When people talk about plants, one of the common conversations that comes up is whether the plant is native or invasive. Invasive plants have taken on monstrous qualities of epic proportions, and people in organized groups nationwide argue for the eradication of invasive plants using harmful, chemically-based methods. The native plant community, whose conferences are sponsored by Bayer Chemical and Monsanto, advocate the use of noxious chemicals to deal with problem plants. I’d like to spend some time today discussing the “invasive plant” movement from a druidic perspective, where this movement came from, and provide an alternative perspective. I’ll also note that while I think the term “invasive” is a problem, I haven’t yet come up with a better term, so I’ll use it in this blog entry. I don’t think its a good term, however, and it creates more problems than it solves.
Invasives as a Cultural Construction: The Case of Autumn Olive
Let’s start with an example to see how these “invasive plants” are framed. When I was researching my recent post on Autumn Olive, I came across this video produced by the University of Maryland discussing the evils of Autumn Olive. The piece opens with a pathos (emotion) driven argument that these “invaders” are scary, are “the nightmare that threatens your garden” and that one must be vigilant and protect one’s home and garden from such invasion. This immediately puts humanity in an adversarial relationship with the said plant invader and encourages us to get angry and upset over the incursion of these plants upon the landscape. When we move into the video itself, the narrator, who has a bunch of fancy titles, suggests that the autumn olives were “another good idea gone bad” and how they were once “promoted heavily” by state governments and the like, but now are “invaders.” So here, we have the obvious fact that we A) messed up the ecosystem to the point where we needed plants to help and B) brought these plants in willfully and systematically into the environment and C) didn’t consider the long-term impact of said plants before introduction.
The narrator continues by suggesting many things that, frankly, are not founded in reality. First, she argues that in every case Autumn Olives crowd out all native plants (an overgeneralization fallacy; tell that to the Boneset and New England Aster happily growing next to the Autumn Olive in my back yard). Perhaps the most ludicrous part is when she argues that Autumn Olive’s nitrogen fixing qualities are a terrible thing. As one of the few non-legume nitrogen fixers in many ecosystems where it grows, Autumn Olive helps regenerate soils, particularly in wasteland areas where the soils have been degraded by intensive farming by adding nitrogen to the soil and allowing the soil to become more fertile for other kinds of plants. In his book Invasion Biology: Critique of a Pseudoscience, David Theodoropoulos he demonstrates many cases of this nature: that if a native plant fixes nitrogen or creates compost matter its considered good, but when an invasive does the same thing, it is considered bad. The video narrator concludes by suggesting that the “easiest thing to do” to get rid of autumn olive is to cut it down and “treat the stump with a systemic herbicide.” Yes, that’s exactly what we should do to the poor plant we put here who is regenerating the ecosystem and providing us and wildlife with tasty free berries (note my sarcasm).
Autumn olive presents an excellent poster child for the invasive plants debate because it highlights many of the problems that an “invasion biology” mindset has concerning plants. Specifically, it illustrates the contradiction that is so inherent in nearly all invasive plant species: we brought it here, we introduced it, and we damaged the landscape so that it has a niche in which to grow. And then we become unhappy when it does grow and works to regenerate the problems we caused, so we treat it with chemicals that further damage the landscape, creating an even greater niche for the plant to grow.
The Origins of Invasion Biology
One of the striking things about the invasion biology movement is its connection with the Nazi’s xenophobic and genocidal thinking, as detailed by David Theodoropoulos in his book (and also discussed to a more limited extent on his website). The Nazis had a very similar “native plant” movement in Germany where they worked to eradicate the landscape of non-native plants; this, of course, parallels the atrocities committed in their attempt to eradicate humans from the landscape who didn’t fit their idolized image. Theodoropoulous argues that invasion biology is connected to the same kinds of destructive thinking prevalent in Naziism, that is, an easily identified enemy that one seeks to exterminate, an emphasis on genetic purity, the goal of preserving one’s lands, and a root cause of dissatisfaction with where things are currently. I’d add to his arguments that it becomes easy to construct an enemy, get people angry with the enemy, and then work hard to eradicate it, all the while stripping them of the facilities for rational thought through fearmongering and intense emotional reactions. From a rhetorical perspective, when we begin setting up multiple logical fallacies in order to generate hatred of plants (straw man arguments, post-hoc fallacies, either-or fallacies, overgeneralization fallacies) we get into a mode that allows us to react emotionally rather than reason logically about our interaction with our landscape.
Another problem with the invasives debate is that only certain kinds of plants or insects are targeted. The European honeybee is an invasive species under many definitions–it outcompetes native pollinators such as the bumble bee. Despite clear scientific evidence for its invasive quality, we keep honeybees and they produce honey and pollinate crops. And you never hear any invasive species people complaining about Apis Melifera. In the same way, I’ve seen Poison Ivy routinely listed on “invasive species” lists, despite the fact that poison ivy is a native plant filling and important role in the ecosystem. Wolves suffer a similar fate–wolves are native, but we’ve done our best to eradicate them in the ecosystem because they prey upon farmer’s herds. What counts as an invasive, then, depends on whether it aligns with economic interests and how convenient or inconvenient it is for humanity.
The terminology problem continues within the scientific literature within the invasive plant community: practitioners cannot agree upon terminology or what features actually constitute an invasive plant or animal. So not only do we have a straw man argument (a constructed enemy), we also have no clear definition of what we actually are rallying against, but by golly, we will rally against it. The problem with fuzzy definitions is that they, like emotions, are easily manipulated to get one to behave in a certain manner–and as I’ll demonstrate in the next section, like everything else in our culture, this ultimately comes back to consumption.
Problems with Invasion Biology
All of the above things speak to the destructive origins of the invasive plants thinking, and this thinking leads to a series of problems
Invasion biology as a profit scheme. First and foremost, its important to understand that the invasive plant industry (and yes, it is an industry) is quite lucrative from the perspective of the chemical companies. Dow’s site, for example, promotes the use of chemical treatments of invasives in order to sell their products. Given their nature, invasive plants are nearly impossible to eradicate and continually and easily spread by human disturbance, the chemical industry has a cash cow of epic proportions–each year, one needs to buy and apply more chemicals to deal with one’s invasives in one’s yard. The more one disturbs the soil, the more readily the invasives will come–and so the cycle continues. The chemical companies have everything to gain by maintaining an adversarial relationship with the plants. David Theodoropoulos provides evidence in his book that links executives from the chemical industry to the founders of the native plant movement (such as the Monsanto executive and creator of Roundup being a founding member of the California Exotic Pest Plant Council). Profits are driving this movement, make no mistake about that.
Chemical controls are worse than the plants themselves. What is worse? The damage that Autumn Olive or Phragmites cause or the chemicals and methods we use to eradicate them? If I had a chance to let species grow or use horrible poisons to eradicate them, I will let them grow and find ways of co-habitating with those species. We do more harm than good in working to eradicate these invasives with chemicals. We cannot poison the landscape in order to protect it.
Human interference and destruction of the land is the root cause. The ironic thing about the invasive plant movement is that humanity is much more destructive on the ecosystem than any single invasive plant, or any group of invasive plants or other species combined. A few of these destructive tendencies are: the insistence in maintaining a perfect lawn with petrochemicals, the extraction and use of fossil fuels, the use of poisons that shatter the ecological balance of our waterways and reduce diversity, the injecting of hundereds of millions of tons of poisons into our watershed through fracking, the use of clear-cutting, the prevalence of oil spills (and so on, and so on). Humans have much to atone for with regards to our relationship with nature. Human interference, to me, the root cause of the whole issue and is the bigger issue we should consider addressing.
Promotion of an adversarial relationship with nature. I’ve written about this fairly extensively on this blog; the promotion an adversarial relationship with nature is going to continue to lead to our treating it harmfully, dumping chemicals on it, and generally not engaging in any kind of partnership with the land. As long as we see nature as the enemy, we are, like the Nazis, willing to do anything in order to achieve our goals. And that is an incredibly scary thing indeed.
Alternative Perspectives to Invasion Biology
Now that I’ve outlined some of the history and issues with the invasive plant movement, I’d like to offer some alternative perspectives, rooted in my own druidic perspective that “nature is good” and help to demonstrate my shift to more sustainable ways of thinking.
Nature is not a static thing to memorialize but rather dynamic and ever-changing. Wendell Berry argues in The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture that sometime in the 20th century, our relationship with the natural world shifted from that of collaborators to that of museum preservationists. At all costs, the US National Parks Service set about preserving nature exactly as it was at that moment, memorialized across time. Or, if a habitat was deemed too full of invasives, habitats were “restored” through the mass dumping of chemicals and destruction of what was growing there. And to this day, these practices still take place—the plants that are growing are removed, burned, chemically treated, and new plants are planted, those that are “supposed to be there.”
The problem with is that it is a completely unrealistic view of how nature actually works. Evolution is about adaptation and change; our fossil records show that throughout the many millennia of earth’s existence, the only one constant is change and the ability to adapt. Species that adapted to their changing surroundings survived, those who did not failed to survive. This is a natural process and one that has driven all life. We are already seeing the effects of climate change with the migration of species to areas that are now warming (I think about the redbud tree that is now showing up here in Michigan). Nature will adapt and evolve, its just what she does.
The invasive plant movement assumes that nature is, was, and always will be the same. But even as far back as Charles Darwin, we see evidence of plant and animal matter being moved all over the globe by natural processes–bugs and animals and microbes riding on a log to a new island, birds carrying seeds 1000’s of miles in their beaks, and so on. The difference is that humans have perpetuated the movement of species into new areas at a much faster pace and we have done this while systematically destroying ecosystems and wild areas. Of course we are going to see cracks in the system–but, if we give her space and time, nature will adapt.
Nature is not something to be at a distance, rather, something we can interact with. The “nature as a static thing” view puts nature at a distance, rather than something that one interacts with. There is a local county park where I like to go, that has some amazing plants like diamond puffball mushrooms, spicebush, and a small patch of beech-oak old growth forest. There are 6’ wide paved pathways with another 4’ of mowed clearance on each side of the path. People run there, bring their dogs. But what I never see them doing is interacting—getting up close to look at a bug, or sit on an old stump. They stay neatly and perfectly on the path and even while they are in the middle of a forest, keep that forest at a distance. This distance leads us to see ourselves as separate from nature, and certainly allows us to have less empathy about decisions to slash and burn pieces of it that aren’t to our liking, or dump poisons all over it in the drive for trying to put things back the way they were before we messed with it.
Finally, this view eradicates any idea of nature as a “commons” that benefits all, where the careful management of natural resources is something that is the responsibility of all. The commons view, used extensively in feudal England, suggested that many of common lands were available for general use (foraging, harvesting trees using coppicing as a method, putting flocks to pasture), as long as that use was kindly and in balance.
With the rise of the “nature as a monument” movement, we’ve forgotten how to be in partnership with each other and with the land to promote long-term balance and harmony; this is perhaps no more evident than in the invasive species movement.
Most “invasives” are slowly regenerating our landscapes from damage that WE have inflicted. Invasives often work to regenerate damaged soils [see my dandelion post] and do so quickly and effectively. They do often outcompete other native plants that have been previously growing there (and in many cases, were recently removed due to human activity). They often have benefits to us and to the ecosystem (see Timothy Lee Scott’s Invasive Plant Medicine for a fascinating discussion). The idea that we can somehow preserve the landscape as it once was is, frankly, in my opinion short-sighted and pointless. The landscape changes, and it changes far more often due to human activities – humans can wipe out a forest far more effectively and quickly than buckthorn can. Most of the role of the invasives are to regenerate the damage that we have continually inflicted.
One of my recent herb walks was in this area with acres and acres of native plants that had be re-introduced by a local state park service (I don’t want to know what they did to eradicate whatever was growing there before). As we walked up this hill, my herb instructor pointed out something quite interesting–the only place the “invasives” where showing up in the landscapes was where humans were causing disturbances. In other words, sweet clover (which bees love) and star thistle (Spotted Knapweed) were showing up only on the edges of the paths where they were being mowed (these are the best plants from which bees make honey, for the record). There were literally no plants of an “invasive” nature anywhere further inside where the soil wasn’t disturbed. And this is true of many invasives, like dandelion. They are regenerating the most difficult spaces, those that have no soil fertility, that have compacted soil. They are paving the way for others to come.
Long-term Orientation. As I’ve discussed on this blog before, the concept of long-term orientation also comes into play here. Because a great deal of the “invasives” grow in conditions where the soil is disturbed, if those conditions were to be removed, the invasives wouldn’t continue to grow. I discussed the succession of dandelion in my earlier post, and the same is true of many of the invasives that people get uptight about: spotted knapweed, honeysuckle, autumn olive, and purple loosestrife.
Even for those invasives that are displacing native plants in the ecosystem–consider this. Our planet is in a constant state of change and flux. Species rise, species fall, and evolution is a constant driving force. If we stop looking just at today and tomorrow and instead think about 100 or 1000 years from now, I think we can say that yes, the introduction of plants has changed, but nature will also find a way to balance the scales (provided that there are enough natural and wild areas where such evolution can take place). The much greater threat to our long-term survival as a species and as a world is from human-led destruction, not from plants being introduced.
Nature is good.
One of the common sayings within the druid tradition is that “nature is good.” Notice that its not “only nature that was here before we got here is good” or “some nature is good” or “native plants that are in nature are good.” No, the saying is simply, “Nature is good.” This is the approach that I take. Whether or not we like it, decisions by humans and actions by humans have irrevocably altered our landscapes, not only from the introduction of non-native plant species but in the wholesale destruction and desecration of the land through the use of chemical means. The idea that we want to “manage” natural evolutionary and ecological processes is just another manifestation of the hubris that we are somehow above nature, and that nature can’t manage itself. If we buy this argument, then I think the best that any of us can do is to truly step back from the immediacy of the “native plant problem” and fight against wholesale exploitation and nature, both in our immediate lives but also in our communities and countries.
The last point I’ll make is this: we have limited energy and time, and how we choose to spend that time can make a considerable positive change in the world. If I choose to focus my energy on eradicating invasive species in my yard and helping others do the same, I’m choosing not to focus my energy on something else that could have a more benefical impact. If we look at the magnitude of the destruction we are facing, it is not from invasive species in our landscape but from humanity’s relentless pursuit of consumer goods and greed. If what I’ve written here makes any sense at all, I would like to suggest the following: focus on educating others, preventing destruction to begin with, and to working with the plants to regenerate and restore our landscapes. Focus on educating ourselves and others about how ecosystems work and how we can better live in harmony in sustainable ways. To me, this seems like a much more productive use of one’s time, and has a possibility for much greater good. We can cultivate a positive relationship with nature.
Thank you for publishing this excellent summary of the many flaws of the unscientific ideology of invasion biology.
I agree with every point you make, with one small exception. Although nativists often claim that non-native honeybees are outcompeting native bees, in fact there is no empirical support for their claim. Here is a report of a meta-analysis of 28 studies conducted around the world that were unable able to find any evidence that native bees are harmed by honeybees: http://milliontrees.me/2013/09/03/niche-theory-is-there-room-for-everyone/
This is not to disagree with your premise that the pejorative term “invasive” is applied by humans only to plants and animals they find inconvenient. That is definitely true.
David Theodoropolous’s book was the first confronted invasion biology and he is to be commended for that excellent effort. There are now more recent books that I recommend to you. “Rambunctious Garden” was written by a science writer who finds value in our “novel” ecosystems. Even more recently, “Where do camels belong?” was written by a British academic. It is a full frontal assault on invasion biology based on many scientific studies to support his opinion that invasion biology is doing a great deal more harm than good, as you seem to know. Although it is based on scientific studies, it is written for the general public.
Critics of invasion biology are getting noisier and better informed. Meanwhile, nativism has a death grip on our public lands. Thanks for getting involved in the effort to inform the public.
Milliontrees: Thank you for sharing the newest resources on invasion biology. And thanks for your info on the metaanalysis concerning honeybees. As a beekeeper myself, it worried me that I might be hurting the bumble populations in the area.
This post was partially motivated by what is happening here locally–there have been multiple times recently when I’ve found myself in a room full of people who really hated plants but were claiming that their actions were good for the ecosystem. A huge area of wetland was just destroyed in the name of eradicating phragmites in my town; its now a barren wasteland (except for those phragmites–they are coming back up!) Its just a sad thing.
Yes, the conventional wisdom is still supportive of invasion biology. However, the scientific community is becoming more vocal in their criticism. It will undoubtedly be a long transition back to a more rational view of nature because information filters slowly into the mainstream. People seem to retain whatever opinions they developed during their education, so it will probably be another generation before we will see the end of this destructive ideology.
Meanwhile, we must do what we can to inform the public of the damage being done to the environment. And we should not be discouraged, because climate change will eventually make nativism completely irrelevant. The fact is, as the climate changes it will not be physically possible to re-create a landscape that existed hundreds of years ago. We can only hope that repeated failures will eventually convince the public that it is wasted effort that is doing far more harm than good.
Thanks again for speaking up and best of luck wherever you are. I gather from the the species you are concerned about that you are somewhere east of us here in California. Your honeybees aren’t hurting anything, so that’s one thing you don’t need to worry about.
I’m in South-East Michigan. We are contending with a lot of laws on the books in townships and counties that literally require us to chemically treat invasives or face fines. Its pretty bad….
If you are talking about across from deer lake, I don’t know why they did that. I agree it is a wasteland and it is awe full.
Yeah, I’m talking about across from Deer Lake. Its really awful; desolate. Is that better than the life that was there before? I don’t think so :(.
Thank you for an excellent and eloquent post!
Nature is Good.
Thank you, Sara :). And thank you for the conversations that helped hone my thinking on this matter!
Speaking of “Nature is Good”, have you ever received your RDNA First Order initiation? If not and you want to receive it, that can be arranged…
Nope, I haven’t. Sounds like a plan, Sara! 🙂
An extremely thoughtful and well-argued post. I see the same problem in the UK with attitudes to ‘invasive’ or ‘non-native’ species like the grey squirrel and I have always felt a bit uncomfortable with the idea of ‘native’ purity and preserving some static picture of nature as-it-was instead of as it is now.
Thanks for commenting, Ryan. I’m sorry to hear that the problem also exists in the UK. I think that’s it–trying to tease out what the underlying ideologies that are guiding the movements are. When we start talking genetic purity….that is serious cause for concern. I must say, we love our grey squirrels here! 🙂
I was also thinking about the grey squirrel while reading this post, and the poor little native red squirrel that is under a massive threat through no fault of its own. However, what a lot of people don’t seem to get over here, is that it isn’t the fault of the grey squirrel either. The poor things didn’t exactly have a choice about their arrival in the UK. I never, not from my childhood, understood the venom directed at animals and plants that didn’t come here by choice.
I am also concerned about the efforts to reintroduce the beaver over here, and the damage that is causing. Thing is, while it is causing certain damage in one way, it is beneficial in other ways, and I like the idea that the beaver could make a comeback, so to speak. The thing is, having committed to this endeavour, we need to let it all shake out and let nature take its course now, and not interfere any more than we already have.
As for invasive plants, I have tremendous admiration for the tree and plant hunters of the past. They may not have realised the far-reaching effects some of their introductions have made to our landscape, and the ease with which certain plants would ‘escape’ into nature from the gardens they were planted in, but they brought invaluable information back with the plants they found, and I suspect a lot of modern horticulture would be much the poorer without their input.
Kew remains the horticultural ‘Mecca’ to my mind, and it will always endlessly fascinate me.
When I look at my newest books about our UK and European trees, I am heartened to see that the words native and non-native are rare, and ‘invasive’ is not used. Instead the history is appreciated, and comments are mostly positive. Here’s an example from The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Trees of Britain and Europe concerning Rhododendron, a plant much maligned 50 years ago as being annoyingly invasive and to be eradicated at any cost, showing the shift in attitude towards these plants:
‘Commonly thought of as a genus of shrubs, there are in fact several rhododendrons that grow to tree-like proportions. most of the species featured here attain heights in excess of 6 metres. In the wild they are an integral part of their native Himalayan and Chinese forests. All are widely cultivated as ornamental specimens in Europe. Some of the finest are to be found in Britain and Ireland.’
I do think it is very much time to stop fighting against our flora and fauna, and start embracing and working with it instead.
Thank you for this blog. I really enjoyed reading it. 🙂
Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Lexie! I especially like the last thing you said, about stopping our fight against flora and fauna, and embracing/working with it instead. That’s what I hope to do, and what I’m trying to do here locally! 🙂
But, gods I hate asian bush honeysuckle.
Perhaps examining the root of that hatred is warranted 😛
PS: Boiler up! Saw your Purdue email address. I am a Purdue alum. 🙂
I live in an area with a lot of strip mining. They come in strip the mountain bare. Cutting all the native trees. Then they come back and plant autumn olives. They take over. I ask about this and was told a tree for a tree is the law but what about all of the old beings that were original here. Autumn olives are planted so thick that you can walk thru where they are. May be good food source but what about the walnuts, hickory and etc. that the wildlife are use to and what effect is it going to have on them. We are taken over with kudzu in this area so now I guess we will be with autumn olives.
Deb, I don’t think autumn olives are classified as a tree–they are only shrubs around here. I’m sad to hear that the mining company is not planting a diverse ecosystem. That’s not the fault of the Autumn olive though–its the fault of a cheapskate strip mining company. We saw the same thing where the oil pipeline was replaced: they planted pretty much grass. Not wildflowers or other plants, just grass. Pretty sad.
There’s no forest they can plant that will adequately make up for what they destroyed by lopping off the side of the mountain.
You got that right. I think that the “replanting” is really lip service. I’ve seen some of the replanting firsthand–with no topsoil, there is little that can grow. Most of those places are going to take 100’s or years, if not longer, to regenerate.
Hi, Dana! I haven’t been able to be involved in the Permaculture/Druid circle this past year, but I want you to know that I still read your blog as a way to stay in touch with these ideas. It’s exciting and awesome to have an active blog that I can learn so much from, and I always look forward to your posts 🙂
That said, this is the first time I have felt compelled to comment on one of your posts, because I feel that there are several misunderstandings going on here. I’m sure you anticipated disagreement when it came to this topic, so I guess I’ll be the commenter here to do it:
1. You link the “native plant community” to Bayer Chemical and Monsanto.
While conservationists may choose to utilize herbicide as part of their land management practice, they do not make that decision lightly nor does their choice mean that they embrace a destructive corporate mindset. It is worth noting that conservationists are much more likely to select a cut-stump or injection application of herbicide, which has a much more localized effect than spraying. If they were really just a bunch of Monsanto goons, they would not have any incentive to do this. But they understand better than anyone what kind of effect these chemicals can have on the ecosystem, and they are appropriately cautious.
I realize, to my chagrin, that not everyone who removes so-called invasives is a conservationist, and there are instances where herbicides are abused. To my mind, the people who do this are not part of the “native plant community” that you describe (they’re mostly just ignorant).
You should also note that conservationists lament how agricultural application of pesticides is eliminating important plants in the landscape, such as milkweed. Why would they do that if they were in Dow Chemical’s back pocket?
It’s irrational to think that mainstream ecologists are part of some pesticide profit scheme. If conservationists were the only business Monsanto had, Monsanto wouldn’t be around much longer. Industrial farms and golf course lawns are much, much more lucrative.
The reason I think it’s important to clarify this is because Conservationists, Permaculturalists, Druids, etc. need to work *together*. This kind of in-fighting amongst environmentalists is as powerful an enemy as Monsanto (maybe more so). United we stand, divided we fall!
2. You consider autumn olive to be restorative because it fixes nitrogen
It is true that nitrogen fixers can be important healers for sites that have degraded soil. However, that doesn’t mean that they are desirable in every context.
Permaculturalists have a big fixation on nitrogen (pun intended). Nitrogen is great, but it’s not as simple as more nitrogen = better, especially when it comes to wild ecosystems. But even in the garden, this can be true.
I’ve noticed that carrots growing closer to buckthorn in my back yard will grow much bigger above ground than carrots growing further away. But when you pull them up, you’ll find their roots are much smaller. Logically, this is because their roots didn’t need to travel as far to get all the nitrogen they needed. This seems like a clear case where more nitrogen is NOT desirable.
But let’s consider this even in the context of a fruit tree. If we provide it with too much nitrogen, would that not also encourage its root system to get “lazy” like the carrot did, and not spread as far or deep? Couldn’t there be negative repercussions to that, such as making the tree less hardy and resilient? I haven’t studied this myself, but I think it’s something to think about.
3. You link conservationists to the Nazis
I consider you one of the more qualified people to analyze and discuss academic discourse and disciplines, so I’m especially surprised to see you repeating Theodoropoulos’ outrageous claim that mainstream field biologists and ecologists are somehow linked to Nazi ideology. If you think the “native plant community” uses Pathos scare tactics, well they have a lot to learn from this Theodoropoulos fellow.
I actually had the pleasure of talking to a real, live field biologist (not a Nazi) who works for the Southeast Michigan Land Conservancy (SMLC), and he made a point to explain that scientists will never eradicate a plant simply for being non-native to the ecosystem. When it comes to making land management choices, only plants that are found to displace ecological communities we are trying to save or that disrupt ecological succession (autumn olive being a primary example in the context of prairies and savannas) are going to be selected for removal.
I find it ESPECIALLY ironic that Theodoropoulos is trying to play the “racist” and “xenophobe” cards when the ecosystems in question are AMERICAN, not European. If these biologists truly held Nazi beliefs, they would consider plants from the Fatherland to be superior and would actively encourage them to displace the native ecosystems of America, much like white imperialists displaced the native people of this land.
4. You state that conservationists do not realize the dynamic and ever-changing nature of ecosystems
You should come to an SMLC meeting with me sometime and talk to a conservationist in person. I think you will be surprised at how the field has grown and changed with our new understandings of ecosystems. These experts can tell you better than anyone about how the landscape absolutely cannot be static if our prairies and oak forests are to survive. Their insights are fascinating, and learning from them gives me a sense of expanding my “oak knowledge”. After all, what’s a more literal form of “oak knowledge” than learning some of the exact mechanisms that make an oak forest thrive?
5. You state that invasives are primarily found in disturbed landscapes
However, some ecosystems, such as prairies, depend on the landscape being disturbed. So what are they to do when the so-called invasive species move in? The fact that species such as autumn olive overtake these disturbed areas IS a problem for these ecosystems.
The prairie is a much more diverse and thriving ecosystem than an Eleagnus thicket is. The prairie is a smorgasbord of herbs and flowers that change with the season and host endangered species like the prairie chicken. It’s a precious thing that unfortunately is all-too rare.
But another important concept to be aware of is that there are so-called invasives which interfere with even mature or “undisturbed” ecosystems: Chestnut blight. Emerald Ash Borer. Dutch Elm Disease. Oriental Bittersweet. Garlic Mustard.
While you may be ready to resign yourself to the idea that there is nothing we can do about this, I and many others think there is a value in managing the landscape. We brought these species here, and they are now our responsibility. We are still learning new and better ways to manage the land. I think we are better off remaining curious and learning more rather than taking the view that mainstream scientists are greedy Nazis and that there’s nothing wrong with displacing these ecosystems that took millions of years to develop.
I would also like to talk about how Permaculture, in theory, is equal parts design, horticulture/agriculture, and ECOLOGY. Yet, in practice, the ecology part of the equation seems to be more of an afterthought. I think Permaculture would benefit a lot from more cross-pollination with the discipline of ecology, but I realize that many Permaculturalists are so enamored of their Autumn Olive that they don’t trust what ecologists have to say. But my post is getting too long to discuss that further. You may not have the time or patience to read this to the end, but I hope you do!
Great to hear from you! And thanks for the comments. Let’s see:
1A) I’d argue that any use of the chemicals benefits the chemical industry. I’m taking a radical perspective here, but if you follow my other arguments about nature and long-term views, I don’t think we should be using them. We got along with plants for 10’s of 1000’s of years; we don’t need the chemicals now. I realize that they may be carefully used and used locally–but they are still used. And that’s a problem. And I don’t think its irrational to think that the industry has ties to science or conservation….the industry has ties to everything else, it seems. Where does the funding for research come from? Where do funds for conferences come from? I’m highly skeptical. Heck, I see it even in my field.
1B) I think the other issue is highlighted through an application of stasis theory; that is, the different groups (native plant people, conservationists, permies, druids) aren’t actually working in unison for a simple reason: we don’t agree on what the problem is. The problem is not phragmites or autumn olive. The problem is humanity’s careless destruction of our landscapes, oil spills, fracking, gmos and chemical uses in agriculture, deforestation, destruction of habitat….not invasive plants. By focusing on phragmites, we divert our attention away from what I perceive to be the more serious problem. An application of stasis theory would suggest that if we want to get to a shared policy (step 4, the final step in stasis theory) we would need to first agree on what the problem is and how serious the problem is. And I think we are a long way from doing so.
2) I honestly don’t know how deep Autumn Olive is fixing nitrogen (its roots go quite deep, I’m not able to easily pull it out) so whether or not it would stunt the growth of carrots requires further investigation. But my thinking on this is again, that a longer view is warranted. Nearly all the lands around here, at least in SE Michigan, are abandoned fields. Fields that have been overfarmed, are extremely poor in nitrogen, and have been that way for decades, if not centuries. I’d like to think about how these lands were before colonization. How much nitrogen was in those soils? I’m not sure. But when I did soil tests here on my property, I was surpised to see anything growing at all, given the exceedingly low amounts not only of nitrogen, but also of phosphorus and calcium in the soils.
3) Re-read what I said–I didn’t say that current conservationists or native plant people necessarily have a Nazi mentality, but I do think that some of their thinking is rooted in the same extreme ideology. There is a group local to here, whose name I won’t post publicly, but whose name I am happy to share with you privately. Attend a few meetings. Get on their email list. Listen, really listen, to how they talk and then you might see why I support Theodoropoulos’ argument. This group has literally demonized phragmites, given them human qualities, and seeks to eradicate said phragmites at all costs. They scared me, the amount of anger and blind hatred they directed not only towards phragmites, but humans who happened to be letting them grow, scared me. I wanted nothing to do with such vehement hatred towards plants.
4) I’d be glad to do so! I’ve been reading these books by John Eastman (Swamp and Bog, Field and Roadside, Forest and Thicket) that discuss plants and their role in the ecosystem. Really fascinating stuff.
5) I think that there is a hubris in the statement “manage the land.” This, again, assumes that we are required to do so (using chemicals? fossil fuels?). I’d like to suggest that we let the land manage itself, or, if we are to manage it, we manage it in a way that doesn’t require more destructive practices such as chemical us. And yes, while ecosystems like prairies require burning (and we are seeing what happens out west when burning isn’t allowed to take place), so much of our ecosystems are disrupted now that I feel we need to focus on stopping the destruction, stopping the horrific farming practices, strip mining, fracking, etc. Raising bees this year taught me a lot about just how far out of balance our ecosystems are, how bad the chemicals can be for the bees, how weak they are due to all of the pesticides and chemicals. This post comes as much from a beekeeper who is seeing firsthand the weakness of hives due to chemicals as from the permaculturalist in me :).
I think many permaculturalists also study ecology (such as myself) and find great value in ecological diverstiy. What I was mainly taking issue with in this post is the native plant movement and its propensity to encourage a man vs. nature approach to dealing with “invasive” species.
Have you eaten an Autumn Olive? I have a jar of Autumn Olive jam I can share :).
Thanks for the reply! I’m trying to be as brief as I can, but I can’t make any promises:
I understand your anathema to the term “manage the land”. Have you read Fukuoka’s One Straw Revolution? He believes it is better to leave fruit trees unpruned, but he acknowledges that if a tree has been pruned even once, it can require pruning indefinitely. Once the tree has been taken off of its natural course, it can never return. The landscape around us is a fruit tree that has been heavily pruned. That is why management is needed.
I think you raise an interesting point when you say the different environmental groups do not agree on what “the” problem is. This never occurred to me, because I have always held the perspective that there is an array of problems and that each field/group (conservationists, permies, druids) has a role in addressing them collectively. I will need to examine this point further.
Thank you for telling your story about the anti-phragmites group. I may be wrong, but this group does not sound like they have conservationist intentions at all. I know there are many landowners who find phragmites to be a problem simply because it blocks their view of the lake, or they fear it will lower their property values. These people are more in league with the suburban homeowners who hate dandelions because they spoil their “perfect” lawn. To be clear, these types of people have nothing to do with conservationists, ecologists, or anyone else you may consider to be part of the native plant “community”.
When you say that you would like to think about how the land was before colonization, and that you are curious about how much nitrogen was in the soil, you are talking like an ecologist. It is entirely possible that your land was abused and is in need of more nitrogen. But is Autumn Olive the best or most appropriate method of increasing nitrogen? I think that’s a question that calls for more detailed examination, especially considering that there are many other nitrogen fixers to choose from, some of which are even native to Michigan.
North American ecosystems are more nitrogen poor than European and Asian ones, generally speaking. This is why you will find most nitrogen fixers come from overseas. Soil that you may consider nitrogen deficient may be just right for our native forests. I intend to study this more in-depth in the future as well.
While many of us in the permaculture community have an interest in ecology, I frankly think that most of us barely have an elementary understanding of the field even when we fancy that we’re smart and know a lot about it. This isn’t meant to be a put-down to us, simply an acknowledgement that ecology is a complex science that is rapidly developing and maturing.
I have only ever eaten unripe Autumn Olive berries. I started avoiding them when I noticed how fond people grow of the plant, and how that can color our perceptions. I try to keep a dispassionate view, but I would be honored to try some of your jam sometime. Maybe for Samhain? 🙂
Oh yes, I love Fukuoka’s One Straw Revolution. And very good point about the pruning…still…I would like to see less pruning, more growth and “growing wild.” That’s just my bias after seeing so much “management” and poor treatment of the land. I’m still maintaining that chemicals = bad. 🙂
I think that you are right in that there are a lot of problems, a myriad of problems. I think in order to work together, as you are saying we should (and I don’t disagree), we at least have to have the same value systems, have some idea of what it is we want to solve. That’s what I was trying to get at in my earlier response–I can’t work with the native plant people if they are bent on destroying more plants with chemicals because I don’t agree that the plants that they are trying to eradicate are a problem, nor do I agree with their proposed solution. Protecting wild spaces, now we could all agree on that.
But to throw another wrench in this discussion, a lot of what we face isn’t a problem at all–its more complex. As John Michael Greer says, really what we are facing now as a civilization right now isn’t a problem. A problem implies a solution, and one that is attainable and do-able. The issue we have with peak oil, living beyond our limits, and environmental devastation isn’t a problem–its a predicament, and one that has no easy solutions. Just responses to the predicament, and these should be varied.
The group claims conservationist tendencies, but really, they are just at war with plants. And I’m really not ok with anyone being at war with plants, especially plants that are here because we put them here.
I know my land here was abused and is in need of nitrogen–I have the soil tests to prove it :P. A lot of the land is like that–old farmlands, over harvested, plowed up too much, not enough nutrients. The soil profile on the plain old soil here before I had a garden was just abyssal. I think that’s part of why Autumn Olive likes it so much here–it is filling a role in the ecosystem, a niche that it can fill. I wonder about succession beyond Autumn Olive–what happens after 10 years, 25 years, 50 years, 100 years? Does the autumn olive actually help the soil (like dandelion) and allow other plants to grow? I don’t know the answer. But I don’t know more broadly. And truthfully, it might be a moot point anyways–the ecology has changed and the soil is now as it is….that’s why I’m not too uptight about preserving what was. Rather, I’m working with what is here now.
Yes, I will save you a jar of autumn olive jam. I only have about 8 of them, so feel very lucky! 😛
I have heard that a benefit of making an undeveloped area into a monument largely protects that area from use as a resource for fuel, minerals, etc. I agree that putting nature at a distance from humans psychologically tends to cause big problems in the short and long term, but I think at present the immediate threats from commercial use for areas like the Pacific Remote Islands National Marine Monument become important also. Monumentalizing nature seems like a step in the right direction from the general abuse-then-abandon attitude; gotta start somewhere when confronting deeply entrenched systems of thought and influence 🙂
Thanks for your comment! I wonder about monumentalizing as a solution to abuse-then-abandon, though. Most of the “monuments” are still being mined for mineral rights, etc. Its kinda like selective monunmentalizing. I’d rather see a lot more interaction paired with education about preservation. How can we work with the land, for the land, rather than against or away from it? But yea, I can certainly see that other perspective 🙂
I very recently had to pull up a small Brazilian pepper tree from my Florida property. I was very relieved to find your post about this because it felt very wrong to me to destroy such a healthy and thriving tree. Unfortunately I live in a suburban neighborhood subject to the policies of a homeowner’s association. The brazilian pepper tree is treated like contraband here, even though it is one of the few things that will actually thrive in this barren soil. Hopefully the grapefruit tree I planted in its place will thrive as well as the pepper tree.
Its hard when you like a plant, even though its contraband. I wonder how that Brazilian pepper got there? Someone brought it here at some point….and loved that pepper, and then it thrived in the barren soil when nothing else will.
I think homeowners’ associations are symptoms of the larger lunacy, lol. I made it a point to buy a house where there was no such association!
This is something I’ve been thinking about. Humans have always been, according to the terminology, “invasive.” We are constantly emigrating to new lands, taking our beloved plants and animals and gods with us. The relatively new mindset of preserving native plants has us combating OUR OWN harm to the planet, not the plant’s harm to the planet! I am in favor of learning to live and adapt with our plant allies and fellow species on an ever-changing planet.
Autumn olive is not to blame, nor is honeysuckle, dandelion or kudz— wait.
I live in in the south. Kudzu will suffocate a whole hillside and swallow your car and house. Even in the winter the land is in a wooden cage. But I’m still not a proponent of anything chemically toxic. Some say that if we all learned that kudzu was edible and medicinal it could be controlled that way. But it’s just not true. Kudzu takes a LOT of work to keep at bay, lest you get a fine for letting invasive species run amok. It’s as if a gardening project suddenly requires overtime to keep it from sinking.
Part of the solution, I think, lies in plant diversity. The more diverse an ecosystem/garden is, especially if it is home to plants native and accustomed to the land, the more unlikely it is that a single plant will disrupt the balance.
I appreciate your reference to the Nazis. Humans are no different than the plants that proliferate across the globe. To direct such fear, distrust, paranoia and attack at a poor plant is total hypocrisy. By the same logic, WE are invasive, WE are detrimental, WE are not living in a purist wonderland.
We wake up in a new world every day.
I haven’t lived anywhere that there is Kudzu, but it sounds a lot like what buckthorn can do around here. I totally agree about plant diversity as being part of the solution–and about the intentional use of plants, rather than chemicals, to keep things in check. I wonder, for example, if Autumn Olive would be so prevalent around here if our soils weren’t so abused. I never see it in the rich soils in the forests, only in disturbed areas or on borders. Kinda interesting.
Reblogged this on The Druid's Well and commented:
Read this. Purity ain’t natural. ‘Nuff said.
Thanks for the reblog, Cat!
I’m still catching up on my blog reading after a busy month, but Catriona’s reblog reminded me to come back to this one! I really appreciate your perspective here, Dana, and it echoes a lot of what I’ve written about on my own.
Something that continues to fascinate me is the deep contradictions in how we perceive the problems of our modern relationship with nature and how we seek to address/redress them. For instance, in your post, you mention people keeping on the path through a forest as an example of “keeping nature at a distance,” which I agree can be a problem at times. But later, you also rightly observe that ecosystems are most disturbed in areas with a lot of human traffic and interference. Similarly, you talk about the problems that arise when we treat ecosystems like museums and focus too much on restoring them to some idealized “original” form…. but this argument against restoration is one that many developers use to claim that human beings dominating the landscape and eradicating “pest” species is perfectly natural (don’t all species attempt to improve their environment to suit their needs?) and should be allowed to continue unchecked. You also mention the reintroduction of wolves in areas of western and mid-western America, which has already had impressively positive impacts on surrounding ecosystems in only a few decades, which suggests that sometimes restoration and re-introduction of natives is absolutely the right thing to do.
For me, the most interesting question is how do we balance these issues and navigate these contradictions? How do we encourage people to go off-the-path exploring in the woods, while also acknowledging that if everyone did this all the time, the woods themselves would suffer from much greater disturbance that could jeopardize their (and our) ability to thrive? How do we make decisions about which ecosystems would benefit from the re-introduction of endangered species, and which should be left to evolve and change “naturally” (which is to say, in this case, with only certain forms of human interference, but not others)? A lot of these questions were reflected in Donovan’s (dswentworth09) comments above. My own experience of working with my city’s parks department (including teaching public education/outreach programs regarding invasive plants and how to handle them) leads me to think that some of the accusations of “Nazism” and being in league with Big Petro-Chemical/Pesticide are exaggerated. The education we give to the public is all about encouraging gradual reintroduction of natives alongside careful, non-chemical methods for removing of invasives only in problem areas. I’ve certainly never seen any kind of emotionally manipulative or xenophobic language; in fact, most of the people I’ve worked with and talked to are well-aware of the nuances and complexities of this issue. (The only person I’ve ever heard talk about invasives in an angry, hostile way was a fellow Druid! He was pretty old-school about his conservationism, though — maybe this is a generational thing?)
When it comes to our relationship with the natural world, I’m reminded of the philosopher Kant and what he said about the sublime: the nature of the sublime is that it calls us into relationship with it, it provokes longing and a desire for belonging within us… and yet, it also requires us to keep a certain distance, lest we get too close and destroy it. We can see this reflected in human relationships: being a loving romantic partner means cultivating a mutual intimacy while at the same time respecting the space and independence of our partner. I think the same thing is true of the natural world. At times we recognize that we are “too distant” from nature (even though we are nature and we are natural beings!), and at other times we feel that we are “too close” (and our closeness disturbs and even destroys). The problem is not deciding whether to be one or the other, but recognizing that living with and in nature means constantly negotiating between intimacy and independence, interconnection and autonomy — and the right thing to do might be different in any given situation.
Alison, thanks for your very thoughtful comments :).
I do think there is an inherent contradiction in the nature as monument movement vs. being out in nature movement, but I think that contradiction is a product of our age. As we have moved towards industrialization in this culture, we’ve grown more and more removed from our landscapes and our knowledge of how to tend them (Wendell Berry’s writings are so elegant on this subject). Should people who know literally nothing about how the ecosystem works be stomping about the forest? Probably not. At the same time, if they don’t have any interaction, then we are back to what I believe is the root of humanity’s current destructive tendencies. But again, this distance allows us to treat it without care or concern, and that is a problem. I don’t think that’s the only model, and certainly some cultures even today can give us other perspectives on how to interact and tend.
I also think the key to this is saying – Where? There are critical areas and ecosystems that we probably should be leaving alone, and I can buy those arguments. But I’m still intrigued by the idea that there are also areas we designate as commons and learn how to tend them (even community gardens offer this kind of perspective). But some state game lands do as well, and that’s a useful thing. So we have some systems in place for that. But, I really think the most good can come from people transforming and interacting in the immediate landscapes. The ones they are in every day, that they walk through, where they live. This is where the most good can be done, and where learning can happen in ways that aren’t going to, in most cases, harm delicate ecosystems. So…my backyard isn’t a monument, its three acres of sanctuary based on permaculture design principles. I obtain yields for myself, for wildlife, keep bees, grow veggies and perennials, raise chickens, and have designated wild areas that I simply leave alone (the poison ivy often guards such spaces). I would think that if we wanted to learn more about how to interact with nature meaningfully and fully, we should start with our own barren landscapes around our homes, in front of our schools and churches, where the damage has already been done. Let the land heal a bit, but heal it from where we already are and where the damage has already been done. Does that make sense?
It seems like some of you must have had MUCH better experiences with the native plant community than I have. My experiences were not so pleasant, I was super uncomfortable sitting in a room with a bunch of people hating on plants, as it were. And being very….abusive with round up, to say the least. I realize this might vary widely from group to group. One of our local groups here that I’ve had direct contact with has not been pleasant (and I wrote a lot of this blog post based on those experiences!)
And, yes! Love the way you are framing Kant’s discussion of the sublime. The idea you seem to be promoting is one of balance and nuance, examining specific contexts and how we might interact. And how those contexts change as the ecosystem changes (we are looking at a Michigan ballot initiative in less than a week that allows hunting of wolves….so quickly these circumstances change!)
Anyways, I hope my responses make sense, and thank you again for such a thoughtful and deep response. Its challenging me to think more on these issues, and that’s a wonderful thing!
I thoroughly enjoyed reading your piece and also the thoughtful discussion that ensued on a controversial topic. My own project aims to popularize the eating of autumn olive berries by building a recognizable brand: Lycoberry. This fall we harvested over 25,000 lbs. of fruit in the wild from USDA organically certified sites. Our goal is to provide this nutritious berry in convenient forms to a wider public that doesn’t otherwise have access to it.
If we’re successful and awareness grows about the berry then demand for it at farm markets and other local venues will follow. This in turn could lead to a market supplied by foragers everywhere the berries grow. On the model of a food hub these networks of foragers could also aggregate their supply and create short runs of autumn olive based products by meeting the minimum order quantity orders that processors, canners, jam makers etc. require. We’re currently working with farmers and foragers to help assist with this very outcome.
I’ve spent the past several years surveying large areas of autumn olive in several states and I can tell you that eliminating the species is utter fantasy. It will never happen. I have seen stands of hundreds of contiguous acres just in one valley in areas where the are hundreds and hundreds of valleys. While the plant might be successfully kept at bay in small controlled environments it’s never going to be eradicated.
When the fruit has an economic value landowner managers could harvest it and use the proceeds to mitigate the spread of the bush. I understand your concerns about managing the land but many of the farmers I’ve met are simply trying to keep their pastures clean of the bush so their cattle can continue to graze. There’s been a lot of interest with a model that we propose which is “quarantine instead of kill”. The basic idea is to keep an area of total land with productive bushes on it and use proceeds to mechanically remove and “clean” the rest of the land. The wild “orchard” could be netted eventually to reduce seed dispersal and mowed into manageable rows instead of an overgrown thicket. Every farmer I’ve talked to “got it” and was completing my sentences. I didn’t need to explain much at all.
The only challenge right now is to build a market for the berry. If counties wanted to regulate “growers” it could be quickly and cost effectively done with municpal bylaws. If you’re caught growing the bush without the appropriate protections in place to keep it from spreading you get fined. Think it would be hard to get politicians on board? Maybe. But the regulation would bring additional revenues and that always helps. The logic is pretty simple – if the bushes grew pearls we wouldn’t be trying to eradicate them we’d be managing them (and so would Monsanto…)
Last thought: we’ve had 4 individuals contact us who have been eating berries and have experience substantial reduction in pain. One woman had a hip replacement, another was in a car accident, a man with gout in his foot now walks pain-free, and another man with arthritic hands has easier days at work. The last man I mentioned has also stopped urinating 5 times at night and can make it through to morning. These are just anecdotes but I’m reaching out to some of the community networks we belong to here and will be offering free samples of frozen whole berries to anyone who’s in pain. If it’s something that can help them then all the more reason to reevaluate how we think of Autumn Olive.
I full well understand that the commercial motivation to our project will turn some people off. However, I don’t see a better way forward than to get attention and demand for the berry. More and more main stream folks shop at farmers markets and are interested in the local food economy. We intend to reach out to them through channels they’re already familiar with. If they wind up buying someone else’s berries at a farmers market 3 states away and the forager gets paid for their work, and the land owner gets paid to help manage the species, and the customer gets a great organic high-lycopene infused berry and our brand receives no benefit, well, I’m OK with that. Better than spraying more herbicide or sitting on our hands.
Here’s a snapshot of the brand: http://www.lycberries.com
Thank you for publishing my comment. I misspelled the website name. It should be: http://www.lycoberries.com
Somehow my reply to you got lost–I didn’t realize it till now. I think its amazing what you are doing and I’m fully supportive. I hope you develop some good methods for processing autumn olives–sounds like you are working on it. I really, really love the jam, but its not exactly the most labor-light thing I make :P. But its certainly tasty.
And I think that turning invasives into commercial products are certainly one way of addressing the nature hatred. Now if we can only find something for phragmites (natural roofs) and buckthorn (dye?)! 🙂
Thanks for the support. I’m very glad to see that you’re blogging about this topic and providing a space for others to participate.
We now seem to live in a world where, to many people (uncritical) and many vested interests (industry) rampant pesticide use is acceptable. They don’t see this as an assumption to be challenged but if you reject this premise then their typical argument for management becomes invalid.
I’ve pushed (confrontation) this point with several people (state biologists, land managers, park superintendents, foresters, conservation officers) and got down to a point where I’ve said “I don’t accept that spraying this is an option because we don’t know what kind of awful impact we’re having on the environment and our children”. They don’t have an answer so they drive toward the “you’re a tree hugger” bit. What I’ve determined is that it’s not worth the energy fighting some people.
However, when I started buying berries from farmers and foragers during my harvest last year the support for an alternative management strategy (economic value) developed in those people who gained a financial reward. One land owner was going to spray about 15 acres of autumn olive directly adjacent to his house. He said “You can have the berries but get them quick because I’m getting rid of them soon.” We sent our crews in and cleaned the place up and harvested thousands of pounds. We also let other foragers know to go there and about a dozen people from the community went in and picked (then sold to me).
It was a win-win all the way around. The owner decided to hold of on spraying the plants. If this were to happen each year then he could afford to enclose the bushes, net them, and remove any (mechanically) that he didn’t want to maintain this way. The result would be an organic orchard that was non-invasive that planted itself, required no water and minimal care and provided revenue every year. This could be replicated nation wide.
The result would be at least a major slow down or possibly reversal of the spread of this species. One of the differences in this model is that the money goes to the people who grow, manage, and harvest the fruit instead of to the pesticide companies and their operators. Moreover, we could gain a new crop that is very healthy to eat and may have significant pharmacological value. I hope your community is able to forage this amazing berry and let others they meet know about why it should be picked.
That’s an awesome story, Orin! I think right now, the only thing that drives anyone’s minds in the US on a large scale is profit. If you can show its profitable, it stays and even becomes valued. Case in point–technically European honeybees out-compete native bees, but nobody is going around calling them invasive because they produce a valuable set of products. So showing the economic good the plants can do seems like the only way to move forward on some of this.
And there are, of course, the plants that are native that everyone wants to eradicate with poison (poison ivy). So the logic doesn’t hold.
I don’t think America has any good long-term thinking (I blogged about fracking and long-term orientations a while ago). I’ve asked the same questions you have about pesticide use, GMOs, fracking–what is the damage to the next 7 generations? How do we know this stuff just goes away? (It doesn’t). Why do we have such bad food allergies now? So much autism? And they wont’ address the long term–they shift back into talking about the now. But I think the bigger issue is that for me, its about a long-term ecological view. We don’t know what happens to invasive in 50 or 100 years–nobody seems to study that. I really want to know what happens over time.
My herbal instructor showed us a hillside where the only place the invasive took hold was where the land was repeatedly disturbed. I’d like to see some 20 year and 50 year studies looking at what actually happens in the ecosystem. Right now though, its taboo even to research invasive plants in many scientific fields other than for eradication purposes.
That’s a smart idea about netting them. Then they really won’t spread.
When will you have the products widely available?
Thanks a lot for taking the time to converse this way. I do believe the netting (quarantine instead of kill) can work. It can even be regulated at the local level providing additional control and inspectors fees, licence fees etc. to municipalities. I see this as an option that might help get officials on board. Perhaps a necessary evil but one which might create a further sense of legitimacy.
As far as the products go we’re working with a few companies to test what might be best to roll out. In the mean time I’m working with a few scientists who are studying the phytochemicals in the berry. They believe that it is very unique and could provide health benefits (reduced inflammation, interruption of gout uric acid pathway, arthritis, bladder control). We need to achieve a clinical trial or trials.
To get there I need to build some epidemiological / observational evidence that the trials would be worth undertaking because they’re expensive. My strategy is to provide berries for free to those who want to test out if they relieve symptoms. If patterns emerge from testimonials then we have a better shot at getting serious academic attention drawn to the pharmacological properties of the berry. If we can demonstrate something novel then we might develop support for harvesting this medicinal plant.
If you have a way of helping let people know that free frozen berries are available I’d be happy to accommodate requests. All I would need to do is have shipping covered. However, since it’s cold I think that UPS ground would probably be fine and that’s not really expensive. Even if the berries thawed they’d stay cold and be OK.
I find the thought of people harvesting a pharmaceutical right off of a bush very exciting. Local medicine.
You could also go the herbalist route in the meantime–there are a lot of herbal communities out there and herb conferences, perhaps find a local herbalist or two who are seeing patients and could recommend it. A lot of herbalists are interested in trying new things. They don’t have clinical trials, but they do work directly with people with all sorts of challenges. And word could spread well that way 🙂
Clinical trials are expensive. Have you considered working with a group for grant funding?
I think, regardless of the health benefits, people might buy it just based on nutrition and taste alone :). That would be the way I would start out–get it in a few health food stores, see how people like it! I, for one, love them 🙂
I supported Orin’s group in a gofundme thing a couple of years back, and really enjoyed the autumnberry products I got in return!
I agree in general on the question of “invasives.” However, I think one point in the “invasive” question is that not all invasives affect the land in the same ways. Here in eastern NC, Albizzia trees are “invasive” — but they are short-lived and do not really crowd out native trees or shrubs. They are more likely to take up residence in vacant lots. Privet hedge, on the other hand, is a nightmare. Like prairies, stream banks and creek banks are frequently disturbed areas because of natural flooding and siding. And so many of the creek banks are turning into Ligustrum monoculture, displacing native elderberries, alder, large perennial flowers, horse sugar, etc. While I understand and agree with the concept that “everything evolves,” it’s depressing to see stunning diversity disappear in a decade, and I know that there are pollinators, birds, etc. that will dwindle in the presence of a ligustrum monoculture.
Having said all that, I think the best thing we can do with “invasives” is use them. Pick up any bottle of “airborne” anti-cold formula at the drugstore, and it’s got Lonicera japonica in it. Albizzia is catching on in the herbal world for its antidepressant properties. (Requisite disclaimer: I am not advocating anyone go out and medicate themselves with any herbs, merely reporting on what I have observed.) I sometimes wonder if the invasive plants that have found their way here are plants that we collectively need.
Thanks for your comments. I think there are different kinds of invasives ( a topic I’ll be covering in more depth this week, actually). I totally agree on the “use them” comments–if we have them, the best thing we can do is do something with them. And I think you are right–there are plants we collectively need, for whatever reason, and maybe those are the ones that are currently abundant.
there are definately a lot of comments on this post. Mine: we are the invasive species, the parasite feeding, while never replenishing the land. Unfortunately, it is a huge mindset that society has crushed into us. I do feel that there are invasive species, though-or maybe like you said, how we deal with them. We have the Asian long-horned beetles-our response- we cut down sooooo many trees. It is very sad.
Thanks for your comment. We are certainly acting worse than any invasive species, aren’t we?
And to your second comment….the mentality of dealing with invasive species is kinda like a lot of modern medicine. The treatment is worse than the disease, the hospitals make you sick….ugh. I hope we can develop more meaningful and careful responses in the future.
I really found this post interesting as a naturalist and a shaman. I love your blog, btw. I agree with you on your opinions of pesticide, but I can’t agree with your opinion on invasives, so I would like to (respectfully) offer some points for the opposition:
1. I grew up in Georgia, land of the Kudzu (among other things). It is a completely eerie sight to drive down a stretch of highway and see tress, shrubs, and flowers completely covered by this vine. There was a house that had been abandoned in our neighborhood that was swallowed in kudzu within five years. And when I say say swallowed, I mean you couldn’t even see the house only a one-story mass of green. Because of the lack of native competitors, kudzu is spreading at a rate of 150,000 acres a year and is known as “the vine that ate the south”. Not all invasives are as pervasive as Kudzu, but they do present there own dangers.
2. There is a difference between “introduced” and “invasive”. I am growing tomatoes, pomegranates, and jasmine among the natives in my little sacred grove balcony garden. These plants give me great joy, they are wildlife friendly, and I love them. However, if some seeds were carried by wind or bird out into the Sonoran desert where I now reside, they will shrivel and die without extra water or the more fertile soil that they need. Fountain grass, however, is an invasive species that I see all the time growing in huge clumps when I am out hiking. Don’t get me wrong, fountain grass is beautiful, but while the Sonoran Desert is the most biologically diverse desert in the world, resources are still somewhat scarce. There are alot fewer animals that feed on fountain grass than feed on our native grasses, which is one of the reasons it can outcompete and spread so easily. But this leaves our native plants and animals with less food and also fountain grass increases the chances of fire in the habitats that it inhabits.
3. While it is true that change and evolution are a part of ecosystems, generally those changes take place over longer periods of time. When a huge change in an ecosystem comes about swiftly, it generally leads to mass extinctions, for good reason. It’s like, in general, if we get sick or injured, our bodies do eventually heal. However, if I trip while carrying scissors and accidentally stab someone, I am not going to just leave them there bleeding and say, “eventually you will heal. I’ll just wait for that process to happen naturally.” We have introduced invasives and they are doing damage so it is our responsibility to help fix that damage. I do agree with you, however, that this is not best done through pesticides, which tend to do more damage than good.
4. As I have said, I love my introduced species. They bring me great joy. But I love the desert where I live as well: the scent of creosote after rain, watching palo verde blooms drop like rivers of gold in the spring, the lyrical call of the curved billed thrasher, a screech owl’s sleepy hoots as it peers out of the face of a saguaro, chollas and cactus wrens and tufted evening primrose and prickly pear. One of the sad things about where I live is you can walk through hiking trails on the edge of the city and see all of these sights, but the second you enter anywhere in the city: nothing. Grackles and pigeons, house sparrows and oleander. Nothing desert about it. It could be any city anywhere. And the fact of the matter is, if people don’t learn to love natives and fight for their right to survive against invasives that outcompete and don’t offer benefit to our native plants and wildlife , the desert that I love so much will fade like the last haunting call of the coyote beneath the full moon.
Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I guess my response is a simple question–if we need to control the invasives as you say, how do we do that without poisoning the land and everything around them? I just think that the cure is as bad as the issue….
On that we agree. The unfortunate problem that alot of natural resource managers have is by the time a species has been declared “invasive” it is well past the point where the problem can be solved by gathering a group of volunteers who will happily weed away unwanted plants. And, I would also like to say that I think you are overly harsh on land managers. I have worked and volunteered at tons of botanical gardens, state parks, and local preserves created through grassroots efforts. I have worked with botanists, park rangers, naturalists, educators, etc for these conservation and rehabilitation efforts. If you have ever gone to a place that has been taken over by invasive species the one thing you hear is: silence. No happy buzz of much needed pollinators, no bird calls, no animal scat.They have all left from lack of available food. It is as if someone already sprayed insecticide. So in these situations, sometimes the choice to use pesticides to get out of control invasive species populations to reasonable numbers is made, but it is rarely made lightly. And even then, sometimes the effect only slows down the population (google kudzu or buffalo grass in Arizona) but doesn’t stop it. It does, however, give delicate endemic species a chance to gain a much needed foothold. As many beautiful plants as I see that are native to Arizona (saguaro, palo verde tree, mesquite, tufted evening primrose) they are not cultivated in gardens elsewhere, like say, roses or jasmine. If they vanish from here, they are gone.
That said, I still hate pesticides, as a naturalist and a shaman. They eradicate much needed pollinators, they poison our waters, and I don’t know if you can feel it as well, being a druid, but when I go to a place that has had pesticides used, I can sense a viscous sludge on the astral level. So what is the choice then? Don’t use pesticides and let all the the native wildlife in a place wither and die from lack of resources? Or use pesticides and save a population at the expense of slowly poisoning mother nature? I don’t know. There is no right answer. That is why I say: don’t give up. As an Aquarius, I believe in innovation. And, I think as naturalists, conservationists, Wiccans, Druids, or Shamans, we have to band together, look at the impossible problem, and come up with an innovation solution.
P.S-Don’t get me wrong, I do want to add that big corporations do influence policy, even conservation policy, unfortunately. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t a ton of people out there every day in our public gardens, parks, preserves, and wildlife rehabilitation centers doing their best to help heal the Earth and I think parts of you post do them a disservice.
As a fellow Aquarius, I totally understand what you are saying about not giving up and about this being a catch-22 situation. I just see the spiritual effects of the pesticides, and we have SO many already, and what I’m arguing for is a paradigm shift. Planting natives and cultivating them is great, even cutting away invasives is great, as long as it can be done without more destructive chemicals. A lot of our invasives in Michigan (with the exception of Phragmites, I would say) often come into disturbed ecosystems. That’s really important–its not that these species would get a foothold if someone hadn’t come and cut down the forest, stripped the topsoil, etc. Then suddenly we see the species everywhere…. Maybe the situation is very different in Arizona from in Michigan. In Michigan, I have not had good experiences with groups working to eradicate native species–its like a type of religious fundamentalism. I’ve worked with quite a few people doing volunteering, and eventually had to stop doing so because I just couldn’t handle it. I do think there are well-intentioned people out there trying to do good.
True enough. All we can do is keep trying 😉 Anyway, I am glad I came across your blog. It is well written and thought provoking. I am thinking of starting a blog myself on shamanism/desert magic and am dipping my toe in the online magical community. It was nice virtually meeting you 🙂
Well, please post a link when you start it! It was nice virtually meeting you as well! 🙂
Reblogged this on AmandaPandaDUH and commented:
‘One of the striking things about the invasion biology movement is its connection with the Nazi’s xenophobic and genocidal thinking, as detailed by David Theodoropoulos in his book (and also discussed to a more limited extent on his website). The Nazis had a very similar “native plant” movement in Germany where they worked to eradicate the landscape of non-native plants; this, of course, parallels the atrocities committed in their attempt to eradicate humans from the landscape who didn’t fit their idolized image. Theodoropoulous argues that invasion biology is connected to the same kinds of destructive thinking prevalent in Naziism, that is, an easily identified enemy that one seeks to exterminate, an emphasis on genetic purity, the goal of preserving one’s lands, and a root cause of dissatisfaction with where things are currently. I’d add to his arguments that it becomes easy to construct an enemy, get people angry with the enemy, and then work hard to eradicate it, all the while stripping them of the facilities for rational thought through fearmongering and intense emotional reactions. From a rhetorical perspective, when we begin setting up multiple logical fallacies in order to generate hatred of plants (straw man arguments, post-hoc fallacies, either-or fallacies, overgeneralization fallacies) we get into a mode that allows us to react emotionally rather than reason logically about our interaction with our landscape.’
Thanks for the reblog! 🙂