The Problem with Invasives

If you reduce the world far enough, you lose all perspective of an ending or a beginning, cold or heat, chaos or balance. All that’s left are building blocks – remnants of a supernova – compounds brought to earth on ancient comets. The ability to isolate and focus on elements of a system both enhances our understanding of atomic structures, and at the same time, blinds us to the bigger picture in which we find ourselves living. The same is true for so much of our understanding. Science can at once clarify age old problems, redefine lifeways, and change long held beliefs. So often, science mimics theology in fervor and resolute believers. A powerful scientific lens, and reductionist thinking, can also make it harder to see systems and the connections by which each element is attached to another. 

I have lived many lives in my forty years on this planet. I have read stacks of books piled high to the ceiling. I consume so many scientific papers it would seem I am working on a doctoral dissertation. I have done this in pursuit of purpose- explaining to myself what I am seeing, what I am feeling, and what I should do. I have dedicated my life to righting the wrongs my species seem hell bent on perpetrating.  Human-driven climate change, human-driven extinction, human-driven habitat destruction, war, pandemics, poverty – the list plays on like horror movie plotlines. 

Of Dreams and Wildness

One of the first plants I had a relationship with grew in an abandoned lot in New York City. Growing out of what seemed like gravel and concrete, this plant thrived defiantly among the rusty cars and human refuse.

My father would take me there to search for rabbits. We would pick up the roundest of rocks and fill our pockets with the perfect ammunition to fill a catapult’s leather pouch. Every careful step into our urban hunting ground filled my senses with the musky, earthy freshness of this silvery green plant. I learned almost twenty years later that this amazing pioneer species, which seemed impervious to the ammunition of extinction we build our society on, was mugwort- a dream enhancer. 

I dream often of that time, the wild feeling of pulling back taut rubber, the snap of the slingshot, the jump of the rabbit as the rock hit its target. The blood stained gravel so vividly contrasted the rusty metal fence that borders this “wildness” in which we found ourselves. So many of my early memories are of plants we now call invasive: non-native plants brought to this land for a myriad of reasons. 

Invasive Species

Humans have always moved plants and seeds well outside their native ranges; a quality that is one of our ecological niches, but it is not unique to us. Many animals move seeds, each filling a specialized role in cultivating life along the vastness of geography. Large animals trek seeds miles away from parent plants. Humans have taken our role to the extreme. We no longer only move seeds but whole plants, birds, insects, reptiles, amphibians, mammals, fungi, bacteria, viruses, and on and on. Over the last few thousand years we have rearranged the floral and faunal composition of the entire planet. Moving species and creating novel ecosystems that have no historical precedent. 

Today we find a world very different from our ancestors. In our forests, native black walnut trees act as trellises for Japanese vines. Birds pick berries off European privet. Spotted lanternflies suck sap from the native grapevine as it competes for sunlight and resources with a Japanese honeysuckle. Asian praying mantis eat ruby throated hummingbirds and they themselves are eaten by other native birds. European starlings fill the sky with synchronized movements, giving a glimpse into the past, shadowing the long-gone passenger pigeon that once darkened the sky.

This is what I see in the forests I tend. These new ecosystems flourish despite our species’ attempt to destroy them. These complex interactions flourish amidst the looming cultural idealism of native species superiority.

There is no doubt that native species have more connecting interactions with each other than in novel ecosystems. Relationships between pollinators and plants can stretch back millennia, while some novel interactions began mere months ago. 

Here at the farm we prioritize natives, and in most cases, we plant them exclusively. We do so not because of rigid ideas against non-native species, but with a deep understanding that nature is complex and mysterious – knowing that we don’t always know how one piece interacts with another.

What we do know is that we do not know enough to recreate an entire ecosystem. We work with the understanding of what we know, and what we don’t. Our culture has become the dogma of black and white, right and wrong, native and non-native. Binary thinking in a grey, complex, non-binary world. 

Curing Amnesia & Accepting What Is

The novelty of our predicament is mirrored in the novelty of our wild spaces and our amnesia of our place in nature. There is beauty in novel ecosystems. They are often the places where humanity can still interact with wildness without the rules created to protect wild spaces, which often keeps us separated from the wildness our psyche yearns for. 

If I could wave a wand and put all the plants and animals back to their native lands, I would pull the excess co2 from the atmosphere. I would remove the dams that choke our rivers, reforest the jungles, the taiga, the temperate hardwood forests. I would bring back the animals we have lost at the immense densities we once had.

The skies would be filled with life. The songs of birds would deafen us. The insects would dazzle us with their hum and flutter. The rivers would be teeming with life so dense you could almost walk across the water on the backs of fish. The oceans would be a symphony of whale songs and breach the surface across the globe. The air would smell of blossoms and decay, the cities would be wiped clean and forests and savannas would grow in their stead.

As much as I daydream about these things I realize it’s just that. A daydream. It takes me back to those summer days in New York City – mugwort wafting its scent as I stalk behind the rusted hulk of a Buick. The wind from the Verrazano, salty with the smell of the ocean, my mind one with the task, my heart beating wildly as I drew back the rubber. That same scene has played out for humans before we were homo sapiens. And there I realize is the keystone: the connection with place is the “magic wand.”

The love for the wild, whether an abandoned lot or a national park, is what drives us deeper into connection. 

Whether a rare native or a highly dispersive plant, the photosynthesis, the carbon sequestration, and the pollen, all act as a refuge for life that is quickly being paved, crushed, battered, and worst of all, forgotten.

I for one love all wild places, wild things and wild energies. Whether of this place or misplaced, each plant provides a service within the ecosystem. And while some prolific species can be challengingly aggressive, I have learned through listening, observation and humble stewardship that I can play a role in assisting nature in her infinite wisdom.

The greatest tragedy is not the spread of non-natives but the loss of relationship with place. The next time you venture out and try to see the world as wild and domestic, native and invasive, I challenge you to slow down and see the beautiful spectrum of life –  striving, evolving and playing its part – within novel ecosystems. 

About the Author – Wilson Alvarez

Wilson Alvarez is a certified permaculture designer, inventor, gardener, skilled tracker, bowyer, nature-awareness instructor, and writer from Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

For the past fourteen years, he has taught classes and workshops on bio-intensive agriculture, regenerative technology, foraging, hunting, trapping, tracking, and wilderness survival. Wilson has studied through the Wilderness Awareness School via the Kamana program, and he received his Permaculture Design Certificate via Susquehanna Permaculture. Wilson currently serves as the Woodland Steward at the Horn Farm Center in York, PA where he is implementing his research on biomimicry through the Reintegration Project. Learn more about Wilson’s work.