Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Invasion of the Species

Last summer I piled my family in the car and we took off on the trail of George Washington in Western Pennsylvania. We had colored and mounted a drawing of George Washington on a stick so we could bring him along for photo ops and
historical commentary to amuse and educate our then-8 year old.  That might have been a mistake, because  George-on-a-Stick had a surprising amount to say about beer distributors and the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board. Imagine lots of disgruntled muttering about the 1791 Whiskey Rebellion coupled with frequent recommendations that we stop to water our "electronic horse" and sample the various beer selections.

Be that as it may, this quest is not as daft as it might first appear.  Later this year the Western Pennsylvania region will commemorate the 250th anniversary of the launch of Washington's military and diplomatic career, which occurred right here in our fair state. By 1753, the French had erected three military establishments to reinforce their claims to the North American colonial frontier at Presque Isle (Erie, PA), Fort LeBoeuf (Waterford, PA), and Fort Machault (Franklin, PA). The English weren't at all happy about this and their goal was to limit French expansion into the Ohio Country, which had already been claimed by the Virginia Colony. Acting on orders from Virginia Lieutenant Governor Robert Dinwiddie, a 21 year old George Washington was sent north with eight men on a diplomatic mission to advise the French to evacuate the region.  George's Incredible Adventure started in Williamsburg Virginia and ended at Fort LeBoeuf, in what is now Erie County Pennsylvania. The route we followed with George-on-a-Stick aligned mainly with modern highways such as Interstate 79 and U.S. Route 19, but there were some suggested rural scenic routes along the signposted Washington's Trail that are thought to more closely parallel the route Washington took in fall 1753.  You can view a map of the Washington Trail at this LINK.

George's mission failed, by the way. And that failure led directly to the escalation of hostilities in this region, what we know today as the French and Indian War or the Seven Year's War.  Following the British victory, and after a concerted military effort by an alliance of Great Lakes region Native tribes unhappy with British postwar policies was defeated, the Western PA region was considered safe for European settlement.

Washington meeting with Guyasuta, a Seneca chief who may have served as a scout for Washington when he came through the area in 1753. Guyasuta did what he had to do to best serve his peoples' interests: helping to defeat the 1735 Braddock Expedition, siding with the French in the Seven Years War, and co-leading Pontiac's Rebellion. This sculpture on Point of View Park on Mount Washington in Pittsburgh shows Guyasuta and Washington peacefully meeting to divvy up the area for settlement.

Once our 8 year old lost interest and took a nap, we silenced George-on-a-Stick's rants about the privatization of liquor sales in Pennsylvania by consigning him to the glove box. As we drove along and admired the scenery, I was struck with the realization that today's western Pennsylvania  landscape and topography would be largely unrecognizable to George.

Not just because of stuff like this, mind you, although certainly modern technology has forever altered our landscape:

The technological encroachments on our environment didn't set me wondering as I wandered, but the natural ones did. What grows and lives in the wild has changed tremendously in 250 years. George would hardly recognize this place. Sure, from a distance the hills and valleys of Pennsylvania impress, then as now.  But there are no longer flocks of passenger pigeons and Bachman's sparrows, waterways filled with long-jaw ciscos, blue walleyes, pink mucket pearly mussels and tiger salamanders. Nor do eastern elk, grey wolves, wolverines, badgers, or mountain lions populate the forests of Western Pennsylvania.  And the chestnut and elm tree forests that George saw back in his day have been decimated by fungal blights.

The flora and fauna that Washington knew as he slogged through the area have given way to myriad invasive plant species such as garlic mustard, crown vetch, yellow flag iris, kudzu, Japanese honeysuckle, multiflora rose and mugwort. Critters like everyone's favorite Halyomorpha halys (aka the lowly Stink Bug), wooly adelgids, Zebra mussels, emerald ash borers, Asian multicolored lady beetles, red foxes, house sparrows, European starlings and honeybees are not creatures George Washington would have recognized as native to the Pennsylvania forest.

Exotic species aren't intrinsically "bad" but they get defined as invasive when they out-compete and in some cases eradicate native species vis-a-vis disrupting the ecosystems that they invade.  Invasive plants were initially transplanted -- either intentionally or accidentally -- from faraway places. Once established, invasive species are difficult to eradicate because they aren't controlled by natural forces. Native wildlife doesn't find them tasty, and they aren't susceptible to controlling diseases. The species gradually became more abundant than native plants in synch with the original ecosystem due to natural predators.

Several days a week, my colly collie and I walk two to three miles of trails at North Park.

It's been a pleasure to watch the woods come alive all around us these last few months.  Compare the photo above with a portion of the same trail just a few short weeks ago:

So I'll grant you, nothing in nature ever stays the same. Still, I've been gobsmacked recently by how the prolific invasive species choke out native plants in the forest understory. I'm not sure what to do about that because I have to admit that I like yellow flag irises, multicolored ladybugs, honeybees, multiflora roses and Japanese honeysuckle. They are so familiar and ubiquitous that I didn't even realize until this week that they are considered invasive. Long may they flourish (within reason), I guess.

While we're at this environmental manipulation stuff, let's bring back mountain lions and wolves. As apex predators they can control Pennsylvani's whitetail deer overpopulation.

But there's a line to be drawn in terms of dealing with invasive species. Stink bugs, for instance. They don't particularly bother me but since they serve no apparent useful function I'll not argue for them to stick around. If we can safely dispose of them, I'm for it.

I'm citing scientific precedent as upholding my right to manipulate the environment. Reactive phosphorus was one of the building blocks for the creation of early life forms but it's not native to Earth; the phosphorus apparently arrived some 3.5 billion years ago vis-a-vis meteorite bombardment. So according to scientists, the existence of life on Earth is partly due to an invasion of otherworldly meteorites.

Since my existence here is due to an invasion from outer space, I figure that makes me an invasive species. And as such I should be able to arbitrarily decide what other invasive species get to stick around.  Right?

Okay, no. I'm kidding. Really, we're not an invasive species. Though like the worst invasive species, we humans have indeed done harm to our environment. But we are native apex predators, albeit the most dangerous species around. I'll grant that labeling other species as “invasive” may be a bit of an arbitrary conceit, since nothing in nature ever stays the same. But that doesn't mean it is appropriate or responsible to take a laissez faire attitude toward environmental change. 

In Antoine de Saint-ExupĂ©ry's The Little Prince, the protagonist spent his days in the thankless task of pulling out the baobab trees that threatened to split his world into pieces with their roots.  It's an equally impossible task to purge the woods of invasive species and yet we'd do well to heed the words shared with The Little Prince by a fox:  "You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed."  We haven't "tamed" our world by introducing invasive species, to be sure, but we are nonetheless collectively responsible for the resulting ecological fall-out.  I believe that we are called upon to be good stewards and so choosing which species to protect and preserve must be a process of careful collective discernment.  Highlighting all the things we can do to function as good stewards is beyond my ability, but I'm tickled by the creative ways people have found to make peace with the changes man hath wrought through careless environmental care. Including the philsophy of "if you can't beat 'em, eat 'em."  Anyone fancy a dinner of Zebra mussels with a side of garlic mustard greens, garnished with some kudzu? Right.

All of this has been much on my mind as I pack up my family and prepare to invade foreign soil as we travel abroad in search of new blog fodder this summer. We're massively excited and looking forward to new growth. Travel expands literal and psychological horizons. We intend to be gentle on the world as we unfold ourselves and explore. We will be forever altered by our travels, and while we can't promise that we won't leave bits of ourselves behind in the process, we promise it will only be the best bits.

And in case you're wondering, George-on-a-Stick is staying at home.  We grown-ups don't want to share our beer.

a team of scientists led by a University of South Florida astrobiologist now shows that one key element that produced life on Earth was carried here on meteorites.

Read more at:
a team of scientists led by a University of South Florida astrobiologist now shows that one key element that produced life on Earth was carried here on meteorites.

Read more at:
a team of scientists led by a University of South Florida astrobiologist now shows that one key element that produced life on Earth was carried here on meteorites.

Read more at:

Further Reading

Invasive Plants of Pittsburgh
Making the Best of Invasive Species
The Ultimate Invasive Species 
Wildlife: Distinguishing among native, exotic, and invasive species

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