In the weeds

Less toxic than table salt,” the chemical salesman smiled as he passed me the first of several 5-gallon jugs of herbicide. “This stuff is sprayed all around Durango. You can pretty much bathe in it.”

It was a decade and another Durango lifetime ago for this one-time horse rancher. Back then, I managed a small spread east of town, and my life mission was keeping those 85 acres and their equine inhabitants in pristine order. Much of the job was storybook West – bucking hay bales, mending fence and training foals beneath pastoral views of the Florida River Valley. But trouble can always creep into paradise.

On that fateful week, the ranch owner charged me with a fairly daunting task. It was time to take the battle against our epidemic of musk thistle to the next level. And so it was that I found myself breaking my own rules, paying a visit to Mr. Chemical and picking up large quantities of the weed killer 2,4-D.

As I loaded that “economical and effective broadleaf weed killer” into the pickup, I couldn’t but notice a few additional words – “danger,” “highly toxic” and “peligro” – decorating my new jugs. And so this fledgling applicator politely inquired about that touchiest of subjects – safety precaution. “Like I said,” the salesman replied curtly, “this stuff is less toxic than table salt. Pants and long sleeves should do it.”

Sensing my hesitation, the good old boy went one further, gave me a friendly pat on the back and added, “Relax. You’re absolutely going to slay them. This is a perfect time to spray.”

And now for a deep, dark confession – I desperately wanted to slay them. Prior to that day, I’d been playing with thistle for about five months. I’d cut, pulled, mowed and filled hundreds of bags of the nasty little specimen. I’d chewed through dozens of pairs of gloves, scratched my body from ball cap to belt buckle and had barely turned back the advance of the European transplant.

Since desperate times often require desperate measures, I grudgingly drove those white jugs back to el rancho, affixed the 250-gallon sprayer tank to the tractor and got down to business – diluting the dark concentrate with clear water, lowering the sprayer boom, firing up the tractor and rolling out toward thistle acres. Once there, I threw the switch (which just happened to be black), the tractor spun pressure into the tank and out shot a cascade of weed-killing wonder.

Immediately, my skin crawled, eyes watered and throat tightened, as the powerful vapor assaulted all my senses. So I pulled down my sleeves, checked my pants for any accidental discharge and went one further – completely sealing the tractor cab, sticking some AC/DC on the stereo and starting to dole out death. Two tank refills and a couple rotations of “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt

Cheap” (poetic justice?) later, I chanced by a favorite thistle patch. That thick tangle of the purple blooms had laughed at my feeble efforts since day one on the job. But this horse poke wasn’t taking any more.

And so I set out for a little hand-to-hand combat, climbing down out of the tractor, grabbing the tank’s nifty hand gun fixture and preparing to hit the hard-to-reach patch with an extra dose. Unraveling a dozen feet of hose, I approached my thorny nemesis, metal gun in hand. Carefully, I took aim, opened the valve and squeezed the trigger before “POP!” The gun’s tired hose had blown up, literally exploded, and was now squirting herbicide everywhere and whipping around like a cobra in heat. Next thing I know, that stream of liquid death shot out of the busted sprayer and headed right at yours truly. A high pressure jet of 2,4-D promptly drenched me from long sleeves to pant legs. Just for effect, the hose whipped back around full circle and a liberal dose center-punched me dead center in the “gentles,” as my 8-year-old has taken to calling a man’s privates/wedding tackle/manhood/plumbing.

Somehow, Mr. Chemical had foretold the future – I had managed to bathe in 2,4-D, and the oily slick covered much of my skin and clouded my lungs. Panic-stricken, I triple-jumped back to the tractor and shut the sprayer down. Bon Scott shepherded me at high speed back to the barn, where I gave myself the full-blown Silkwood treatment, scrubbing my body from head to gentles with a stiff bristled brush.

Luckily, the owners passed up their afternoon horse time on that day. Instead of their prized Welch Cobb draught horses, they would have found me – lying on my back stark naked and next to a pair of soaked coveralls in the “horse bath,” praying a dose of solar radiation would complete my purification.

In the insult to injury department, I did not “slay it” as Mr. Chemical had promised (maybe his crystal ball was cloudier than presumed). While I may have inadvertently harmed myself, my thorny plant buddies were back in strength the next spring.

But I did take something away from my redneck baptism. After a little follow-up research, I learned that the herbicide is “possibly carcinogenic” and actually a derivative of a little recipe known as Agent Orange. A few of the tastier possible side effects of 2,4-D include: liver toxicity, endocrine disruption, neurotoxicity and good-old-fashioned malformed spermatozoa.

Suffice it to say, I have a slightly different relationship with thistle (and possibly spermatozoa) these days. I’ve been happily bending over and pulling up weeds by hand on my home spread ever since my spray down. And I’ve done my damnedest to keep that foul mystery mixture and all of its cousins well away from the family’s soil, well water and air bubble. I won’t lie, hand-weeding is a bitch, and there’s been an abundance of blood, sweat and thorns. But I know one thing for certain – elbow grease is definitely less toxic than table salt.

– Will Sands



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January 11, 2024
High and dry

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