Some reputable scientists claim that we should cast the florid notion of harmony into the dust bin of ecology and instead assess what plants and their cohabitants really want (as it were) (Davis et al). Freud famously began a speech with a rejoinder that he and his colleagues address the, to-them, most timeless of all questions; what do women really want? Gaia being who she is, or the planet being what it is, or however we want to think of our surroundings, the mystery deepens when we consider ourselves as biped curators rather than awestruck (and perhaps dumbstruck) participants in nature as a complex organism.
Plus, unintended outcomes are part and parcel with whatever we humans do with and within the natural world. “Attempting to extract non-natives from such areas may actually destabilize an ecosystem. Consider the tamarisk trees of the southern US plains and deserts. In the early 20th century, academics and government agencies encouraged farmers to plant these Old World trees and shrubs for livestock shade and erosion control. Meanwhile, as the Bureau of Reclamation completely reordered the region’s hydrology with storage and diversion dams, the native riparian woodlands were devastated. The hardier tamarisk trees survived, however, and spread to fill the breach. Since about 1940, an array of federal agencies and environmental groups have spent uncounted hundreds of millions of dollars waging war on tamarisk, despite the fact that ecologists have no idea what would replace it should they succeed. The tamarisk has demonstrated its fitness under now-prevailing conditions, and has become a vital riparian ecosystem component even while the war against it continues.” Closer to home, just think of how a Wild Rose garden never wins an award show in a manner befitting of Alberta’ provincial flower – even as hedgerows are often held together by those prickliest of shrubs. It’s the introduced roses that win the banner every time. Elsewhere, scientists note ironies in how we visualize what nature should be over and against what nature is for itself and is for us. “Any sentiment to save the native Colorado beetles from the impacts of potato farming is swamped by calls to save potato farmers from the beetles.” Meanwhile, to ensure bread, “nobody tries to eradicate wheat—a globally widespread crop that was disseminated from the Near East. But some restorationists would certainly replace wheat with “native” grassland if given the means and the opportunity.”
We don’t all own a farm pasture or a mountainside, but our collective human actions drive ecological changes, planned and unplanned. We also decide how to frame outcomes, using our all-too human value judgements. For perspective on this, there’s a case in point: three billion years ago the “great oxygenation” occurred. Photosynthetic (ie. Plant-ish) bacteria produced oxygen, as plants do today, but began then to do so in such abundance that other organisms who had previously dominated the globe (most were teens) all perished in short order. Oxygen doesn’t only rust out that old classic car in your uncle’s driveway, right. Oxygen in great quantity was literally anathema to many ecosystems on earth back in the day. So times change, even in the natural world.
We might, then, want to reconsider such value-laden evaluations as invasive plants. “These sorts of manipulations are based purely on human constructs, and should not be mistaken for laws or objectives of nature.” Questioning who belongs certainly has a place in science and sociology, as any plastic bag floating in the water at the beach will attest, but when we’re thinking about living plants, the fact that life, any life, has an inner drive all its own does enter the equation. And then there’s the difficult cultural times we live in where issues of who belongs are fraught with racism and even genocide. But sticking with natural world science, at least one group of academics conclude that “the practical value of the native-versus-alien species dichotomy in conservation is declining, and even becoming counterproductive” (Olejarz, online). What works for nature is often at odds with what intuitively seems right or fair. After all, cultures grow and evolve and migrate—and so do species of plants, with and without human help.