Wheresoever we landed upon this river we saw the goodliest woods, as beech, oak, cedar, cypress, walnuts, sassafras . . . and all the grounds bespread with many sweet and delicate flower of divers color and kinds”
– Capt. John Smith, 1607 describing the James River at Richmond
Sometimes I wonder if Mother Nature knows what she’s doing.
Invasive vines and trees along riverside drive.
She made us, didn’t she? That’s the common scientific assumption today. We humans, so the theory goes, are the most evolved of Nature’s creations. The result of millions of years of trial and error. Sometime long ago the opposable thumb was tried and approved, and sometime long ago the ability to stand and run on two feet. The combination of these freed up those habile hands for tools and weapons. And some time 1 million years or so ago (just a few ticks of the evolutionary clock), while these innovations were being tested and approved, Nature tried her greatest experiment to date — She tried, and still tries on us, the ability to do what I am doing right now. On April 3 of the year 2015, Mother Nature allows you and me thoughts, and symbols, and the ability to use our sounds and scribbled characters for communication or expression. She even tries on us the ability to do what we believe no other living species on earth can do – She allows us to question our own existence.
You and I pose the biggest question that has ever faced our species. Much bigger than “how?” or “when?” or “what?” It’s the question that keeps some of us awake at night, or pushes us towards a pulpit on Sunday. It’s the same question that sometimes leads us along a dangerous brink of life and sanity where even one wrong or missing answer could lead us nosediving with 149 attached souls to the base of a deep precipice in the Swiss alps. “Why?” Yes, at some point in this evolution, Nature allowed human beings to ask the question, “Why?”
Vines cut at the base will die and fall away.
So goes the theory of evolution, anyway – or so goes the fact of evolution if you are one of the modern types who rules out a supernatural first cause or intervention somewhere in the lineage of our species.
But some of our modern behavior makes me wonder if the current evolutionary trial of homo sapiens has already, or will at some point, flip over to the error side of the “and.” How can a species that has developed and stockpiled enough explosives to gruesomely obliterate itself and most of the nature around it be viewed as anything better? How can a species that can think or “why?” itself to self annihilation or ideological war on its fellows be viewed as anything better? Are we good for this planet? In earth’s delicate balance of interwoven life forms, are human beings an invasive species?
My uncertainty concerning our ecological status stems from the obvious fact that superabundance is never rewarded, or leastwise never sustained, in nature. Dinosaurs may be a case in point. When life forms take too much, consume too much, or get too large and demanding, Nature either introduces other life forms to prey on the excess, or natural disaster eventually comes to reign in the excess and re-balance the system. This happens in your yard everyday. Some of our most common insect problems in the urban landscape are tiny insects that feed on leaves by sucking. Aphids, spider mites, and scale insects are all just barely visible to the human eye, and usually these pests take only what Nature allows as their fair share of a natural abundance. In most cases the population of these insects is controlled by parasitic wasps, birds, and other life forms that feed on the smaller insects and take again what the smaller ones had first taken. Uncontrolled by natural predators, the small suckers would eventually suck all the green life from your landscape. Its a delicate balancing act, and according to the theory, one that has evolved over millions of years. But the balance can be disturbed when a stranger from foreign habitats or oceans takes root in a new land.
Ailanthus altissima — a space invader from Asia.
Recently my tree care company has been removing “invasive species” from the James River Park System along Riverside Drive. The idea is to restore the park to the way Captain John Smith first saw it 408 years ago. The way millions of years of evolution designed it to be, I suppose. While carving away with chainsaws at the top edge of the park, we post a sign to educate passersby about the project. On the signs there is a basic description of an invasive species:
An invasive species can be any kind of living organism — an amphibian, plant, insect, fish, fungus, bacteria, or even an organism’s seeds or eggs — that is not native to an ecosystem and which causes harm. They can harm the environment, the economy or even, human health. Species that grow and reproduce quickly, and spread aggressively, with potential to cause harm, are given the label of “invasive.” — National Wildlife Federation
Pause here. Don’t read ahead too quickly. Try that definition on again. Try it on yourself. An invasive species is one that grows and reproduces quickly, spreads aggressively, and so thoroughly displaces the indigenous population as to disrupt and possibly collapse a natural project of diversity millions of years in the making. Now recall what Captain John Smith saw when he arrived at the falls of the James in Richmond. Was this white man from Europe no better for the ecosystem here than the first Ailanthus tree arriving from China? If an Ailanthus tree were able to communicate, if we were able to hear the propaganda of the species, I think I would recognize the rhetoric. In the political chat rooms of Ailanthus altissimus I would hear something like this: “The Taking of the James River Park System is our Manifest Destiny.”
Well, while I am working on a project to remove this invasive species from the park, I look inward to find that I am no saint of ecological good will. I buy and burn as much fossil fuel as the next American, I suppose, and I keep the lights on and the water running more than I should. I buy disposable things, and grow a crop of useless grass in my front yard. What I need to figure out is whether or not I can blend myself wholesomely enough with my surroundings to be considered a “native” species by future generations of life on earth – just one kind in an immense living array of “divers color and kinds.” If I can not, I am merely a space invader, and may not be carried forward when Nature makes Her selection. The obvious moral of Nature’s 4-billion-year earth story is that if I place an excessive demand on the ecosystem, and if I fail to form symbiotic relationships with earth’s other life forms, Nature will one day work her magic to re-balance the system and scrape away the excess. She will remove me and my kind from Her million-year strategic plan for diversity. I, like the dinosaurs, will be written off as an error.
Homo Sapiens. Successful Trial or Evolutionary Error? Native or Invasive. Nature’s jury is still out. Now and always deliberating (according to the theory).