05 Jan Happy holidays from Fort Cronkhite!
I am writing this blog from my office at Fort Cronkhite. It’s been very rainy in the Bay Area for the past few weeks, so this room has been a refuge for my coworkers and me. It’s a warm, quiet space where we can reflect on the work we’ve done and learn more about the land and people we serve. So far, I’ve focused these blogs on the fieldwork components of my job: the plantings, volunteer events, plant removals, etc.. In all my excitement over what happens beyond these office walls, I have neglected to mention all the important work that happens within them. So, this blog I will dedicate to that.
First, I’ll paint a picture of the room itself. Everything inside is made of wood: the walls, the ceiling, the floor, the desks. On the west wall there are two large windows that overlook Rodeo Beach. The walls are covered with posters of local wildlife, shelves full of books, and sticky notes answering any question I could possibly think to ask. There are five chairs, one for each member of the Habitat Restoration Team (HRT), which includes Jade and me (the EFTA habitat restoration interns), Ren (who oversees all HRT work in Rodeo Valley), Laura (who oversees all HRT work in Tennessee Valley), and Maria (who is all of our supervisor). The room tends to smell like mint and honey because we drink a lot of tea.
Most days we work in the field, but Mondays are our office day. We usually start off the day by putting entries into Calflora, which is this really cool app/website where you can log plant observations, as well as restoration work you’ve done. It’s open to the public, so anyone can add to the database. This results in a map of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (called GOGA for short) that is full of thousands of observations, with in-depth descriptions of the observed species’ management status, life stage, abundance, proximity to other plants/people/buildings., etc.. Over the past few weeks, I have been using the Calflora database to create a booklet identifying all the native and non-native plant species we work with here at GOGA. In this booklet I am including photos of each plant, with descriptive notes on identifying characteristics like the shape and texture of their leaves/flowers/fruits/etc., their general gestalt (the overall shape of the plant), and where you are likely to find the plant growing, as well as their management and conservation status, traditional uses, role(s) in their native range, etc.. Creating this booklet has provided me a deeper understanding of the roles and histories of the plants that I work with. This increased awareness has made me appreciate and empathize with these species more. However, it has also made me question the way we in the restoration world tend to talk about non-native plants, as well as the ethics and efficacy of their eradication (complete removal).
I’d like to start by defining some common terms used in the field of restoration. When referring to wildlife, the term “native” means a species that has been present in a particular region for a very long time (typically for thousands of years or longer) and who is thus well adapted to the climate, light, and soil conditions that characterize their native ecosystem. Native species of a range have co-evolved, and thus tend not to displace/extinguish (cause the extinction of) one another. A species’ native range in typically thought to be the area where the species originated, but a species can also be “naturalized” to a place if they have been present for long enough and are well adapted to their new range (a mushy and subjective term!). A “non-native” or “introduced” species refers to a species that has been introduced to an area from their native range, either purposefully or accidentally (usually by humans). They are typically not well adapted to the climate, light, and soil conditions of their new homes, and thus either struggle to establish themselves at all or establish themselves in such a way that alters their new environment and/or its native species. When an introduced species spreads prolifically (widely, quickly — i.e., producing many offspring) and undesirably/harmfully (which usually includes the displacement of native species) that spread is described as “invasive”. Often non-native plant species are themselves termed “invasives”, terminology which, at this point, is so commonplace that I don’t expect it to change any time soon, but which I worry is misleading. By labeling all individuals in a species “invasives”, rather than using the term to describe the act of harmful spreading (i.e., by using “invasive(ly)” as a noun rather than an adjective/adverb), it implies that this invasive behavior is inherent, that all individuals of a species regardless of their living conditions will spread harmfully/undesirably, rather than this behavior being a consequence of the plant’s displacement from their native range. Also, because people often use the terms “non-native” and “invasive” interchangeably, some fail to realize that not all non-native plants display invasive behaviors. Many introduced species have minimal to no impact on their new homes, and many others actually benefit the ecosystems they have been introduced to (take Cotoneaster franchettii, for example, a shrub introduced to California from China; C. franchettii is known to displace native plant species here in California, but also provides food to the state’s native bees, birds, butterflies, and other pollinators, and is known to sequester carbon and other pollutants from the air). With all this in mind, when referring to species who have been introduced from their native range, I prefer to use the terms “non-native species” or “introduced species”, which are objective and remind people that these individuals were, in fact, introduced by humans. I prefer (when appropriate) only to use the term “invasive” to describe behavior, rather than a species/individual. I also try to avoid using terms like “pest”, “weed”, “exotic”, and “alien”, in part because they have negative connotations with regards to the plant itself, but also because these terms have historically been used to denigrate groups of people, often as a precursor to violence.
It’s worth noting here that, by writing this blog I am not encouraging anyone to blindly go out and plant a bunch of non-native species. Rather, I hope to encourage people to be thoughtful, accurate, and empathetic with their language, to research the natural/human histories of the plants around them, and to consider their goals carefully when going into restoration work. If your primary goal is to attract native pollinators, your garden will look very different than the garden of someone whose primary goal is carbon sequestration, or the conservation of native grasslands, or the production of food crops to feed their community, etc.. All of these are valid goals but can work at cross-purposes.
When I graduated from college in June, I had a really hard time choosing a specific career path. I decided to dip my toes into a lot of different fields: on weekends I worked as a backpacking guide, I was on-call with two environmental consulting firms, one as a botanist and the other as a field technician, I volunteered at a local animal shelter, and spent a few hours a week researching environmental justice movements and grad programs. I enjoyed the variety of work I was doing, but I struggled to feel like I was leaving a mark on the world in any meaningful way. I decided to pursue habitat restoration work because, unlike teaching, consulting, and research, I felt like I wouldn’t need to wait to feel its effects; its benefits to the land and its people would be immediately obvious. I also felt, at the time, like it was a morally unambiguous sort of work. My only other job in restoration work had been the focused on the reintroduction of native species to a completely barren landscape (former agricultural land that had been made barren due to the over-use of pesticides and a lack of stewardship). I didn’t have to worry about displacing other wildlife because there wasn’t any present to begin with. That is certainly not the case in national parks land. I still feel that restoration work is valuable and can provide a lot of benefits to this landscape, but these past two months have opened my eyes to the complexity and moral ambiguity of introducing native plants to ecosystems that already house non-native species. Although my feelings on all of this are clearly mixed, I can say with absolute certainty that I am very very grateful for this internship. I will not trivialize the work by claiming it has been 100% unambiguously good, straightforward, or easy. Rather, I am grateful for the many times it has challenged my pre-conceived notions, and for the opportunities it has given me to think more deeply about the land I inhabit, the people (human and otherwise) I live alongside, and the roles we play in one another’s lives. This position and my brilliant coworkers have made me a better, more thoughtful naturalist.
P.S. On an unrelated note, December was a really fun month! My best friends from college came to visit and we spent a week together, exploring San Francisco, the Marin Headlands, and Mendocino. I also flew to Seattle for a couple days to see my brother and his girlfriend/my new friend Hillary! That was awesome. We went kayaking and fell into really cold water and played board games and laughed a lot and ate yummy food and hiked and shopped and did crosswords and more. I love them so much they are the best. I also went so ham on Christmas and made everyone homemade gifts that I spent SO LONG ON (like legit MONTHS) and everyone was so happy and I also got super awesome presents and just generally had a really lovely day with my friends and family. On New Year’s Eve I went to a party at my auntie’s house then another party at my brothers’ house. They were both very fun! I got to meet the person my brother (not the one who went to Seattle [that’s Daniel], the other one [his name is Ben!]) has been dating. She was AWESOME and so sweet. Hmmmm… what else… Oh! My dog Martha got a big cut on her leg and needed to get stitches! She is totally fine, but it was super weird because she literally never made a sound my mom just glanced down to pat her and saw this big open wound on her leg! Yuck and also ouch! I think that’s all I can think to mention right now. Thank you for reading!
– Santa Cruz girlies reunion (: (12/9/22 – 12/15/22)
– Seattle trip (12/15/22 – 12/17/22)
– Rodeo Beach volunteer workday (12/18/22)
– Christmas (12/24/22 – 12/25/22)