Invasive Plant Species in New England
For his part, Jacke believes we need to accept that some areas are going to become “overrun” with non-native species: “I think it’s a good idea in places to let them go nuts, so we can see how the ecosystem adapts. So we can learn.” He opened his eyes wide. “I mean, let’s be honest: We know so little about this stuff. The basic assumption we have to have is that we know nothing.”
“Okay, fine,” I said. “I get it. I know nothing.” Given all that, what did he think I should do about all the honeysuckle taking root in my woods?
Jacke didn’t hesitate for a second: “Oh, man, I don’t like that stuff. If I had it on my land, I’d be pulling it out.”
As so often happens, I’d gone seeking clarity and ended up more confused than I’d been in the first place. Are invasive plant species a threat to the region, or are they not? Should I even be calling them “invasive”? And what constitutes “native,” anyway?
I’d come to realize that there are no easy answers to these questions, and even Markus, as avid a hunter of these species as likely exists, acknowledged as much. “This thing is still in its infancy,” he told me, when I called him one winter’s evening to confess my quandary. “We don’t know how effective or ineffective we’re going to be over the long haul. If things are in check, these plants shouldn’t be impacting the ecosystem in a harmful way. But we just don’t understand all the relationships.”
Goodness … had the Green Reaper knelt at the altar of permaculture? I was struck by the similarity between his words and Jacke’s. And he wasn’t finished: “For instance, how is non-native honeysuckle impacting your forest? I’m not sure I know yet.”
To Markus, terms like “non-native” and “invasive” are really just placeholders for a basket of characteristics and, like most language, are subject to nuance and bias. Take the common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), so ubiquitous that few question its place in the New England landscape. Yet it was introduced by the Puritans, reportedly for its medicinal properties. (In Europe, dandelion is commonly used as a diuretic and a diabetes treatment, among other applications.) So, yes, the dandelion is a “non-native” or “invasive” species. But in Markus’s view, the plant is benign and perhaps even beneficial and therefore doesn’t warrant action. Still, he noted, not everyone agrees. For instance, farmers trying to put up dry hay hate dandelions, because they hold significant moisture. “In my narrow view, the dandelion isn’t invasive,” Markus noted. “But a lot of farmers would disagree.”
Markus’s work on non-native species has even begun to inform other aspects of his forestry practice. He’s noticed clear parallels between timber harvests, which by their very nature create significant soil and canopy disturbance, and the influx of non-native species. He’s even started to turn down certain jobs. “It’s not respectful to the ecosystem just to make a few dollars,” he told me.
All of this made good sense, and even if it didn’t answer my questions directly, it began to add up to a context against which I could answer them for myself. In short, only I could decide whether the plants growing in our woodlot constituted a threat; only I could decide what to call them and how to perceive them.
Thus emboldened, I set out on an early spring morning to walk our woodlot. I wore heavy work gloves, so that I could find the grip necessary to uproot the more stubborn bush honeysuckles I stumbled across. But despite my intent, I no longer had the frantic sense that I had to either fight relentlessly or concede. I had come to recognize between these two extremes a wide swath of middle ground, and it is there that the sacredness of my relationship to the forest is restored.
It’s true that I don’t wish to see our woodlot transformed, but I know now that what I want has little bearing on the multitudinous and largely unknowable laws governing the ecosystem, of which I am only a part. As I strode under the tree canopy, I remembered something that Jono Neiger had once said. Neiger, who used to managed invasive species with an ATV-mounted boom sprayer and gallons upon gallons of chemicals, is now a professor at The Conway School, a Massachusetts-based institute that offers a graduate program in sustainable landscape planning. “We’re not getting at the root cause, which is an incredibly disturbed landscape due to human habitation,” he’d told me. He’d paused for a second–not a dramatic pause, but the sort of pause that suggested he was trying to decide exactly what to say: “We believe that we’re separate, but we’re not. There’s no way we are.”
Deep in the Vermont forest, with the morning’s slanting light still feeble and uncertain, I stopped. I heard birdcalls, high and trilling. I smelled the mustiness of the day’s dewy beginning, mingled with the acridness of my perspiration. “We believe that we’re separate,” Neiger had said. Not anymore, I thought. Not anymore.