds for music-making, harvested by our own hands and in service of our local environment. 

I hope that this experiment is in some way successful, as I think working with this plant as it grows invasively in our landscape would add to the significance and ritual of our craft, imbuing it with and grounding our music in our local environment while working to free our waterways of it. Perhaps the wild-growing Arundo found along our waterways might not produce a viable alternative to the commercially cultivated cane we are accustomed to, though at least for me it feels deeply spiritual to work with. At the very least, perhaps in its removal we can enjoy the rhythm of volunteers and community-members working together in a common purpose, and the continued gentle music of water running in a desert stream in our future.

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