Saturday, September 14, 2013

Going Negative On Natives--New York Times Does It Again

The New York Times is one of the bedrocks of news, which makes it hard to understand why its opinion page would show a weakness for ill-informed attacks on native plants and their proponents. The latest is by Verlyn Klinkenborg, a point-by-point rebuttal of which can be found further down in this post, but his is just one in a series.

First in my memory is George Ball, president of Burpee Seed Company and former president of the American Horticultural Society, who despite these distinguished labels launched an error-filled broadside (Border War, 3/19/06) against people who promote the planting of native flora. In his words, people who promote natives are xenophobic, narrowminded, the horticultural equivalent of radical fundamentalists, utopian, elitist snobs, anti-exotic partisans, and (last but not least) dangerous to a free society.

Then there was Sean Wilsey, (High Line, Low Aims, 7/9/08) who spoke disparagingly of the proposal to plant a ribbon of native species on Manhattan's High Line. Apparently lacking any botanical or ecological knowledge that might have heightened his appreciation of the plan, he made it sound like the High Line would be little more than a linear patch of weedy sumac--a species he may have confused with the ubiquitous non-native Tree of Heaven. Time, and the spectacular congregation of native plants that now thrive on the very popular elevated walkway, have proven him wrong.

(Update, 11.29.13: Another which I forgot to mention when writing this piece appeared on April 3, 2011. In “Mother Nature’s Melting Pot,” Hugh Raffles, an immigrant who had just received citizenship, characterizes native plant advocates as nativists with the same core fear of aliens as the Tea Party. After cherry picking a few beneficial aspects of some introduced species, he calls for an "inclusive" approach, which presumably would include disease pathogens and agricultural pests. As with Klinkenborg's piece, he mentions eucalyptus, climate change, claims that most efforts to control invasives are futile, believes the term "native" to be arbitrary, characterizes any "mythic time of past purity" as an artificial construct, and implies that the rapid introduction of new species from other continents is a natural phenomenon and nothing new. Letters rebutting Mr. Raffles' logic can be found here.)

The latest installment of this attack on native plant advocacy, as mentioned, arrived this past week (Hey, You Calling Me an Invasive Species?, 9/7/13), written by a member of the Times' editorial board, Verlyn Klinkenborg. Avoiding George Ball's name-calling and Sean Wilsey's dismissive tone, his thesis is that the distinction between native and nonnative species is now an arbitrary one, given the passage of centuries and the ever-expanding influence of humans on the natural world.

Klinkenborg's opinion piece was prompted by recent public protests against a plan to thin out a dense forest of non-native eucalyptus trees growing on Mount Sutro in San Francisco. The University of California San Francisco (UCSF) owns the property, which the local fire department has said is in urgent need of thinning in order to protect nearby buildings from the highly combustible eucalyptus. Reducing the dense shade will improve the health of the trees while providing some light for native vegetation to grow beneath them. Sounds benign, yet locals who walk in the forest are calling the proponents of the plan "plant facists" who want to impose the tyranny of nativism on a woods that is perfect just the way it is.

Joining the chorus of protest, Nathan Winograd, an animal rights advocate who blogs on the Huffington Post wrote a post about the Mount Sutro tree-thinning plan entitled "Biological Xenophobia: The Environmental Movement's War on Nature". Adopting the strident tone of George Ball, he has nothing but contempt for the concept of native plants, preferring that "every life that appears on this Earth is welcomed and respected." Apparently, he's never grown any plant he valued enough to save from the weeds.

The most informative report, as opposed to opinion, on the San Francisco controversy that I could find is here. The university describes the plan this way: "Under the guidance of an outside licensed arborist, UCSF will remove approximately 1,250 trees, each less than 6 inches in diameter, while also thinning shrubs and mowing non-woody perennial plants in the 100-foot buffer zone. All told, the work will encompass approximately 15.6 acres of the 61-acre Reserve."

Here is a point by point rebuttal of Mr. Klinkenborg's opinion piece:

"Since the 1880s, there have been blue gum eucalyptus trees growing on San Francisco’s Mount Sutro, which lies just south of Golden Gate Park. Recently, the University of California, San Francisco, which owns most of Mount Sutro, has been trying to thin the dense eucalyptus forest. The reason is fire control — eucalyptus trees are “fire intensive,” shedding a lot of debris and burning with unusual volatility. But the effort to cull the Mount Sutro forest has been met with strident protest by residents who want to see the eucalyptus left untouched."
Mr. Klinkenborg only mentions fire once in the oped, but fire hazard is a big deal in the California landscape, and the planting of Eucalyptus trees close to structures has doomed many a building when the trees' high flammability causes them to explode. The link he offers, another opinion piece in a distinguished scientific journal, Science, actually offers compelling reasons to alter the forest. There's the current fire hazard to reduce, and the opportunity to improve habitat for the resident great horned owls by re-establishing some native flora. 
By the standard of the California Native Plant Society, eucalyptus, which were brought from Australia, are officially nonnative trees because they were introduced after the first European contact with the New World. But the trees on Mount Sutro have been there within the memory of every living San Franciscan, and to the generations who have grown up within view of them, it seems almost perverse to insist that they are aliens.
No science here, just an anthropocentric view that wishes the rest of nature to conform to the human sense of time.
To keep a clear distinction between native and nonnative species requires nearly geologic memory. 
No, one hundred and thirty years, or even three or four hundred, is not even close to a geologic scale.
But humans, like most species, don’t live in the past, where the distinction originates. In the present, the difference is largely immaterial. 
This isn't true. Though wildlife don't literally live in the past, their tastebuds do. Herbivores tend to be extremely conservative in their food preferences. Whether it be deer or the larvae of moths and butterflies, they continue to reject exotic species introduced hundreds of years ago. They still prefer to eat the native species, which gives exotics a competitive advantage, which makes native plants rare, which then limits wildlife's food options. 
Native or nonnative, California’s eucalyptus trees, like the starlings of Central Park, have come to seem original just because they predate us.
Again, he imposes an anthropocentric view on nature.
Of course, the vast majority of nonnative species have not been intentionally introduced, as the Mount Sutro eucalyptus were, but have been distributed accidentally, unnoticed baggage in the wanderings of our species.
Whether a species is introduced intentionally or unintentionally has no bearing on the potential harm the species can do, just as the impact of human-caused global warming will bear no relation to whether we have intended to change the climate or not. 
Some species — invasive ones like kudzu, Japanese knotweed, rabbits and rats — find almost unlimited room for expansion in their new environs, often overwhelming native species. But not all introduced species are invasive, and pose a threat only when they outcompete native species.
Excellent! It's so important to make the distinction between invasive and non-invasive species. 
It’s important to remember that the distinction between native and nonnative depends on an imaginary snapshot of this continent taken just before European contact. 
Not so imaginary, really. Though American Indians transformed the landscape, spreading some plant species along trade routes, favoring some species through cultivation or burning, or denuding the landscape, e.g. around Teotihuacan to heat the plaster for their pyramids, the massive influx of species from other continents did not begin until Western colonization. It's well known which species are or were part of a particular plant community. The bur oak savannas of the midwest, which had disappeared due to the invasion of buckthorn and other exotics, were pieced back together through research and restoration, and now flourish once again. Whole books describe in detail the various plant communities of a given region, such as this one detailing the plant communities of North Carolina. 
               That distinction is becoming even harder to make as climate change alters the natural world.
A new study from the University of Exeter and Oxford University finds that plant pests and diseases have been migrating northward and southward an average of two miles a year since 1960. This suggests that the plants on which they prey have been moving at similar rates. In places like the Adirondacks, for instance, you can follow the boundary between southern and northern tree species as it shifts northward, year by year. As plants and their pests adjust their range, under the influence of global warming, what becomes of the distinction between native and nonnative? 
Plants and animals have been shifting their regional boundaries throughout the last four hundred thousand years, as glaciers advanced and receded. Human-caused climate change is happening much more rapidly, which is one reason why it is proving so destructive, but most plant species have broad geographic ranges. Climate change doesn't mean that plant communities developed over millenia suddenly have no integrity. 
To any individual species, it doesn’t matter whether it’s native or not. The only thing that matters is whether its habitat is suitable.
 Again, because herbivore food preferences tend to remain unchanged hundreds of years after the introduction of exotic species, suitable habitat tends to equate with native plant species. 
And this is where we come in.
For the most part, we don’t have an immediate impact on the species that surround us. But we do have an immediate impact on their habitat, which determines whether they survive or, in some cases, shift their ground.
Nearly every habitat on this planet has been affected by humans, no matter how remote it is. In the past decade, for instance, the habitats of grizzly bears high in the Rocky Mountains — places most of us never get a chance to visit — have been significantly altered by global warming. As the climate warms, the mountain pine beetle has managed to winter over and destroy vast tracts of whitebark pine trees, which produce pine nuts that bears eat.
When I visited a hillside in Smokey Mountain National Park where hemlock had been wiped out by the exotic wooly adelgid, growing beneath the dead trunks was a riot of native wildflowers and brambles, representing a plant community that deep shade had suppressed. The devastation of whitebark pine trees in the Rockies is tragic, and the loss of that important species may have broad ramifications over time for that ecosystem, but that doesn't mean that native landscapes suddenly lose all meaning and relevance because one species drops out.
CONSIDERED in this light, the natural world as a whole begins to look like Central Park — an ecosystem where human influence is all pervasive. Parts of the park seem almost wild, but every creature in Central Park, native or not, has adapted to a world that is closely bounded by human activity. It is nature bordered by high-rises, intersected by paths and roadways, basking under artificial light at night.
In late August, a group of scientists and students from the City University of New York’s Macaulay Honors College spent the day cataloging all the nondomesticated life forms living in the park. It will take a while to compile and compare the data, but even the anecdotal reports from that single day show how diverse and surprising the park’s ecosystem can be. It isn’t all squirrels and pigeons. The group reported sightings of several unexpected species — a diamondback terrapin in Turtle Pond, a Wilson’s warbler in the North Woods, a bullhead catfish in the Harlem Meer. And though it might seem like a stretch to talk about ecosystems in Central Park, that is exactly what the group found — a healthy mix of species, overlapping generations within many species, and a sense of balance, especially within the aquatic zones.
Actually, a lot of work has been done to restore native species and habitat in Central Park, and it's the only sizable green space for miles for wildlife like birds and insects to gravitate to, so it's not surprising it would exhibit some diversity.
Nature in Central Park can’t be neatly divided into native of nonnative species, and neither can it be on Mount Sutro. The eucalyptus trees that grow there may be naturalized rather than native, but try telling that to all the other creatures that live in those woods or the people who hike there.
 This would be more convincing if it actually described what diversity resides on Mount Sutro. In Princeton, we had a woods that was densely planted in the 1960s with white pine and spruce--species whose native range lies farther north. The woods had considerable charm and a nice mood to it, but it was an ecological desert, with little more than garlic mustard growing in the deep shade and thick mulch of the evergreens, and reportedly an owl or two making use of the dense canopy for protection. (Mount Sutro, from what descriptions I could find, looks to be similarly slim on diversity, dominated by the eucalyptus, with an understory of English ivy and poison ivy, and a stifling and highly flammable thick mulch of eucalyptus litter.) 
Their trunks weak from age and crowding, most of the pines and spruce in the planted woods in Princeton fell during several ice and wind storms, leaving an impenetrable mess that will become a fire trap as the debris dries out. Ash trees, the only seedlings that the too-numerous deer didn't eat, are now taking over, and before long, the introduced Emerald Ash Borer will arrive to kill all the ash.  
A similar fate could await the planted woods on Mount Sutro, in the form of a cataclysmic fire. That, though far more destructive than what the university is trying to do, would not be as controversial, because it would occur due to inaction rather than action. I'm well aware of the capacity for good intentions to go awry, but sometimes inaction can be the most destructive action of all.
And when it comes to the distinction between native and nonnative, we always leave one species out: call us what you will — native, naturalized, alien or invasive.
I don't want to read too much into this, but Mr. Klinkenborg seems to be suggesting here that because we are a species that invaded the American continent, we therefore cannot be judging other invasive species. With such logic, our compromised position brings into question our capacity to understand nature and act upon what we know. 

The attempt to blur the distinction between native and non-native depends on a highly simplified view of nature and evolution. It ignores the deep interconnections species develop while co-evolving over thousands of years.  It sees no symbiotic relationship between soil fungi and plant roots, between an insect and its obligate host plant, between a particular species of ant and the plant that depends upon it to disperse its seeds. Some species, like humans, are highly adaptable to new circumstances. Others are not. Embracing non-native landscapes may give people the comforting illusion of being open-minded, but it closes the door on those more conservative, less adaptable species. 

Related Writings by Verlyn Klinkenborg

It's long been my observation that environmental issues get marginalized on the opinion pages of the news media, likely because columnists and editors tend to lack training in the life sciences. If environmental issues come up, they tend to be treated in isolation rather than seen in the broader context of economics and political concerns. On the New York Times editorial board, Mr. Klinkenborg appears to represent the sum total of biological expertise. His doctoral degree from Princeton University is in english literature. I'm all for self-education, and hopefully he took some biology-related courses along the way. 

Some of his writings for National Geographic appear to contradict his opinion piece dismissing the relevance of native habitats. For instance, an essay on the Endangered Species Act states that people
"discovered, too late, how finely attuned to its home in the cordgrass the dusky seaside sparrow really was. That last bottled sparrow is what a species looks like when its habitat has vanished for good."
In an essay on the tallgrass prairie, rather than downplaying the importance of native plant communities, he seeks a deeper understanding of them:
"The hard part here in the Flint Hills—and in any of the few remaining patches of native prairie—is learning to see the tallgrass ecosystem for itself. It is a study in the power of modesty."
Rather than giving simplified plantings like the eucalyptus on Mount Sutro equal status with native plant communities, he states:
"In most of America, agriculture has meant replacing the incredible complexity of a natural ecosystem with the incredible simplicity of a single crop growing on bare ground."
That incredibly complex prairie ecosystem, however, is threatened by an invasive non-native plant called Sericea lespedeza (Lespedeza cuneata). Rather than showing concern about the impact of that invasion, Mr. Klinkenborg worries about the human intervention to counter the invasion:
"There is also a worrying trend toward ground and aerial spraying to control a highly invasive weed called sericea lespedeza, introduced decades ago to curb erosion around mines and provide forage and cover for wildlife around reservoirs."
Now, I happen to know Sericea lespedeza well. I've seen how it moves in and eventually replaces a richly diverse native meadow with a monoculture. Though originally touted as a good wildlife food, both its seeds and foliage provide little nourishment. Its roots release toxins that discourage other plant species. If you're looking for an example of intolerance, of a refusal to "play well with others", Sericea lespedeza is Exhibit A. When it invades new territory, land managers have a choice--either let the noxious weed continue to degrade native habitat, or attempt to limit the weed's destructive impact by intervening, often with selective herbicides.

The objections of Klinkenborg and others to intervention are in part a failure to make distinctions. They want to blur the distinction between native and non-native species. The toxicity of herbicides varies according to type and method of application, but its easier for protesters to demonize them all. Nathan Winograd, in his broadside against native plant advocates, wishes to obliterate all distinctions and treasure every living thing equally. More broadly in national discourse, we see a trend towards accepting all opinions as worthy, whether they are founded on fact or fancy.

Saying that we don't need to make these distinctions, nor intervene to restore native plant communities, sounds less to me like open mindedness than a convenient way of letting ourselves off the hook.

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Fixing the Present by Saving the Future

"If a problem can't be solved, enlarge it" -- attributed to Dwight D. Eisenhower

After a showing of Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech at the public library last night, there followed a free ranging discussion of how to improve the economy and reduce economic hardship. Reverend Gil Caldwell, who marched with King, and his son Dale were there to lead the discussion. Dale said we need to promote small business. An audience member said we need to start making stuff again, that cities like Trenton, NJ need manufacturing jobs in addition to small business. Another said that raising the minimum wage would help people make enough to live on, and provide them with some spending money, which in turn would bring small businesses more customers. Another said that education and training are the keys to helping people get ahead. Another lamented how Trenton had collapsed into dysfunction after seeming to be on a comeback fifteen years ago.

Listening to all of this, I felt as if we were living a parable, in which problems had grown so large, society so complex, that no one could see more than a small part of it. The "elephant" has grown too big to comprehend, even for those who have all their senses.

I also felt as if we were living through a version of the late 1930s, when the great depression had the nation and world in its stubborn grip, and the ambitions of brutal dictators were darkening the horizon. I wanted to take the lid off of this conversation about the seemingly intractable problems of the living, and levitate everyone far above the earth, to look down on this one-of-a-kind oasis of life in a stark universe, and ask a larger question about its trajectory. Do we, the living, care about future generations? Like other groups that have been marginalized and oppressed, they have no vote, no legal status, no voice.

The obvious answer is "Of course we do!" Tremendous care and commitment goes into raising children. Vast sums are spent to pay for schools and college. But there's another reality running parallel to that. Groucho Marx once said, "Why should I care about posterity? What did posterity ever do for me?" If you think about it, future generations are being asked collectively to pay for what we borrow, to deal with the delayed consequences of our present comforts and conveniences. Carrying such a burden not of their own making, have they no say in the matter? And is there a way that caring about them might help solve our own entrenched problems?

The dictators of today's world are far less powerful than in the 1930s. Terrorism will always be a threat, thus far contained, but what is darkening the horizon now is climate change. We are losing the stability of shorelines and climate upon which we have built our cities and planted our crops. Gil Caldwell said that it may have been Martin Luther King's views on economics, more than his struggle for racial equality, that people were most threatened by. The changes required to free our economy of dependence on climate-changing fossil fuels also pose a big threat to the status quo.

And yet, it was the decision to take on the global threat of totalitarianism in World War II, and the necessarily radical upheaval of our economy required to win the war, that lifted the nation out of depression and led to decades of economic prosperity. By uniting to take on the great global threat of the day, the nation not only helped save the world but also saved itself.

I made this point afterwards, and the response was that not enough people see climate change as a problem, that the disasters like Hurricane Sandy have not been numerous enough, that some parts of the country will be more affected than others.

To understand why preventing radical change in the climate is the nation's number one problem, consider the fate of the cruise ship Concordia that was run aground off the coast of Italy in January, 2012. The ship's captain had steered close to shore, overriding the ship's computers and warnings about local reefs. When the reefs appeared ahead, the massive ship's forward momentum made it impossible to avoid collision. Damage from the collision transformed the ship from comfort palace into death trap. We, too, are "driving" spaceship earth in a very risky direction, and already the altered climate is beginning to make droughts and storms more extreme. By the time we've had multiple climate-related disasters like Hurricane Sandy, the momentum will likely be too great to change course. With each day of pumping more global warming gases into the atmosphere, the quietly building momentum of an altered climate increases the risk to coastal cities and a stable food supply.

It's that very stability that has up to now allowed us to talk about and try to solve society's social and economic problems. Without the stable climate that nurtured civilization, there's little hope of pursuing greater justice, prosperity, freedom and equality.

Earlier, when Rev. Caldwell asked the audience if they had witnessed instances of racism, a young woman offered her recent experience teaching "south of the Mason Dixon Line" in a small community where most everyone was a member of the Klan. People talked about burning crosses. When she handed out copies of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou, some of the students threw the book on the floor because it had the picture of a black woman on the cover.

150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, racism persists. Though its effect is felt more acutely in some parts of the country than others, we consider it a national problem. Few people seem to realize that the changes being wrought to the planet's climate have an even greater momentum and persistence, and that generations to come, regardless of race, nationality, gender, sexual preference, and class, are powerless to raise objection to the sort of world they will inherit.

When an individual is stuck, absorbed in his or her own problems, one way to break through is to look beyond the self to the world around one, to find self-fulfillment by working on something larger than oneself. That is our predicament as a society. If we seem stuck as a nation, part of the solution is to see our present problems in the context of a much larger one. We are but one generation in a long progression, and our future with a livable planet can no longer be taken for granted.

Monday, September 02, 2013

Taste of Honey Gets Daft Punked

This was the summer that Taste of Honey got Daft Punked. If you wonder what others have been doing with their summer, the 120 million hits on the youtube video of "Get Lucky" offers a clue.

Hearing the melody of "Get Lucky" emanating from my daughters' rooms upstairs, I was reminded of the 1960's hit Taste of Honey. How could this be? Time to launch those serious music theory chops, and begin with the underlying harmonic progression of Get Lucky, which is four bars long, repeating over and over underneath the joyous, infectious vocals. That harmony is essentially the same as the first four bars of Taste of Honey (after the slow intro). And the two melodies (in Get Lucky, the melody that carries the words "We've come too far to give up who we are.") have a matching rise with a small fall at the end, which, if you think about it, approximates the arc of a wave as it approaches the shore. Each group of four bars is a miniature wave, rising to a fall, over and over, with each fall being immediately followed by the next rise, as mesmerizing and endlessly engaging as the ocean's lapping at the beach.

Most tunes have a "bridge"--a contrasting section partway through that has different harmony. But "Get Lucky" sticks with the same four-bar harmonic progression all the way through, with contrasting melodies over the top. A day at the beach, too, has no "bridge" section. The ocean delivers one wave after another, its repetition saved from monotony by the endless variation.

Music styles with an African-based rhythm, like salsa or samba, remind me of the sounds and images nature produces--ocean waves, cloud patterns, the play of light on water, the morning chorus of birds--in that the underlying complexity registers as something beautiful, emotionally direct and compelling.

In Get Lucky, it's the rhythm guitar that provides the rhythmic stream, complex but engaging, direct but elusive enough to maintain interest. The melody on top of that rhythmic stream starts as unison ("We've come too far"), then breaks into harmony ("to give up who we are.") like the shimmering light on a breaking wave.

Trumpeter Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, who popularized Taste of Honey back in the early 1960s, worked the beach metaphor to the max in this youtube video.

I didn't make it out to the Jersey shore this summer, but thanks to Daft Punk, who single handedly have resurrected the word "daft" from the deep dust of dictionaries, the feel of the beach was delivered to our home.