Non-Native Species

As I continue to examine environmental issues, particularly related to cities, I now turn to the contentious topic of invasive species. Like most folks, I had heard occasional horror stories about a species of plant or animal invading an area, wiping out existing species, and costing a great deal to prevent further invasion and mitigate their detrimental impacts. For that reason, many in the environmental sector work to address the issue of invasive species (including the organization I work for). So it came as a surprise when two of the three books I read that kicked off my interest in exploring urban wildlife argued there might be some tolerable and even beneficial qualities of non-natives.

As I read about non-native species, it became clear that it was necessary to first confront some assumptions made about our environment. One of these assumptions was the idea of the pristine habitat, untouched by humans, where we preserve and restore native species against non-natives. Another is that non-native species may not actually be what’s driving out natives but instead just taking advantage of the circumstances human disturbances of the environment make for them (topic of the next post). Through the examination of some basic premises around native and non-native species, I saw the presence of non-native species in a new light. I feel like I’ve come to understand the other side of the story and, as with any time you begin to question your assumptions, there’s a lot more to the story than I had imagined.

Nathanael Johnson’s The Unseen City led me to Fred Pearce’s The New Wild, a book that dives deep into the topic of non-native species and from which I drew a great deal from. I’ve also incorporated ideas from Apocalypse Never by Micheal Shellenberger, The Rise of the American Conservation Movement by Dorceta E. Taylor, and The Colors of Nature: Culture, Identity, and the Natural World edited by Alison H. Deming and Lauret E. Savoy, which have helped me see non-native species (and other environmental issues) in a whole new way.

Defining Natives

I had never looked up any formal definition of invasive or non-native species before writing this post. The informal definition I’d learned from colleagues defined species present in our region before European settlement as native and anything that came afterwards as non-native.

The informal definition I’ve been working from seems problematic for a few reasons. One main takeaway from the books I read on this topic is the evidence that humans have been manipulating the earth for so long the changes have been mistaken for naturally occurring physical features of the earth, so deciding to draw the line at European settlement, a mere few hundred years ago, seems arbitrary. It also says nothing about Native American impacts on the environment, who manipulated their environment to meet their needs, just as the Europeans later would. Before I elaborate on these points, I first found it helpful to reflect on the idea of nature as a pristine, untouched landscape.

Pristine landscapes: an urban legend?

Disclaimer: I couldn’t elaborate in too great of detail in this section because I’ve since returned these books to the library and didn’t take detailed notes on this particular topic of non-native species, so we’re working off my general recollection.

I’ve come to realize this idea of the “pristine,” “untouched” landscape is a relatively new concept. I believe I read in The Rise and Fall of the American Conservation Movement that it was Teddy Roosevelt who brought the idea to the forefront of the conservation movement. He was hunting in Africa and became convinced that the landscape and wildlife there were the true essence of nature and somehow the ideal landscape. But I believe it was in The New Wild where I read that the landscape of Africa didn’t look like the savannah he came to idealize and extol at all; it was the result of a series of events that changed the landscape (long before his visit the tsetse fly killed off grazing animals, causing a ripple effect across the environment). In other words, Teddy Roosevelt saw a snapshot in time of what the African savannah looked like, decided that was its ideal state, and insisted it remain that way. He brought back his ideas of protecting and conserving landscapes to the US, and it has become the way of talking about nature in the environmental sector to this day.

Related back to the urban environment, Taylor walks readers through the history of preservation and conservation, noting that as we built up cities and lived away from immediate contact with the natural world, we started to seek escapes to the countryside to reconnect with nature. The idealized version of nature was further enforced when it became a haven from the ills of the city. For centuries now, naturalists and philosophers have told urbanites to get out into natural landscapes to refresh and reflect. Studies have confirmed that regular time in nature is good for our health. But I’m of the mindset (as are many in the field) that we need access to nature where we are, which for many of us, is in cities.

With the idea of a pristine landscape came the conservation (saving natural spaces for human use/recreation) and preservation (saving a landscape for the sake of maintaining a space as natural) movements. The idea was to save the landscapes — from the encroachment and disturbances of humans — we happened to find outside of the cities at a moment in time, and we’ve been doing so ever since. But, as I’ll talk about in a future post, nature is always in flux, adapting and changing, which is why trying to maintain it as we “found” it can be counter productive.

A part of, not apart from, nature

If humans are part of, not separate from, nature, then our manipulation of the environment could be considered on par with beavers damming waterways, termites building mounds in the desert, woodpeckers creating cavities in trees and other ecosystem engineers. And it would appear we’ve been manipulating the earth, on a large scale, for a lot longer than I had imagined. Pearce notes that “…from the Americas through Africa to Southeast Asia, forest researchers have been finding extensive evidence of past forest clearance, for cultivation and even to fuel industrial activity such as smelting.” To return to my region’s informal definition of natives as any species present before European settlement, the New World was not untouched; humans have been manipulating and adapting the earth to meet our needs from our beginnings.

In Chicago, some of our native plants need fire to thrive and that’s because they adapted to Native Americans’ use of fire. Pearce explains: “The bison-grazed Plains of North America were remade by Native Americans setting fires long before Europeans showed up.” So the plants we consider native to a pristine environment before European settlement are ones that respond to fire because of this human/nature interaction. In his essay “Sharing Breath” in The Colors of Nature, Enrique Salmon gives a great example of this interaction and reinforces the idea that there may not be any “untouched” landscapes after all.  “Gathering techniques…have enhanced the functioning of ecosystems for centuries. These actions have influenced the diversity of species at an ecological and even evolutionary level. Through intentional and incipient plant dispersal, alteration of the forest with controlled burning, and selective pruning and coppicing, the Rarámuri [an indigenous peoples of Mexico] have contributed to the quality and functioning of the environment. The practices affect the reproduction of plant populations, modifying genetic compositions and species interactions.”


Next post I’ll discuss how invasive species might be taking the rap for human impacts. For now, I’ll conclude with another excerpt from Colors of Nature, “Invoking the Ancestors” by Aileen Suzara (italicized text in the original; I bolded phrases for emphasis):

“I know that although the furthest reaches of my history are an unknown and perhaps unattainable knowledge, that although a history of colonization has been added to my own genetic mixture, that although I cannot locate ties to an indigenous past, I must except the current incarnation of Filipino culture and what is now termed the ‘Third World,’ and not search for a static image of what it is to be authentically ‘Filipino.’ To do otherwise would be to deny the evolving nature of culture and history. It would deny the slums of Manila as realities in the Philippines, and only acknowledge the last ‘pristine’ areas. It would deny the presence of nature surrounding and within the Philippines, whether seen as a developing country, regenerating country, or a dying country. It would ignore the underlying time between the people and the land.… As a Filipina, I am not an artifact, but a part of an evolving and current past and which both the land – lupa – and her people have undergone constant transition. I am a piece in a continually regenerating culture, one whose survival has been and remains dependent on the earth. I cannot separate history from the environment, because the environment has been inscribed into my genes, and history has been written onto the land.”

Suzara is simultaneously referring to the evolution of culture and the natural world. We humans are constantly adapting and changing to our cultural environments, and the new cities or countries we move to, and nature, of which we are a part, is constantly changing too. There may no longer be a pristine culture as there is no such thing as a pristine environment. She doesn’t wish to settle for a static image of her culture, just as we shouldn’t seek a static image of our natural world.

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