In Balance: Invasive Species, Natives, Healing and Wholeness
The following article on invasive plants is excerpted from a much longer version that appears in Issue #3 of Plant Healer Magazine. In the interest of full understanding, I recommend taking time to read the full piece, with its extensive discussion of the arguments and examples used by both sides of what has recently become a contentious debate. The fate of diverse ecosystems, as well as our personal evolving relationship with the plant world, may depend on a balanced investigation and our individual and collective response. -Kiva Rose
Invasive Species, Natives, Healing & Wholeness
By Jesse Wolf Hardin
“Unlike traditional people, most modern humans never get to the stage of knowing the place deeply. We are like tourists passing through the land in a diver’s helmet, even in our own backyards. If the place is truly known, the question of invasives and what to do about them answers itself with the wild voice of Mother Earth on a case by case basis, not with a set ideology or a simplistic answer.” -Paul Bergner
On one side of the gaping divide are the official government experts using a species’ “illegal immigrant” status to justify eradication programs, usually intended to protect some financial interest like high dollar crops, alongside weed hating farmers, the majority of conservation scientists studying plant ecology, and the “nativists” who seek to preserve or recreate an American ecosystem’s species mix as it may have existed just prior to the arrival of Europeans with their exotic flora and fauna. The latter are understandably nostalgic for living landscapes that are not only healthy but representative of the particular, natural historic character of each region. Unfortunately, in their quest for a purified wilderness, they often ostracize all known late arrivals regardless of whether they are over-competitive or not and without respect for their edible or medicinal qualities, let alone for what is in some cases their stabilizing, diversifying, soil cleansing or enriching functions.
On the opposing side, are the “advocates” of prolific recent arrivals, consisting of another odd set of bedfellows. The most prominent of these are the landscapists and ornamental gardeners who vehemently defend their “right” to import and plant any darn species that they want, no matter what its possible impacts or the likelihood of it aggressively spreading into the wild. The second of the pro segments are the few maverick scientists getting press for their unpopular stance in defense of so-called invasives. The third, includes a wide range of New Age thinkers, admirably sensitive nature lovers and sincere plant aficionados who hurt to think about clearing out a riverbank full of Tamarisk (also known as Salt Cedar) for the sake of retracting species of willow and wildflower, and who are greatly relieved to imagine all plant introductions and population surges are beneficial and Gaia-planned. This is an especially tempting perspective for herbalists, who can be among the most empathic and caring of people, appreciative of all life, rightfully looking for any and all means to avoid an elitist sounding selection process for which species stay and which must go, uncomfortable with the immense responsibility of making such decisions, and hence relieved to be told anything resembling “it’s all good.” Yet for all their differences, the criteria used by both sides can at times be remarkably and unsettling similar.
2010 saw the release of a book “Invasive Plant Medicine” by Timothy Lee Scott, the first popular defense of invasives written especially for herbalists. It has been received with sighs of relief from plant lovers uncomfortable with the idea of excluding or limiting the spread of any plant, and correctly angry about the one-sided characterization of invasives as thoroughly and uniformly bad. I certainly recall how offended I felt, the first time I saw a government pamphlet featuring cartoons of sharp toothed, no doubt blood sucking plants as part of their public service information campaign. Scott’s treatise, however, also only covers one side, by excusing, recommending and in some cases exalting invasive species without adequately addressing the proven or possible ecological damage they can cause. Plant Monographs include sections on “ecological importance” but with none on “ecological impacts”.
Read side by side with any of the many volumes dealing with damage by invasives, books like Scott’s contribute to a balanced understanding. But considered separately, any single minded defense of invasives could prove an offense to the plants and plant ecosystems we love, specifically by undermining herbalist support for sensible conservation and management. Advocacy without visible balance not only discredits otherwise valid and valuable arguments in the eyes of any opponents, but it can also be the unintentional precipitator of unforeseen tragedies.
We’re told by many that “Green is always good”, and in almost all cases it is far better than bare ground in the ecological sense. Sometimes, however, the choice isn’t between bare ground and the welcoming of an invasive plant at all, but between an invasive and any number of other species who are simply seeking their own small toehold in the sun.
We’re told that “plants migrate everywhere anyway, so we just need to accept it.“ But the fact that opportunistic exotics are endemic and pervasive, in no way negates our responsibility to weigh their impact whenever there are major incursions into balanced ecosystems. Certainly “all of a plant’s characteristic functions and abilities must be taken in context with the whole ecosystem that it inhabits,” and let’s be sure to add, that this relational context must reasonably include a species’ tendencies and impacts in any given situation.
We’re told that invasives can help remediate damage to the land, and often they can, but so can any number of native species, making it a moot point. What this does say about recent intrusive species, is that there are sometimes mitigating or compensating ecological benefits associated with them, as well as how foolish it can be to complete dismiss or vilify any species regardless of its pronounced adventurism.
In this vein, we’re also told to happily encourage invasives, even those leading to monocultures, because they may be a nutritional or medicinal resource… but as a deep ecologist I have to reject ever making the primary or sole measure of a plant’s acceptance be how “useful” it is to people, medicinally or otherwise. Such criteria is patently anthropocentric and, when fully conscious, selfish… and this is just as true whether it’s an insular developer justifying the destruction of a species because it has no known economic value for humans, or a well meaning but undiscriminating herbalist saying we should welcome an over-competitive species simply because it has medicinal or some other extractable riches for human kind.
The majority of the world’s species – plants as well as people – are essentially immigrants, whether they’ve existed in a single spot for countless generations or mere decades. Those with the most claim to being “native” to their place aren’t intrinsically or in any moral sense superior to the more recent arrivals, but they’ve already adapted and integrated, committed to time-tested reciprocal or synergistic relationships with the environs and their fellow plants and creatures, proven to be functioning in concert, in balance, for the good of not only themselves but the ecosystem whole. This is the answer to the question “What is native?”, which Scott posed but could not answer: They have inhabited an area long enough to have been affected and formed by it, and have had their own affects measured… demonstrating they take into account and accommodate the rest of the biotic community, and reflect and express the distinguishing character of place. The relevant question is not how long a species has been resident, but what their various impacts might be… and whether they, as measured in each particular location and situation, contribute to an increase or reduction in the diversity so essential to ecological vitality and well being.
The greatest threat from botanical (as opposed to animal) invasives, is not so much the extinction of existing species but, rather, the conversion of diverse communities of flora into vast tracts of but a single dominate species, simultaneously narrowing the range of wildlife that can or will live there. Introduced species like Kudzu and Tamarisk (and Australian Melaleuca, scourge of Everglades species as well as source of antiseptic and antifungal Tea Tree oil), are not successional in any sense of the word, and are instead known for establishing giant, nearly impenetrable monocultures. The result is not only habitat loss for hundreds of other species, but the kind of awful monotony that homogenized white-bread cultures, conformist subcultures, guru cults, military uniformity, one party states and monopolies – corporate or biological – are known to produce.
In natural communities, each species has evolved adaptations to the peculiarities of the land and entered sustainable arrangements with the other life forms. It is precisely such adaptations that has resulted in the biodiversity we have, as small differences in soil conditions, rainfall or predation are often enough to result in the development of entirely unique varieties of otherwise familiar families. To the degree that we favor native species over exotics, invasive or not, it isn’t because they’re the “establishment,” or we fear change, or we harbor any xenophobia when it comes to visitors from unfamiliar places. It is because the natives have been in that place long enough to learn what membership in a particular community requires, to have tuned their species’ expressive voice to the pitch of each microecosystem’s signature orchestral composition. When we honor them for they ways they have – through deep listening, evolved arrangements and reciprocal interactions – come to truly and wholly belong.
Lacking this bioregional sense, advocates promote a more laissez faire approach, not unlike the “let the free market take its course” philosophy of uncritical speculative banking that resulted in the unbalancing of the American economy beginning in 2009!
We’ve affected the world around us for as long as we have been here, and it is perhaps only by taking responsibility for that role can we mitigate any disruption we cause. We believe that the dedicated caretaker must be prepared to do whatever is called for, since like it or not, we’re accountable not only for our actions but also for the results of what we for whatever reasons refuse to do… response-able for any herbs gathered or driven to extinction, but also for whatever protective steps we failed to take, the land we never secured, and those vital seeds unplanted.
It’s essential that we develop the wisdom, capacity and willingness to make the truly difficult decisions, the hard-edged choices upon which so much hinges. As with the issue of salt cedars in the Anima Sanctuary, one must decide both what to incorporate and what to constrain, exclude or mitigate… and this applies to more than just plants. Many of the things that we own and pay on may be counterproductive to a life in harmony with nature and our own natural cycles. Some of what we do may be taking us away from our path, distracting us from the richness of the moment and pressing us into a virtual rather than vital reality. A few of the people we care about in life may nevertheless prove to be a handicap to our focused purpose, practice or growth. In all cases, what is needed is an ever increasing ability and willingness to discern. Not to be confused with prejudice, discernment is seeing all sides of all things to the best of our skill, and how all relevant things fit, work together and affect each other.
As awakened co-creators of our world and our reality, we should neither dismiss our individual imprint on the planet and its human and natural communities, nor take lightly our capacity to either increase or limit diversity, to destroy or degrade, to encourage or to save. No textbook can define the parameters or establish the criteria for our sometimes painful right action. We can only discern what is best or most natural through increased intimacy with wild creation, and through increased familiarity with our own authentic and intuitive natures. Such is the unending work and art of the activist, ecological restorationist and permaculturist, artist and celebrant, gardener and herbal gatherer, of all care-takers of plants and our hopefully increasingly planted selves.
35 years of living in and working to restore our New Mexico riparian wilderness, has taught me what no amount of book studies – or thoughtful projections by armchair philosophers – ever could. The land breathes its truths, exhalations of diversity and not sameness, struggle as well as ease, discernment alongside attraction and repulsion. In the often misinterpreted language of plants, there is no call for blind acceptance, as there is no claim to divinity or perfection, and no penchant for selfless sacrifices. Nowhere is there demonstration of uncritical, indecisive meanderings of life, only myriad expressions of path and purpose, a vibrant meeting of chance and choice. And nowhere, does nature insinuate that everything is objectively equal or in all relations positive. What nature is, is all real and wondrous, meaningful and relevant, conditional and relational, a world that we consciously or unconsciously help co-create… whether we want the responsibility or not.
For the sake of the community of life wherever we live, we would do well to avoid both the purist and true believer extremes, and to carefully consider not only the potential benefits and harm of newly arriving prolific species, but also the full complexity of their evident relationships with the soil, wildlife and other plants. Some of these plant species will contribute nutrients, some will deplete them, and most will present a mix of subtle and not so subtle effects. Some will offer more to the butterflies than they deny to the preexisting flora, others will extirpate more native species than their beauty or value as a medicinal herb could possibly justify. What is needed is a balanced investigation but, even more so, our personal, intimate, intuitive as well as studied, hands-on over time sensing of the context, needs and health of the dynamic whole.
It may be the role of overseeing government, hierarchical religion and B grade movies to tell us what is categorically good and what is bad, to assign the absolutist black and white hats. But it is the job of the naturalist and conservationist to ever broaden and deepen our studies and perspective, and the calling of the herbalist to not just witness, excuse and use, but to try as best one can to discern and determine, evaluate and choose… in the interest and process of helping each other and this earth to heal.
Fact is, no plant is evil. And just as true, none are incapable of harm no matter how you define the word. They are not plagues through which we are punished for our ecological sins, neither are they saintly species sent according to plan on a specified mission to repair the lands that civilization has damaged. Some species, in some situations, will negatively impact the community, others will indeed help to cleanse and mend in restorative succession, but in both events it will be incidental to their mission to find environs and conditions that will sustain their own lives and growth.
There are, after all, members of at least one often invasive species endowed with an exceptional level of faculties, skills and functions, that may have in part evolved to help heal the land and soil, removing pollutants, cleaning the air, and possibly making way for the emergence and fulfillment of countless successional species. They are, as phrased by Buhner, “more than destructive pests,” they’re “ecological interventions generated out of the vast, long-scale movements of the Earth, intended to solve specific ecological problems.”
That species, we should make clear, is us!