Do you ever assign plants and animals to hypothetical families in your head? Give them things like a nine-to-five and a dinner table and kids to return to after a long day of work? Yeah, my first instinct when I see a fly in my house is murder, but then I think about its hopes and dreams. That fly is just trying to see the world and defy the cards that life dealt them. Suddenly, I’m hoping the house fly lives up to their aspirations, gosh darn it. But only if it’s somewhere where I never have to see them again.
I doubt this romanticization of pests is a universal phenomenon. Some people are remorseless assassins when it comes to getting crawly things out of their personal space. What I do think, however, is that when this general attitude is extrapolated to a grander and more all-encompassing scale, questions around the philosophies of humanity’s moral responsibility to nature begin to arise.
We are living with the consequences of past civilization’s actions, and it’s not even necessarily anyone’s fault. As I observe the world with older eyes, I often see more plain negligence than I do malintent. The world became very interconnected very fast, for better and worse. For the intensification of everything. The tide raises all boats, so human negligence is part of that. Nowhere is this more plain today than in the case of the global climate crisis.
So when it comes to human impact on the environment, the concept of invasive species is a major topic of conversation. Say a person embarking on a boat trip from Northeast Asia to North America unwittingly brings a beetle along that’s never seen the Western hemisphere before. This beetle’s way of settling in spells the obliteration of ancient ash tree populations. And it wouldn’t have been possible without homo sapien facilitation.
In the age of the complete dominance of human civilization over the Earth, we have a lot of important decisions to make when it comes to how we exist on a planet alongside every other species that shares this space with us. The current dilemma is this: We didn’t ask bold enough questions for a very long time. Now we are. But what can be salvaged? What can be preserved? What can be prevented? And what is actually up to us to save?
Many of these questions are posed in retaliation against invasive species. Sea lamprey, a species invasive to the ecosystem of Lake Erie, has multiplied to the point that the species has carried out irreversible damage to the Great Lakes’ ecosystems. They’re creepy looking, too, like the final form of three evolutions past a river leech. While a sea lamprey may not have a fedora, a bowtie or a wife, it does have a life. Should they be seen as pests deserving of death as they invade the personal space of Lake Erie? Maybe the sea lamprey is just trying to make his parents proud. This conceptualization may be silly and unrealistic, but it creates empathy for the “enemy.” Sea lamprey dads don’t work an office job, but they are still just going about their business. Really, it’s not their fault they found themselves in a place they can very easily take over. They aren’t failing upwards. People failed them upwards. So what is a person’s next course of action?
I believe one of the first steps is the breaking down of a certain pseudo-barrier that puts people and nature on the same plane.
Did you ever, when you were little, run through the woods or a playground and pretend to be an animal with friends? Your arms fully extended in an embrace with the rushing air of running, because you were a falcon, and your arms were wings, and you felt like the coolest person (falcon) on the planet? Maybe in a field, you were a lion, or in a tree, you were a monkey, or in the woods, you were a deer leaping over branches on the ground as fast as possible? Haha, me neither.
Well hey, I have great news for your inner child. You are still an animal — and you actually were never not an animal.
There is no “us” and “them” when it comes to human civilization and nature. The only difference between a human building a house and a bird building a nest is that the human house is apathetic to every potential property for future bird nest real estate. From carbon emissions to habitat destruction, the building of a house makes the building of a nest less likely.
But how do invasive species fit into this? Aren’t they the bad guys? The Team Rocket in the Pokémon arena that is Earth’s natural environment?
In order to help me humanize who I have believed for so long to be my climate enemies, I wanted to attempt to give them a voice. Make their families and their hopes a bit more tangible. What if plants talked to each other? What if there was a “neighborhood watch,” a committee trying to keep everything in order so every plant could thrive in the way they deserve?
This is what I’d imagine they’d sound like.
“Hi, Dana-delion. How are you?”
“I’m doin’ fine an’ dandy, Milkweed. It’s good to see ya.”
“Thanks for floating in on such short notice. I’m just doing a routine evaluation, I hope you understand. Hey, I love what you’ve done with your seeds! That time of year, eh? You rapscallion you.”
“Aw, shucks. Thanks for noticin’, Milky. Me ’n Don-delion are expecting a whole flock of new stem-biters in the next few days. Whichever way the wind blows, as they say.”
“Haha, yeah. Hey, speaking of the wind blowing. Dana, I’m obligated to tell you, we are getting more complaints about your presence in neighborhood lawns.”
Dana-delion sighed and passed a leaf through her fluffy seed top.
“Milky, ya told me I was off the list last month. What changed?”
Milkweed shrugged. “Honestly, Dana, it’s a formality. Hey, you know I don’t have a problem with where you put up roots. I love what you’re doing. Those perfectly rectangular house fields are too monoculture-y, anyway. If it were up to me, you guys would be waived off the list, but you know how the humans are with their invasive legislature. ‘Any alien species that does or is likely to cause economic or—’”
“‘—or environmental health or harm to human health.’ I know the law, Milky. I just thought I was off the hook.”
“The dads mowing the lawns disagree. Sorry, Dana. It’s my job as the local manager to let you know.”
“You’re killin’ me, Milkweed. You think I wanna be associated with the likes of Barney and his delinquent gang?”
“Ugh, don’t remind me. I have to have a chat with him today, too. Just keep a low profile, and this will all blow over in a month. I swear on my monarch pupas.”
“Barney. You have to stop hanging out with the mice. You know the kind of crowd they bring in.”
“Dude, Milkweed, I don’t really like you telling me what to do. You’re cramping my style.”
“It’s part of being in the ecosystem, Barney. We have to listen to each other, and I am telling you, the mice have got to go.”
“Maybe I like the mice. They scurry around under my branches, and they make me feel less lonely.”
“Then you’re complicit in the increasing population of ticks and contraction of Lyme disease in the ecosystem, and I have to write you up for endangering the balance of the forest.”
“Whatever, dude. You know what? I think you’re jealous of all my friends.”
“You are, and I bet you’re also jealous of my new crib. My parents just got me a whole ass field, dude, and we’re actually throwing a rager next solstice if you want to come.”
“Read the room, Barney. Also, can’t you make friends with some of your other neighbors? Deer can seem stuck up, but they’re really kind once you get to know–”
“Dude you think I don’t know that Deer is the one with the social status around here? I’ve tried inviting them to my parties, man. I guess I have too much of a ‘rough exterior’ and am ‘a tough thorn to swallow.’ Like, dude, what does that even mean? I can be smooth, I can be cool. But they don’t want to take the time to get to know the real me, bro. I’ll say it, Deer is a toxic friend.”
“Oh my god, Barney. They weren’t talking about your personality. You have an actual, literal rough exterior. Look at you. You are covered in sharp thorns. Humans can’t even walk through you, and humans are very persistent.”
“Oh. Yeah, I guess that is true. But, dude, that doesn’t mean that it didn’t hurt my feelings. Bros before thorns.”
“Ok, well, I didn’t ask you here to negotiate. Barney Barberry, by the power vested in me as Native Forest Representative of Michigan, you and your ‘crib’ are hereby scheduled for containment management in order to minimize your complete disruption of the land.”
“Bro, not cool!”
“An eightfold increase in Lyme disease, Barney. An eightfold increase.”
While the narrative voice of pathetic fallacy is fun and all, I would be remiss if I didn’t have a real conversation with someone who has been upholding the balance of the forest nearly every day this summer, someone poor, overworked Milkweed would be proud of. I sat down with ecology and evolutionary biology major Abe Stone, who is also a field worker and researcher with the Keweenaw Invasive Species Management Area (KISMA) in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and a student at Michigan Tech.
Stone has volunteered his time this summer to ripping up knotweed and cutting down buckthorn, but the KISMA teams don’t march out into the forest every day intent on massacring plants. Stone didn’t hesitate in saying that KISMA’s aim is to preserve and support the well-being of native ecosystems as much as they possibly can. Along with digging their hands right into the forested grounds, this includes research around the most effective ways of dealing with invasive species “that (don’t) involve just mowing everything down and just spraying pesticide … that’s our last resort.” Continuing research from a previous student, Stone is currently in the process of creating a fungal biocontrol spray using a native fungus that specifically targets invasive woody tree species like buckthorn.
This was the first of many points in the conversation that would challenge what I pictured as “the fight against invasive species.” Imagining environmental tussles, an epic battle between nature and man is part of the problem. “It’s really easy to demonize (invasive species) and say that we’re protecting our native forests from these invaders, but these invasive species have been brought here by us … they’re doing just what they would normally do if they had an area where they could thrive.” There is a burden on humans to remedy something, but nowhere in that responsibility is the villainizing of plants and animals.
Stone went on to say that the presence of invasive species in an area of land is not intrinsically, morally bad. Despite previous indulgences in the personification of nature, plants don’t have morals. “Native plants and animals and fungi, they’ve all adapted to these areas and formed a natural balance. These invasive species are dislodging and messing with that balance. So our job is just, when dealing with them, to keep their effects to a minimum in places that have the strength to protect themselves.”
Stone remarked how difficult it can be to work on removing the populations of invasive species they find. Instead, the typical plan of action is about containment and protection. “We mostly work in areas that are just starting to have an encroachment of invasive species, and we deal with containing those areas and making sure the areas that are currently non-invaded stay that way.”
With all of his firsthand experience with this issue, I wanted to pick Abe’s brain about his perspective on the aforementioned burden to act. Many believe the guidance of human hands is necessary for the health of the world, and that intervention in nature is imperative. But there are those who think a human and nature relationship should be more laissez-faire. And, to be fair, the history of the environment is a storied and vibrantly changing one. So what makes the changes we see today different? Stone started off by affirming that change can be a backbone for evolution and biodiversity. “Things are going to change, species are going to move, your forests are going to change, trees are going to die and then new trees are going to grow. It is a cycle. But I think we do have a responsibility to treat the things around us with more respect.” Yes, change is completely natural. But nature wasn’t made to change at a pace that breaks the sound barrier. And to be honest, humanity doesn’t seem made to grow this fast, either. It’s hard to register the weight of these changes sometimes. “We’ve become very normalized to the destruction of the earth.”
“Think of your garden as part of the ecosystem instead of separate from it. Once you start planting those native species, all of a sudden, you become part of the world that you’re around, as opposed to maintaining a barrier from it.”
I knew when I talked to Abe that I wanted to clear up the official definition of invasive species. To my surprise, the answer came from the United States legislature. Stone informed me that under Bill Clinton’s administration, an executive order was passed, legally defining an invasive species as any non-native species that cause risk or harm or damage to people, the economy and other creatures to some degree. Stone went on to contrast two examples: a dandelion and Japanese barberry. Both are non-native. The key difference is in how these species interact with the environment around them. Dandelions pop up in fields and lawns, and that’s about the extent of their reputation. Meanwhile, Japanese barberry reproduces so quickly that it creates sweeping monocultures, or a large area, filled with one kind of plant. This is the type of trait that can start to make landscapes look unrecognizable. “Once you start forming these large fields of just one singular plant, it not only takes away room for everything else, but it changes the way that that land has been used by other plants, by animals, by people.” Under the legal definition, Japanese barberry is invasive, and the dandelion is not.
When it comes to non-native species, I felt like the more neutral species in terms of impact, like the dandelion, tend to get conflated with the harmful ones. “It doesn’t have a natural propensity to reproduce in this environment and cause large swaths of land to change … Because they lack the harm, it would not be considered an invasive species.”
But this legal term can start to get tricky. The deeper we got into the philosophy of invasive biology, a relatively young field, the more complexities emerged. I watched Abe reflect on all my questions with the full weight of his deliberation. “They’re all vying for the same life we have in a very different form and having to strike that balance is really difficult.” The word itself, “invasive,” invokes an inherently negative feeling . “I’ve talked with people a lot about the term invasive species, I really don’t like it,” Stone said. “I wish there was a better word for it, but I’m waiting for someone to come up with something that carries the weight of the change that’s happening by giving them a little bit more respect. We can’t call them evil, ugly, terrible. They can cause pretty gut-wrenching issues, but … It procures a lot of thought, the whole thing.”
There is a lot that’s easy to ignore when it comes to invasive species. We often forget that we as people are still connected to the animals around us. We forget how much our actions as humans shape. We forget that we are often collectively and unwittingly the Julius Caesar standing before nature’s colosseum, hand hovering over a crowd, deciding which species live or die with a flick of our wrist. And sometimes, we forget that we facilitated the spread of the invasive species that we often sentence to death. “I think (people) lose perspective on it a little bit and get carried away with ‘you gotta kill them all.’”
It’s not up to just the native milkweeds and the ash trees to cling to the environment they evolved in and preserve some semblance of balance in the forest. Maybe we don’t have to catch all the invasive species. But we certainly cannot ignore their presence, and we certainly can guide them away from the most destructive path.
Statement Columnist Dani Canan can be reached at email@example.com.