Invasives, Revisited: Warfare and Harvest

My post on invasive species provoked some really wonderful discussion from readers last week, reminding me once again just how diverse our attitudes towards the natural world can be. Even when we all agree on what practical actions we need to take, our motivations and reasons can be very different!

Take Robert Paxton, for instance, who left this comment on my G+ page:

Some invasives are sufficiently benign that one could address them in this gentle-hearted way. However, out at Circle Sanctuary, we cheerfully work hard to eradicate the buckthorn that has already killed some of our oldest oaks. We spend a lot of effort to beat back the multiflora rose that nothing eats — that repels the native birds — and that creates dense, fiercely prickly hedges. We fight the garlic mustard which chokes out dozens of native understory species, as well as causing butterfly populations to crash. And we fight the reed canary grass which creates monocultures that choke out wetlands.

Every local ecology has its own challenges, some more severe than others. In our case, a century of fire suppression — and some problematic but well-intentioned choices to introduce non-natives by DNR people of generations long past — left us a mess that we need to actively work on if we want the full natural diversity of the land shine.

The Gentle Heart of the City Girl

Bee on a FlowerRobert is absolutely right that every landscape has its own challenges, as well as its own sources of resilience and adaptability. Learning how to work with the unique characteristics of your own local area is absolutely vital in the work to conserve and support thriving natural ecosystems.

I can’t argue with Robert about whether or not the environmental challenges that face Puget Sound Country, and Seattle in particular, are more or less severe than those he faces at the beautiful Circle Sanctuary Nature Preserve in Wisconsin. (Though I will readily admit that I’m envious of the opportunity he has to work at such an amazing place!) I do know that Seattle has many of the problems common to cities all over the world — increased air and water pollution, soil erosion, heat islands, urban run-off, suburban sprawl — as well as some challenges unique to this area. Often times, invasive species find a foothold in a new landscape in the wake of disruptive changes that temporarily jeopardize the ability of native species to survive and thrive, and then stick around because they are hardier, more resistant to pollution and more flexible in nutrient-deficient environments. The city of Seattle, like many cities, has a history of environmental devastation and pollution from industry that make it ripe for invasion by non-natives.

Like Robert, I love the land where I live and I’m dedicated to doing everything in my power to live respectfully and to support an ecosystem that is vital and thriving. Do I think that my approach to handling invasives is too “gentle-hearted,” in light of the damage done by the more than 700 invasive species in my area (with Scotch broom and himilayan blackberry being among the fifty most problematic)? Not at all.

There is a great deal of violence and war in the language that Robert uses to describe his relationship with the land where he lives. He must “beat back” and “fight” and “eradicate” dangerous invaders in his efforts to protect old trees, butterflies, birds and other native wildlife. He might even see himself and his fellow conservationists at Circle Sanctuary as eco-warriors, embroiled in a battle of good versus bad, desirable versus objectionable, dangerous and strong versus weak and vulnerable. Yet I suspect that, as with most invasives, these efforts to eradicate the enemy will never be wholly successful. The invasives are here to stay, and the question we need to ask ourselves is how are we going to deal with them now that they’re here? Do we really want to be at war with a part of our landscape for the rest of our lives?

But what if we simply changed the metaphors we use when we talk about our approach to these invasives? What if we intentionally worked at shifting our attitudes away from images of war and hardship, and towards images of harvest and prosperity? I’m not suggesting being any less persistent or thorough in how we do the physical, practical work of land management. But instead of seeing this work as a constant battle that we will probably never win, what if we begin to think of these invasives as allies who present new opportunities? No plant or animal is wholly bad — every species fits into and carves out a niche, serving the larger community in some way. These invasives are, like many of us humans, dislocated settlers who are wreaking havoc in their attempt to survive. As Heather notes in another comment:

In their native environments, these species have natural checks on their growth (animals that eat them, competitors, etc.). By working with these species in the ways that you describe (using them for food or decoration), I think that humans have the ability to become those checks on the species in their new environment.

We can partner with invasive species in order to find a new balance, instead of wasting our time, energy and resources in a hopeless endeavor. Through careful research and creativity, we might just find positive qualities these plants possess that can be put to use by our communities, transforming this endless war into an opportunity for harvest.

The Cost of War

Our society tends to resort to the language of war and violence when trying to describe things that are difficult. People “fight their way up” the corporate ladder for a successful career. They “wage war” on social problems like poverty and crime. Hidden within Robert’s comment is the assumption that the most effective, most important kind of work is unpleasant and violent — work that we cannot do with a “gentle heart.”

Yet the casualties of war and violence are tragedies. We mourn the waste of life, the lost potential. This is true even when the war is metaphorical, and especially when it’s an endless battle that can never really be won. Many environmentalists have been inspired to great heroics and dedicated service by seeing themselves as courageous eco-warriors, fighting the good fight. But such an attitude is ultimately unsustainable — it can lead to feelings of despair and cynicism, when all the energy, time and resources we’ve poured into a good cause seem to come to nothing and we find ourselves, decades later, still locked in combat with the same intractable foes.

War is also the work of the few, rather than the many. As a metaphor, it is by its very nature exclusionary. A small number of soldiers put their lives on the line and make great sacrifices to protect the homeland and keep the rest of the community safe. Not everybody can be a soldier, and not everybody wants to be. For environmentalists who want to inspire and mobilize entire communities into action to protect the environment and live sustainably with our beautiful planet, using the metaphor of warfare can backfire, alienating supporters and undermining their cause. When we think of our environmental work as a war, we encourage the community to sit back and let those few of us shoulder the burden alone, brave eco-soldiers on the front lines doing the hard work so they don’t have to.

The Opportunity and Community of Harvest

Autumn WoodsAs a city-dweller, I know how easy it would be to give in to pessimism, seeing the landscape where I live as too far gone, too scarred by human exploitation. The problem is just too big for a handful of conservationists to tackle on their own, no matter how dedicated they are. Seattle will never again be a pristine wilderness — the invasives, human and nonhuman alike, are here to stay. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t new ways of thinking about how we live with our local landscape. Unlike other invasive species, we have the opportunity to change the stories we tell about our place in the world and, by changing our stories, changing the ways we live with and relate to the many other beings that share the world with us. Instead of seeing ourselves at war with invasives, and with ourselves, we can embrace the story of harvest.

The beauty of the harvest is that it promises sustenance and interdependence as the fruits of our labor. The effort we put into the harvest — the blood, sweat and tears — helps to foster connections instead of severing them, sustains and supports life instead of destroying it. We’re used to thinking of harvest as something easy: as easy as going to the grocery store and choosing between oranges and apples, or at most doing some gentle weeding and watering in our backyard gardens. The truth is, harvest is hard, sweaty work that demands a great deal of discipline, teamwork, commitment and courage. Rather than lionizing the sacrifices of the few, reclaiming metaphors of harvest gives us the opportunity to celebrate the efforts of ordinary people doing ordinary things that add up to real, meaningful change. It gives people a chance to be heroic in their everyday lives, as well as reacquaint themselves with the pleasure of hard work and its rewards.

Harvest also reminds us that life is cyclical: a part of this year’s yield will be sown as seeds to grow next year’s crop. In approaching conservation work, it’s essential to understand how our actions today affect the reality we will live with tomorrow, or next year, or in the next century. War, on the other hand, has a beginning, a middle and, hopefully, an end. When we are at war with the invasives in our landscapes, our primary focus is on killing as many of them as we can; we rarely ask ourselves the question of what happens to the casualties of that war after our task is done, or how the landscape will adapt and recover in their absence. Reframing our conservation work as harvest instead of warfare can help to keep us grounded in the cycles of nature that we’re a part of, and it can spark creative ways of recycling and integrating invasives that respect the balance of the native ecology. In a healthy ecosystem, nothing goes to waste, and everything serves some purpose. Rather than worrying about whether or not we are being too “soft on invasives,” treating them as enemy combatants or ecological criminals, we can embrace a more effective solution by focusing on rehabilitation and restoration.

Different stories will inspire different people. Some people might come to a blackberry ice cream social not because they care deeply about protecting the environment from the invasive himalayan blackberry, but because they like ice cream and hanging out with friends. For some, cooking and crafting is their way of fostering a relationship with the natural world, while others might be inspired by the greater call to serve the community on a global scale through conservation. If our efforts are effective and the stories we tell are inspiring, does it really matter whether we approach the work with the courageous heart of a fighter, or the gentle heart of a farmer?


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Alison Leigh Lilly nurtures the earth-rooted, sea-soaked, mist-and-mystic spiritual heritage of her Celtic ancestors, exploring themes of peace, poesis and wilderness through essays, articles, poetry and podcasting. You can learn more about her work here.

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