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The Stolen Leaf

With spring exploding all over, I dragged the critters on a hike along the Potomac just downriver from Great Falls, where even on the most sublime day you often have a shocking amount of beauty to yourself. The Virginia bluebells and Dutchmen's breeches were blooming, the sun blasting through the still-open canopy. The littlest critter asked if she could pick some flowers for a bouquet. Children today rarely go anywhere in a car on a weekend without expecting to return home with some kind of loot. I told her that she couldn't pick any flowers because some of the plants were endangered or rare. My righteousness was as thick as the duff on the forest floor.

One plant intrigued me. It was growing in thick clumps, overrunning entire hillsides, and had the kind of frenetic vitality characteristic of invasive species. It had no flower. I picked one leaf, about eight inches long, and put it in my pocket. I would find someone to identify the species later. Maybe the authorities could be alerted that this weedy species had gotten out of control.

Half an hour later, in the parking lot, I saw two park rangers strolling across the picnic grounds and get into their truck. I approached and pulled the leaf out of my pocket and asked if they knew what it was.

They looked at me as though I had told them I was thinking of lighting the woods on fire. They said they had no idea what kind of plant that was, though they didn't show any interest in looking closely at the leaf. Then the ranger nearest me said, "This is national parkland. You're not allowed to take any plant material."

I said I was just worried that it might be an invasive. It was just a leaf, I noted.

The ranger repeated the law. He said he was required to inform me that I couldn't take any plants.

I was momentarily speechless. The ranger kept staring, sternly, and I expected him at any moment to issue a command: "Drop the leaf."

I turned away and, feeling them staring, dropped the leaf on the asphalt of the parking lot. I was now unarmed. I probably should have emptied my pockets to show that I had no leaves, twigs, acorns, moss, etc.

A short while later, driving nearby, I saw the same rangers tailing me. A coincidence, probably. Or was it? Were they keeping a close eye on the leaf guy? With the kids along I didn't want to get into some kind of heavy showdown, but the imagination has its own rules, and naturally I could see the whole horrible thing playing out: The confrontation, the suspect losing his cool, the invectives flying, the guns whipping from their holsters, the rangers leading the suspect away in handcuffs as his children wail, the searching of the car for stolen invasive weed leaves....

I reassured myself that they probably wouldn't shoot me. That would be an overreaction.

In any case, we escaped with our lives. In the future I won't even look at any plants, or, for that matter, venture outdoors. It's just too tense out there.

By Joel Achenbach  |  April 11, 2005; 9:49 AM ET
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