Tao Orion is the author of “Beyond the War on Invasive Species: A Permaculture Approach to Ecosystem Restoration.” She is a permaculture designer, teacher, homesteader, and mother living in the southern Willamette Valley of Oregon. I interviewed her on May 18, 2020, for my podcast, “Voices for Nature & Peace.” What follows is a partial transcript of that conversation, edited for clarity. [Listen to the entire interview here]
K: A lot of people have heard the term, “invasive species” and most of them of course are assuming it’s something bad, but when it comes right down to it, it’s actually very difficult to define the term and we could even say that there isn’t one definition of that term.
T: Yes, that’s something that I found really interesting as I was researching my book, because I was really trying to find out if there was a clear, objective description of what an invasive species is, and I found that even the National Invasive Species Council—which in the US is the federal government level board that looks at invasive species issues—spent years on deliberating on the definition and even so, they weren’t able to come up with something that I felt was purely an objective description that could be [applied] in all contexts. It seemed to vary from place to place and time to time.
K: Monsanto was one of the companies involved in setting [that council] up.
T: That’s another disturbing element about how the big frenzy around invasive species and the purported damage that they do came to be so popular; a lot of that was informed and funded by pesticide interests to spur the sale of products, herbicides in particular, to deal with species invasions.
K: I think that most people are probably not aware of the fact that the use of pesticides and herbicides has been rising over the last 20 years, not falling. I think people hear about organic agriculture and they think we must be on the right path. But due in part to the war on invasives and also due to genetically modifying crops to be Round-up Ready so they can survive the use of pesticides—these two things seem to have driven an increase in the use of pesticides over the last 20 years.
T: Yes, it’s definitely alarming. My background is in organic agriculture. I was immersed in that world. Even before writing this book, I was under the impression that herbicides were somewhat less toxic in the realm of pesticide toxicity [as opposed to insecticides or fungicides, for example]. In researching herbicides more for invasive species management and agriculture in general, I learned a lot more about their toxicity and insidious toxicity to insects and mammals and other lifeforms that I don’t think gets talked about enough. People assume they’re more ecologically benign, but really they’re not, and that’s important to bring to the table.
K: One thing you mentioned in your book that I hadn’t thought about much before is that it’s not only the active ingredient in a pesticide, but also the adjuvants—the things that they add to the active ingredient to help it stick to plants or to help make it soluble in water, etc.
T: Yeah, that was a big realization for me too. We talk about these two different terms: “Round Up” is the trade name of the herbicide, of which “glyphosate” is considered the active ingredient. Glyphosate is the ingredient that’s tested for pesticide registration purposes, but that might be only ten percent of a mixture that’s sold in the bottle. The rest of that solution is made up of other ingredients that help the herbicide stay on the plant if it rains or if its windy, or help the herbicide active ingredient penetrate the cells of the plant. A lot of these are trade secrets so they’re not tested and the manufacturers don’t have to say what’s in there. But one compound that has been pulled out and studied by independent researchers is POEA [polyoxyethyleneamine], which has been shown to make glyphosate penetrate human placental cells. So even if you come into contact with glyphosate itself, that wouldn’t necessarily happen, but if you come into contact with Round Up, which contains this adjuvant, POEA, it can actually then allow the glyphosate to enter into the cell. Because that’s what it’s in there to do.
K: The reason we’ve been talking about pesticides because herbicides are such a big part of getting rid of “invasive” species… But your book tries to turn things on its head and to question the concept of whether we should be trying to eradicate them.
T: Yes. I was shocked when I started working in the field of ecological restoration, coming from a background in organic agriculture. I had heard of “invasive species” before but when I got into this context, I was around people who did this professionally, it was just assumed that I was going to use herbicides and I would be totally fine with that, because that’s just what everybody did. The whole context was, “we have to get rid of these plants at all costs, and if we do, everything will be okay.” [Laughs.] That’s the the framework in which we’re approaching ecosystem restoration, and to me, I was amazed because from a more holistic perspective, I could see right off the bat that in every case where invasive species were thriving, there were other things going on in the ecosystem that pesticides weren’t going to address.
It’s the same in conventional agriculture. If you’re having, quote, pest pressure issues, the issue isn’t the pest, the issue is the soil or the plant stress or drought stress. There’s all these different things playing into the manifestation of pest pressure in the ecosystem. So, taking that knowledge a few steps further to ecosystem restoration I think is really necessary. A lot of people involved in these contexts are really highly trained ecologists and it’s still hard for me to square that with the belief that herbicides, pesticides are the only solution. These are often people who are shopping at organic food markets, and only buy organic food, and believe really strongly in that framework for food production, and yet are making decisions about ecosystem restoration outside of agricultural contexts that rely on pesticides and I just think that really needs to be questioned.
I had some very interesting discussions over the years and maybe the needle is starting to shift a little bit, although as you mention, sometimes these discussions flare up online where people are really quite defensive about their position and belief around this.
K: The issue tends to infect any discussion around plants. I’ve been using a couple of plant ID groups on Facebook because I’m in a new area and I’m seeing things coming up and I’m like, “What is this?” Of course if you’re in a native plant group, that’s definitely going to be someplace where [the invasive framework] is strong. You know, a native-plants-equals-good, non-native-plants-equals-bad, black and white paradigm. Which brings us around to looking at the invasive plant not being a problem in and of itself but of being a symptom of something going on.
T: That’s a huge part of the conversation that a lot of folks really aren’t willing to easily engage in, but the design of our livelihood system has really degraded ecosystems to a place where native flora and fauna aren’t thriving. You know, to really sit with that, and acknowledge it, think about how we might approach things differently as a basis for our understanding is challenging. It’s a lot easier to blame the messenger. Also I think one of the things that’s really missing from the discussion of native plants is the fact that native ecosystems were or are managed by indigenous people. They don’t just exist in a vacuum, free from people’s influence and the whole idea of this “pristine” wilderness is very much a western, colonial thought pattern that definitely needs to be disrupted.
K: What you’re referring to in part is that when people are designating a plant as invasive or non-native, there’s a point in time they’re referring to, and that might be different from place to place, but it’s generally accepted in the United States that anything anything that showed up after 1492 is not native. There are people who are willing to describe most non-native plants as “invasive” or throw them in that bin as soon as possible, and then the poisons come out, so this is an important issue.
T: Yes, but we don’t really know the social, ecological, economic context that was going on at that point in time that led to a particular assemblage of plants. There’s no doubt that the floral and faunal assemblies were different, but we should think really hard about why they’ve changed. Draining the wetlands of the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys in California has major ecological implications. Damming the Colorado River for hydro-power and irrigation capacity has major ecological implications. These bigger scale things that we do—that we support—are going to change the surrounding ecosystem. If we can acknowledge that and observe what’s happening because of those major shifts, I think we’ll be in a better position to understand so called “invasions” from a more holistic perspective.
K: Because the entry of an invasive plant or animal into a landscape is in virtually all cases preceded by a human-caused disturbance of some kind.
T: It’s interesting. When I was writing, [I wondered if I] should I put forward the idea of reclaiming a different name because “invasive species” has kind of this negative connotation, but the more I looked into evolutionary biology and some of the ways—in the deep time perspective—how systems have changed, “invasion” is one of these processes and it’s not unnatural. Taking that longer term perspective is important as well. That’s how plants came to be on land. There were marine beds of algae hanging out in the shallow seas a couple billion years ago and eventually, speciation happened because of changing conditions and the land was “invaded” by those plants. You just see that change over time leading to the type of biodiversity that we have now, punctuated by other kinds of events of course, but it’s not something that’s “outside the realm of nature,” which is how invasive species are situated in a lot of discussions.
K: Right. Because plants have always been moving around. So for example the emblematic species of the Mojave Desert is the Creosote Bush, Larrea tridenta, also known as Governadora, and that plant is originally from South America at a similar latitude and was apparently brought here on the tail feathers of migrating Plovers.
T: Oh cool!
K: That’s a tremendous distance from the southern part of South America all the way up here. That’s a really big deal. In that case, what’s making, quote, invasive species different is that people did the moving. But it’s not just that people did the movement, but that colonizing Europeans did the moving.
T: Yes. The field of restoration, at least historically, has really negated the whole indigenous management of North America and other places—the fact that people were here at the time of colonization and had thriving societies and had systems of land management that were displaced forcefully. It’s something that doesn’t really come into conversations about restoration. It’s always about the plants. It’s never about people’s cultural relationships. I’m in a Oregon Native Plant group, and people are always posting pictures of Camas, which is a very pretty plant in the Lily family that grows here. It’s beautiful. It’s also a staple food crop of the native people of this part of Oregon. That just doesn’t situate in those conversations.
I feel like the idea of restoration is this guilt about what happened, and it’s not going to the appropriate place because it’s not really doing that kind of deep healing and reparations work that needs to happen with indigenous communities who were forced off their land. The, quote, native plants that we say now that we love are actually parts of an intact cultural management system. That really needs to be part of the conversation of restoration.
There’s glimmers of it here and there, but that’s a hard one for a lot of people that I’ve interacted with in the restoration community because it’s easy to wall of a piece of land, spray everything that you don’t like, and for a moment in time it looks really pretty, but it’s really not addressing these fundamental structural issues either culturally or ecologically. So it remains a figment of the colonial imagination, in my opinion.
K: Because what you’re referring to here as well is that the landscapes that Europeans encountered as they moved across the continent were not “wild” landscapes in the sense of being untended or unaffected by human beings—that most of the landscapes from the Atlantic to the Pacific were in fact deeply affected by the indigenous people who lived there. Many different nations and tribes, all with different styles of management and with different sets of plants, but all of it in common that they were not “untouched.”
T: Yes, bringing that piece of human-mediated disturbance, or moderate intermediate disturbance, into the discussion of ecosystem restoration is really important. A lot of people feel like they’re racing to put out the fires of “invasion” and they feel like all this habitat is being lost, and things are being plowed under, and are being paved under, and the intention there of saving and maintaining biodiversity is good. However, I don’t fell like there’s this kind of fundamental questioning of that very system that is doing those things. Instead of trying to preserve these little squares of land. Oftentimes, like in the context I worked in, one of the first things I asked was, “Can we invite members from the local tribal communities to advise on this project because here we are planting all of their cultural food plants.” But the agency I worked for was like, “Oh no, we can’t do that.”
That really needs to shift and doing that would start to bring out a much more rich tapestry of what it means for people to really live in an ecosystem and observe that, “well, if we burn this, every two to three years, this is how it affects this species and we get this number of butterflies per acre. It could just be a more interesting conversation of how people can relate to a place in a good way. I’m excited about that.
K: Definitely. Me too. I have a very strong interest in wildtending and that connects to something you refer to as the “intermediate disturbance hypothesis” because with a lot of restoration the goal seems to be, “let’s fix this piece of land, and then let’s leave it alone. We won’t touch it because that’s the only way to heal it.” But you bring up this idea of intermediate disturbance, which is what a lot of native people were doing.
T: Observing what’s happening in the restoration community lately, I think that is gaining more traction. I’ve heard the Nature Conservancy is starting to experiment more with prescribed fire in my region at least, and seeing how that does both in terms of invigorating native species. I don’t know if they’re doing it particularly to manage invasive species, but at least they’re bringing that back to the land and acknowledging that at least here, in western Oregon, that’s how landscapes were managed for thousands of years. That, in addition to grazing animals, which many restoration practitioners are not excited about. Around here, there were huge herds of Elk and Deer that were a staple food source and had a significant impact on the prairie and the savanna landscapes ecologically.
So, playing around with those different forms of disturbance and mimicking fire where it’s appropriate in our current context, and thinking about the timed impact of grazing in appropriate ways, is really another layer that we should be thinking about for larger scale landscape management.
K: One of the problems is not looking at long enough of a timelines when some of these things might play themselves out. You talk about succession for example.
T: When it comes to invasive plant species, most are early succession species, so most of them exist in this ecological time frame that’s pretty immediately post-disturbance. In a traditional succession being early successional species that have rapid growth, often lots of flowers with nectar for pollinators, seeds for birds. Sometimes they have thorns or other things to keep them from getting eaten so they can survive and reproduce. That type of early successional species exists in every ecosystem. If you take the label of “invasive” or “native” off of it and look at it in terms of niche or ecological function, you can see where these species fit in, in an ecological time frame. They’re literally not going to be there forever. There’s not going to be “old growth” Canada Thistle or Dalmatian Toadflax or whatever these apparently scary plants are. Something else is going to come in and be the next phase of succession, moving it towards a more climax-type plant community, which is usually characterized by species that live for a long time. In forested ecosystems, you would see a closed canopy, so most of the ground is being shaded.
I heard a really interesting story from a woman I met at the conference after I’d written this where she had bought a property in northern California in the early ’70s. She wanted to start a farm. It was a forty acre property and there was a ten acre portion in the back that she’d never even really had the chance to visit, she was so busy with the front thirty. When she bought it, it had been a neglected, overgrazed horse pasture covered in Canada Thistle, which is an invasive species, and she was kind of worried about it at the time, but she let it go. She couldn’t really deal with it. She said about ten years in, Scotch Broom, which is another invasive species, a nitrogen-fixing shrub, moved in, and eventually all the Canada Thistle was gone. She did nothing. The Scotch Broom was a complete thicket, totally covered the ground. Her local weed board was really worried about this patch. She still didn’t do anything.
So, about forty years after she arrived, the Scotch Broom individuals started to die. Each shrub only lives about thirty years, and if the soil is undisturbed underneath them, their seeds are not going to propagate. But underneath the canopy, the soil was dark and rich, with organic matter, and the seedlings of the native forest in her area were germinating . So there was Madrone and Manzanita, Douglasfir, Great Pine, a diverse array of seeds that were still in the seed bank.
I thought that story was so beautiful, and poignant in a way. She really just let it be that a lot of restoration professionals aren’t really willing to do because they’re working on a short time frame.
A lot of these plants are really just filling a gap in my estimation, to move the ecosystem in another direction.
K: So, in instances where we’re going in and spraying the Wild Mustard or going in and continually yanking everything up, we might actually in some instance be working against our own goals, because what we’re doing is freezing it there, at that early successional phase, and not letting it develop past that?
T: A lot of these species thrive in disturbance, so creating more disturbance will encourage them to thrive more. Disturbing the soil will allow their populations to grow. And that’s one of the arguments people use for herbicide application, so you have to look at it from that perspective too. People say this will give the native species a chance. I can see that perspective but I would argue that there are other ways of accomplishing that goal. There’s lots of ways of being creative with approaching your management, depending on what your long term goals are.
One of the things I always bring up to people is that your goal shouldn’t be to remove invasive species, it should have more to do with the vision of the ecosystem that you’d like to see. We’re managing for something. A forward thinking vision, rather than just focusing just on removing what we see as wrong with the system.
K: That’s a completely different type of relationship than we usually have with land in this culture. As you know, as a small-scale organic farmer, Big Ag is an entirely domineering and destructive practice.
T: When I do presentations about this, I bring up again and again: most every year for the past twenty years at least, there’s about 250 million acres of crops grown in the United States that are just three species: Corn, Soy and Wheat. 250 million acres is much more land than any invasive species cover—or even all invasive species if you were to total up the amount of acres that invasive species cover. It wouldn’t even touch that amount of land. And yet, we consider in our collective imagination about land management and economics, that corn and soy and wheat are valuable and we consider the destruction of ecosystems in their name to be something that we have to do. I really think that that needs to be questioned. I think restoration professionals should really be thinking about those landscapes as the ones that need to be addressed, because that’s where we’re getting our dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s a major driver of diversity loss worldwide. So let’s put our hearts and our minds towards addressing the real root of the problem and get creative with agricultural restoration, forestry restoration. We should be meeting all these biodiversity goals in the context of which we’re meeting our livelihood needs and that’s where we really need to focus.
K: You also talked about how there’s species of invasive plants we can use.
T: Many of them have edible or medicinal or craft value. We have an opportunity to engage with them in a way that maybe we don’t think of as often. Many beekeepers are aware of some of the values that invasive species offer in terms of long-lasting blooms, like Star Thistle and Himalayan Blackberries, [which] are prized by many beekeepers in the western United States. Many of them can be eaten directly as food by people like Garlic Mustard, Kudzu Root. For those that aren’t directly edible, many of them create lots of valuable biomass. So thinking about compost and compost building on a larger scale, which helps with soil remediation, organic matter building, carbon sequestration. There’s lots of different things that we could be thinking about.
As a person who’s interested in food production, I’ve done a lot of different things over the years in terms of growing food for sale or growing food for myself and I often think about things in relation to that and to filling my needs and my community’s needs. Thinking about melding our larger landscape management to meeting some of those needs is really important.
K: Cuz everyone loves Blackberries, but they hate the shrubs. [Laughs.]
T: I’m in the southern Willamette Valley in Oregon and driving up the valley, where it’s Big Ag territory, the whole thing is completely decimated. What are we seeing? Are we mad at some shrub? Shouldn’t we be mad that these riparian areas are completely destroyed and the Oak savanna is completely plowed under? Blackberries are great in that context.
K: I spent some time farming in the Willamette valley, in Polk County, in the heart of grass seed country. So many chemicals and so many bad practices for that crop which takes up 50% of the Willamette Valley. Which isn’t edible. It’s just an ornamental. It’s literally growing seeds for golf courses and lawns. That’s half the valley right there. That’s the problem. The fact that we drained or otherwise affected 90% of the wetlands and replaced it with these exotic crops, most of which aren’t even for food. People are like, “Farming. Yeah, we need that. We need to eat. ” Well yeah, but how much of the corn’s being grown for ethanol? How much is being grown for the large confined animal operations, which people oppose for any number of reasons. That’s a tremendous amount of land that’s having poison dumped on it. Of course, all agricultural species are excluded from the definition of “invasive.”
T: Anyone from the middle of the United States knows that the whole landscape is corn and soy. It’s appalling to me. It’s very sad that that’s what we’ve done to that landscape. I know that a lot of people are working to change that and to re-imagine. Get the animals out of the buildings where there are eating corn and soy and put them on perennial prairies where they want to be. We could have so many ecosystem services by restoring that landscape to—not necessarily exactly what it was before—but at least an approximation of it. The food would be healthier, the animals would be healthier, and we would too.
K: In the last part of your book, you talk about how to apply the principles of permaculture to the situation with invasive species.
T: For me, the ethics and principles of permaculture—which are really based on a global survey of traditional land-based indigenous techniques and technologies from all over the world—have these fundamental patterns that are expressed in the principles. Using that framework for me has been helpful, thinking about challenges and the kind of issues that invasive species management brings up for people. One of those is “the problem is the solution”—you always looks towards: how you can think about the situation creatively and have a perspective on it that we can come up with something that works for people and also for the non-human world. One of the things we say in permaculture is “Gaia is the ultimate client.” What we’re really working for is not just human needs, but really meeting the needs of the non-human world, making space for that. That’s really not considered in a lot of conventional contexts.
K: Though that was certainly central to a lot of the Native American approaches that were here before.
T: Yes. That kind of whole systems perspective and understanding that our actions have ramifications that ripple throughout the ecosystem where we live is really something that, pre-capitalism, and even inter-capitalism, people fundamentally understood that. We’ve been blinded as a collective for the past few hundred years, not of our own volition, by what’s been imposed in the interest of making money. We need to take some time to step back from that and think about what’s that’s yielded for ourselves and for our planet, and re-envision what could be instead. Learning from people who have had that deep relationship with landscapes for thousands of years and who have not been displaced.
I would say, in my own research, I’ve been looking more into what—as a person of European descent—what the history of people was there. It follows a similar pattern: enclosures of the commons in England and France and Scotland, Ireland. These places where people used to make a non-monetary based livelihood work. This was the nascent beginnings of capitalism that edges out into colonialism once the resources were stretched in Europe. The powerful class went looking for more. That kind of trauma—of experiencing land dispossession—has been going on for a very long time and that’s an interesting story to tell as well.
K: Because partly what we’re accusing invasives of doing is dispossessing.
T: Yes. It goes back to that guilt feeling. We know that something is wrong out in the ecosystem and it can be easy to be just like, “It’s the plant. It’s the plant that’s displacing all these beautiful natives that should be here instead,” whereas the subtext is that European interests dispossessed people who have a rightful claim to this land, and maybe we feel a little bit guilty about that, as we should. As people who have benefited from that dispossession, we really need to reckon with that, with what that means and continues to mean for indigenous communities. It’s a very rich conversation…
At the time that I was researching there wasn’t a lot of non-herbicide based management studies, like peer-reviewed research, because it’s the pesticide corporations that are funding these weed management degrees. So instead of comparing how rotational grazing compares with aminopyralid on Cheat Grass, they’re saying, how much aminopyralid do you put on an acre of Cheat Grass? That’s a problem. That’s a big problem in academia in a number of different fields. There’s these big corporate interests that are expecting certain outcomes having to do with sales of their products, that they’re funding people’s educations, so they set the framework. That’s unfortunate…
Let’s get some of this science on the ground about alternatives, because that’s where people at the National Resource Conservation Service, who are like, “That’s sounds great but I can’t just write a policy memo about your random thought about goats or grazing systems vs. herbicides.” They need to have the papers. That, I would say, is something to look forward to in the future.
K: We hear about the precipitous declines in insect populations, so, anything that will affect their populations, we should avoid.
T: There’s a lot of examples with invasives that are havens for various insects. Like the Spotted Knapweed that’s really common in the intermountain West, and pollinators of all sorts—native and non-native—just love that plant, and yet it’s one of the most reviled plants in that region. There’s some real tough conversations that need to be had in that context. It’s largely because of ranching interests that people want grass. To me, it’s kind of a question of, can you create more mixed-species pasture assemblages that would fulfill some of the needs of those pollinators and maybe Knapweed wouldn’t be such an important food source for them if they had a more diverse offering that you’re creating through your range management?
K: Right, because our actions have been changing the world and changing the ecosystems. New plants have been coming in, and in the meantime the native animals and insects who were there have been making use of these new assemblages.
T: Yes, and we should be glad that they are. Otherwise we’d been in even more of a precarious situation. If you’ve been to these big agricultural producing areas, there’s very little habitat anywhere to be found. The fields are sprayed right up to their fence lines and there’s nothing but crop. It’s no wonder to me that we’re in that calamitous situation with the insect world.
K: I’m from Nebraska and I’m quite familiar with that landscape and I’ve spent a lot of time in California too and I’ve seen the Central Valley and how it’s been completely raked over. It’s just one monocrop after one monocrop so then it’s no surprise to find out that 2/3 of the Butterfly species in California now use non-native plants for nectar sources and for laying their eggs.
T: They’ve made due with what’s available. Some of them haven’t done as well but that’s not the fault of the species of plant in my opinion. That’s the fault of the design system that has taken away all their habitat. I think that just as an example in California, the fact that almond growers have to import honey bees because bees don’t have any forage other than those three weeks that the trees are flowering. They spend so much money to bring down bees from Oregon and elsewhere to pollinate these almonds and you drive through there and there’s so much potential. There’s so much you could grow in that climate that would provide year round nectar and you wouldn’t really reduce productivity, yield per acre, that much, just by interspersing a row of pollinator plants and or other crop species with more of a bloom period into those systems, That’s like low hanging fruit—literally.
It’s thinking like that, where we start thinking about our relationship to the non-human world and how we can position ourselves as real stewards of that, and how we need to at this point. We need to be really thinking about integrating our livelihood in ways that serve them as well. That’s something that I’m very keen on.