We asked Tao Orion, the author of Beyond the War on Invasive Species: A Permaculture Approach to Ecosystem Restoration to tell us a little bit about her new book. We’ll provide our own review in the future, but here’s what she has to say!
Beyond the War on Invasive Species: A Permaculture Approach to Ecosystem Restoration offers a holistic perspective on invasive species and their management. Invasive plant and animal species are considered one of the primary threats to ecological integrity and global biodiversity today, thus many people consider their eradication a top priority. However, though invasive species may appear troublesome, the ecological processes that underlie their proliferation (many of which we are directly responsible for) are much more concerning, but are not necessarily as easily addressed. For example, an invasive plant like salt cedar growing along the Colorado River appears to be displacing native vegetation, but this view focuses on the plant itself as a driver of ecological change, rather than piecing together the complex dynamics of water use and over-allocation on the river. But when you do that analysis, its clear that only a plant like salt cedar would survive there, and that the contemporary lack of native species like willow and cottonwood has more to do with the ways that we have altered the flow and course of the river and less to do with the presence of salt cedar. The so-called ‘war on invasive species’ is one that is narrowly focused on organisms rather than acknowledging changed and changing ecosystems.
Beyond the War takes a look at invasive species and their management from a permaculture-based perspective. Though permaculture is often thought of as a system of farming or gardening, the ethics and principles at its core are based on in-depth understanding of natural systems. From an ecological perspective, invasive species aren’t necessarily ‘good’ just as they aren’t necessarily ‘bad’ – they are making the best out of the available situation. Native plants also have very desirable qualities, but if they are unable to thrive, and it appears that an invasive species is displacing them, then we have to look at the ecological conditions that are facilitating the invasion, and work from there if we wish to steer the ecosystem toward more productive ends.
My book focuses on use of invasive species in the context of managing their populations, rather than focusing solely on eradicating them. Kudzu, for example, is a highly multi-functional plant. It’s a perennial nitrogen fixer, goats and cows can eat the high protein leaves, the root (also known as arrowroot) is a common ingredient used to thicken soups and gluten-free breads, it’s medicinal, bees relish its prolific flowers, and its massive roots stabilize erosion-prone slopes. These attributes could be put to use – grazing goats and cows on kudzu in the southeastern U.S. rather than feeding them alfalfa grown in California’s deserts would be a great way to start a Permaculture-type restoration plan. In the process, the landscape where kudzu once grew could be replanted to native hardwoods like hickory and black walnut, and the young trees would benefit from the prodigious nitrogen made available by the kudzu roots. If these types of activities—small-scale, locally adapted, and based in holistic concepts—happened on a large enough scale, even the ecosystem where alfalfa grows in southern California could be restored to greater diversity as demand for products from far away places declines.
Restoration can and should be about more than just removing invasive species. We should be looking at the big picture of how our daily needs are met, and question the relative ecological value of those activities. Restoration as a practice tends to focus efforts on certain landscapes and not others – restoration is generally not part of the planning process of planting an 8,000 acre field of soybeans, clear cutting a forest for plywood, planning a housing development, or adding lanes to a highway. However, ecosystem services and the organisms they support are heavily affected by agriculture, forestry, and urban/suburban development, and the way that these activities are carried out deserve at least as much scrutiny for their role in degrading ecological function as do novel species. Beyond the War on Invasive Species offers compelling examples of how to think differently about the ecological functionality of invasive species in the context of creating a more diverse, abundant, and dynamic world.