What’s It Mean to Be Invasive?

This past weekend, I brought the Middletown Forest Bathing group out onto the Coginchaug River, to an area often called the “floating meadows” because of all the aquatic plants growing there. This was the first time we ever had a kayak-based forest bathing class, and it was really quieting. Over the course of a couple of hours, we stuck our hands in the water and connected with our water-based selves and the hydrological cycle. We did some calming breath exercises and observed the ecosystem we were in (I saw a mother duck and her ducklings, red-winged blackbirds, even an osprey). Then we paddled slowly until we reached where the Coginchaug spills into the Mattabesset River. Here we observed a half dozen people pulling invasive water chestnut from the river. From a distance, it almost looked like another time, when the first residents of the region would have been pulling wild rice (which still grows there) from the banks.

Obviously, much has changed since then. Not just the fact that the people pulling were completely enveloped in plastic (their clothes, their bags, their boats), but they were pulling to sustain a river in its current form, rather than harvesting from the river, which sustained its current form. Native Americans kept the ecosystems in which they lived tended and healthy, in order to keep drawing nourishment from them year after year. Perhaps it’s our disconnect from our ecosystems that leads us to compartmentalize—to organize volunteer efforts to pull invasives from forests and waterways instead of simply tending these wild places, weeding, and harvesting and sowing the preferred plants as we go.1

Folks harvesting water chestnuts in Saratoga Springs, NY (Image from Saratoga.com as I didn’t take any photos while forest bathing!)

From Invasive to Interdependent

But what this really got me thinking about is: What’s it mean to be invasive? Water chestnut was introduced to the Northeast from Europe in the late 1800s. The reason it’s being pulled from the water is it can clog an entire waterway—disrupting other life, and boat traffic. Hydrilla—a newer arrival also disrupting the Coginchaug—can do so as well. I remember last summer paddling here and actually having a moment of panic as I struggled to paddle my little origami kayak through it. Even that boat had difficulty!

Compare that to the common plantain—so abundant that Native Americans called it “white man’s footstep.” But somehow, not so abundant that it destroyed the landscape, but instead became part of it.2 In other words, invasive originally, but because it became so useful (as a medicine and food), it became, as Robin Wall Kimmerer calls it in Braiding Sweetgrass, “naturalized.”

Of course, we then have to shine that same light on ourselves. Certainly the human sub-species that displaced Native Americans in North America seriously disrupted ecosystems here—just like the Asian Shore Crab displacing the Green Crab in the Northeast, or the fire ant displacing native species of ants in the south. But that is not the end point. The Green Crab, too, was invasive, but eventually became naturalized. Is naturalization inevitable given a long enough time frame? Or can degradation be absolute?

Then again, perhaps the useful role of Hydrilla in its current outbreak stage is to impede fossil fuel driven motorboats and the humans that drive them? (Image from Connecticut Agriculture Experiment Station via Connecticut River Conservancy)

How Long?

That of course is the key question (and challenge). As our guide, Connecticut River Steward Rhea Drozdenko, noted, the goal is not to eradicate these invasives—that’s impossible—but to keep them in check so that we can continue to enjoy the river.

That gets back to the first point: if we were truly in relationship with the river (in the interdependence sense of the word, rather than the ‘just visiting for fun’ sense), perhaps there would be no organizing necessary. People would care for the river so they could get nourishment from it. But our invasive human population draws its nourishment from elsewhere—with its long supply lines pulling from, and damaging, ecosystems around the world (conveying the other definition of invader as well).

The point I’m trying to get to is will that ever change? I imagine it will for humans—when civilization is forced to return to solar energy surpluses, our numbers and global reach will contract—and we’ll have no choice but to rediscover a healthy relationship with the lands in which we inhabit (including realizing that water chestnut and hydrilla are both edible!).3

In another scenario, if humans go extinct, surely “nature” will, over millions of years, create new combinations of species that balance each other. Perhaps wood mice will learn to eat water chestnut seeds and keep them in check. Or maybe fire ants will ball up and swim to water chestnut plants, devouring them—discovering that these plants are their new favorite food. Or a new virus will limit their spread—just like when tent caterpillars grow too abundant.4

There is no destiny in nature, just chance multiplied by millions of years. Either a new stable point is tripped over, or the degradation is complete (though truthfully I can’t think of an example of that, which suggests, once again, the intense resilience of Gaia).

Humans’ Dual Potential

But humans are a complicating factor. The exciting reality is that we have the potential to serve as cultivators of intensely alive landscapes—as I saw in the Learning Garden of the Los Angeles Eco-village this past week. This garden (as I’ll describe in more detail in a future post) was teeming with life—trees of avocado, lemons, limes, oranges, pomegranates, pears, apples—all in a lot smaller than a typical suburban plot (and miraculously saved from the maw of a bulldozer in humans’ quest to pave over everything for parking, by the passion and commitment of the ecovillage residents).

Life is abundant in this tended fragment of Eden (Image by Erik Assadourian)

Of course, we can also be introducers and sustainers of disruption and discord. A simple example: some invasive species, like burning bush, are still being sold in stores as ornamentals, helping them spread to and disrupt new ecosystems. More broadly, our global system continues to disturb and destroy ecosystems and juggle species around the planet in ways that almost guarantee the spread of invasives and chaos.

Perhaps a big step forward is all the activity in the past year around better protecting biodiversity and restoring nature: The new global biodiversity framework, the UN High Seas Treaty (just adopted last week!), and the draft legislation in the European Union that aims to restore 20% of nature by 2030 and all by 2050.

Yes, important steps. But ultimately, reducing human populations to within Earth’s carrying capacity, shifting cultures away from consumerism and toward true sustainability, and reintegrating humans into their ecosystems (so they are directly dependent on them and understand that dependence and thus actively steward them) is what will be required to help humans shift from their predominantly invasive form to a naturalized and even beneficial one. Like the common plantain.

Not only is this plantain beneficial, but it’s actually helping to liberate the paved-over earth. (Image from Joost J. Bakker IJmuiden via flickr)


1) Of course, who would get to harvest and how would untrained free-riders be prevented from disturbing those areas are legitimate questions. But right now, few people even harvest the fruit from street trees. I cannot imagine many heading out to steal the ripe wild rice after others tended it (no more than I can imagine people raiding farms). Yes, that may happen in our unstable future, but then again the more edible landscapes planted now, the less chaos in the future when food supply chains are disrupted.

2) Or maybe it did and our memory of what northeastern U.S. grasslands looked like is so degraded that in its new context it fits right in.

3) According to Wikipedia, the nuts are so edible that this might have helped drive them to extinction in Europe. You can roast them like chestnuts! And hydrilla is also supposedly both a good phytoremediator and “superfood.” Though obviously, in places it’s doing the former, we shouldn’t be eating it!

4) It turns out that it’s a parasitic insect in Europe that kept them in check there.

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6 Responses

  1. ken ingham

    Erik asked ” can degradation be absolute?” – I have seen examples of kudzu and phragmites where very little else was growing in the places they had taken over. This on a scale of years or decades. Not sure what would happen after centuries. I have almost given up on my efforts to battle against invasives. In most places I hang out, the diversity would plummet if all invasives were removed. And some of them would seem to be quite effective at capturing carbon.

    • Erik Assadourian

      Thanks Ken! Tom-Lauren’s comment is a good one on that front. Perhaps no one has studied knotweed’s (or phragmite or kudzu’s) carbon capturing potential (or value as a food source) but these are all worth exploring rather than just writing them off completely. They’re most likely here to stay. Managing them so they adapt to a proper niche may be the best path forward.

  2. Tom-Lauren

    I’m a bit of a pariah where I live, hiding in plain site among the mansions. Beyond my fenced perimeter (permeable to wildlife, however) is a permaculture oasis of diversity. Among the many plant species of course are natives and many are new residents. One of the new-ish residents is Japanese Knotweed (Fallopia japonica or Polygonum cuspidatum). It’s only been here for over 100 years. I admit that I love this species. I tried to eradicate it when we first acquired the property 20 years ago. It turns out that it likes growing near the foundation of the house and near the fence line in certain sunny spots. In the late summer when flowers become scarce it hosts the largest pollinator party I’ve ever seen and I look forward to it every year. I have taken videos of the diversity of insect life taking full advantage of it’s bloom. From native and domestic bees of all stripes and other hymenoptera to myriad flies and ants, they all come for this treat. I also learned the new shoots in early spring make fine pickles proving a large serving amount of resveratol. The broad leaves and stalks are dynamic accumulators; they make excellent compost. Now before you say anything, yes, I am a trained master gardener and I know the rote teachings on this plant: bag it up or burn it and use glyphosate/2,4,D on it. Not true in my experience of the above ground parts and a waste of good bio matter. The seeds also do not germinate easily so I do not even worry about that in the compost. Now this lush large plant grows to cover the south facing wall of my house. It blocks the windows and keeps the sun at bay. If we open the windows on a hot day the air coming in is cooler because it is shaded. The plant is helping to cool my house. Near the fence, it’s an incredible wind break. Finally, because this plant grows so rapidly – from ground level to 8-9ft tall in roughly 3-4 months, I hazard to guess it is a world class carbon sequesterer. My point: we need a need to stop judging things based on cultural bias (which sometimes includes scientific dogma) and start looking at what is presented right in front of us. A common permaculture saying is “the problem is the solution”. Maybe some simple answers are right in front of us if we drop our preconceived notions.

    • Erik Assadourian

      Perfectly said. Again it’s about being in relationship with the land and the knotweed. Only a problem in unloved spaces where it grows unchecked and spreads thousands of seeds through the air and down the streams. I hope you can teach others how to pickle shoots–that’d go a long way keeping it under control. I tried sautéing some one year and it was vile! I’d be up for trying to pickle the shoots though. (I also imagine using the large soft leaves as a toilet paper replacement once TP supply chains and flush-based toilets are a thing of the past!)

  3. Healing Hawk

    Perhaps Pariahs Anonymous might fill a need for more diversity?
    This planet needs more of the virtue of the pariah, and moral strength to see it through without sustaining permanent wounds. People can be cruel in acting out their ignorance. It’s shocking how prevalent ignorance has become in this country since Dixiecrats destroyed public education after 1954, and the Supreme Court, when it was still respectable, integrating public schools, making federal judges pariahs, which remains epidemic. The federal judge in East Texas, a guy named John J. Justice, had to live in Austin and be protected 24/7 by a Secret Service group because no one in all of East Texas would even help him if something at his house broke. Ignorance multiplied by hatred defines ugly.
    This is a beautiful piece of work, Erik. The way you treat truth inspires me. It’s nonfiction as Art.
    Reorganizing my library, I came across “The Revenge of Gaia,” from 2006. The movement toward the poles is now a noticeable flow, from what I read. British climate scientists have been buying houses in Iceland for two decades.
    Being cast into the pariah pit for telling what I’m pretty sure is true is soul deflating. My experience with it in Texas, where the only state supported college that teaches Ecology is the ultra-conservative Texas A&M, where the liberals on campus become Army officers, feeds my mental illnesses. It feels like enemy territory, and I’m 6th generation. Self esteem is hard enough to come by without help down from the willfully ignorant.
    I think Human Ecology – a Sociology course – may have sneaked in through the back door in TX, and it teaches Ecological Literacy, so that’s Right Progress, in my judgement, such as it is. An ecologically literate majority of Americans would change things in a hurry, probably faster than anything else. Being a Democrat doesn’t mean EL. Hell, being part of the Green Party doesn’t mean EL.
    But Erik talks from there, without becoming a pariah for it.
    In the big pond of my permaculture design in Santa Rosa, CA, I got water hyacinth. I’m not sure how. Even little fish who ate mosquito larvae had trouble. I think hyacinth ate the oxygen out of the water. Those people in boats taking the unwanted stuff out of the water brought that back to me. There has to be someone who thrives on that stuff.
    I think I’ll work on Moodle for a bit.
    I had a website once, and I had Moodle on it to teach EL with a professional tool. EL is the most profound transformation I’ve experienced, except for LSD, so far, but it’s made me a pariah almost everywhere I’ve gone, especially in Texas. Learning Moodle took all my fiction writing time for long enough to burn me out. Moodle wasn’t only one thing I had to learn. But I still want to do it, in a way I can handle and get the rest of my work done.
    Part of my work is to get a daily re-fill of wonder by watching the habitat for a bit. Four or five fawns generally do it, for now. They don’t stay fawns for very long, though.

  4. Syulang

    As an Australian of European decent, this really struck close to home. We have done so much to this most unique, diverse and heavenly corner of Gaia’s great and beautiful expanse. To see the spread of the “invasives” can bring me to tears… but at the same time, they too are part of complex weave of life. Maybe if Europeans could bring themselves to eat the foxes and cats we introduced then we would make good some of the harm and hurt we have caused to all life in this corner of Her paradise.

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