Ending The Toxic, Costly and Unnecessary War On Invasive Plants: What is Pristine Anyway?

This investigative series follows my personal exploration into a big question – is the toxic chemical war we are waging on invasive plants doing more harm than good?

The New and Ever-Changing Wild

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Camas in Garry Oak Meadows

In Part One we examined evidence suggesting that invasive plants may not be the evil interlopers we’ve made them out to be.  In this post, I explore the question – are invasive plants truly destroying “pristine” natural environments?

Here in Victoria removing invasive plants from Garry Oak groves is a huge conservation priority. It is estimated less than 5% of Garry Oak systems remain in the Pacific Northwest (to which the Garry Oak is unique). Today we are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars and hours of human resources to restore their ecosystems to a pre-colonized state. But as many First Nation leaders have pointed out, this idea of Garry Oaks groves as pristine “untouched” landscapes – just doesn’t hold water.

History shows that at the turn of the century when local first peoples asked their new “government officials” for permission to continue harvesting Camas bulbs in Garry Oak groves, they were denied. This starchy sweet bulb was a beloved and important food source in their diet, and they were regularly altering Garry Oak ecosystems through controlled fires and other food cultivation techniques.

Preparing Camas Bulbs for Baking
Preparing Camas Bulbs for Baking

When Captain Vancouver arrived here in May 1792, he described “a landscape almost as enchantingly beautiful as the most elegantly finished pleasure grounds in Europe diversified with an abundance of flowers.” But as Cheryl Bryce, Lands Manager for The Songhee’s Nation points out in this article, this enchanting landscape was only there by virtue of a lot of hard work by her female ancestors who owned and managed the camas fields through seasonal burning, weeding and harvesting on a sustainable scale. “The only reason, they [the company] settled here was that we had done such a good job of keeping the soil rich.”

Nonetheless, it became illegal to gather traditional foods outside of reserve lands. This practice of gathering the foods, processing and eating them, as Bryce makes clear, “were what kept us alive both from the perspective of diet and culture.” Today ‘restored’ Garry Oak Parks are regarded with reverence. No trampling of flora must occur, trails must be kept on, and no wildflowers picked. Is this “restoration” reflective of a ‘natural state’?

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Camas

What if, as Fred Pearce suggests in his book The New Wild: Why Invasive Species Will Be Nature’s Salvation there is no one singular “pristine state” to return to? Geological studies clearly show that our environment is in constant flux, ice ages come and go, weather changes, comets hit the earth and cloud the sun. Ecosystems are adapting, dying and being reborn all the time. There is no stasis in nature.

According to this study by the University of Oxford “Pristine landscapes simply do not exist anywhere in the world today and, in most cases, have not existed for at least several thousand years.” Add to this the continuing impact of human occupation, and the fact that humans have been introducing alien foods and seeds to new lands for thousands of years, and you can see why it’s difficult to pin down any one time as epitomising a true ‘original’ state. Even the Amazon, long considered the last bastion of wild, was once farmed by the early Pre-Columbian Peoples. Many of the trees now dominating the forests could be considered “invasives” by modern logic.

Now I love the Garry Oak Groves as much as anyone. I do not want to see them vanish, but maybe, just maybe, by allowing invasive plants to thrive, mother nature knows what she is doing? It may appear that plants like garlic mustard are the bully of the plant world – seeking to colonise and dominate  – but maybe it just looks that way to us in the short-term view of 40 or 50 years?  According to this study “garlic mustard will decline and reach a balance with native species that recolonize invaded areas.”

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Garlic Mustard

Author and esteemed herbalist Stephen Harrod Buhner writes “We need to understand Nature doesn’t make mistakes, that Earth is, at minimum, 3.5 billions years old, and that earth has been engaging in this process a lot longer than our species has existed…We need to understand that processes that no scientists understand are occurring on both very large and very small scales… So, when we see “invasive’ plants moving wholesale into new ecosystems, we need to ask in all humility, What are they doing? What is their purpose?”

Timothy Scott in his book Invasive Plant Medicine: The Ecological Benefits and Healing Abilities of Invasives makes the point that our fear that invasives will create monstrous monocultures just isn’t in line with nature’s tendency towards evolving complexity and creating biodiversity. Scott reminds us that all plants serve ecological functions for their environment. And his book and many others collect growing evidence suggesting that once invasive plants fulfil their function of repairing damaged soils and waterways (see my previous post) they will naturally die back

Now, this doesn’t mean that all of the wildflowers will return or that Garry Oak groves will be restored to some “pre-colonized state”. It means the evolving of a new balance, a new eco-system, a new wild.” As nature has perpetually done. As Pearce writes, “we should be restoring ‘nature’s wildness, not trying to turn one moment in its past into an ossified museum relic….The new wild will be different but no less dramatic and wonderful than the old wild.” 

pesticide cowichan

I think it important now to return to the question – are our attempts at invasive species removal (especially by chemical means) working against the remedial processes of mother nature? Are we letting our ‘feelings’ get in the way of even contemplating such an idea?

I’ve noticed that many see invasive plants as a metaphor for Western occupation – just as we colonised the First Peoples, the plants we brought with us – are destroying the land. Many believe, as I do, that protecting indigenous species is an important way of restoring some of the damage we’ve done.


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But Scott makes the point that “the very words alien, noxious, invasive, aggressive, harmful, disruptive, choking, villainous” have created an emotional dichotomy of native plants versus an exotic one and a “good” plant versus a “bad” one…and it “cannot describe a scientific, ecological understanding of plant dynamics within complex ecosystems…and it leaves no room for the changing expressions of nature that have been evolving the genetics of biosystems and Earth’s inhabitants for eons.”

I’m not advocating that we let nature “go wild”. I fully acknowledge the importance of restoring traditional foods and medicines like Camas. I realise too that we are dealing with new “invaders” not found in pre-colonization landscapes. But my hope is that by merging indigenous ways of plant cultivation with non-toxic methods of invasive plant control (as suggested in Tao Orion’s book Beyond The War on Invasive Species: A Permaculture Approach to Ecosystem Restoration) we might find new, less toxic ways of dealing with invasives. (More on this in a future post.)

I am curious though, what the Lekwungen people think about the recent use of Roundup and Garlon in the Garry Oak Groves of Uplands Park (in and by the fields containing Camas) in their traditional territory – and I have invited the input of the Lekwungen Food Systems Project into this series. I’d like to know whether they’d like to see some of the budget currently spent in federal, provincial and municipal budgets on herbicides – redirected towards restoring indigenous methods of plant cultivation and control?

I acknowledge too, there are dangerous plants we want to keep at bay. Plants I’m not too fond of myself, like Poisonous Hemlock or The Giant Hogweed or English Ivy. But as we go about our processes of removal I think it’s also important to ask whether these plants are fulfilling necessary ecological functions of which we are currently unaware?

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Giant Hogweed

We need to find new ways of responsibly dealing with invasive plants in a way that puts the health of the ecosystem as it’s first priority – not whether it has been successfully denuded of invasives or represents a pristine prior state. How do we strike a balance when it comes to saving beloved wildflowers, restoring indigenous food systems or removing toxic or poisonous plants that threaten our safety? 

I don’t know, but again, I think it is a question worth asking. And is the increasing application of Round-up in endangered ecosystems (like our Garry Oaks) really the best we can do? By eliminating invasive plants in our environments with toxic chemicals proven to be harmful to life – could we be increasing stressors on our already struggling ecological systems?

In the next post, I’ll explore growing allegations that the pesticide and herbicide industry has a vested financial interest in convincing us that their products are not only safe but necessary.  Just how big a role did the chemical industry play in shaping our idea that invasive plants must be eradicated? 

Resources:

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Whether its through wildcrafting, plant medicine, kitchen witchery or seasonal celebrations, I believe we can enhance personal, community and planetary well-being by connecting with mother nature!

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