Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Invasive Plants: Accepting Globalization

Call me irresponsible. When I heard about yet another “Invasive Plants in the Landscape” conference, my first thought was “How depressing.”

And it’s not that I don’t care that our fields and forests are being ravaged by garlic mustard and knapweed, I tried to explain to my friends the other evening at dinner. But, one insisted, we make the natural world a better place by reclaiming patches in backyards all over the region. True. But … Let me see if I can do a better job.
Garlic mustard, by the way, is edible!

I am, in fact, a tackle-any-job kind of girl. For years I’ve pulled garlic mustard and greater celandine at the optimum time, and hacked English ivy from tree trunks before it had a chance to become a bearer of berries. I’ve refrained from planting burning bush even though its brilliant and long-lasting color is unmatched by more responsible choices. I still do these things in my own garden, because I know what will happen if I don’t. For years I have cared, fretted, and educated myself about the seed-spreading cycles and eco-niches of culprits like stilt grass and purple loosestrife. But the realization that has crept over me and overtaken my zeal is this: I could pull invasive plants from roadsides gone wild every Saturday all year long, and they would proliferate as soon as I took a break. Inevitably, we fall behind. As Emma Marris put it in her book, Rambunctious Garden, "A historically faithful ecosystem is necessarily a heavily managed ecosystem." Creating a native landscape can be seen as a way that we busy ourselves to further an impossible goal: putting the natural world to rights.

As we toil away, making little patches better places for pollinators and symbiotic organisms, corn fields and deciduous forests alike continue to be transformed into commercial and industrial districts by those who think of soil as something to be moved out of the way so concrete can be poured. We must “spur the economy;” we must “speed up economic growth,” we are told daily by politicians. Growth has saved us in the past. Growth will make us happy. The U.S. GDP rose a remarkable 3.4% a year for 100 years—up until 1980. Thus, the American Dream. All we need to do is produce more—more natural gas, more refined oil, more corn—and we will be saved again (with no new taxes!). 

Polllinators love native plants, and foxglove, too.
It’s time we wrap our heads around an ecological truth: perpetual growth is impossible. When the deer populations exceed the carrying capacity of the land, we moan about the effect on forest regeneration. When mosquitoes flourish we spray the infestation. When garlic mustard rosettes stretch into flowering stalks, and spit out their copious seeds, we fund studies that determine the survival percentages of ginseng. And yet, we exclude our own species from the rules that the science of ecology has established, and on those infrequent occasions when we act to limit our impacts on other species, it is with the stipulation that economic growth will continue unimpeded. Always and forever.

Despite all good intentions of leading a meaningful and intentional life, we are spending increasing amounts of time in climate-controlled boxes, and packing them with more and “better” stuff. We work and work, for if we take a break, the bills will proliferate. We will fall behind. We spend less and less time in nature, and more on electronic devices. We (and I include myself in this) are hopelessly goal-oriented—which seems, more and more as I grow older and (hopefully) wiser, a path to inevitable dissatisfaction. 

There is one benefit to pulling garlic mustard, so long as we have no illusions that we can permanently repair the so-called damage, and that is that it gets us outside. Every time a rosette is yanked out by the roots, someone has to stoop, and observe the forest floor. It’s likely that the puller may look up, and watch the way the wispy clouds move across the blue sky, and listen to the singing of the robin or the popping of peppergrass seedpods, and think, I am doing something good for the environment, and I feel good. But the truth is, the best thing that is being done for the environment is that people are being given a reason to leave their climate-controlled boxes, a reason to step outside, a reason to care. 

Face it: Life is messy. Globalization is a done deal. We are going to have to learn, somehow, to love our neighbors. The wild things will work it out for themselves with little or no help from us, thank-you-very-much. They’ll have to. 

And there are, I believe, better ways to spend Saturday mornings than acting as judge and executioner of aliens that have crept into our country, our wild spaces—better for the earth and better for us. I would rather see people thrill to the sight of thousands of butterflies sipping nectar from purple loosestrife than look at the scene with consternation and a sense of duty. I would rather see them step into the whirl and become enveloped by the buzzing of bees, notice the astonishing diversity that is to be found on a single plant. If people, young and old, were to spend time joyfully learning the world outside their boxes and truly feeling the life in the soil that lies beneath the soles of their shoes, they might experience a kinship with the other organisms that we share our space with. Maybe they will see that a little goal-free time offers rewards that can’t be gained from the accumulation of stuff. Maybe they will grow up to be politicians. Maybe they will understand that never-ending economic growth is not the path to happiness—or even a desirable thing.  

Did you know Japanese hops causes dermatitis when you pull it?
So yes, I’m done wringing my hands over the presence of Japanese hops and European garlic mustard in the wilds—and it’s not because I don’t care that natives are losing their niches. I care a lot. But my American Dream has taken on a different perspective. I believe that if we can succeed in getting Inside People out, into nature, we might, as a culture, stand a chance of remembering that More (to paraphrase Bill McKibben) is not what we need. We need to value the joy that comes from getting to know the non-human world. Some things are beyond our control. Others, starting with our relationship with nature in this period of our species’ “progress,” are fixable.  


  1. This is beautifully said and insightful. Thank you. We struggle daily with all the invasives on our 35 acres......Bush honeysuckle, brambles, garlic mustard, hops vine, Russian olive, etc., etc. But it has become so painful (and futile) to make it all go away. So we are focusing on what it does for the wildlife. It doesn't seem to matter to them what the flowers are growing on, or whose branches cradle their nests or whose berries help them get through the winter. Its still very disconcerting to see the native things being taken over......but it helps the pain a little to try to accept that maybe this is evolution in a sense. I don't like it at all, but as you said, globalization is here to stay.....and nature will work itself out. Many times I'm not able to put feelings into words, and you have done that for me. Thank you!

    1. I appreciate your taking the time to read my ramblings, and comment, no less! Thank you. Everything (and everyone) is a native to somewhere.