The Druid's Garden

Spiritual Journeys in Tending the Land, Permaculture, Wildcrafting, and Regenerative Living

Embracing “First Aid Responder” Plants July 17, 2016

As I grow ever more in tune and aware of nature’s gifts, I keep coming back to one of the tragedies of our age–our incredible misunderstanding of the natural world, the sacred living earth from which all things flow. One of the things I’ve been working hard to do in this blog, and in my own community here in PA, is to restore and reconnect humans and nature. My particular way of doing it has lately been through the teaching of healing plant medicine, edible wild foods, and the like.  This means breaking down some assumptions, but really, building new knowledge and empowerment for many people in the community.  Since moving to my small town I’ve been really busy as an ambassador offering presentations on permaculture and vermicomposting, summer plant walks (wild food/medicine), herbalism classes, and most recently I am teaching children at the local UU church how to make medicine from plantain! I am finding that here, there is a great need for this kind of plant education in the community, certainly, and great interest.

 

What I am learning is that people have very limited vocabularies, frameworks, and understandings when it comes to plants. One of the things that often comes up from people, and that they latch onto, is the idea of the “invasive” vs. “native” plant. When I share a plant, they want to know if its invasive or native, and I rarely want to use those terms. As I mentioned in my last post on this subject (which was rather controversial), the concept of invasiveness is, in itself, a real problem. And I think, more than anything, it is because all invasive plants are put into a little box. If these plants were human, attaching such a label would be considered racist, sexist, classist, homophobic, etc.  But apparently, we can do it as much as we like to plants–and when we pigeonhole plants into an “invasive” or “native” category, we make assumptions about them without knowing their true nature, understanding their spirits, or their medicine and magic.

 

Poison Ivy, guardian plant

Poison Ivy, guardian plant

I think this is a problem for a number of reasons.  For one, the term is derogatory, and makes a set of assumptions that simply don’t fit for all plants with the “invasive” category.  Second, a lot of plants don’t fit in the whole binary very well. Poison ivy, which is one of my very favorite plants (I will have to write on it one of these days) is a native plant, yet, it doesn’t get privileged status because humans don’t like what happens when they rub up against it. Water hemlock is another native plant which which you do not want to tango. Nearly all lawn grass isn’t native, but humans like it because it mows well and mats well and creates lawn. We have all kinds of stuff we’ve planted (hello wheat, oats, barley, lettuce, onion, radish, leek….the list goes on and on).  How do any of these fit within the categories?  They really don’t.

 

So if the categories don’t fit, why do we still use them?  Probably because they are simple, and they allow people to know something (e.g. plant = good or plant = bad) about the plants.  Part of what I believe we need to do, in order to build more fruitful relationships with nature, is to rethink these terms.  So today, I’d like to present one new category that we can consider as a thinking, teaching, and relationship-building tool: the first aid responder plant.

 

Introducing: The First Aid Responder Plants

Imagine that a person who is in a really bad accident, that the person was unable to move, damaged and broken.  Who would that person want to come to their aid?  A first responder, that’s who! An ambulance and medic, someone who could help stabilize the person, get them to the hospital, and set them on the path for long-term healing and recovery.

 

If we use this same analogy with plants, we can see that this is what happens to our lands every day. I wrote about different kinds of damage extensively in my recent land healing series. Our lands are harmed with our various activities: oil extraction, logging, new construction, conventional agriculture, and so on. These activities really harm certain kinds of plant species that are slow to propagate and slow to take hold. But other plant species, those that have evolved to adapt to these kinds of conditions, can take hold and help regenerate the land. They are plants that are adapted to particular circumstances: disturbance, and the nature of that disturbance is almost always human caused, directly or indirectly. And these are our first responder plants.

 

Unfortunately, a lot of our first aid responders end up on noxious weed lists for a simple reason–they are abundant, as disturbance is abundant. This has people assume immediately that these plants are somehow “out of control” but, given the nature of where these plants grow, they are only responding to human-caused disturbance. As I’ll show here, the situation is far less clear.  For one, people only pay attention to what is happening at this moment, not what has happened or what will happen in the future.  This short-term view means that we cannot account for most of the variables in why the responder plants are here–and that’s a problem for a few reasons.

 

Ox-Eye daisy is a very good example of a first-aid responder plant (and delicous edible and medicinal plant). This plant often shows up in disturbed soil: over-grazed pastures, old potato fields, edges of parking lots, and so on. People see these dense patches of daisy and think, “oh noes! There’s the invader!” without paying attention to why it is growing there or the history of the land.  I observed a very interesting pattern with regards to daisies in my own acre-sized field on my homestead: the first year, the field was all daisy, as the previous owners mowed the field all the time.  I chose not to mow the field but instead only mow walking paths; the second year, the daisy only grew on the paths where I had mowed.  By the fourth year, there were very few ox-eye daisies other than growing out of the paths–the rest of the field had gone to milkweed, st. john’s wort, wild strawberry, and other such plants.  The truth is, you aren’t going to get rid of Ox-Eye daisy in a field–but you don’t need to if you let it do its sacred work of healing.

Ox-eye daisy my first year - this field has practically nothing after six years!

Ox-eye daisy my first year – this field has practically nothing after six years!

 

Sweet clover is another one where I’ve seen a similar pattern–areas of disturbance, especially areas that have been recently dug and mowed. I noticed this a lot in parks–fields of plants with sweet clover only on the disturbed edges.  If there is no longer disruption, it disappears after about five years (fitting my first responder category). Bees make incredible honey from sweet clover, and it is also a fantastic medicinal plant, particularly indicated for nerve damage.

 

Dandelion is yet a third fantastic first responder plant; and I’ve written on the dandelion’s magic and purpose extensively a few years ago on this blog (along with wine recipes, lol). Dandelion breaks up compacted soil and brings nutrients from deep.  It is particularly effective in regenerating lawns.  Dandelions won’t grow once ecological succession happens and the lawn is no longer a lawn–again, they are a first responder plant. And, of course, dandelion is medicinal and edible.

 

Spotted Knapweed is yet another first responder, and one my herbal mentor Jim McDonald taught me extensively about.  Jim showed us his field that used to be full of it.  The more he pulled, the more it came (of course it did, it thrives in disturbance).  He gave up pulling it out and over time, it did its work and now there isn’t hardly any of it left after about 10 years! And, if you are noticing the pattern here, spotted knapweed is also medicinal.

 

Curly Dock/Yellow Dock and Burdock, which are both fantastic medicinal and edible plants, also work with compacted soil well, and will grow to heal disturbance and break up compacted soil if given a chance to do so. Once ecological succession takes place, curly dock and burdock are nowhere to be found.

 

Burdock as a land regenerating plant and medicinal

Burdock as a land regenerating plant and medicinal

What you have hopefully noticed form this list is not only is this plant a first aid responder for the land, these plants are also healing and medicinal for humans!  We should be thanking them for the services we provide for our lands: healing the soil quickly and effectively, breaking up compacted soil, reducing erosion, offering us medicine and food so freely.  These plants deserve our respect and to be honored. Where would the land be without these first aid responders?  Where would we be without them?

 

I hope this framework is helpful to you as a way to expand beyond the invasive/native binary.  Now, I am full to admit that this is one taxonomy of plants, and there is another group (kudzu, buckthorn) that may rightfully deserve some of the ire that people throw at them (as these vines literally tear down forests; the long-term ecological impacts still yet to be known). I cut buckthorn down by hand when I see it, for sure.  But I don’t think by any means that the first responder plants deserve to be in the same category, not from all of my observations and research. And maybe, next time you see one, thank a first responder plant for the good work that plant is doing on behalf of all.

PS: This link tells you a bit more about how some first responder plants indicate certain soil conditions.

 

Invasive Plants and Invasion Biology as Destructive Concepts: A Druid’s Perspective October 9, 2014

When people talk about plants, one of the common conversations that comes up is whether the plant is native or invasive. Invasive plants have taken on monstrous qualities of epic proportions, and people in organized groups nationwide argue for the eradication of invasive plants using harmful, chemically-based methods. The native plant community, whose conferences are sponsored by Bayer Chemical and Monsanto, advocate the use of noxious chemicals to deal with problem plants. I’d like to spend some time today discussing the “invasive plant” movement from a druidic perspective, where this movement came from, and provide an alternative perspective.  I’ll also note that while I think the term “invasive” is a problem, I haven’t yet come up with a better term, so I’ll use it in this blog entry.  I don’t think its a good term, however, and it creates more problems than it solves.

 

Invasives as a Cultural Construction: The Case of Autumn Olive

Let’s start with an example to see how these “invasive plants” are framed. When I was researching my recent post on Autumn Olive, I came across this video produced by the University of Maryland discussing the evils of Autumn Olive.  The piece opens with a pathos (emotion) driven argument that these “invaders” are scary, are “the nightmare that threatens your garden” and that one must be vigilant and protect one’s home and garden from such invasion.  This immediately puts humanity in an adversarial relationship with the said plant invader and encourages us to get angry and upset over the incursion of these plants upon the landscape.  When we move into the video itself, the narrator, who has a bunch of fancy titles, suggests that the autumn olives were “another good idea gone bad” and how they were once “promoted heavily” by state governments and the like, but now are “invaders.” So here, we have the obvious fact that we A) messed up the ecosystem to the point where we needed plants to help and B) brought these plants in willfully and systematically into the environment and C) didn’t consider the long-term impact of said plants before introduction.

 

Autumn Olive Berries

Autumn Olive Berries

The narrator continues by suggesting many things that, frankly, are not founded in reality. First, she argues that in every case Autumn Olives crowd out all native plants (an overgeneralization fallacy; tell that to the Boneset and New England Aster happily growing next to the Autumn Olive in my back yard). Perhaps the most ludicrous part is when she argues that Autumn Olive’s nitrogen fixing qualities are a terrible thing. As one of the few non-legume nitrogen fixers in many ecosystems where it grows, Autumn Olive helps regenerate soils, particularly in wasteland areas where the soils have been degraded by intensive farming by adding nitrogen to the soil and allowing the soil to become more fertile for other kinds of plants.  In his book Invasion Biology: Critique of a Pseudoscience, David Theodoropoulos he demonstrates many cases of this nature: that if a native plant fixes nitrogen or creates compost matter its considered good, but when an invasive does the same thing, it is considered bad. The video narrator concludes by suggesting that the “easiest thing to do” to get rid of autumn olive is to cut it down and “treat the stump with a systemic herbicide.” Yes, that’s exactly what we should do to the poor plant we put here who is regenerating the ecosystem and providing us and wildlife with tasty free berries (note my sarcasm).

 

Autumn olive presents an excellent poster child for the invasive plants debate because it highlights many of the problems that an “invasion biology” mindset has concerning plants. Specifically, it illustrates the contradiction that is so inherent in nearly all invasive plant species: we brought it here, we introduced it, and we damaged the landscape so that it has a niche in which to grow. And then we become unhappy when it does grow and works to regenerate the problems we caused, so we treat it with chemicals that further damage the landscape, creating an even greater niche for the plant to grow.

 

The Origins of Invasion Biology

One of the striking things about the invasion biology movement is its connection with the Nazi’s xenophobic and genocidal thinking, as detailed by David Theodoropoulos in his book (and also discussed to a more limited extent on his website). The Nazis had a very similar “native plant” movement in Germany where they worked to eradicate the landscape of non-native plants; this, of course, parallels the atrocities committed in their attempt to eradicate humans from the landscape who didn’t fit their idolized image. Theodoropoulous argues that invasion biology is connected to the same kinds of destructive thinking prevalent in Naziism, that is, an easily identified enemy that one seeks to exterminate, an emphasis on genetic purity, the goal of preserving one’s lands, and a root cause of dissatisfaction with where things are currently.  I’d add to his arguments that it becomes easy to construct an enemy, get people angry with the enemy, and then work hard to eradicate it, all the while stripping them of the facilities for rational thought through fearmongering and intense emotional reactions.  From a rhetorical perspective, when we begin setting up multiple logical fallacies in order to generate hatred of plants (straw man arguments, post-hoc fallacies, either-or fallacies, overgeneralization fallacies) we get into a mode that allows us to react emotionally rather than reason logically about our interaction with our landscape.

 

Another problem with the invasives debate is that only certain kinds of plants or insects are targeted.  The European honeybee is an invasive species under many definitions–it outcompetes native pollinators such as the bumble bee. Despite clear scientific evidence for its invasive quality, we keep honeybees and they produce honey and pollinate crops.  And you never hear any invasive species people complaining about Apis Melifera. In the same way, I’ve seen Poison Ivy routinely listed on “invasive species” lists, despite the fact that poison ivy is a native plant filling and important role in the ecosystem.  Wolves suffer a similar fate–wolves are native, but we’ve done our best to eradicate them in the ecosystem because they prey upon farmer’s herds. What counts as an invasive, then, depends on whether it aligns with economic interests and how convenient or inconvenient it is for humanity.

 

The terminology problem continues within the scientific literature within the invasive plant community: practitioners cannot agree upon terminology or  what features actually constitute an invasive plant or animal. So not only do we have a straw man argument (a constructed enemy), we also have no clear definition of what we actually are rallying against, but by golly, we will rally against it.  The problem with fuzzy definitions is that they, like emotions, are easily manipulated to get one to behave in a certain manner–and as I’ll demonstrate in the next section, like everything else in our culture, this ultimately comes back to consumption.

 

Gotta love the dandelion!

Gotta love the dandelion!

Problems with Invasion Biology

All of the above things speak to the destructive origins of the invasive plants thinking, and this thinking leads to a series of problems.

 

Invasion biology as a profit scheme.  First and foremost, its important to understand that the invasive plant industry (and yes, it is an industry) is quite lucrative from the perspective of the chemical companies. Dow’s site, for example, promotes the use of chemical treatments of invasives in order to sell their products. Given their nature, invasive plants are nearly impossible to eradicate and continually and easily spread by human disturbance, the chemical industry has a cash cow of epic proportions–each year, one needs to buy and apply more chemicals to deal with one’s invasives in one’s yard. The more one distrubs the soil, the more readily the invasives will come–and so the cycle continues. The chemical companies have everything to gain by maintaining an adversarial relationship with the plants.  David Theodoropoulos provides evidence in his book that links executives from the chemical industry to the founders of the native plants movement (such as the Monsanto executive and creator of Roundup being a founding member of the California Exotic Pest Plant Council).  Profits are driving this movement, make no mistake about that.

 

Chemical controls are worse than the plants themselves.  What is worse? The damage that Autumn Olive or Phragmites cause or the chemicals and methods we use to eradicate them?  If I had a chance to let species grow or use horrible poisons to eradicate them, I will let them grow and find ways of co-habitating with those species. We do more harm than good in working to eradicate these invasives with chemicals.  We cannot poison the landscape in order to protect it.

 

Human interference and destruction of the land is the root cause.  The ironic thing about the invasive plant movement is that humanity is much more destructive on the ecosystem than any single invasive plant, or any group of invasive plants or other species combined. A few of these destructive tendencies are: the insistence in maintaining a perfect lawn with petrochemicals, the extraction and use of fossil fuels, the use of poisons that shatter the ecological balance of our waterways and reduce diversity, the injecting of hundereds of millions of tons of poisons into our watershed through fracking, the use of clear cutting, the prevalence of oil spills (and so on, and so on). Humans have much to atone for with regards to our relationship with nature. Human interference, to me, the root cause of the whole issue and is the bigger issue we should consider addressing.

 

Promotion of an adversarial relationship with nature.  I’ve written about this fairly extensively on this blog; the promotion an adversarial relationship with nature is going to continue to lead to our treating it harmfully, dumping chemicals on it, and generally not engaging in any kind of partnership with the land.  As long as we see nature as the enemy, we are, like the Nazis, willing to do anything in order to achieve our goals.  And that is an incredibly scary thing indeed.

 

Alternative Perspectives to Invasion Biology

Now that I’ve outlined some of the history and issues with the invasive plant movement, I’d like to offer some alternative perspectives, rooted in my own druidic perspective that “nature is good” and help to demonstrate my shift to more sustainable ways of thinking.

 

Nature is not a static thing to memorialized but rather dynamic and ever-changing. Wendell Berry argues in The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture that sometime in the 20th century, our relationship with the natural world shifted from that of collaborators to that of museum preserverationists. At all costs, the US National Parks Service set about preserving nature exactly as it was at that moment, memorialized across time.  Or, if a habitat was deemed too full of invasives, habitats were “restored” through the mass dumping of chemicals and destruction of what was growing there.  And to this day, these practices still take place—the plants that are growing are removed, burned, chemically treated, and new plants are planted, those that are “supposed to be there.”

 

The problem with is that it is a completely unrealistic view of how nature actually works. Evolution is about adaptation and change; our fossil records show that throughout the many millennia of earth’s existence, the only one constant is change and the ability to adapt. Species that adapted to their changing surroundings survived, those who did not failed to survive. This is a natural process and one that has driven all life.  We are already seeing the effects of climate change with the migration of species to areas that are now warming (I think about the redbud tree that is now showing up here in Michigan).  Nature will adapt and evolve, its just what she does.

 

The invasive plant movement assumes that nature is, was, and always will be the same.  But even as far back as Charles Darwin, we see evidence of plant and animal matter being moved all over the globe by natural processes–bugs and animals and microbes riding on a log to a new island, birds carrying seeds 1000’s of miles in their beaks, and so on.  The difference is that humans have perpetuated the movement of species into new areas at a much faster pace and we have done this while systematically destroying ecosystems and wild areas.  Of course we are going to see cracks in the system–but, if we give her space and time, nature will adapt.

 

Adaptation

Adaptation

Nature is not something to be at a distance, rather, something we can interact with. The “nature as a static thing” view puts nature at a distance, rather than something that one interacts with. There is a local county park where I like to go, that has some amazing plants like diamond puffball mushrooms, spicebush, and a small patch of beech-oak old growth forest. There are 6’ wide paved pathways with another 4’ of mowed clearance on each side of the path. People run there, bring their dogs. But what I never see them doing is interacting—getting up close to look at a bug, or sit on an old stump. They stay neatly and perfectly on the path and even while they are in the middle of a forest, keep that forest at a distance. This distance leads us to see ourselves as separate from nature, and certainly allows us to have less empathy about decisions to slash and burn pieces of it that aren’t to our liking, or dump poisons all over it in the drive for trying to put things back the way they were before we messed with it.

 

Finally, this view eradicates any idea of nature as a “commons” that benefits all, where the careful management of natural resources is something that is the responsibility of all. The commons view, used extensively in feudal England, suggested that many of common lands were available for general use (foraging, harvesting trees using coppicing as a method, putting flocks to pasture), as long as that use was kindly and in balance.

 

With the rise of the “nature as a monument” movement, we’ve forgotten how to be in partnership with each other and with the land to promote long-term balance and harmony; this is perhaps no more evident than in the invasive species movement.

 

Most “invasives” are slowly regenerating our landscapes from damage that WE have inflicted. Invasives often work to regenerate damaged soils [see my dandelion post] and do so quickly and effectively. They do often outcompete other native plants that have been previously growing there (and in many cases, were recently removed due to human activity).  They often have benefit to us and to the ecosystem (see Timothy Lee Scott’s Invasive Plant Medicine for a fascinating discussion). The idea that we can somehow preserve the landscape as it once was is, frankly, in my opinion short sighted and pointless.  The landscape changes, and it changes far more often due to human activities – humans can wipe out a forest far more effectively and quickly than buckthorn can.  Most of the role of the invasives are to regenerate the damage that we have continually inflicted.

One one of my recent herb walks was in this area with acres and acres of native plants that had be re-introduced by a local state park service (I don’t want to know what they did to eradicate whatever was growing there before).  As we walked up this hill, my herb instructor pointed out something quite interesting–the only place the “invasives” where showing up in the landscapes was where humans were causing disturbances.  In other words, sweet clover (which bees love) and star thistle (Spotted Knapweed) were showing up only on the edges of the paths where they were being mowed (these are the best plants from which bees make honey, for the record).  There were literally no plants of an “invasive” nature anywhere further inside where the soil wasn’t disturbed.  And this is true of many invasives, like dandelion.  They are regenerating the most difficult spaces, those that have no soil fertility, that have compacted soil.  They are paving the way for others to come.

 

Long-term Orientation.  As I’ve discussed on this blog before, the concept of long-term orientation also comes into play here. Because a great deal of the “invasives” grow in conditions where the soil is disturbed, if those conditions were to be removed, the invasives wouldn’t continue to grow.  I discussed the succession of dandelion in my earlier post, and the same is true of many of the invasives that people get uptight about: spotted knapweed, honeysuckle, autumn olive, and purple loosestrife.

Even for those invasives that are displacing native plants in the ecosystem–consider this.  Our planet is in a constant state of change and flux.  Species rise, species fall, and evolution is a constant driving force.  If we stop looking just at today and tomorrow and instead think about 100 or 1000 years from now, I think we can say that yes, the introduction of plants has changed, but nature will also find a way to balance the scales (provided that there are enough natural and wild areas where such evolution can take place).  The much greater threat to our long-term survival as a species and as a world is from human-led destruction, not from plants being introduced.

 

Nature is good.

          One of the common sayings within the druid tradition is that “nature is good.” Notice that its not “only nature that was here before we got here is good” or “some nature is good” or “native plants that are in nature are good.”  No, the saying is simply, “Nature is good.” This is the approach that I take. Whether or not we like it, decisions by humans and actions by humans have irrevocably altered our landscapes, not only from the introduction of non-native plant species but in the wholesale destruction and desecration of the land through the use of chemical means. The idea that we want to “manage” natural evolutionary and ecological processes is just another manifestation of the hubris that we are somehow above nature, and that nature can’t manage itself. If we buy this argument, then I think the best that any of us can do is to truly step back from the immediacy of the “native plant problem” and fight against the wholesale exploitation and nature, both in our immediate lives but also in our communities and countries.

 

The last point I’ll make is this: we have limited energy and time, and how we choose to spend that time can make considerable positive change in the world.  If I choose to focus my energy on eradicating invasive species in my yard and helping others do the same, I’m choosing not to focus my energy on something else that could have a more benefical impact. If we look at the magnitude of the destruction we are facing, it is not from invasive species in our landscape but from humanity’s relentless pursuit of consumer goods and greed.  If what I’ve written here makes any sense at all, I would like to suggest the following: focus on educating others, preventing destruction to begin with, and to working with the plants to regenerate and restore our landscapes.  Focus on educating ourselves and others about how ecosystems work and how we can better live in harmony in sustainable ways.  To me, this seems like a much more productive use of one’s time, and has a possibility for much greater good.  We can cultivate a positive relationship with nature.