US vs THEM, and being objective


Labelling, like native and non-native, flummoxes me and hamstrings us. On the surface the distinction, essentially us vs them, seems simple. And, since we typically prefer uncomplicated answers, especially those favoring our point of view (confirmation bias), we are vulnerable, we take the bait. (Notice how the pronouns standout) Moreover, we reflexively look for someone or something to blame (a scapegoat) never mind that the answer to many questions frequently is not binary -- or one that is palatable. In fact, the answer -- if known -- is often complex. But that is not what 'we' want. Well, what 'we want' and reality often do not inhabit the same igloo. But we are good at ignoring, and there is always illusory truth and denial at the ready. By-the-way, it is okay if you take my comments as social commentary, but I really am discussing gardening (at least thus far) thus proving my prior suggestion that "there is a lot in common between life and gardening."


So, with that out of my craw, what does nativity and us v them have to do with plants? Here is some background-history. In 1912, the University of Illinois (Dept of Horticulture) was the first to hire an agriculture extension educator. This groundbreaking hiree was Wilhelm Miller from Duane NY (?). Miller's credentials were excellent. He was an associate of the great Liberty Hyde Bailey. Bailey, who hailed from SW Michigan (South Haven), was one of the first to recognize the importance of Gregor Mendel's breeding experiments (years after the work was done) as well as being a cofounder of the American Horticultural Society. He also was a proponent of agrarianism and is credited with establishing the agricultural extension services, the 4-H movement, and rural electrification. Miller began his career as an associate editor of Bailey's Cyclopedia of American Horticulture and later founded the Garden Magazine. He also was an advocate for the use of native plants in landscaping and promoted the work of the likeminded O.C. Simmonds and Jens Jensen -- I highlighted Jensen two posts ago. These now famous landscape designers were especially interested in the use of prairie species. In 1915, the University of Illinois Agricultural Experiment Station published a circular (184) authored by Miller entitled The Prairie Spirit in Landscape Gardening -- the cover of which is pictured above. Miller extolled on what the citizens of Illinois had done and could do using native species and he introduced a Citizens Oath to encourage the use of natives. He referred to this as the "Illinois Way of planting." Some of the oath takers and subsequent devotees evidently read into the pledge that natives are good, and non-natives (the foreigners) are bad. The correlation should sound familiar. We often do it. Seems we cannot help ourselves, with some of us being more eager to participate -- more willing to wade into the water. Re Miller: did the purists corrupt his intention? I think so. Moreover, know that his oath declaration occurred just as WW I was happening and contributed to the antipathy -- just as it does now. I find it curious (and deluded) how when choosing sides 'we' are almost always 'us' -- the good, the defending righteous one. Give a look and listen!


Fast forward -- when Floyd Swink and Gerould Wilhelm decided to designate (by italic) native from non-native in the 3rd edition of Plants of the Chicago Region (1979) they did so to assist those involved with landscape restoration work. It was not their intent for this designation to be fascistic or nationalistic (us v them), but here we are. The labels are ofttimes misused, misunderstood, just like Wilhelm's Floristic Quality Assessment (FQA) which was introduced in the same book. And, because many of us seem incapable of objectivity, unwilling to change our mind regardless of the evidence, we are stuck with a flawed (us v them) perception, one that fits nicely into our Paleolithic tribal tendencies -- both revealing and unpleasant. In fact, as Wilhelm and I have discussed many times, use of the qualifiers GOOD and BAD to describe plants is inappropriate, especially when it pertains to nativity which, as I noted earlier, is NOT always a simple either/or. Trust me, I have tried to help set the story straight but, as Paul Simon wrote, "still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest."


I was a founding member of the Indiana Native Plant Society (INPS, formally INPAWS) as well as a charter member of the central chapter of the Illinois Native Plant Society. However, I found it necessary to walk away from the movement in 2018 when it became clear that too many of the members (which included many friends) were clinging to (blinded by) the flawed binary (native, good vs non-native, bad) stance. That is, they were/are using and allowing a single brush -- one attribute, and one that is often not clearly cut -- to paint (to stereotype) an entire group. It seemed to me that the 'native' plant community was (in part) literally morphing into a cult and unintentionally (?) facilitating the us vs them lunacy. One might be tempted to ask why the leadership of the organization, the directors of the cause, those who should know better, were not and are not doing a better job of educating. FACT: 99%+ of exotic plants we use in our gardens are benign (do not escape/establish {naturalize} and run wild), yet the <1% are an environmental horror -- but so are we. I have spent much of my life railing against and removing these unwanted invasive species, but I WILL NOT, nor should we lump or characterize ALL the non-natives as problematic. It is matter-of-factly not true, but is commonly believed and voiced -- gardening and society! PLEASE STOP! And the zealots are of the opinion they/we can exterminate the unwanted. Delusional thinking! Perhaps in a few instances the spread might be checked, but the infection(s), which we caused, is(are) permanent. That is reality. And know this, the lovely Queen of the Prairie (Filipendula rubra) is no more native or troublesome in my Marion County (Indiana) garden than is the impressive Serbian Spruce (Picea omorika). Nor are the several Arborvitae/Eastern White Cedar (Thuja occidentalis) growing on my property 'native' just because we once had, but last century destroyed, endemic Indiana populations half a state away. But many of the plant nativists (the purists) do not want to see or hear it since that view does not fit nicely into their misguided construct -- based on artificial (geopolitical) boundaries, misinterpretation, bias, compelling half-truth, and ignorance. Unwilling to acknowledge that the landscape has and is (unfortunately) changed, and not returning as before -- lost largely due to mankind and 'our' activities. Besides, the northern two-thirds of Indiana was covered by a glacier as recently as 14,000 years ago which throws a wrench into the concept of 'native' (i.e., has always been there) for all organisms that exist there now. Moreover, there is fossil record of Ginkgo from Indiana. So, does that qualify Ginkgo as native? A true Hoosier ;)


I like, use, and promote most 'native' species, but some of them are not nice -- for various reasons. These unwanted taxa, like the few invasive non-natives, are taxing. They should be avoided, but once the infection occurs, I do the best I can to curtail or eliminate it/them. FYI: Purists insist on using the word aggressive rather than invasive to describe 'natives' with the same behavior. Orwell would have had fun with that distinction. HERE IS MY ADVICE: try to judge plants (and people) individually (by what they are -- MLK called it content of character -- rather than merely what group they belong to and how they look) and avoid absolutes. It can be challenging, but it is also important. -- I previously posted on natives (see June 2019). One last pronoun thought -- what happens when "WE" becomes them?




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