Aliens are crawling all over the place. They are burrowing into the body of our native land. They are nesting in its gut, clotting its arterioles, replacing the flesh of the land with their own. Wherever the land is disturbed, and our land is certainly disturbed, aliens deposit their seed and burst out with maggoty robustness.
At Sauganash Prairie Grove there is a two-acre stand of purple loosestrife where only a few years ago a remnant of wet open savanna stood, refuge for dozens of native plant species.
Years ago the Cathedral Oaks section of Miami Woods would be decked out in elegant woodland blossoms. But over the past decade the understory has become overgrown with one plant: alien garlic mustard.
Up and down the Cook County forest preserves, at the edges of what were once oak savannas–which engaged the open prairie in a give-and-take dance, creating an array of unique edge species–thickets of buckthorn now make passage impossible as they strangle and destroy native communities.
In the Illinois River hybrid carp and goldfish dominate an ecosystem where dozens of native sunfish species once flourished. Down on the Ohio River by Paducah, native mussels that managed to survive two centuries of disruption, poisoning, and exploitation are being gathered up by biologists to prevent their complete annihilation and entombment by Mediterranean zebra mussels.
In all of these instances, and many more, aggressive alien species have been introduced by accident or intent, wreaking havoc on indigenous species that have been stressed, disturbed, or destroyed. Loss of habitat to human development has also doomed many of our local native species. Each of these species represents the end product of an unrepeatable evolutionary unfolding of creation. Their symbiosis represents the interpenetration of their histories as they formed unique communities.
So how can we correct human-caused damage and save precious species from extinction? How can we decipher nature through the white noise of development and destruction and restore the richness and specialness of our homeland?
Two years ago Gerry Wilhelm, research taxonomist at the Morton Arboretum, gave a speech in which he said: “The flora and fauna which coevolved with the aboriginal people in the Chicago region were adapted to a people who defined themselves in relation to their land….The ancients from early Western civilization had the idea that every place has a genius. A genius, in the early sense of the word, was a tutelary deity, a spirit guardian of a place. There was a recognition that every place was unique unto itself, quite apart and different from all other places on the earth, and that the way the world worked in that place was governed by its guardian.
“Some people seemed to understand that places were different everywhere they went, and that they had to be attentive to how things were there and acknowledge the genius. Other people became hubristic with their own influence on the land and ever less respectful of the realities. And when they ignored the realities, the genius became disappointed and no longer provided them locally with the bounty of the earth. So the land became depleted, and they moved on or developed technologies which brought in resources from remote areas, deferring accountability for their actions.”
Thousands of Chicago-area residents who’ve come to the same conclusion are listening to the land and transforming hay meadows, farm fields, overgrown woodlands, and backyard gardens into safe houses for native life. But the passion for restoring indigenous diversity can turn into hatred for the “aliens” that are the target of much restorational work.
The idea of hating aliens troubles some people. As project coordinator for the Mighty Acorns, Diane Reckless leads groups of Chicago schoolchildren into our woods and prairies to restore these ecosystems to some semblance of their condition prior to their settlement by Europeans. The work includes gathering and broadcasting seeds, pulling alien weeds, and cutting alien brush. “I wonder sometimes when I’m explaining to children what we’re doing, and I’m talking to these beautiful faces–many of whose parents are immigrants, ‘aliens’ in the official language of the government–I wonder if the word is right, or if it hurts them, dehumanizes or makes them feel awkward.”
As the concept of diversity gains further mainstream acceptance, both as a scientific and a social concept, words that stigmatize seem less and less appropriate. If we value diversity, how can anything or anyone rightly be considered an alien? More than once I’ve heard land restorers question whether all the human immigrants who peopled this continent and dispossessed the Indians shouldn’t also be considered aliens, a pestilence on the land.
Webster’s dictionary says that “aliens” are persons who don’t belong, who owe their allegiance to another people or power, who are strange or different in nature. In the language of governments aliens seek to be naturalized in their new place of residence, to pledge allegiance to the new power.
If we reconfigure this definition so that it identifies the land–the place itself and its genius–as the power to whom an alien must pledge allegiance, then “aliens” must include all those humans who tarnish the land, who lack connectedness to it, who refuse to take responsibility for their acts on the land. In other words, most of us who live here now, whenever our ancestors arrived, are aliens still.
The flourishing of aliens is a sign of an unhealthy land. Aggressive alien species have to be controlled because they signal an unhealthy ecosystem, one whose diversity is being impoverished, whose uniqueness is being destroyed.
Wendell Berry is a philosopher indigenous to Kentucky, a kind of Ross Perot of the naturalist community. He writes in his collection of essays Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community, “If we speak of a healthy community, we cannot be speaking of a community that is merely human. We are talking about a neighborhood of humans in a place, plus the place itself: its soil; its water; its air; and all the families and tribes of the non-human creatures that belong to it. If the place is well preserved, if its entire membership, human and non-human, is present in it, and if the human economy is in practical harmony with the nature of the place, then the community is healthy. A diseased community will be suffering natural losses that become, in turn, human losses. A healthy community is sustainable; it is, within reasonable limits, self-sufficient and, within reasonable limits, self-determined–that is, free of tyranny.”
Maybe “alien” is the wrong term. Maybe alienated is a better one. One that suggests the possibility of healing and an end of alienation. One that invites help rather than hate.
The cure for alienation of plant and animal species is balance. Many of the alienated are generalists in their life habits–quick to reproduce, not intimately tied to specific niches, soil types, climates, etc. They have escaped their natural predators in their own homelands, the parameters that limited their growth and activity. Without those checks they outcompete natives, spread into every disturbance area, encroach on other areas, and bring with them a reduction in diversity. Stewardship work–like removing buckthorn, garlic mustard, and purple loosestrife–seeks to restore balance. The uncontrolled growth of alienated species is a kind of cancer on the land.
What to do with the alienated, be they plant or animal, your neighbor or yourself? The cure for the alienation of people is reconnection with the place where we live, the very earth under our feet.
Wilhelm says the land stewards who have reconnected with the genius of our land are the beginnings of the rebirth of a tribe of real human beings, a people no longer alienated from their home place and its workings.
Wendell Berry offers this: “Make a home. Help to make a community. Be loyal to what you have made. Put the interest of your community first. Love your neighbors–not the neighbors that you pick out, but the ones you have.”
Brian Palecek, an English teacher at United Tribes Technical College interviewed in Tribal College magazine, spoke about human diversity this way: “Every single person falls into one of three distinct traditions: The first is Native. The second is immigrant, or people who have come to this continent in the past 500 years, usually looking for a better life. The third tradition refers to the descendants of the enslaved people from what we sometimes call the African Diaspora. Rather than seeing things in terms of race or ethnicity, I like to see it in terms of position in regards to the place itself, the land.”
Berry says, “An authentic community is made less in reference to who we are than to where we are.”
To live well and authentically on the land we must know where we are, what the nature of the place allows us to do there, and who and what are there with us. To know these things, says Berry, we must ask the place itself. And listen.
By talking about alienated instead of alien species when referring to purple loosestrife and human immigrants, buckthorn and zebra mussels, we gain a sense of process and hope. Alienation is not fun. Alienation seeks remedy. For each being there is a place in the hoop, in the circle of life being reconstructed out in our homeland prairie, savanna, and wetland. Ending alienation means beginning an interdependent relationship with all of creation. No one wants to annihilate purple loosestrife, and no one can. But it has to end its alienation in this new land. It has to enter the hoop if there is to be hope for any of us.
Looking at it this way, I can feel kindly toward the alienated and rootless, spreading obnoxiously out over the land. I feel like singing a song of invitation, a song about beginning, being a part, ceasing alienation, entering the hoop. Alienation doesn’t have to be forever.