Manichean Plant Order

The Good:

Now is the time for some of the most beautiful sage-scrub and chaparral plant groupings. I'm thinking of young buck-wheat, both the yellow and pink varieties with Artemesia, Brickellia and Salvias; the creamy topped chamise, mimulus and bush poppies; sprays of California everlasting and Solanum xanti (purple nightshade) amidst antic deerweed. The native morning glory and goosefoot and larkspur nestling together on the very edge of the chaparral; rarely, a stand of woolly blue curls amidst chamise - but popping up all over, the native hiacynth known as blue dicks . Amidst the weeds (see below): lupine and caterpillar phacelia, blue eyed grass and this year's not-so-much (last year's prolific) purple owl's head clover.

The Bad:

Clover, Erodium and mustard - all assiduous colonizers of broken ground. Thistles, of many varieties but most notoriously, the yellow star thistle, Centaurea solstitialis - so noxious it is consigned to land fill rather than compost. Grasses: so many introduced after 1769, their seeds in animal hair, packing materials, ship's ballast or in soil surrounding fruit tree cuttings (Grasses in California, Beecher Crampton, UC Press, 1974) - now spreading across the disturbed ground and turning it into a hideous caricature of European meadowland. So much else that I recognize from my youth in England and all so wrong in California.

The Argument:

There are some who argue that all plant life is precious. My friend Sarah Munster, the Landscape Designer, argues for the value of the Peruvian pepper (Schinus molle) - often erroneously called California pepper - in the chaparral landscape; I consider them abominations. Margot, in her wisdom, has planted oak seedlings beneath each of the peppers and jacarandas (installed by the original owners of her property) and once they are to six feet or so she will remove the offending exotics.

Trees, we can presume, if not sentient, certainly have a spirit-life and this is confirmed, perhaps, by the experiences of such as Jiddu Krishnamurti who received enlightenment under the pepper tree in the East End of Ojai and Siddhartha Gautama who sat in meditation beneath a Bodhi tree, resolving not to move until he had attained nirvana. At a minimum, trees function as conduits for unseen energies and those sensitive to such currents are understandably reluctant to remove the antennae.

But while it's never easy taking the life of a mature tree, if we allow exotics full rein then the individual character of unique plant communities will eventually be destroyed and the world's vegetation will slowly be homogenized into a collection of the planet's most aggressive colonizers - chaparral, for instance, crowded out by arrundo, peppers and eucalypts - and the variety of the world's fauna decimated by the destruction of unique habitat.

T.C.Boyle addresses one aspect of this conundrum when he writes in his lastest eco-thriller, When the Killing Stops, Viking, 2011, of the National Park Service's campaign to eradicate wild pigs and sheep from Santa Cruz Island and the counter-campaign of animal rights activists who believe all animal life, whatever the ecological consequences of their living situation, is sacred. The shock troops of this war on feral pigs came from New Zealand, a land that has its own history of fighting introduced species, and an antipodean friend tells me that they were awarded the contract based on price - they cut the pigs throats rather than shooting them - saving the cost of bullets and firearms.

Readers of this blog will be well aware of where my sympathies lie: I have undertaken the quixotic mission of rolling back the time-clock on my patch of chaparral and sage-scrub to before 1769. The Channel Islands have been dubbed California’s Galapagos, for the unique variety of flora and fauna that developed there in isolation from the mainland. Chaparral is hardly less precious but under equal threat.

Ursula K. Le Guin, creator of the fictional universe, Earthsea, writes in her review of Boyle's recent book, (The Guardian, Saturday 19 March 2011),

"California was an island in the earliest, fanciful maps. Ecologically, the maps were right. Isolated by the ocean, the Sierra and the great deserts, dozens of species unknown elsewhere flourished in the benign climate, until the white men came. Then, under the impact of a thousand imported exotics, native species began to decline or perish.

There are Californians today who, far from planting lawns around their desert condos, would like to uproot all the golden Spanish wild oats to let the bunch grasses of Indian days cover the hillsides again."

I am one such Californian attempting to hold the line.

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