Category Archives: Nature

The Nativists and Me

Some common seed-dispersal systems. (Illustration: David Plunkert)

Certain aspects of spring make me squirm. Particularly those related to advice on what I should and should not plant. Even what I should actively eradicate. Insistent voices and ubiquitous manifestos inform me that I must limit myself to native plants—that is, those established before European and African settlement—and wage war on all others. Which you might think is mere hyperbole on my part, but that is not so. The desire to make my local environment resemble what it might have looked like before 1492, when Columbus crossed the ocean blue, is what drives the definition of “native” in a booklet just published by the Maryland Native Plant Society. Which makes me wonder why this document was not produced by a printing press, invented circa 1440, instead of some digital device available only recently.

On the surface, I have at least two problems with people who espouse this sort of nativism. First, I am not convinced that they love nature nearly as much as they claim. If they did, they would readily embrace an essential aspect: constant change. Which is particularly important these days since phenomena such as global warming are rapidly accelerating the rate of this change. Meaning that trying to make current vegetation resemble that of previous centuries, where the natural and man-made environment was decidedly different, is maladaptive, at best. If they must mess with Mother Nature, they might better ask what her future needs were and attempt to meet them. Second, they do not seem to understand the inherent futility of their efforts. Both plants and animals, including the human kind, are set up to spread. The salient difference between flora and fauna is that the former relocate by more subtle means. Say, through seed dispersal. And between autochory—most notably the use of gravity—and allochory—wind, water, animals and humans—them flora sure do get around. Of course, much of seed dissemination is polychorous, which makes those nativists that come down particularly hard on the human-vectored sort of dispersal come across as somewhat silly.

Deep down, there is another problem that I do not bring up with such nativists. Much like my father, who seemed to fear for his manhood each spring that my mother made him to lop off tree limbs and prune bushes, I—a non-native Marylander (here by way of Latvia, Austria, Germany, Michigan, Massachusetts and Alabama), a merely naturalized US citizen and a former displaced person—fear for my place in my present community, my adopted country and even the world as a whole at the start of each growing season. Because, invariably, I get sucked into discussions with those finding the likes of the multiflora roses and butterfly bushes on my riverbank offensive and then wonder just how they find me. You see, there is a political form of nativism that seeks to preserve or reinstate status for established inhabitants against the claims of newcomers and seems disturbingly similar to that of those seeking to reinstate some prior status of the riverbank.

The arguments used are certainly similar. And similarly questionable. They say, for instance, that the trouble with non-natives is that there are no natural predators to keep them in check. And that unchecked growth decreases biodiversity. Try telling that to our native beavers, who indiscriminately destroy the Japanese cherry trees, non-native but beloved, planted along the Tidal Basin and the native dogwood that I planted in memory of my mother. And to those humans, presumably native-born, who attack immigrants in our area and made life miserable for my family and five-year-old me when we arrived in Michigan. If diversity really is at issue, those nativists would beat on beavers, not butterfly bushes, which beavers blessedly leave alone. But they do not, any more than the other sort fights anti-immigration groups. Most would readily revert to 1965, when white people still comprised 85 percent of the population rather than rejoice that non-Hispanic whites will no no longer represent the majority by 2044.

Of course, nativists rarely seem to commit to reinstating the status of all plants or all people to anywhere near that of pre-colonial days. Few, for instance, show any interest in pushing for legislation restoring the status of Indian tribes. Even those who refer to them as “Native Americans” and admire their artifacts. And while dandelions are anointed by the Maryland Biodiversity Project and touted by the University of Maryland as nutrient-rich plants used by said Native Americans to treat a range of disorders, not many refrain from ripping those pretty but pesky natives from their lawns. Much like my mother in Michigan, who sought total annihilation as my father and and I stood by and smirked. (Monoculture lawns seem to be suburbanites’ sacred sites. When I worked in Washington, a colleague from posh Potomac said in all seriousness, “We have been invaded by violets.”)

Undogmatic by nature, I was pleased to learn that organizations such as the The Nature Conservancy now take a nuanced stance. Altering the orthodoxy that assumes that non-natives are guilty until proven innocent, points such as the following serve as rational replacements:

  1. Non-natives can have devastating impacts, especially on islands,
  2. But they can also provide much-needed habitats for endangered species and be the best bet for erosion and mudslide control.
  3. Trade restrictions and border controls have reduced the flow of known pests, and some eradication programs have succeeded
  4. But millions of federal dollars have been spent without any measurable impact on either biodiversity or ecosystem function.
  5. It is important to protect against certain highly invasive species
  6. But novel ecosystems are increasingly common and, going forward, will need to be viewed as part of the total ecosystem.

Not only are these points applicable to, say, my multiflora roses, which were, in fact, introduced to control erosion on riverbanks such as mine, but also to non-native humans such as me. Substitute some words in a Conservancy statement, and you will see. “Science-based conservation cannot be about knee-jerk platitudes and simple views of good and evil” any more than evidence-based immigration or refugee policy can be about knee-jerk platitudes and simple views .  .  .

The mixed blessings of introduced species are well-illustrated by the Columbian Exchange, that widespread transfer of not only people but also plants and animals and microbes, not to mention culture and science and technology, that took place between the American and Afro-Eurasian hemispheres as a consequence of the colonization and trade that followed from that somewhat ill-considered trip Columbus took. While non-native diseases certainly contributed to precipitous declines in indigenous populations, benefits accrued, as well. There was, for instance, no honey bee here back then. The same one that now is undergoing colony collapse and causing us to wring our hands about how we will feed ourselves in the future without this important pollinator. We probably will figure out a way, since humans—arguably the most invasive species of all—and ecosystems do eventually adapt.

Meanwhile, I will continue to root for those dastardly multiflora roses and butterfly bushes since those beleaguered bees sure do like feasting on their flowers. And that useless grassy hillside—it could barely be called a lawn—behind my house that I turned into some semblance of  a rain garden, full of non-native shrubs and small trees selected not only for their shade tolerance but also because they are not too tasty to our native white-tailed deer, who eat everything in sight. And those non-native lettuces and carrots that I plan to plant in our community garden. And the native tobacco plants, but only when they are restricted to the colonial garden, co-located with our own at the Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum, which is dedicated to the first African-American man of science and son of a former slave.

I will also continue to support the Syrian refugees, not only because I was a refugee once myself but also because I cannot imagine how I would be able write another word without the elegant digital devices developed by a man whose biological father hailed from Homs. And the migrants who enter the country from the south, not only because part of the States once belonged to those below the border but also because one is my next-door neighbor. And to oppose those nativists who believe that closing borders and building walls will somehow “make America great again.” Not only because I cannot countenance their irrational hatred but also because they ignore their own history. Particularly the part where the Columbian Exchange and subsequent waves of immigration carried the seeds of greatness to their shores.


Some non-native plants, animals and microbes. (Source: Encyclopædia Britannica)
Some non-native plants, animals and microbes. (Source: Encyclopædia Britannica)

So Long, Laima

Three Latvian deities: Māra, Dievs and Laima (Painting:  Jēkabs Bīne)

Laima, the primary Latvian goddess of destiny, likes to live under willow trees. And willow trees like to live on riverbanks. And a riverbank was where I elected to live when I moved to Maryland and bought a house. A portion of the Patapsco River’s bank, to be specific. Which came complete with a large willow tree and, I had to assume since I was Latvian by birth, the goddess Laima. Because Latvians—and do not let anyone tell you otherwise—are basically pagans. While most modern Latvians identify themselves as Lutheran and a smaller number as Catholic, Orthodox or even agnostic like me, right below the surface, our essence still resonates most with all the ancient deities.

Meaning that we are not so different from the peasants living in the Vidzeme (Middle Land) region, where I was born, when the 16th Century geographer Sebastian Münster came upon them and, with unpleasant surprise, recorded in his 22-volume encyclopedia Cosmographia that there “are many of those, who know nothing of God and his saints. One worships sun, another moon, one chooses a beautiful tree to worship, while another a stone or whatever he pleases.” To which Balthasar Russow, in The Chronicle of Livonia, quite disparagingly added, “They hold some brushwoods as holy sites, which were forbidden to cut down. Their superstition was so great that one who would cut down a tree in the holy place would be killed immediately.”

Which leads me to the point of this piece, which is that on 6 January 2016—which happened to be Epiphany in the Christian world—men in reflective vests with large bucket-bearing and mulch-making trucks arrived in front of my house and, after much discussion, started to ensnare the largest limbs of the willow. As I watched them work from my front porch swing, sipping my morning coffee, all that disturbed me was the noise. I assumed that the tree would be trimmed, a common occurrence around here. But when the trucks and men returned the following day, a primitive rage arose. I left my spot on the swing to keep from acting upon murderous impulses, telling myself that they were mere agents of a higher power. Likely not Dievs, but at least the Oella Homeowners Association. Once I returned hours later to find that only a stump remained (see below), I was less angry than sad.

Of course, the OHA was within its rights. You see, while I viewed the riverbank as an extension of my front yard, it was, in fact, separated from my house by a narrow road and a strip of sidewalk and constituted common space administered on our behalf by the OHA. And, of course, there were good reasons why the OHA might want the willow gone. It blocked our view of the river. And its roots, aggressively seeking moisture, could present problems if they clogged our water and sewer systems. And, while I viewed the tree as Laima’s home, truth be told, it was a weeping willow. Which is a hybrid of the Chinese Peking willow (Salix babylonica) and the European white willow (Salix alba), and, therefore, not a Latvian willow. (Hey, we exiles have to adapt.)

And, to be honest, I have not been happy with Laima of late. Last year alone, she made my life holy hell with an array of physical afflictions and even set it up so that I almost died. Not to mention messing with the stock market so that I barely eked out a profit and, this year, seem well on my way to a substantial loss. And all the stuff that she decided should break. Apparently, her rule is that a decade after a major renovation everything in a historic millworker’s house should fall apart. Particularly during those historic cold snaps and heat waves she so thoughtfully arranged. And, if I thought that you had an hour or so to spare, she has given me enough material to write about much more. So, maybe I should simply rejoice that she has been forced to flee.

Still, what I have always adored about the ancient deities is that they were never saints. Just consider the Greek or Roman mythologies. Perhaps the solution, therefore, was to take a page from Marie Phillips‘ 2007 novel Gods Behaving Badly, where she felt free to portray the 12 divine beings of Mount Olympus as living in a modern-day rundown London flat while witnessing their powers wane. I could just as easily envision Laima, evicted from her scenic site on the Patapsco riverbank relocating to more urban digs just down the hill in front of the Ellicott City Railroad Museum under one of those linden trees, which some say that she likes as much as willows. That way, I could keep her from meddling in day-to-day matters but still have her nearby to blame for events that I would rather attribute to fate.


Weeping Willow Stump
The sad stump where the weeping willow once stood and Laima once lived. (Photo: Ilse Munro)


Note: Little Patuxent Review, where I was once the online editor, is launching the Winter 2016 issue, Myth, on January 31. Attend the launch reading and purchase a copy, either there or online.