Book Review: Beyond the War on Invasive Species



Title: Beyond the War on Invasive Species: A Permaculture Approach to Ecosystem Restoration
Author: Tao Orion
Occupation/Association: Farmer, restoration
Publishing Info: 2015, White River Junction, VT (Chelsea Green Publishing)
Book Type: history, theory, commentary
     “A whole systems perspective on invasion must necessarily move beyond the dualism
     imposed by human preferences for certain ecological outcomes. This does not
     necessarily imply amnesty for them, but rather provides a framework for long-term
     ecologically rational management of their populations that addresses the processes
     contributing to invasion.” p. 137
     I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about weeds and how to manage them on our farm.  My goal has usually been to mostly eradicate them through competition. This has usually involved some type of physical (hand pulling, scything) / mechanical means (mowing, disking), and the planting of competitive seeds.  Being Certified Organic, I always knew that chemicals even those “allowed” on Organic operations was not the solution.  But since last summer, I’ve really started to change my opinion on noxious weeds or invasive species.  My standard thoughts had been weeds as “plants out of place,” that I as the wise farmer needed to discourage by skewing conditions to be more favorable to the plants I wanted to grow.  Come to think about it, this is pretty much the standard operating procedure of all agriculture. Not that this is necessarily wrong or right, I mean, how else are we going to grow food without falling back into an unsustainable foraging system?
     The first inkling of a paradigm shift came last summer when I was hand pulling a solitary patch of Hoary Cress by our fence line, and came across a white crab spider in the white flowers.  This species can exist in different flowers, but is probably most successful in white flowers and attacks pollinators that come for pollen.  I noticed that our huge fields were mostly grass and did not offer anything for pollinators.  The patches of weeds were the only thing in summer for the pollinators, and the patch I was in also supported other species such as that spider.  But, I told myself, Hoary Cress is a Noxious weed and could be toxic to livestock…thus you must be eliminated!  Another white flower weed that has a lot of attention in our area is Hoary Alyssum, and yet again, it also was flowering and was covered in pollinators in the dead of summer.  Hmmmm…maybe Mother Nature is trying to tell me something. But no, I thought again about how I should out compete these weeds, especially since they were invasive and non-native. This year, however, I realized a main reason for my fight against these weeds has been to produce a clean grass hay.  This is great for selling off the farm, but a little less important for on farm use. I don’t plan to let our entire fields go to undesirable plants, but I am a lot less concerned about patches of weeds and can now appreciate their unique roll in the ecosystem of our farm.
     Also this last month I read the book Beyond the War on Invasive Species, and it helped coalesce some of the thoughts that have been brewing over the past year.  The author is a farmer in Oregon who was hired to help with an ecosystem restoration and during that process realized how warped our notion about weeds, invasive species, and restoration really was.  One thing that has always bothered me about the term invasive species is the idea that things are static in nature and species in the past have not been moving around the planet.  Species are usually termed invasive based upon the arrival of Columbus, which is pretty arbitrary.  The book cites research and lists a multitude of species that moved around the world before Columbus. The author makes some very compelling arguments about how these invasive species are a symptom and eradicating them is an unattainable goal and would not solve the underlying issues that created the niche that allowed them to survive such as monocultures, overuse of resources like water and chemicals, and overgrazing.
     I also had a standard view of ecological succession being very linear and ending with a climax species.  The book argues many believe this is not the case, and that succession occurs in various states and has many factors influencing it and may not be the same progression in each area.  Thus, nature is not stable and predictable but very fluid and always changing. New species are not invasive or threatening, they are part of a change in the ecosystem and signal conditions have changed to make it favorable for them.  This is a big problem with a lot of the conservation movement because it wants to preserve nature like it is a museum instead of a living organism.  For example, the book cites how Europeans were blown away by the rich wilderness of the new world and that has been the benchmark for conservation…getting back to the glory of 15th century Americas, but without realizing these landscapes had been forged by management and use of indigenous peoples and animals.  It was never a static world that was waiting to be discovered, abused and then later held up as a perfect state of nature to try to return to.  Very interesting concepts.
     There are also chapters detailing terrible conservation efforts such as salt cedars on the Colorado, and different grasses on the coasts.  I mostly breezed over them because they didn’t pertain to my interests, and in general, I acknowledge governmental incompetence and was interested in moving forward.  Her basic conclusion about working with non-selected plants (“weeds”) is to discover the history of the land and what conditions created a niche for that particular “unwanted” plant, and then try to out compete it if necessary but not simply by adding seed, but by targeting and adjusting the niche so it favors what you want to grow.  Also, many “weeds” in a vegetative state are good grazing…of course it depends, some are not.
     Still wrapping my head around some concepts.
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2 Responses to Book Review: Beyond the War on Invasive Species

  1. Elo True says:

    Tao Orion is an invasive species denier. She also bangs the drums of glyphosate hysteria. And she thinks that rooting pigs will control Cortadaria jubata. She thinks that because all plants are native the planet Earth, that you should not be worried about weeds at all. In other words she is in denial about basic facts of conservation biology.


  2. When we got into beekeeping, the definition of “weeds” became quite the discussion. For instance, what do you do in late fall for pollen and nectar. Do you chop down the knapweed because it’s a weed or leave the pretty purple flowers for the bees? It’s been good for us, to mow less and conserve our dandelion bounty and plant species to give a variety of blooming types and times. So, I let a little knapweed escape our mowing. The lambs have been eating the thistle heads (Go sheep!), and I must say our current weed problem lies only there – thistles! The others we’re ok with in small amounts, particularly in riparian areas.


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