1. HYBRID CATTAILS. An invasive species in this area. They come up in a dinner conversation with an Ecology professor and a retired Botany professor. The cattails seem to be quite troublesome to the retired Botany professor, who brings up his problematic extermination plan for them:
“Poison ‘em. Rip ‘em out.”
I am thinking of this paper, Against Nativism by Michael Pollan, which I discovered in 2019 through Giovanni Aloi’s Botanical Speculations talk series. Like Pollan, I can’t help but question the impulse to exterminate non-native species as a human xenophobic impulse. I interpret the retired Botanist's call to action as a parallel to a call to immigrant deportation, or even execution.
Before I can name this discomfort, the Ecology professor explains how hybrid cattails are Allelopathic - they destroy biodiversity and competition. When hybrid cattails are killed, the decaying organic matter actually contributes to a more effective growing environment for their species.
“The decaying bodies of the ancestors make it more hospitable for the next generation,”
explains the Ecology professor.
I critique myself internally for anthropomorphizing the conversation about cattails. The conditions and stakes of wetland conservation are not anthropocentric — the beings in question are not subject to the limitations of human consciousness. Like this George Sessions points out in his critique of Leftist environmentalism, assigning humanity to the non-human de-centers ecology. This practice of projecting social values onto the nonhuman masks a lack of understanding of nonhuman systems and interactions. It reinforces the anthropocentrism that has caused such ecological problems to arise in the first place.
But, as I consider my self-critique, I also reflect on the Botanist’s comment:
“Poison ‘em, rip ‘em out.”
Could a cattail really inspire such callous disdain? It seems really hyperbolic and inconsiderate of the effects species removal may have on other ecosystem inhabitants. It occurs to me that perhaps this old white Botanist dude is perhaps racist as hell and is perhaps anthropomorphizing the plant, himself. I shudder — and feel grateful to my process of unlearning automaic trust in elderly white male voices.
How can humans possibly aim to understand the nonhuman when our consciousness wants to continually assign anthropocentric value to non-human beings?
2. WILLOW LAKE. In my first hour at Lakeside Lab, I invited myself on a field trip with an Aquatic Ecology class to a Minnesota farm named WILLOW LAKE.
Tony, the farmer, has spent most of his life attempting to retrofit a contemporary industrial corn and soybean farm to be more environmentally friendly and sustainable. To this end, Tony uses a rich-till process, which is a harm-reductive tilling method that leaves behind the organic material from past harvests. He's also experimented with planting directly into cover crops to sustain the soil’s health. Most notably, he ues a number of bioreactors as pollutant filters for his fields’ fertilizer runoff.
The bioreactors are shoebox-sized boxes of walnut woodchips buried 5 feet underground. Inside the wood chips dswell a kind of anaerobic bacteria of the genus Nitrobacter. The bacteria eat the wood chips slowly over the course of several years. The fields are terraformed such that when it rains, the rainwater carries excess nutrients from the fertilizer on the soil’s surface downwards, where it drains into the walnu
t chip - filled shoebox. There, the extra NO3 from the fertilizer, carried by the water, is converted by the bacteria into Nitrogen. The Nitrogen can then re-join the Nitrogen cycle - the lesser spoken-of cycling of nutrients through the atmosphere, a parallel process to the water cycle and Hydrogen cycle.
I am completely moved by the bioreactor, for several reasons.
First of all, walnut is one of my favorite trees because of their purple hearts; the spicy smell of the green fruit; the radiating fractals of their leaf habits; their chunky bark; and the potency of their stain — not least to say, the delicious edible walnut. Their use as bioreactor fuel really seals the deal for me.
I am also amazed by the ingenuity of such a simple device that, without motor nor fossil fuel, is able to solve such a pervasive problem like eutrophication. Eutrophication happens when the excess nutrients from fertilizer wash into the water cycle, causing rapid and extreme algae and bacterial growth. This can have further ecological consequences, like anoxia- which happens when all the oxygen is eaten out of the water by algae and bacteria, causing fish and other creatures to suffocate. Imagine an algae - dominated pond filled with dead fish. Gross, unpleasant, hazardous. These little walnut-filled-shoebox-dwelling bacteria offer an impossibly simple solution
I was just talking with my therapist recently about how spiritual the Nitrogen, Hydrogen and Phosphorus cycles are to me. Aligning myself with a niche in time and space where these cycles intersect to support my life force feels meaningful and necessary. Necessary because, for me, the survival of my consciousness needs some intellectural footholds so I can buffer myself from being blown around by nihilism and eco-pessimism.
Of course I am aware that Tony’s bioreactors won’t prevent the major losses that climate chaos will deliver to us. The bioreactors won’t restore rain to the droughted Midwest; they won’t save people in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Carribean, the Philippines, Guam, islanders and coastal dwellers worldwide from tragic hurricanes, flooding and displacement. They won’t feed 8 billion of us. But it feels hopeful to me that, without being bullied by activists or paid by the Feds, Tony, a multiple-generation white, cis, het male Midwesterner, found this solution and implemented it of his own will. I want to believe that there are more people like us than we expect, who are making major personal steps to mitigate and adapt to rapid climate change.
I was also moved by the conversation with several of Tony’s farm volunteers and staff - an unexpected crew, for the middle of buttfuck Nowhere, Minnesota: a nonbinary teenager planning a gap year in Maine; a LA-based ag consultant & venture capitalist with a doctorate from Stanford, who grew up adjacent to Tony’s farm; and a 20-something long-haired sustainable agriculture college college student. The college student was vocalizing distress about climate change, exploitation of the working class, and racist police violence. He was planning an intervention with his anti-vaxx family members later that afternoon. Typical of contemporary rural Minnesota, everyone was white.
It did make me feel less alone, hearing about the college student processing his family’s anti-vax perspective and their denial that police kill Black people and that climate science is real. That there are other young rural people with conviction, who are acting meaningufly to change the status quo within their scope of power by having challenging conversations with their family members. It felt really powerful to me because that’s a world I’ve been in for a while, and it’s an uncomfortable place to live. When you’re the only progressive or radical in your famly circle, it’s very easy to get discouraged and it feels much safer to stay quiet. I think that people of my generation are brave for using their resources to try and educate their families, to repair the wounds of disinformation and disenfranchisement.
Similarly, it was relieving to witness the climate change angst of non-artists. I was grateful for this because artists tend to not want to act on climate issues, let alone discuss them. Perhaps it feels to vast for us? Too hard to move through?
It feels helpful to be in a context where people are accepting & moving with the real urgency the climate crisis demands.
3. CURLYLEAF PONDWEED. An invasive species introduced into Midwestern ponds by carp fishing nets in the 1950s.
4. SOFT AND HARD STEM BULLRUSHES. Native wetland species for this area. Competitors with the hybrid cattail.
5. WHORLED MILKWEED. A gentle sweet smell, kind of like gardenia. Native.