invasive: tending to spread prolifically and undesirably or harmfully
weed: a wild plant growing where it is not wanted and in competition with cultivated plants
I had intended to work in the garden. Instead, I am on my porch steps, savoring the violets, nettle, chickweed, henbit, dandelion, plantain and purslane spilling out of my beds. Something has shifted in me.
When conservationists decry plants as invasive or weeds, I feel this personally. The conservationists are often white; and I am always brown, always female, always an immigrant from the Middle East. I feel as though they are referencing me, or people like me. Not far-fetched given this country’s eugenics history—the forced sterilization of indigenous, brown and black women— methodology Nazis found instructive. Not far-fetched, given some people, often white, designate brown and black people as illegal, even confine illegals along the US Mexico border so they don’t spread prolifically and therefore, undesirably, harmfully. Not far-fetched in a country with a for-profit prison industry. Not far-fetched since European colonizers designated indigenous people savage to kill them.
The term savage sets up a false threat: kill them before they kill you. Not unlike illegals. Or the threat of invasives or weeds. These designations—illegal, savage, invasive, weed—make my heart heavy. They are labels used to justify uprooting, displacing, relocating, and extinguishing those who the labels are applied to. If we find it abhorrent to call a human illegal or savage, why would we call a plant invasive or weed?
In the Midwest, conservationists are preoccupied with annihilating honeysuckle and Bradford pear trees, much like their probable ancestors were preoccupied with annihilating indigenous people to seed this nation. The impulse to eradicate or subjugate what is incongruent with one’s paradigm or plan, bears fruit in the conservation movement’s efforts to banish species. And, conservationists have historically evicted indigenous peoples from ecosystems they want to protect even though those ecosystems had been well-stewarded for generations. The optics are disorienting: the descendants of invaders who killed natives kill invasives to protect natives. How does this orientation inform advocating for robust ecosystems?
Consider for a moment traveling to another country. There you will generally eat what is indigenous for and seasonal to that geographical region. When in Egypt, I eat fruits, nuts, grains, meats, vegetables readily available; foods culturally, seasonally and geographically redolent to the Middle East and have been for centuries. My favorite dish, molokhiya, has been a staple since the time of the ancient Egyptians. In the US we don’t eat what is indigenous to the original peoples. When European colonizers arrived, ignorant of ecosystems here, they brought seeds and farming practices to subjugate prairie to their will. What we recognize as food in the US is based on the invasive European palette supplanting the native fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, etc, that were eaten here for centuries.
I think of this when I see pawpaws. A fruit native to the eastern US, they were relied on for food and medicine by indigenous peoples. You won’t find pawpaws in grocery stores or restaurants because they haven’t been commercially cultivated. Yet, you will find bananas, kin in texture and taste, in grocery stores year-round. That’s because American fruit companies run banana plantations in Central America. The production of which is chiefly responsible for deforestation and the destruction of coral reefs in Costa Rica. The production of which is responsible for US supported dictatorships in Central America. The production of which so decimates (aided by climate change) Central American communities , that people walk thousands of miles only to be penned along the border. Why is the US (as part of the Global North) turning other countries (chiefly the Global South) into plantations rather than us eating what actually grows here? Is it because we dismiss those plants as invasives and weeds?
Why don’t we consider grocery stores that supply the US with fruit, vegetable, meat, flowers, medicine, grains, etc, from all over the world, invasive? Why do we not consider the European diet invasive? Do conservationists consider the scope and scale of a global food supply, vast modern-day monocrop plantations and CAFOs, as something to weed out?
Further, building materials and structures have historically been region specific. Picture a traditional home in Tanzania or Thailand. Just as food comes from what ecosystems offer seasonally and regionally, so do building materials. And, structural design held practical as well as unique cultural significance to a region. But suburbs, constructed from the same building materials regardless of geography, region, or climate, dominate the US. Suburban sprawl eradicates naturally occurring native terrain as well as reliance on regionally suitable building materials. Is the global supply chain of building materials considered invasive?
Or what about paved surface? The only data I could find was a 2009 stat claiming 65% of roads are paved. Why isn’t there an accounting of how much Earth is covered in pavement, an arguably invasive surface? Can I not find data because there’s a boon in EVs, solar, wind and other ‘green’ solutions? Not only are paved surfaces needed for existing infrastructure but for infrastructure of new technologies. Roads are needed to go deeper into rainforests to supply the global economy which require increased infrastructure as well. Roads are needed for the increased demand for landfills. Roads are needed for suburb expansion, to cultivate more wild or ‘undeveloped’ areas.
European invaders also spread lawns to every corner of North America. This invasive monocrop is perhaps more devoid of nourishment than the oft-debased value of honeysuckle berries and Bradford pears. Do conservationists address landscaping businesses since turf is the most irrigated crop in the US? How are golf courses and ballfields getting a pass? Do conservationists actively poison vast expanses of turf at universities, schools, places of worship, public buildings, parks, and homes as they do honeysuckle? Are there buyback programs for zoysia and fescue like for Bradford pears?
Who determines where can be paved, mined, turned into landfill or turf, suburb, or CAFO? Who determines what can be farmed, built upon, used recreationally, or conserved? Why is there a blind eye regarding the institutions and sacrifice zones that serve (some) humans? Because we rely on the aforementioned, we ignore their invasiveness? That too makes my heart heavy. I am dependent on and complicit in systems that force a relationship with Earth I do not consent to. Eradication and subjugation.
To conserve some parcels of Earth while other parts are raped and destroyed for my modern way of life is the environmental equivalent of the Madonna/Whore dichotomy of the Judeo-Christian-Moslem theocracies. These here are the virginal lands we strive to keep unsullied for a special kind of pleasure, those there are the lands we use for our comfort, convenience and a different kind of pleasure.
Let’s look at it from another angle. Since 1776, the US has been at war 228 out of the 246 years of its existence. The US has 750 military bases spread across 80 nations; three times as many bases as all other countries combined and the US is the biggest military force in the world. Also, this country incarcerates the most people—2.1 million. That’s nearly the same number of people detained along the US Mexico border in the last year. Is uprooting, displacing, relocating, and extinguishing the only orientation to other beings and Earth? To what end?
Yet, eradication and subjugation are modern conservation’s legacy and language. One may not even recognize it is just a way of being, not the way of being because one is so entrenched. Similar to how we don’t question the thousands of miles of pavement or where what we consume comes from because we’re so entrenched in existing systems.
I think of it in terms of generational trauma. That is, there’s a way of being, of relating, even speaking that is normalized and internalized; regardless of how violent. And, one may not recognize the harm because of that entrenchment.
My personal legacy is that my body should be thin. Thin and toned bodies, cultivated bodies, are worthful. Lumpy, bumpy fat bodies, unruly bodies, are worthless. My adherence to thinness is praised by the collective culture while my fatness is covertly or overtly poisoned via disapproval. Because of that entrenched belief, I bullied my body into submission. This violence to self was my relationship to my body. As I sought a relationship with my body, I also began to see Earth differently.
Invasives and weeds are deemed worthless while cultivated or native plants are deemed worthful. It’s why I’m sitting on my porch steps savoring my full garden beds. Discovering my body based on what she wants, needs and does naturally, shifts my relationship with Earth. I want to inhabit both my body and Earth on their terms, not through bullying.
When I first started gardening years ago, I quickly learned to identify weeds and invasives, even relished weeding my beds so that what I planted could thrive. But as I learned about what I was removing, it increasingly seemed disrespectful to eradicate what Earth offered and replace it with my colonized definition of food.
When conservationists laud natives, usually that agenda is to replace turf and nonnative species as well as feed pollinators. Are they interested in a native relationship with plant beings or just in appropriating natives to fit a circumscribed agenda? Are the plants valued for their wisdom, medicine, agency and shown deference? Are plant beings regarded with gratitude, ceremony, song, gifts? I think of Brene Brown’s words, ‘control is the near enemy of connection.’ Is connection available through a lens of eradication and subjugation? I certainly couldn’t have the relationship I am now developing with my body when bullying her. How do we move our orientation with ourselves and other beings from subject-controlling-object to subject-relating to-subject?
To recover from body dysmorphia, I began standing in the front of the mirror trying to see my body as is. Or at least, not turn away with revulsion, not try to suck in or poke or loathe. I practice seeing my body as worthful on her own terms, not worthless via my inherited lens which causes me to seek punishing things to control her from spreading wildly, undesirably. As I become intimate with the topography of myself, fat or thin becomes immaterial. It is a scope that limits the full range of expression and possibility and movement and light and joy my body offers. It is like saying the only plant that is worthful is a rose and not-roses are worthless. Not unlike a lens that causes one human to see another as savage or illegal.
As I look at my garden beds, I deconstruct and reconstruct what my or garden or beds even mean. How is it mine? What makes it a garden? Why impose the order of beds? What counts as wild? If what is defined as wild proliferates, why not receive what I am being offered? Why funnel a wide range of expression-of being-into narrow polarities of good/bad, native/invasive, cultivar/weed? When I dissolve distinctions, I experience awe at the variety and abundance. I feel curious and grateful.
I am invited into grounding myself into what Earth provides beyond my planting calendar. To consider different rhythms than I was used to as a gardener. To harvest and preserve what arises when it arises and rest otherwise. Thus, I’m compelled to venture into food preservation in a new way. I’m also compelled to share because there’s just so, so much goodness when you begin to recognize it.
It takes time to learn a new language, a new culture. I’m slowly learning to value what shows up in my yard just as I am slowly learning to see worth in what shows up in my mirror. Curiosity and suspension of judgment are essential to seeing in a new way. They are essential to connection beyond eradication and subjugation.
I still grow what my family is accustomed to eating. But I am already experiencing a gardening future of scrambled seasons and increased insect pressure as well as can foresee water shortages. It is reasonable to transition to reliance on what Earth offers and acquaint ourselves intimately once again with her rhythms, like our indigenous forebearers, rather than insist on our own biased agenda. Indeed, aren’t we in the ecological situation we’re in because we thought we could do otherwise?
If you need reasons to see honeysuckle differently, consider its myriad medicinal properties ranging from anti-inflammatory, cancer fighting, respiratory support to lowering blood sugar and gastrointestinal support. I was hard pressed to find benefits of the Callery pear, commonly known as the Bradford pear in honor of the missionary who brought them to the US from China, which provokes some thoughts. One, just like another ‘invasive,’ Johnson grass, brought from North Africa, why are we naming plants after the white dudes who transplanted them here versus what they are called in their native homes (same with Poinsetta, by the way)? Two, why don’t we know their names and roles in their native homes? Perhaps if we knew them on their own terms we wouldn’t discount them as worthless. Three, my internet search provided article upon article regarding the horrors of Callery pears.
It is not lost on me that I’m researching and writing this at the same time as the Buffalo massacre. The shooter’s manifesto contained pages and pages of well-reasoned, articulate ‘evidence’ to justify his hate crimes. Eradication and subjugation can always be substantiated if that’s your paradigm. It’s not unlike propaganda scientists, doctors, politicians, media outlets have always peddled as evidence and truth when mostly white men targeted a population for eradication and/or subjugation.
We can get into the weeds about naturalized plants or invasives. But understand we’re quibbling about what belongs on a patch of a 4.5 billion year old planet that’s continuously evolving. Understand these judgments are made through a paradigm of eradication and subjugation that has already transformed over 70% of Earth’s land area from its natural state. Those who hold both that paradigm and most responsibility for that transformation want to manage the parts Earth is transforming Herself?
Since we know Earth has built in checks and balances, then She allows what we judge as weeds or invasives for Her own purposes. Just like dandelions root precisely where soil needs them. Further, since Earth has equipped many species the ability to abort and pause pregnancy until conditions are favorable for offspring to thrive, how do we know she’s not doing this on an ecosystems scale in the way honeysuckle smothers understory? If She lets Callery pears thrive, She must have her reasons. While I still address the bindweed and morning glory vines, I do so as meditative practice. These beings are here for reasons beyond my understanding or imagination. Can I remove them for my purposes within deference to Earth’s wisdom?
Isn’t it a domination mindset to assume we are ‘saving’ Earth or know what’s best for Her? This is an echo of the Judeo-Christian-Moslem template of controlling bodies, usually deemed worthless, for their own good. Indeed, I live in a country that denies women’s agency as worthful. Where’s acknowledgement of Earth’s agency in this? I trust Earth is intent about Her wellbeing and is going about that in Her own ways.
Of course, we have no way of knowing Earth’s intentions. But the prevailing paradigm prevents us from even speculating. For all we know Earth is readying for her next iteration. After all, have we humans designed systems as elegant, efficient, mutualistic, reciprocal and balanced as Earth’s? Certainly not through eradication and subjugation.
For the past several years, it’s been a weekly habit to hike in a local nature sanctuary. As the sun filters through the leaves, glistens off the spider webs, dazzles the ebony jewelwing, I think of the Yeats line, ‘for peace comes dropping slow,’ and am enveloped in bliss. I am also enveloped in bird conversations and may apples and wild ginger and paw paws and occasionally I stumble upon turkeys and skinks. Sometimes deer materialize out of thin air, as they do. Once I sat on a bench in the early morning savoring the water song. Across the stream, there was a raccoon doing his/her ablutions. We were each doing our own thing, meters away from each other in the early stillness. Near a shelter, there is a Chinkapin oak jutting out the side of a hill. Its roots and the limestone of the hill form together a seat. Sometimes I sit within the root arms’ embrace and watch insects; all these different beings travel up and down the massive trunk. I am reminded that we are this, on the face of the planet. Utterly dependent on Earth. And I am grateful to be immersed in so much life and abundance. And yes, I see honeysuckle. In fact, they are the first to greet me in the early spring. How stark and lovely their lime green leaves, their pale slender trunks against the still wintering oak and sycamore. How generous and eager their vast presence.
When I am in the nature sanctuary, I experience Sanctuary. It is a communion I carry within myself. A communion I experience when I walk in my neighborhood or sit on my steps and look at my garden beds, spilling. Not with weeds or invasive but with abundance I am eager to learn the language of. A communion I am starting to experience too with my body.
How can any part of us or each other or Earth be illegal, invasive, weed or savage? In the words of indigenous advocate, Nuskmata (Jacinda Mack), “our bodies are physically made up of this land. This land built our bones and our blood and our flesh.”
I believe this orientation and relationship is one we are meant to have with ourselves, other beings and Earth. What is pressing upon us as a species requires us to expand, not hoard, sanctuary. I’m not interested in conserving pockets of sanctuary experiences in pockets of time separate from our lives. Instead, how do we restructure, reorient, reprioritize our lives, our relationships, our systems, our lexicon, so sanctuary is the paradigm from which we move, breathe and have our being? How can we offer sanctuary everywhere to all beings, within our bodies and hearts?