Myth of Wilderness

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Getty Images/OceanFisher

America’s most celebrated wilderness areas were once peoples’ homes, and many of the most prized native plants are remnants from gardens and orchards. Native plant lists from every state or region in the United States show an abundance of perennial edibles, medicinals, fuel and fiber plants, as well as pollen and nectar sources. Georgia’s native plant inventory includes American chestnut, Allegheny chinquapin, hackberry, five species of hickory, hawthorn, hornbeam, honey locust, saw palmetto, red mulberry, eighteen species of oak, pawpaw, persimmon, sassafras, serviceberry, wintergreen, redbud, sourwood, and black walnut.

In Michigan, the list includes milkweed, strawberry, lobelia, bergamot, nodding onion, boneset, wild ginger, and blue cohosh, grown among linden, elderberry, black cherry, sugar maple, nannyberry, and highbush cranberry.

In Arizona, natives include cat’s claw, agave, chia, mesquite, ephedra, ocotillo, hackberry, perennial chiles, barberry, palo verde, prickly pear, pinyon pine, lemonade berry, jojoba, wolfberry, and yucca throughout the landscape.

This proliferation of useful plants throughout the Americas was not a matter of chance but of purposive guidance by the people who lived in the regions for millennia. These plants have come to be known as native, wild, and natural, but in fact, they were intentionally cultivated. Like any garden, these species were carefully chosen, maintained, and propagated over generations until eventually the entire landscape was full of useful plants. European colonists, who were accustomed to fields of annual grains and pulses along with domestic animals, seemed to have had no idea what they were looking at when they encountered these diverse perennial landscapes.

Acknowledging that people were, to a greater or lesser degree, responsible for the bounty and diversity requires a massive shift in our ideas of wilderness and nature. Instead of imagining no human presence on wild land, we might begin to see the patterns of their interaction and gardening. This awareness is important to how we understand changes in the ecosystem structure, including invasive species. Instead of viewing invasive species as disturbing pristine natural landscapes, we have to better understand how changes in historic land stewardship practices have also altered them. As Kat Anderson, ethnoecologist for the Natural Resource Conservation Service, relates in her book Tending the Wild,

Interestingly, contemporary Indians often use the word wilderness as a negative label for land that has not been taken care of by humans for a long time, for example, where dense understory shrubbery or thickets of young trees block visibility and movement. A common sentiment among California Indians is that a hands-off approach to nature has promoted feral landscapes that are inhospitable to life. “The white man sure ruined this country,” said James Rust, a Southern Sierra Miwok elder. “It’s turned back to wilderness.” California Indians believe that when humans are gone from an area long enough, they lose the practical knowledge about correct interactions, and the plants and animals retreat spiritually from the earth or hide from humans. When intimate interaction ceases, the continuity of knowledge, passed down through generations, is broken, and land becomes “wilderness.”33

The idea that people can and should have a hand in the active stewardship of land in order to enhance its diversity and abundance is largely absent from conversations about how best to preserve endangered species and ecosystems. In fact, the opposite approach is often rigidly enforced: People and their activities are confined to areas not designated wilderness and wilderness areas grow less diverse and more vulnerable to invasion and catastrophes. As ecologist Fikret Berkes notes:

Our conventional conservation blueprint excludes disturbance, and aims for unperturbed, stable systems in a state of equilibrium. ‘Balance of nature’ and equilibrium thinking support the view among some conservationists that the best way to conserve nature is to seek out high biodiversity, supposedly pristine ecosystems, remove all human influences (such as haying, grazing, collection of non-timber forest products, use of fire) and re-establish natural biodiversity by stabilizing ecological processes. Such an approach largely failed. Ecosystems are dynamic and disturbance, including some level of human use and human disturbance, has an important role in maintaining ecological processes.

While the concept of wilderness has led to the protection of certain places from the resource extractive activities of industrial capitalism, it has also separated people from it in order to preserve the integrity and beauty of the protected land. In the current context, wilderness areas are vital repositories of plants and animals that would not survive conventional forestry and agriculture. They have become refugia for imperiled species and ecological communities that would have otherwise been turned under the plow, buried by asphalt, or pushed out of their territory by encroaching development.

Reinterpreting wilderness is critical to an objective understanding of invasive species, since it shows how peoples’ purposeful management over time has shaped their nature and how the lack of consistent stewardship creates opportunities for invasive species to thrive. The US Forest Service states that “non-native, invasive species of plants and animals are invading, displacing and destroying native species in wilderness all across the country,” a statement that treats ecosystems as passive objects under threat by outside forces. But ecosystems are dynamic associations of plants, bacteria, fungi, water, nutrients, soil, climate, and animals—including people—that live, die, and affect one another as these processes play out over time.

The above excerpt is from Tao Orion’s book Beyond the War on Invasive Species: A Permaculture Approach to Ecosystem Restoration (Chelsea Green Publishing, July 2015) and is reprinted with permission from the publisher.

Tao Orion is a permaculture designer, teacher, homesteader, and mother living in the southern Willamette Valley of Oregon. She teaches permaculture design at Oregon State University and at Aprovecho, a 40-acre nonprofit sustainable-living educational organization. Tao consults on holistic farm, forest, and restoration planning through Resilience Permaculture Design, LLC. She is the author of Beyond the War on Invasive Species: A Permaculture Approach to Ecosystem Restoration (Chelsea Green Publishing, July 2015).

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