Turning Pernicious Problems into Pioneer Solutions: Learning to Observe and Manage Invasive Species

The future belongs, not to those who have the most, but to those who do the most with what they have.

– Eugene P. Odum

The first principle of Permaculture design is observation, which is a practice of noticing the world around us without interpreting what is observed. This practice is often described using the Zen Buddhist concept of ‘Beginner’s Mind,’ which Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki describes: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” Though many people may be experts in a particular field, whether geology, finance, botany, medicine, or others, the beginner’s mind observation method can often be helpful in taking an objective approach to challenging situations. As a Permaculture designer, as I go about working with land and landscapes, I have often come upon the need to assess ‘invasive species’ – those plants and animals that are generally considered to be negative influences on the health and productivity of ecosystems – and find that taking an objective approach to their presence can be very helpful in making management decisions and recommendations. Having worked in the fields (literally) of farming, gardening, forestry, and restoration, I have experienced firsthand the challenges associated with dealing with ‘invasive’ species, as well as the intensity of frustration around these species experienced by land managers who are working in their way to conserve fragmented habitats and imperiled species from extinction. At this point in our natural and cultural history, I feel it is time for a reassessment of ‘invasive’ species, the land management decisions that yield them, and to find creative ways of understanding and making use of their potential roles in ecosystem succession and innovative land stewardship solutions.

The first thing I consider when assessing species composition on a site is the role a plant is playing in the ecology of the place. Species invasions are not simply a matter of having a tenacious plant in the wrong place at the wrong time, but rather a plant filling an ecological niche, perhaps in a void left over from a disturbance or other ecological change, like construction, grazing, mining, effluent runoff, etc. In taking a deeper look at the plants and animals that are now known as ‘invasive,’ it seems likely that each of them is serving some purpose in the landscape, as how could any plant or animal survive where it does not have a niche? Whether it is deep taproots that anchor disturbed soil, the proliferation of nitrogen-loving plants in agricultural ditches, or nectar resources for pollinators with limited food choices in mono-cultural landscapes, it is fairly certain that each species is in its particular place, and thriving, for a reason.

This is why taking a critical look at the idea of invasion biology is so important- the landscapes that our lifestyles create are yielding the ecologies that currently exist. We cannot rationally expect to depend on industrial agriculture, coal mining, chemical manufacturing, road building, strip malls, factory farms, sewage lagoons, and lifeless suburban development while enjoying the same plant and animal communities that existed here when systems of procurement and processing of life’s daily needs were vastly different and yielded a certain array of plants and animals. We are literally living in a changed world. Should it be any surprise that the creatures fit to inhabit it have changed too?

All of us working in Permaculture believe that people have the capacity to direct systems towards greater abundance and diversity. Our current model of accessing and producing our daily needs is having ecosystem level effects that we are just beginning to understand. These include species extinctions, habitat loss, climate change, and a host of other effects. Although these processes are serious and pose many challenges to human life on earth, ecological systems will continue to adapt and change to conditions as they arise – this is the nature of evolution. Ecosystems will find ways to fill necessary niches. From a Permaculture perspective where we are always seeking the kernels of solutions embedded in seemingly intractable challenges, it follows that we should be looking to ‘invasives’ as allies in our earth repair projects whenever possible and seeking to learn what they are saying about the needs of ecosystems.

Given that we understand the nature of the systems which currently sustain us, we must now endeavor to observe and make use of those things which are surviving and thriving in the system we have created. Below is a list of questions that can help guide the observation process of a species whose management you are considering.

Traits to consider when assessing the ecological roles of a plant and the niches it may be filling:

  • What type of root structure does it have, tap root, fibrous root, rhizome, tuber, bulb, etc.?
  • Does it provide any nectar or pollen sources?
  • Does it provide shade, shelter, nesting sites, or refuge for any bird, animal, or insect?
  • Does it fix nitrogen?
  • Does it accumulate heavy metals?
  • Does it concentrate other nutrients or minerals?
  • Does it deter or attract mammal, insect, or bird herbivory?
  • Does it provide a significant source of biomass (organic material)?
  • Does it provide an edible nut, seed, leaf, root, or fruit for humans or other creatures?
  • Does the plant have any mycological associates?
  • Does the plant serve a role in water filtration and purification?
  • Does the plant help with erosion control or floodwater abatement?
  • Does it help ameliorate the process of soil salinization or other trends of desertification?

Ideas to consider when assessing a landscape and the current plant communities:

  • What is the natural and cultural history of the area? Remember, there is no such thing as pristine, untouched wilderness. Ask a member of your local Tribe how their people manage(d) their land.
  • Are there any resource extractive impacts in your watershed (grazing, forestry, agriculture, industry, mining, electricity generation, etc)? If so, how do they affect the ecosystem function of the area that you are observing?
  • How would you assess the performance of basic ecological functions in your area?
  • water purification
  • aquifer recharge
  • flood mitigation
  • nutrient cycling
  • pollinator and wildlife forage and habitat

Once I have done these observation and assessment exercises, I find it easier to design a management plan for certain species.

On my farm, we have abundant patches of Himalayan blackberry, which are considered an invasive species in the Northwestern US. The history of human management on the site likely goes back many hundreds, if not thousands of years. Oregon white oak dominate the canopy, indicating the historical presence of people managing the large trees for acorns. There are a few remnant patches of camas, brodiaea, and cat’s ears, all lily family plants cultivated for their edible bulbs by the Kalapuya people who once managed this land. The oak/camas ecosystem was managed by fire, digging, and managed grazing of deer and elk to maintain its structure and diversity. Indigenous fire management practices were replaced with European-style agriculture, including apple orchards and sheep production. There are very few native shrub species present, likely due to the heavy grazing by horses, cattle, and sheep that occurred over the past century. With the change in agricultural styles came a change in landscape structure and function. Some native species survived, but the removal of an important canopy layer (shrubs) by introduced grazers created a niche for a super hardy shrub species resistant to grazing that performs some of the same functions that the former native plants, such as two species of roses, snowberries, and poison oak, once provided on this site. These functions include provision of nectar resources, nutritious late season fruits for birds and deer, nesting sites, and hiding places for various critters, among others.

These days, the Himalayan blackberries provide for many of these ecosystem functions. In addition, I have a few beehives, and the brambles provide a large portion of the bees’ mid-season nectar. The fruits are loved by many animals, including raccoons, bears, chickens, many types of birds, yellowjackets, and humans. Their sweetness is the quintessential taste of late summer in Oregon. I recently found a bird’s nest buried deep within a midden of dead blackberry canes. The outer structure of the nest itself was actually woven blackberry branches while the inner nest was made of softer twigs and grasses. I have also seen quail and rabbits use the thickets that they form for shelter and protection. Needless to say, we did not mow all of the blackberries upon moving to the site simply because of their ‘invasive’ nature.

Instead, we planned a blackberry wine berry-picking party the first year (to be followed the next year by a blackberry wine tasting party, of course). We tasted each patch to determine which one had the earliest, sweetest, and juiciest fruit. Our management strategy included introducing pigs into the unwanted patches to graze, root, and trample the canes, turning them into islands of fertility (and delicious pork that we will enjoy all winter long), and awaiting the plants that we choose to plant later. Of course, since we are taking away food, nectar, and habitat sources for the birds, bees, and other creatures, our planting plans must include how these functions will continue to be met in abundance with different plant species that will be more in line with the long-term management and yield goals of the site.

In this way, we are observing the historic land use which permeates the modern patterning of ecological communities, while also observing the yields of the plant and making plans based on its usefulness to ourselves and the surrounding ecosystem. As conscientious stewards, we are able to build this much-maligned invasive species into a holistic management plan, recognizing and working with its inherent characteristics.

We are living in an intense and dynamic chapter in earth’s history. There are patterns at work that will likely test the will and fortitude of people throughout the world as we continue to engage with those species and processes that make our lives possible. An understanding of Permaculture design and whole systems thinking is an important part of re-imagining ourselves as stewards of land and life on earth. We have the potential to destroy the very fabric of what makes life possible on the planet, yet we also have the ability, which we have exercised from time immemorial, to guide ecological systems towards more diverse and abundant yields that take into account all other interdependent species. A re-envisioning of our conception of ‘invasive’ species is a part of this, as we seek wholeness in understanding changing ecologies and how our actions play a role in creating and maintaining the landscapes in which we live. It is time for us to deepen our observation of the role of ‘invasive’ species in a changed and changing world, and to sharpen our abilities to guide systems towards greater and greater manifestations of abundance for all.

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