The Care-Taker of Plants: Invasive Species, Natives, Healing and Wholeness
This is my partner, Jesse Wolf Hardin’s most recent piece concerning healing and the plants, and I thought my blog readers would enjoy and benefit from his experience-driven insights and understandings. They originate from his many decades of intensive land restoration here at the Animá Botanical Sanctuary as well as his groundbreaking work as an ecologist and activist.
As a brief addition, I would also like to say that invasive species are much more likely to take hold in an ecosystem already damaged by so-called development, the introduction of agriculture and resultant loss of key species within the plant community. And in fact, many (but not all) invasive species can play an important part in restoring wounded, soil-stripped ground. Certainly many of our most prevalent and valuable healing herbs are weeds and sometimes even invasive, but their value to us humans is not what determines their place or value within the ecosystem. There is a tricky and delicate balance in the work of restoring and healing what our species has hurt, and discernment and sensitivity is called for at all times.
Thank you for reading, and for caring so much about the land we all grow from and for our precious plant allies.
The Care-Taker of Plants:
Invasive Species, Natives, Healing & Wholeness
By Jesse Wolf Hardin
Some of my fondest early memories involve the front yard gardens that my loving father tended, celebrations of diverse life amidst the environs of predictable suburbia. I don’t recall any happy-topped carrots or plots of echinacea or sage, nothing that might typically fill one’s belly or remedy what ails them, naught but precious nourishment for the beholder’s eye and the grateful gardener’s heart and soul. In the most creative enterprise I ever saw this kind but largely unexpressed man commit to, what my father mostly gardened was color. A host of reds from ruddy to brilliant predominated in one bed, while the hedges and flower rows along the sides of the house featured variations on pearl and ivory, lavender and fuchsia. Different plants blossomed at different times of the year, so that with careful planning and staggered planting there never had to be a week in warm California without a display of floral brilliance.
And Papa gardened for shapes as well, stars and ovals, trumpets and bells, lily sheaths and the sensuous folds of the roses running up the wood fence next to the sidewalk. A few he picked out for their folk meaning in one historic culture or another, a species to stir up happiness, and another for longevity. Acacia to symbolize elegance, Fern for valued sincerity, White Poppy to possibly stir my mother’s dormant wifely affections. Periwinkles and Immortals for sweet and unfading remembrance. Pansies were always included because they were my deceased Grandmother’s favorites, with us hoping she could still see our love in their persistent blooms. Other kinds he selected and tenderly planted for no other reason than his swelling affection for the sound of their popular names, such as Baby’s Breath, Breath of Heaven and Bells of Ireland. Star of Bethlehem, Sweet William, and let’s never forget the Forget-Me-Nots. All took a substantial amount of his time, quietly watering each plant with a hose when the sprinklers would have just as easily reached, mumbling to either them or himself while weeding on aging knees. Though usually a renter wherever we were, he would make each place his own through the breaking of earth of planting of seeds, a caretaker in the original sense of the word, known not through his words but his deeds.
I too have always considered myself a caretaker. Even though we own the Animá sanctuary property where our school is based and I had to work hard for decades to pay for it, we still consider ourselves not so much as proprietors as responsible servants and full partners of this rewilding land, with an investment and stake in its lasting health and wholeness. And even though we have made the land’s ecological restoration a top priority, we still never think of ourselves as “good shepherds” making omnipotent managerial decisions for the perceived benefit of creation, but rather as attentive and proactive “caretakers” both witnessing and buttressing the needs of other life forms here, of creatures and places with their own membership and calling, their own sense of purpose and direction. This taking care includes taking lightly from the land, and never taking any aspect, challenge or gift for granted. And making efforts to help assure a place’s health. The caretakers’ role is at once custodial, ritual and medicinal, tending to the energetic as well as practical well-being of this living earth, healing as well as nurturing and furthering.
A healer of any kind will sometimes have to assertively intervene in order to save a patient’s life, but more often we are called to work in intimate partnership with the subject/patient to create the conditions for balance and contribute to wholeness. So it is with caretaking the land, with us occasionally called upon to act assertively and other times to step back and allow some natural process take its course. The intuitive knowledge of when or when not to interfere requires an intense period of familiarizing oneself with the biological/ecological makeup, the natural and human history, special energies and certain character, particular needs and proclivities of one’s place. Rightful decisions that can positively effect future generations of humans and non humans alike, begin with deeply listening without imposing imagined forms and anthropocentric projections. When choosing a species to introduce or minimize, just as when deciding on a more healthful way of living and being, we do our best by employing whole-body cognition, educated analysis in synch with sensory appraisal and honest creature intuition.
Our story here is a case in point, with our mixed experience revegetating this canyon and bringing back long missing native species. Of these the willow was one of the first to make a comeback, sprouting waist high as soon as I began herding cattle off the land, and becoming a 20’ high thicket once the four strand fence went up. Stalks chewed down to the ground had somehow continued to draw enough nourishment through an extensive and undamaged root system, propelling new growth skyward the first full season free of predation. To hasten their comeback and to fortify the bare riverbanks against seasonal floods, we carefully cut branches from the established trees and stuck them at intervals to take off in the damp soil. Wildflower seeds from the year before are planted by poking a hole in the ground with a stick, barely bending over to drop two kernels in each waiting womb. While not quite the same pleasure as a garden, these trustees require no watering, weeding or battling with insects. Success in the reintroduction of natives is a result of protection from forces outside the ecosystem, but also a species’ built-in relationship with their home environment, in balance with that which they feed on and that which feeds on them.
The hardest part may have been figuring out which species belong and which are destructive or over competitive invaders. Some of the exotics came across the Bering Straits, with the first human arrivals to the Americas. Domestic dogs carried their primitive packs, and Asian seed stock caught rides in the fur gaiters around their legs and the capes that hung from their backs. Mullein, with its soft, fuzzy leaves, seems like a benign though not indigenous presence. Others, like Horehound and the Tamarisk tree quickly dominate some riparian area they sail into, colonizing foreign soils, choking the life out of the native population. Like Columbus and Cortez, these botanical opportunists are adept at making the transition from guest to master without the natural controls common to their countries of origin.
Some more mundane intruders like the Tamarisk (European Salt Cedar) pose no great threat to their home turfs, but once released into North America they develop a biological hegemony in the riparian areas, to the point where it’s the only remaining tree along many of the rivers of the Southwest. Worse still, they are both fast growing and herbicide resistant, and they release a shower of mineral salts that make the soil inhospitable to any other plant’s shoots. Unchecked, they soon smother the native Willows and immature Cottonwoods, filling the ravines and river bottoms with their billowing pink blossoms. There were none at all in this rivershed when I first moved there, but now they’re beginning to crop up among the Beeweed. Gorgeous blossoms, I should say, but we are easily jerked back to reality if we recall the Rio Grande River system clogged by a single-species forest, a vast monoculture, a jungle of nothing but Tamarisk. Too many of the same kind of flower, too much of the same uniform color, in a veritable holocaust of beauty.
For months we struggled with what to do, until some of the slender trees were well over our heads. We wondered if it wasn’t enough that there was anything at all growing, after so many generations of grazing and die-back. And besides, we wondered, don’t all plants – like all people – have often undocumented immigrants for ancestors, and thus as much right to flourish in new places as they? When we finally went down to dig these known invasives up, they still felt as smooth and anima-filled as any creature, as vulnerable in the face of our attack as other plants were in the face of the Tamarisk’s own territorial campaigns.
Just as bad for the Sanctuary was the Horehound incursion, seeds hitchhiking up onto the mesa stuck to our socks, moving through the rest of the county in the tails of horses and the alfalfa hay they eat. It looks so lovely at first, in patches of short ground-cover that smell sweetly when walked upon, pungent leaves perfect for brewing up a batch of old-fashioned herbal cough drops. It isn’t long however, before they form a solid crusty plane of yard-high vegetation too thick to walk through. Where the ground around our cabin and below the cliffs were once graced by Mariposa Lily and Banana Yucca, soon there was only Horehound. Prickly Poppy and Evening Primrose, Nettle and Mallow, Cushion Cactus and Tahoka Daisy were being pushed out of their own neighborhoods, denied access to soil and sun in a hostile takeover bid. We felt we had no choice but to respond in defense of biological diversity, accepting the hands-on responsibility of removing them one plant at a time, while empathizing with the pain of being ripped up by the roots.
In the Southeast, a primary botanical imbalance can be brought about by the prodigious Kudzu, imported as feed for livestock and erosion control, quickly escaped domesticity and is fast becoming not only the dominant species but in the some areas nearly the only one, outcompeting all other plants and growing at a rate of nearly a foot per day, clambering up and eventually choking standing trees. Even the most ardent lover of such medicinal and ornamental vines must recoil – and hopefully reconsider their principle of non-judgement and noninterference – in the face of such lamentable destruction of existing plant communities.
Like most of our allies and friends, we find the whole concept of “environmental restoration” a touchy one. As obviously and totally beneficial at it can be to rebuild salmon streams or replant clearcut hills, the very notion of restoration implies that humans know what’s best, and are willing to “play God” over the rest of creation — something that our species has shown scant capacity for. And all natural lifeforms have an intrinsic integrity if not aesthetic appeal that deserves honoring and taking into account, including the most troublesome, thorny, stinging, sticker-studded, inedible and unpleasant to one’s eye, and regardless of whether it has any potential medicinal or other human use. On the other hand, we have 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 Horehound of Animá 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 of the activist, ecological restorationist and permaculturist, artist and celebrant, gardener and herbal wildcrafter, of all caretakers of plants and our hopefully planted selves.
Do take care.
All photos (c) 2010 Kiva Rose