Department of the Interior
Bureau of Land Management
County Weed Assistance Program within Grand, Larimer, and Jackson County, Colorado
I don't know what kind of weed problem they have in those three counties or why a federal grant is needed to help the weeds (or the counties), but the events of the week seemed to demand some thinking about weeds and more generally about our desire to control the environment and our often competing desire to control each other.
The buckthorn (that's a picture of glossy buckthorn on the left) and the Powderhorn exotic are different kinds of weeds than the common dandelion or the stray cornstalk. They are said to be invasive because a) they are non-native and b) they are robust and therefore tend to push out the plants that were there before. Here is where I get a little confused. When a plant is spread by the wind or by animals, that’s natural; when it’s spread by humans (as in a tropical fish aquarium or the ballast tanks of a ship), that’s invasive. But if the plant thrives in its new environment, isn’t that natural? If I eat some fruit in the wilds of Borneo, and deposit the seed back in Minnesota, and that exotic fruit takes root and spreads, how is that invasive? Or how is it more invasive (coming from a human vector) than if that same seed had come in on the wind or in the bowls of a bird?
John McPhee has written about volcanoes and about the ways in which barren lava fields are gradually (and sometimes not so gradually) filled with plants and animals. In his beautiful essay “Cooling the Lava,” he describes the volcanic island of Surtsey, which formed off the southern coast of Iceland between 1963 and 1967 in a more or less continuous eruption (that's a picture of Surtsey at the top of this entry). Scientists watched eagerly for the first plant to appear as the lava cooled. The first shoot turned out to be a tomato plant, presumably deposited in a hunk of bird scat. But the seed could just as easily have been washed ashore from a garbage scow or been tossed there from a passing pleasure boat. Is a tomato on Surtsey invasive or exotic? Does it matter how it got there?
If buckthorn has been around here for generations, and if it seems to thrive, and if it’s not doing any harm, then why are we so eager to get rid of it? Why is the prairie as it was in, say, 1650, preferable to the prairie as it was in 1950? Or as it is today?
I pity the poor buckthorn, with the forces of artists, historic preservationists, ecologists, and sentimentalists allied against it. The buckthorn needs some defenders. I hereby volunteer.
The opening salvo in the Great Minnesota Buckthorn Skirmish is…a poem!
This is all my creator ever asked of me. My
leaves are green, my berries moist, my roots deep.
This is nothing but simple biological necessity, an imperative shared with every
other living thing. I’m good at it. Too good, I guess.
There are hundreds of varieties of me because I have learned the tricks of
transformation and adaptation, the lack of which has caused lesser plants to die
off. This is also a completely natural thing.
I look down the hill and
see enemies amassing – humans who want to stop time, who want to change the
natural course of history by killing me and my progeny. They are on the march,
with weapons named Weed Wrench and Husqvarna. They arm themselves with
poisons named triclopyr and glyphosate. They may as well carry M-16s or spew Agent Orange.
Some are grimly determined, like
religious zealots. Others smile beneficently, like flower children from the
If they succeed, and my numbers shrink, and I become rare – even
endangered -- who will sound the alarm then? Will my few remaining successors be