Environment featured

What’s It Mean to Be Invasive?

June 28, 2023

This past weekend, I brought the Middletown Forest Bathing group out onto the Coginchaug River, to an area often called the “floating meadows” because of all the aquatic plants growing there. This was the first time we ever had a kayak-based forest bathing class, and it was really quieting. Over the course of a couple of hours, we stuck our hands in the water and connected with our water-based selves and the hydrological cycle. We did some calming breath exercises and observed the ecosystem we were in (I saw a mother duck and her ducklings, red-winged blackbirds, even an osprey). Then we paddled slowly until we reached where the Coginchaug spills into the Mattabesset River. Here we observed a half dozen people pulling invasive water chestnut from the river. From a distance, it almost looked like another time, when the first residents of the region would have been pulling wild rice (which still grows there) from the banks.

Obviously, much has changed since then. Not just the fact that the people pulling were completely enveloped in plastic (their clothes, their bags, their boats), but they were pulling to sustain a river in its current form, rather than harvesting from the river, which sustained its current form. Native Americans kept the ecosystems in which they lived tended and healthy, in order to keep drawing nourishment from them year after year. Perhaps it’s our disconnect from our ecosystems that leads us to compartmentalize—to organize volunteer efforts to pull invasives from forests and waterways instead of simply tending these wild places, weeding, and harvesting and sowing the preferred plants as we go.1

From Invasive to Interdependent

But what this really got me thinking about is: What’s it mean to be invasive? Water chestnut was introduced to the Northeast from Europe in the late 1800s. The reason it’s being pulled from the water is it can clog an entire waterway—disrupting other life, and boat traffic. Hydrilla—a newer arrival also disrupting the Coginchaug—can do so as well. I remember last summer paddling here and actually having a moment of panic as I struggled to paddle my little origami kayak through it. Even that boat had difficulty!

Compare that to the common plantain—so abundant that Native Americans called it “white man’s footstep.” But somehow, not so abundant that it destroyed the landscape, but instead became part of it.2 In other words, invasive originally, but because it became so useful (as a medicine and food), it became, as Robin Wall Kimmerer calls it in Braiding Sweetgrass, “naturalized.”

Of course, we then have to shine that same light on ourselves. Certainly the human sub-species that displaced Native Americans in North America seriously disrupted ecosystems here—just like the Asian Shore Crab displacing the Green Crab in the Northeast, or the fire ant displacing native species of ants in the south. But that is not the end point. The Green Crab, too, was invasive, but eventually became naturalized. Is naturalization inevitable given a long enough time frame? Or can degradation be absolute?

How Long?

That of course is the key question (and challenge). As our guide, Connecticut River Steward Rhea Drozdenko, noted, the goal is not to eradicate these invasives—that’s impossible—but to keep them in check so that we can continue to enjoy the river.

That gets back to the first point: if we were truly in relationship with the river (in the interdependence sense of the word, rather than the ‘just visiting for fun’ sense), perhaps there would be no organizing necessary. People would care for the river so they could get nourishment from it. But our invasive human population draws its nourishment from elsewhere—with its long supply lines pulling from, and damaging, ecosystems around the world (conveying the other definition of invader as well).

The point I’m trying to get to is will that ever change? I imagine it will for humans—when civilization is forced to return to solar energy surpluses, our numbers and global reach will contract—and we’ll have no choice but to rediscover a healthy relationship with the lands in which we inhabit (including realizing that water chestnut and hydrilla are both edible!).3

In another scenario, if humans go extinct, surely “nature” will, over millions of years, create new combinations of species that balance each other. Perhaps wood mice will learn to eat water chestnut seeds and keep them in check. Or maybe fire ants will ball up and swim to water chestnut plants, devouring them—discovering that these plants are their new favorite food. Or a new virus will limit their spread—just like when tent caterpillars grow too abundant.4

There is no destiny in nature, just chance multiplied by millions of years. Either a new stable point is tripped over, or the degradation is complete (though truthfully I can’t think of an example of that, which suggests, once again, the intense resilience of Gaia).

Humans’ Dual Potential

But humans are a complicating factor. The exciting reality is that we have the potential to serve as cultivators of intensely alive landscapes—as I saw in the Learning Garden of the Los Angeles Eco-village this past week. This garden (as I’ll describe in more detail in a future post) was teeming with life—trees of avocado, lemons, limes, oranges, pomegranates, pears, apples—all in a lot smaller than a typical suburban plot (and miraculously saved from the maw of a bulldozer in humans’ quest to pave over everything for parking, by the passion and commitment of the ecovillage residents).

Life is abundant in this tended fragment of Eden (Image by Erik Assadourian)

Of course, we can also be introducers and sustainers of disruption and discord. A simple example: some invasive species, like burning bush, are still being sold in stores as ornamentals, helping them spread to and disrupt new ecosystems. More broadly, our global system continues to disturb and destroy ecosystems and juggle species around the planet in ways that almost guarantee the spread of invasives and chaos.

Perhaps a big step forward is all the activity in the past year around better protecting biodiversity and restoring nature: The new global biodiversity framework, the UN High Seas Treaty (just adopted last week!), and the draft legislation in the European Union that aims to restore 20% of nature by 2030 and all by 2050.

Yes, important steps. But ultimately, reducing human populations to within Earth’s carrying capacity, shifting cultures away from consumerism and toward true sustainability, and reintegrating humans into their ecosystems (so they are directly dependent on them and understand that dependence and thus actively steward them) is what will be required to help humans shift from their predominantly invasive form to a naturalized and even beneficial one. Like the common plantain.

Not only is this plantain beneficial, but it’s actually helping to liberate the paved-over earth. (Image from Joost J. Bakker IJmuiden via flickr)


1) Of course, who would get to harvest and how would untrained free-riders be prevented from disturbing those areas are legitimate questions. But right now, few people even harvest the fruit from street trees. I cannot imagine many heading out to steal the ripe wild rice after others tended it (no more than I can imagine people raiding farms). Yes, that may happen in our unstable future, but then again the more edible landscapes planted now, the less chaos in the future when food supply chains are disrupted.

2) Or maybe it did and our memory of what northeastern U.S. grasslands looked like is so degraded that in its new context it fits right in.

3) According to Wikipedia, the nuts are so edible that this might have helped drive them to extinction in Europe. You can roast them like chestnuts! And hydrilla is also supposedly both a good phytoremediator and “superfood.” Though obviously, in places it’s doing the former, we shouldn’t be eating it!

4) It turns out that it’s a parasitic insect in Europe that kept them in check there.

Erik Assadourian

Erik is the Director of the Gaian Way (gaianway.org), an ecospiritual philosophy, organization, and community.

Tags: connection with nature, interbeing, invasive species