Care-Takers: Invasive Species, Natives, Healing & Wholeness – by Jesse Wolf Hardin
Invasive Species, Natives, Healing & Wholeness
By Jesse Wolf Hardin (www.animacenter.org)
Even though we own the Animá Sanctuary land and worked hard for decades to pay for it, we still consider ourselves not so much as proprietors as responsible servants and full partners, with an investment and stake in its lasting health and wholeness. Nor do we consider ourselves “good shepherds” making omnipotent managerial decisions for the perceived benefit of the rest of creation so much as “caretakers” – witnessing and buttressing the needs of other life forms, of creatures and places with their own calling, their own sense of purpose, direction, and membership. What caretaking really means is taking care, taking lightly from the land, and never taking any aspect, challenge or gift for granted. Our duties are in the deepest sense custodial, medicinal and ritual, tending to the energetic as well as practical well-being of the living earth.
A healer of any kind will sometimes have to assertively intervene in order to save a patient’s life, but more often they’re called to work in partnership with the patient to create the conditions for balance and contribute to wholeness. So it is with caretaking the land, with us occasionally called upon to act assertively, and other times to step back and allow some natural process take its course. The intuitive knowledge of when or when not to interfere requires an intense period of familiarizing oneself with the biological makeup, natural and human history, special energies, needs and proclivities of one’s place. Rightful decisions – decisions that can positively effect future generations of humans and non humans alike – proceed from silence and arise from a great listening.
Our story here is a case in point. As most of you know, my Project partners and I give a portion of the warm months to revegitating the canyon with long missing native species. Of these the willow was one of the first to make a comeback, sprouting waist high as soon as I began herding cattle off the land, and becoming a twenty feet high thicket once the four strand fence went up. Stalks chewed down to the ground had somehow continued to draw enough nourishment through an extensive and undamaged root system, propelling new growth skyward the first full season free of predation. To hasten their comeback and to fortify the bare riverbanks against seasonal floods, we carefully cut branches from the established bushes and stuck them at intervals to take off in the damp soil. Wildflower seeds from the year before are planted by poking a hole in the ground with a stick, barely bending over to drop two kernels in each waiting womb. While not quite the same pleasure as a garden these trustees require no watering, weeding or battling with insects. Success in the reintroduction of natives is a result of protection from forces outside the ecosystem, but also a species’ built-in relationship with their home environment – in balance with that which they feed on, and that which feeds on them.
The hardest part may have been figuring out which species belong and which are destructive or over competitive invaders. Some of the exotics came across the Bering Straits, with the first human arrivals to the Americas. Domestic dogs carried their primitive packs, and Asian seed stock caught rides in the fur gaiters around their legs and the capes that hung from their backs. Mullein, with its soft, fuzzy leaves, seems like a benign though not indigenous presence. Others, like horehound and the tamarisk tree quickly dominate any riparian area they sail into, colonizing foreign soils, choking the life out of every native population. Like Columbus and Cortez, these botanical opportunists are adept at making the transition from guest to master without the natural controls common to their countries of origin. In the Southeast the problem is the kudzu vine. Once having escaped its ornamental plots in the suburbs, it is fast becoming the dominant species there, climbing and eventually choking the standing trees. Rabbits released into Australia as a meat source quickly took over and decimated the available vegetation. Sailing vessels acted as arks for the emigration of not only viruses and bacterium, but problematic zebra mussels and the opportunistic Norwegian rat. So destructive was the rat once introduced to the Hawaiian Islands, that they decided to import their nemesis the mongoose. The only problem was that the mongoose finds it much easier to catch rare species of songbirds than rats and has come close to decimating them. Failing to learn from our mistakes, our latest gambit involves the planned introduction of lifeforms never before seen on this planet, the products of advanced genetic engineering.
Some more mundane intruders like tamarisk (European salt cedar) pose no great threat to their home turfs, but once released into North America they develop a biological hegemony in the riparian areas, to the point where it’s the only remaining tree along many of the rivers of the Southwest. Worse still, they are both fast growing and herbicide resistant, and they release a shower of mineral salts that make the soil inhospitable to any competing shoots. Unchecked they soon smother the native willows and immature cottonwoods, filling the ravines and river bottoms with their billowing pink blossoms. There were none at all in this rivershed when I first moved there, but now they’re beginning to crop up among the beeweed. Gorgeous blossoms, I should say, but we are easily jerked back to reality if we recall the Rio Grande River system clogged by a single-species forest, a vast monoculture, a jungle of nothing but tamarisk. Too many of the same kind of flower, too much of the same uniform color, in a veritable holocaust of beauty.
For months we struggled with what to do, until some of the slender trees were well over our heads. We wondered if it wasn’t enough that there was anything at all growing, after so many generations of grazing and die-back? And besides, don’t all plants, like all people have migrants for ancestors, and thus a right to flourish in a new place? When we finally went down to dig them up, they felt as smooth and sentient as any creature, as vulnerable in the face of our attack as other plants were in the face of the tamarisk’s own territorial campaigns.
Just as bad was the horehound incursion, seeds hitchhiking up onto the mesa stuck to our socks, moving through the rest of the county in the tails of horses and the alfalfa hay they eat. It looks so lovely at first, in patches of short ground-cover that smell sweetly when walked upon, pungent leaves perfect for brewing up a batch of old-fashioned horehound cough drops. It isn’t long however, before they form a solid crusty plane of yard-high vegetation too thick to walk through. Where the ground around our cabin and below the cliffs were once graced by desert mariposa and soaptree yucca, soon there was only horehound. Prickle-poppy and evening primrose, nettle and mallow, cushion cactus and tahoka daisy were being pushed out of their own neighborhoods, denied access to soil and sun in a hostile takeover bid. We felt we had no choice but to act in defense of biological diversity, accepting the hands-on responsibility of removing them one plant at a time, sharing their pain at being ripped up by the roots.
The beavers are another case in point. In a balanced river ecology they are an aid to the ecosystem by slowing the river and raising the water table, and when the ponds eventually fill in with soil they become meadows that are highly attractive to a wide range of wildlife. Beavers are wetlands restoration experts, but like all “experts” they can be the cause of costly errors. The little fuzzballs also require up to six acres of woods to sustain themselves, burrow into river bands causing them to collapse, and are notorious for cutting down trees that they curiously neither eat nor build with. In a mature riparian forest thick with mixed-age cottonwoods and willows they are a welcome addition, but in the early stages of restoration and reforestation efforts they can be a terrible hindrance. Backed up water blocks access, one hundred feet tall cottonwoods we planted as babies took twenty-five years to grow but only a single night to be chewed down. For years we have had to wrap the trees with chicken wire and remove the few beaver that moved to the sanctuary while the forest grew back, but now we’re host to a family that we think the land might sustain.
Not all decisions are as difficult, but we find the whole concept of “environmental restoration” a touchy one. As obviously and totally beneficial at it can be to rebuild salmon streams or replant clearcut hills, the very notion of restoration implies that humans know what’s best, and are willing to “play God” over the rest of creation — a capacity that our species has shown scant evidence of. The other side of the argument is that humans have forever affected the world around them, and that maybe only by taking responsibility for that role can we mitigate our impact. The caretaker must be prepared to do whatever is called for. We’re accountable not only for our actions, but also for the results of what we have yet to do.
Only a small population of people live out in the countryside but the agreement, the contract remains the same. To be taken care of, one must take care. Some of the fondest of my early memories involve the front yard gardens that my father tended. I don’t recall any happy-topped carrots or broadleaf lettuce in the gardens, nothing that could safely fill the belly, naught but food for the soul. In the only truly creative enterprise I ever saw him commit to, what the man gardened was color. A host of reds from ruddy to brilliant predominated in one bed, while the hedges and flower rows along the sides of the house featured variations on pearl and ivory, lavender and fuchsia. Different plants blossomed at different times of the year, so that with careful planning there would never be a week without a display of floral brilliance. And he gardened shapes — stars and ovals, trumpets and bells, lily sheaths and the folds of the roses running up the wood fence next to the sidewalk. The pansies were always Grandmother’s favorites, so there had to be room made for them. Others were selected for their meaning in one historic culture or another, a species to stir up happiness, and another for success. All took a substantial amount of his time, quietly watering each plant with a hose when the sprinklers would have just as easily reached. Some more out of place than others, some more vulnerable than the rest, but all required care.
As a kid I could never come to terms with the mowing of the lawn, turning sensuous wind-dancer stalks into a green flattop that felt prickly to the bared feet. But I loved the flowers. I picture them when I think about what it means to take on the hereditary role of caretaker, a role meant for every one of us breathing the air, eating of the bounty of the planet, heating our homes with nonrenewable fuels. If we take care by adjusting our lifestyles, consuming less for the purpose of reducing our negative impact on the supporting world, then we must also include in our duties the pleasurable honoring of sensate life, the purveyance of beauty, the encouragement of a diverse flowering in our everyday lives.
And next, no matter where we are, we learn to identify with and care for our home-ground. We need to develop the capacity to make the truly difficult decisions, the hard-edged choices. As with the horehound in our canyon one must decide both what to incorporate, and what to restrain, exclude or mitigate. Many of the things we own may be inappropriate for a life in harmony with nature and our own natural cycles. Much of what we do may be taking us away from our path, distracting us from the richness of the moment and pressing us into a virtual rather than vital reality. Some of the people we care about in life may prove to be a handicap to our focused practice, or act in ways that dishonor the spirit of place we’ve finally learned to recognize and interact with.
As co-creators of our world and our reality, we should not take lightly our imprint on the planet and its human and natural communities, our capacity to increase or limit diversity, to destroy or degrade, encourage or save. No textbook can define the parameters or establish the criteria for our sometimes painful right action. We can only learn what is best to do – and indeed, what can or cannot be considered natural – through increased intimacy with unmanaged creation, and increased familiarity with our own intuitive and healing natures. This is the unending work of the herbalist, naturopath or Medicine Woman as much as the caretaker or ecological restorationist.
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(All Photos (c) 2008 by Jesse Wolf Hardin)
Categories: Jesse Wolf Hardin – Essays & Tales, Practicing Animá Lifeways