During the height of the Lymantria dispar outbreak this summer, I was out at our Hobbit-themed summer camp playing games, singing songs, eating blackberries, and looking at the parasitic plant, pinesap (Monotropa hypopitys) with happy kiddos. The “fuzzy nibbler” moths are particularly abundant at our base camp, which is shaded by a canopy composed mostly of mature red oaks (with a few big-toothed and quaking aspens sprinkled in along the edges). For those kids unfamiliar with the moths at the start of camp, by day 2 they had already forged strong opinions. And it broke my heart to hear the way many of them were talking about the “heartbreaker” moths, such strident malice directed towards the fluttering males, stoic females, and bristly caterpillars coming from 8 and 9 year-olds.

Meadow vole nibbling on invasive honeysuckle fruits (Airport Park, South Burlington)

Invasive soap-boxing

Yes, there are certainly real ecological impacts that the caterpillars have on our landscape, but this kneejerk reaction to the individual organisms who happen to find themselves living in areas where their species is invasive has always rubbed me the wrong way. The language around invasives can be so absolute, so lacking in nuance, reminiscent of the nationalistic othering in how people often talk about immigrants. They’re bad, they should all be killed, eradicated, removed, controlled, they’re destroying our environment. And I’ve definitely felt this way before, in particular about a patch of common reed (Phragmites australis) that dried up the soils around an old beaver pond, choked out the jewelweed, and ultimately led to the disappearance of hummingbirds from the area each August/September (read more).

Hummingbird feeding on jewelweed (Centennial Woods, Burlington)

After re-reading that last sentence, I wanted to edit the word choke. It subconsciously slipped in there. I’m not alone here in how charged my language is around invasives, peer-reviewed articles on invasives tend to have a higher frequency of militaristic language than articles on other topics (source). Even the word invasive is contentious and many advocate for using other terms – I definitely agree here (source 1source 2)

Maybe it was my love of hummingbirds that justified my animosity towards Phragmites. But I also felt justified in my feelings because Phragmites isn’t a native species (or so I thought). It just didn’t belong in the Centennial Woods Natural Area (I quietly ignore my own invasiveness). Its presence on the land was an affront to conservation efforts and the role natural areas play in preserving biodiversity. I feel quite differently today, but one of the things that biology is constantly reminding us is that things are quite complicated. A good opinion on how a landscape out to be is one that is pliable, ever so loosely held, and based on lots and lots of objective research. From Seng-t’san: “If you wish to see the truth then hold no opinion for or against.” For those of us who find ourselves in the unavoidable position of having an opinion on what a landscape should look like, we would do well to heed this advice. My opinion about Phragmites was reactionary and pretty easily dismissible, particularly in light of recent genetic work and pollen record analysis which have demonstrated quite clearly that there is a native subspecies, Phragmites australis americanus (source 1source 2).

Hummingbird waving hello from its perch atop a phragmites flower stalk (Centennial Woods, Burlington)

The prominent ecologist of island biogeography fame (and personal fav), Daniel Simberloff has written convincingly about the real ecological and economic threats of invasive species. In several of his essays (e.g. source) he draws lines between modern conservation efforts to eradicate non-native plants from the nativist and xenophobic non-native plant eradication efforts of the Nazis. It’s unhelpful hyperbole to connect a conservationist (or 8 year old) who might hate the “sucky, annoying destroyer moths” to the rhetoric used by the eugenics movement and/or the Nazis. But there is definitely reason to check our motives for why we “hate” invasives or want to “eradicate” or “control” them. Equally important to make clear distinctions between the individual organisms and the understanding that a non-native species can have real and by some metrics negative ecological impacts in different environments (at least based on how we subjectively define negative).

I’m definitely opinionated, my wife can attest to that, though in my teaching I always tried to avoid indoctrinating students with my opinions. Not sure how well it plays out, but I focus primarily on developing awareness and observation skills to promote connection and understanding. Species aren’t good or bad, annoying or pleasing in any objective or inherent sense. We can certainly quantify biodiversity, ecosystem health, habitat resilience, or connectivity, but we step outside of objectivity when we make claims that biodiversity is good, that an ecosystem is healthy, that a habitat should be resilient.

Hummingbird waving hello from its perch atop a phragmites flower stalk (Centennial Woods, Burlington)

Our mission at Crow’s Path is to connect people of all ages to the wildness. Our programs provide opportunities for people to forge deep and loving relationships with the wild world around them. To understand their role in an ecological context that they might better see how their choices and actions impact the habitat they live in. We forge this relationship in a cultural context, and so when kids hear that knotweed, buckthorn, Lymantria dispar, are bad or evil or need to be destroyed, their desire to understand, connect to, and forge positive relationships with that species ends there.

I am most certainly not against management of landscapes, but in order to manage a landscape we need to be able to clearly identify why we want to manage the landscape, and what we want the outcome of our management plan to be. Even if these things are clear, managing natural systems is notoriously difficult (source). I’d much rather a kid observe, connect, and admire these incredibly creatures than kill a few and think they’re defending an ecosystem.

More on the topic

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