Wine and Grumbling

By March 11, 2011 Invasives 5 Comments

Some days I think the sole purpose of the internet is to make me angry. Then I turn on NPR and wonder if the sole purpose of news of any sort is to make me angry. Then I dismiss this news-as-solipsism and go haul bags of manure, which tends to take the edge off. Very few outrages can sustain themselves through 400 lbs of steer crap, and if it does, I can always go get rocks and build beds.  (I finished digging the pond, so that’s out.)

Someday the entire garden will be bedded and ponded and manured and then I will probably have to go on Valium or something.  I can’t dig a second pond. A second pond is just crazy talk…glorious, glorious crazy talk…

Ahem. Where was I?

Right, right. Anyway, so many of the things that make me angry are beyond my ability to talk about rationally. Compare abortion to slavery and I am reduced to anguished frothing, tell me about Libya and Wisconsin and the frothing becomes even more anguished and by the end of the week I am reading Barbara Kingsolver essays in the middle of Panera and trying not to cry into my bread bowl, because I am very small and there is so little that I can DO.

But one thing I CAN address, and that’s the smaller argument goin’ down in gardening circles at the moment, which also makes me angry, and which I feel reasonably equipped to talk about it.

So a coupla weeks back, a scientific paper came out that said, in effect, “Honeysuckle-covered areas of Pennsylvania attract a lot of fruit-eating birds. There are lots of robins and catbirds there eating the berries, more than in areas without honeysuckle. They also eat any other fruit in the area. Go figure.”

This is perfectly sensible. They’re fruit-eating birds. It’s a fruit. There’s a lot of it. They come eat it. I have no quibble with the science or the scientists involved. I think they’re probably right–there probably ARE quite a lot of fruit-eating birds eating that fruit. This is perfectly good science, and I gots no beef with it.  I quibble with some of their conclusions, but I have no problem with the observational science.

And then a surprising number of gardening blogs and nursery newsletters jumped on this to say “Look! This means invasive species aren’t a big deal after all! Go tell your friends who got into native plants after reading Bringing Nature Home to relax, already!”

It was really kinda messed up. (Some of these people have SEEN kudzu, too. I question how anyone can witness kudzu in action and not think that invasive species are maybe kinda a problem worth considering, but there you have it…)

About the only thing that keeps me from tearing my hair out in big elaborately-dyed chunks is that quote from Gandhi–“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” We sure haven’t won, but hell, at least we’re past the ignoring stage.

I am sure most of my readers are fully capable of seeing the problems here, but let me go off, because A) it makes me feel better, and B) I’ve had wine.

Robins and catbirds, the two species mentioned in the article, are generalists. They eat a lotta stuff. And they are perfectly good birds, even charming birds, but I want more than two birds in my garden.

So I want to know about the wood-warblers, about the hummingbirds, about the woodpeckers. How are they handling a life over-run by honeysuckle? I want to know about whip-poor-wills and hawks, mice and moles, the elegant little shoe-string sized ringneck snakes and the big black racers, the salamanders and the cricket frogs.

And how about the bugs? How about the pollinators, in fact? I’m sure they ate hearty when the honeysuckle bloomed, but that was too late for a lot of them, since the honeysuckle also leafed out early and shaded out the spring ephemeral flowers that serve as the first meal for a great many pollinators.  And the hummingbirds probably had a good meal too, but I suspect they had to leave after that and find somewhere else to breed, since a honeysuckle-strangled world offers far fewer flowers later in the year. Come to think of it, robins have to feed their young bugs like everybody else–what are the breeding numbers like, long-term, in a honeysuckle-dominated area? A quick snack for migrants, I can see, but I bet it’s not preferred nesting areas…well, anyway.

So honeysuckle thickets aren’t quite as ecologically dead as kudzu forests. Whoopty-freakin’-doo, sez I. This is good news in the “not-quite-as-horrible-as-we-thought” sense, but hailing it as “Therefore stop worrying about invasive species! By the way, we have a special on privet and barberry!” makes me want to scream and bite things, or perhaps take a very long nap. (A NAP OF RAGE! Oh, shut up, like you’ve never done it…)

Even leaving all that aside, let me point out that A) you cannot generalize about the effects on an entire ecosystem by the effects of one plant in one area on a couple of specific species. There are tons of pigeons and rats in Manhattan, but the success of those two species in those conditions does not mean that paving over the world and putting up skyscrapers would be good for vertebrate species across the board–all it means is that a couple of very adaptable species can adapt and thrive.

Sigh. A little science in the hands of people who want to be reassured that THEY can’t possibly be doing anything bad to the planet is a dangerous thing. I hate bad science. I hate good science made into bad science by people with agendas. And certainly no nursery could have a hidden agenda or anything. It’s not like they make all their money selling exotic plants or anything.

Oh. Wait. Hmm.


Apparently this is a backlash to all those so-called “native purists” I keep hearing about, who want nothing that isn’t native and chew you out if you plant catmint or cannas.  I would like to meet one some day, because I still haven’t. (I once had a nursery owner get really pissy with me when I said that I was big into native plants and asked if she had any inkberry holly. There was eye-rolling and sighing. I instantly became a problem customer. Presumably a busload of these legendary purists had just left, after spitting on her privet bushes and making unkind comments about her Bradford pears—that’s the only explanation I got.) Now, I’m huge into native plants, I love them, I collect them, I have, at last count, put in over a hundred different native species into this 2.5 acre madhouse I live in, and god, if that’s not obsession, what is?—but I am still not out there slapping the azaleas from anyone’s hands. (I rather like azaleas. And I have tons of Walker’s Low Catmint, a pomegranate sapling, cannas, my salvia collection of doom…I will plant non-natives with a glad heart, as long as they don’t eat the freakin’ world. And goddamn, if the deer keep biting off mouthfuls of my “Autumn Fire” sedum and spitting them out, I am seriously gonna cut a bitch.)

…I had a point there. Hang on. Yes. More wine. Yes.

Robins and catbirds are very adaptable, and more power to ’em. But I would kinda like to live in a world that also had, oh, warblers and trillium, sparrows and sapsuckers—hell, wolves and tigers and moose and ostriches, pileated woodpeckers and jack-in-the-pulpit and frogs. I would like the whole world not to look the SAME. I would like to go to the desert and have it look like the desert, the forest look like the forest, the swamp be an-honest-to-god swamp. I do not want the whole world to look like a subdivision. I would like to eat at someplace other than McDonald’s. And if we’re all planting all the same invasives, and all the same highly adaptable species are surviving, and all the others are quietly expiring under the kudzu, I don’t think we gain anything, and I think we lose a lot.

More wine, damnit. More wine.


  • Luftmensch says:

    My step-grandmother lives in Winnsboro, SC, which is completely overrun by kudzu, so I know what your talking about (though when I was a wee lad I thought it was really cool, not knowing what lies beneath), but with respect to environmental issues like this I prefer to hold a sense of optimism. The board of the New York Botanical Garden holds that in their ecosystem, it’s much better to be sustainable than to be necessarily pure. It’s not pleasant to think about fragile local species being overrun by human intervention, but in a way it’s just a timelapse of a natural process that just happens. Kudzu and the delicious honeysuckle, even if it takes a while, will find a stable place in the south. Not in our lifetimes probably, but we’re just a small bit of it. Political unrest and prejudiced groups fighting against human rights can still bother me, because lifetimes are preciously short, and living one myself I’m extra-sensitive to it, but hummingbirds and woodpeckers and beavers will survive. And if they don’t? After I’m dead, something just as wonderful will come up and take its place. And if I’m wrong, I’ll be blissfully too dead to know. Okay that last thought was pretty jerk-offish, but somehow it’s hard to imagine nature breaking. How the hell did Kudzu come about in China without overrunning the entire continent of Asia? I can’t imagine it miraculously manifested with the proper mix of predators and competition.

  • rosenatti says:

    This post = made of gilded WIN.

  • Ayse says:

    Once you finish building beds and making ponds and manuring and so forth, you can move on to the more mystical, wonderful delights of… turning compost piles.

    Last weekend, I got kind of worked up about a number of things including a denial of coverage from my insurance company, and I went out and turned a 10-foot long, 3-foot high pile of compost. Since you can add compost every year, and making compost is so much fun (really), this is a garden heaving task that never ends.

    Also, everybody who has ever had a pond knows that you are never really done building a pond. In a few years this one will start looking a little small, maybe you will want a waterfall and stream for providing washing places for birds, maybe you need more room for those native water plants, and then you’re back out there with the shovel again.

  • Uzuri says:

    When you run out of manure and rocks there is mulch. Mulch never ends.

    And if you get bored with that, buy a woodlot and just try to keep the honeysuckle and multiflora rose down. Sisyphus ain’t got NOTHIN’ on that crap.

  • Kathy says:

    Thank you! Nothing bothers me more than bad science (or bad conclusions from ok science.) This article has been driving me nuts and I have written and not posted several comments at another blog because I couldn’t tone down the frustration and I couldn’t figure out a way of saying “this is obviously stupid” without sounding rude.