Before I begin I must note for the record that I write this with great trepidation. My palms are sweaty, I feel my heart thumping within its bone cage. I am going against my programming, perhaps even my better judgment. These thoughts sat at the back of my throat for far too long. I fear they may metastasize if not enunciated…..
Why in this age of extinction do we choose to poison living things? Plants, particularly those of vigorous growth, tend to be known as weeds. This is a derogatory term if ever there was one. If humans have no direct and obvious use for them, they are branded. Now, more than any time in history, it is up to us to question the dogma of invasive plants and feral animals. They may in fact be our best shot at making it through our multiple crises.
So I ask, Who speaks for Weeds?
I was raised to both love and to hate plants – raised to love natives and hate non-natives. This wasn’t strictly applied to plants. Certain animals were also targeted for hatred. However, it was plants that got the majority of mine and my family’s wrath (along with most of the settler families in the area), particularly that of my father. He was a co-land holder on 72 acres, doing what he thought was the right thing, and bringing the rest of the family along for the ride. For close to twenty years, I had a very black and white, wholly disconnected, view of land management. This was fostered by my ‘right thinking’ father, as well as most, if not, all neighbouring farmers, environmentalists, and academics alike.
The farm I grew up on utilising poisons is now another proud site of urban sprawl.
The ideology was easy to take on board. It was a narrative of the heroes’ story. A great tragedy had befallen the forested areas of our nation. Our wrong thinking forefathers had decimated the landscape and it was our job, no, our duty, to bring it back to its former glory. There was a right way to do it. It began with identifying the bad plants, the weeds, and identifying any of the good plants, the natives. Simple as that, really. We then set about poisoning all the bad plants and, wherever possible, preserving the good plants. This is still very much the story today, but I no longer buy it.
I think it began with another thing my parents bestowed upon me, the ability to ask questions, and keep asking them, not settling for a myopic or limited response. I had begun to wonder why it was ok, and even encouraged to say or write that a plant is bad, invasive and even destructive. I’d begun to just try to see plants for what they were, living entities, giving freely of their life affirming processes. When we apply this same thinking to humans or a particular race of humans, we are branded, at best, intolerant and possibly bigoted. At worst we are labelled racist. Now I knew, and still know that racism is abhorrent, but why is this label only applied when humans antagonise other humans and not when humans antagonise other species?
There are some obvious sociological correlations between plants and humans. Reading the Department of Primary Industries spread sheets on certain invasive and destructive plants, if we replaced the words ‘Broad-Leaved Privet (Ligustrum sinense)’ with, for example, ‘mechanically minded humans’, the desired effect is the same. We can hate a plant for being non-native, or at least openly discriminate against it, if it has no immediate or obvious use to humans. This is highly suspect, particularly with Privet which is a plant that has been used in Chinese medicine for over 1,000 years. It has been used to treat menopausal problems; to blurred vision and cataracts; through to backache; and insomnia. If it occupies its niche well, we tend to roll out smear campaigns, to first debase it, then poison it. In turn we poison ourselves literally, as well as give birth to the cancer inducing emotions related to the stresses of trying to eradicate it.
It appears that within many contemporary, tolerant and well-meaning communities, who may no longer openly discuss human immigrants as a ‘problem’, bigotry and distrust is switched onto plants (along with other species too). The ‘invading’ plants are seen as occupying spaces that could be used by natives, in a similar way to some people seeing jobs for natives being taken up by immigrants, for example: “They breed readily, you let one in and many more will come…” It sounds a lot like the complaints I’ve read in News Limited’s papers regarding minority groups they wish to use as scape goats to help them sell more papers, in order to distract the masses from who’s really doing the short-changing. That’s the ideology. The language of fear. We then manage to justify the eradication of the ‘different’, for example Privet, through the purchase and use of tons of carcinogenic herbicides. These herbicides, coincidentally, are made by the same companies that brought you Agent Orange and the gas used in Nazi death camps. You can’t make this stuff up.
However, this is seen as acceptable, because these plants are perceived as malicious entities determined to destroy our pristine rainforest, what’s left of it anyway. That remaining 1%. The 1% we are still vying to turn into productive, anthropogenic landscapes such as dams and shopping malls. What happened to the other 99%?. A good portion of it is under the wheels of your family car, your Tesla, your ute or whatever your chosen mode of transport is. Still more is kept down by cattle, macadamia monocultures and urban sprawl. The whole notion is hypocritical. What about Coffee and Cherry tomatoes? They’re weeds too, but they’re ok because we love a nice garden salad and we’ll kill anyone who gets in the way of our morning coffee.
In this age of extinction, what is it we need most? As the planet’s climate is thrown into disarray, what is the most powerful naturally occurring element that can help us? You guessed it, plants. And what are the processes driving these changes? You and me. We need biodiversity, and we need it rapidly, and while it runs in the face of accepted ‘knowledge’, the more non-native species are introduced, the more overall biodiversity is increased. Our best chance to redirect this human-centric crisis is plants. Their ability to sequester carbon, purify air, mitigate erosion, and cool the surrounding environment are some of the myriad benefits of these wondrous beings. They are the best tool we have for building soil and repairing a dying earth.
Homo morbidus economicus
As though projecting our own history of invasion, we see these plants as something to fear. I would be very hesitant to discredit the work of many people working in the regeneration of rainforests. I was inculcated from a young age in the virtues of ‘cut and paste’, ‘drilling’ and the many other forms of applying state sanctioned poisons. However, I really do question the willingly accepted nature of the processes, and what appears to be a vindication rooted in the colonial mindset. This is one soaked in xenophobia, and veiled in valour and conquest.
This same colonial mindset seems particularly obvious in many of the modern outposts of the British Empire. The same group of nations which refuse to ratify the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (USA, NZ, Aus, Canada), seem to be the same group determined to pursue an endless war not only against the original inhabitants but against the land itself.
On the rare occasion a regenerator, resplendent in their safety attire, may speak of the processes which have lead to the mass desecration of the land. This degradation is rightly attributed to our forefathers and the mandated cleaning up of country. However, I’m yet to hear one of these well meaning persons speak of the hypocrisy within the process of their regeneration. The first and most obvious step in the pursuit of their ideology is the application of poisons. This is just the start.
This hypocrisy is most prevalent in our daily complicity to perpetuate the growth mindset at the cost of all biomes. The ‘Not In My Back Yard’ philosophy of ‘caring’ for what’s before our eyes, whilst never questioning the entire way we live makes no sense. We rarely question where we’ve obtained our food, clothing, or resources in general. At best we are mining of finite resources, and at worst we are directly contributing to slave labour, mountain top removal and biocide. These ramifications are, for the most part, writ large on our landscape and all life on earth, due to our lack of, or unwillingness to utilise, a larger time frame. If only we could all begin to think like trees; even the moderately long lived can call 200 young. Many trees were in their hundreds, if not thousands during the invasion and settlement of Australia. I wonder what they’ve seen become of their neighbourhoods?
The painful irony of our shortsightedness was recently brought home to me when visiting the Brisbane museum. In one of their major natural exhibits, consisting of taxidermied animals from throughout the continent, sponsored by BHP (the worlds 19th largest corporate polluter), was where I found a stuffed, but still snarling feral cat. It was of course the Cat and not landscape devouring companies like BHP that was deemed the problem in this scenario. The plaque beneath the cat read:
Feral Cat – Felis catus
‘Feral animals such as feral cats, foxes, rabbits and camels threaten the fauna and flora of the arid outback through predation, competition for resources and habitat destruction. Controlling feral animals and weeds remains a huge challenge, given the vast size of Australia’s arid outback and the sparse human population living there.
My immediate thought upon reading the above was, Where’s the stuffed Feral Human – ‘Homo morbidus economicus’? Seemingly the feral cat has more of a constructive place in this modern paradigm. As do the weeds.
This essay’s purpose is not to debase humans. It is to question our assumptions of black and white, our willingness to turn a blind eye to ourselves. At the same time, we point a judgmental finger toward all that we deem unproductive or unhelpful in perpetuating the advance of the industrial modality. What we need is every plant we can get. Save the rainforests? Absolutely. Keep them pristine. But don’t lose site of the big picture. In our pursuit of purity, we’ve forgotten about the microbiome, a fundamental building block of all life on earth. Every time we use poisons, be they emissions from our car or directly injections into any living thing, we’re mutilating that link in the chain and compromising everything that is connected to it. Everything.
This war on invasive species is a never-ending war. The seed bank isn’t going away anytime soon. It’s in the soil, it’s in ‘animals’ intestines, it’s in the river beds, in the gutters, under the concrete waiting for the moment when we stop, run out of oil, breathe for a moment or five. If you’re lucky enough to live in a humid climate, the forest will regrow regardless. These new forests are known as Novel Ecosystems. They have astounding biodiversity and are showcases of what can be called the New Pangea. We’ve tried the conquest of nature since the time of ancient Babylon. I think it’s high time to let nature take the reigns. It’s high time we not just learn to live with these novel ecosystems, but to work and thrive with them, to allow them to teach us tolerance and acceptance of what is and will be for the years to come.
A friend recently relayed to me a question posed by his mentor. ‘If you were terminally ill would you care if the doctor who could provide you with life giving medicine was black or white, Russian or Haitian, tall or short?’ Of course you wouldn’t.
So why do we care which plants are going to build our soil, sequester carbon and detoxify our planet, before it’s too late?