How quickly we get our dander up when we perceive an assault on our personal rights. How fast we respond, when we think someone, somewhere, might be telling us what we can do to our castle or on our land, with our pets or for our plants. Like a flash of lightning, we see that some group is attempting to limit what we can plant, and we react without actually thoroughly considering the issues at hand. The fact that we have a tradition of the public commons and the public good; that we have local zoning ordinances in many urban areas which, for almost a century, recommends common practices that are best for domestic properties, falls to the ground as we pick up our banner of property rights and personal liberty.
Now comes the great misunderstanding that “someone” is trying to take away our ornamental plants, collected over the centuries from around the world, and limit us to native plants only. Flailing wildly, the newly informed decry the efforts of supposed elite to arbitrarily create “pristine” wilderness areas. Like its philosophical distant cousins, immigration reform, invasive species, which are the harmful subset of non-native species, are hard to understand with small bits of information presented without context. Information is presented as factual when, in actuality, it is made from urban legend or country myth. Kudzu, for example, was intentionally introduced in the 1870’s, not, as some articles have stated, accidentally. When we launch an attack on an idea, it is very important to get the facts right, as we soon will find that there is much grey area to debate when one is swimming in subjective opinion. This leads to great controversy where none need exist.
Imagine a long term gardener, who for ten years or more has tended and cultivated a plant collection with outstanding results. The garden is a brilliant reflection of the owner’s passion and dedication. One day, a new neighbor appears with a wheel-barrow in hand. The gardener is ecstatic for the neighbor is moving plants in pots to the conjoining property line. The gardener rushes up to see what marvelous plant choice has been made only to find that the new neighbor has chosen a type of bamboo known to spread aggressively beyond the confines of the garden, and is intending to plant this long-term eradication problem along side the gardener’s perennial border. The gardener’s reaction is the same as the reaction of land managers to some of the ornamental trade’s garden choices.
The economic harm of kudzu is evident now. The swiftly growing plant leaps from state to state. Tax dollars are needed for control. In Washington, D.C., English Ivy covers portions of Rock Creek Park; the trees loose their limbs and are dying; the “freedom for ivy” movement cries foul at any thought of limiting ivy propagation and sale. Proponents of ivy as the best landscaping solution for difficult areas point out that ivy is everywhere and therefore defies trade restrictions.
Into this volatile mix, we add the “all is in flux” group, which states that change is constant and, therefore, somehow not worth the effort to mitigate. Plants are going to spread and there is nothing we can do, so we should look forward and not back, and continue to add potential new species, some of which may be of risk to the mix. By this point we have left the realm of reasonable disagreement, and have entered our current high state of political discourse with blinders fully functional.
There are many non-native species which provide great health and wealth benefits to society while at the same time displacing natives and destroying diverse habitats. One need look no further than cattle and wheat, and turf grass. Society weighs the contribution of these species to the common good, and, decides that the negative impact is acceptable at this time. As stewards of the land, we choose the greater good with these species. At the same time, research has noted a steady decline in species diversity in natural areas. Land managers struggle to preserve self-sustaining ecological systems to the greatest extent possible. In some sense, they are gardening in a “Wilderness” style versus an “English Landscape” style.
At its highest level, gardening is an art form, and, thus contributes to the collective culture. This living art of gardening requires dedication and long-term maintenance; gardens are not self-sustaining. Certain plant choices, which make sense during the life of the gardener, such as Japanese wisteria, can be spectacularly irresponsible after the garden has changed hands. The wisteria, having no longer the steady controlling hand of the master gardener, may seek better living conditions elsewhere including parks and natural areas. Gardening practiced by property owners responding to local zoning and health ordinances is not art and can unintentionally lead to poor plant choices.
Aquatic features in a home garden are a delight, but water hyacinth in our canal system is a scourge costing hundreds of millions of dollars to control. And the casual pond owner, who puts a few clumps of this plant in his aquatic feature, soon learns an important lesson about gardening: the right plant in the right place with the right knowledge and information.
To add to this brief presentation, we must include the Roman saying: “Non est disputandum gustibus”; “i.e., There’s no accounting for taste”. Along with property rights, the definition of beauty strongly influences our particular view. Many of our cherished landscaping traditions rely on controlled diversity and self-imposed limitations on the selection of plant. We are culturally geared to thinking about the Garden of Eden: serene, peaceful, tranquil, predictable, and safe – therefore, good. And, as we look over the fence, we see the diversity of uncontrolled nature: wild, dangerous, unpredictable, chaotic and diverse - therefore, bad. We think the controlled selection and considered choice of horticultural species is beautiful, and, therefore, anything that seems to promise a limit on our palette of choices is perceived to be censorship. We enjoy the wild areas as long as they are far removed from our property. We even have regulations that force us to maintain a certain standard of similarity which results in limitations of potential biological diversity. We want to visit a natural area, and leave it there, somewhere, not in our backyard.
But we are the stewards of Earth, and, if we do not care now, we will pay later, for we have not yet shown the ability to master climate change; we have not found away to clean water economically, nor filter the air we breathe for free. Self-sustaining systems of life are a balancing act. The Earth can be thought of as a machine which constantly resets to a state of equilibrium. There will be a price to be paid by someone for reducing biological diversity. And, yet, this line of reasoning perhaps inspires others to point and say, “Look more self-serving elitism”. We are living in a time of instant gratification. We are encouraged to spend now, for we have been given dominion over the flora and the fauna. We are determined to push the envelope to find the limit.
The invasive species movement, which tries to solve the challenges of the great public spaces, has yet to fully engage the citizens of already disturbed urban/suburban areas. As noted above, going native only will also have a cost which we have not yet fully explored. In addition, weighing the risk of invasiveness against the market for new introductions continues to be a challenge for those who would seek to defend biological diversity.
To demonstrate how confused the issue of invasiveness can become, we need only look at the Chesapeake’s mute swan. Almost as fast as volunteers can plant native aquatic grasses to prop up the declining aquatic life, and, therefore, the viability of the Bay, the swans, beautiful invasive species, eat the grass. One group seeks to limit the invader to preserve the life of the Bay; another group seeks to preserve the life of the swan.
The gardener hears these claims and counter-arguments, perhaps even getting wind of an invasive earthworm problem, and becomes defensive. But gardeners have been waging war against invasive species all along. Even the horticultural industry looks to government to protect its ornamentals from invasive species through quarantines and strict entry inspections. The nursery industry on behalf of its customers, the gardeners, do not want any more Japanese beetles or assorted plant diseases to be allowed into our country that might impact or harm economically our cherished ornamentals.
At this point, new-comers to the controversy will be looking for week-end answers. Everyone awaits an easy-to-apply garden solution, so that he or she can be labeled an environmentalist. No one is against the environment, especially gardeners. They seek beauty and serenity in a chaotic, dangerous world. They take the empty lots of disturbed urban areas, or no longer used farms and create horticultural respites from abused landscapes. All that is heard is that, what they do in their gardens is bad. What should they do is what they ask. How can planting something beautiful be wrong?
And easy answers are hard to find. No simple lists of actions, but mountains of conflicting information await the unaware. As with many contentious issues we face today, the discussion surrounding invasive species provoke quick, emotional responses. The implications of the various societal choices are not discussed in depth. Conversation, which should consist of measured disagreement, seeking to find consensus and balance, is drowned in a flood of increasingly bitter attacks, some of which become “ad hominem” assaults and do not address, therefore, the problem. How we respond to changes in the environment now, will effect how our descendants will live with the environment later.
We should ask how important biological diversity is to the well-being of humanity. We need to decide how to measure the effects of change on self-sustaining ecosystems. We ought to review the changes human actions have brought to known severely damaged areas, such as Easter Island. We have to be aware of the political and social complexities inherent in environmental choices. We must recognize that each of us will be making individual life style choices which will affect the sustainability world as we know it.
Written March 21, 2006 as an answer to a New York Times editorial; this was never published by the times but has appeared in professional trade magazines.