Help Defend Our Undocumented Immigrant Plants and Animals
(as we should do our humans)
Those of us who are trying to save our local plants are in an ongoing battle with fanatics who want to kill anything “non-native” in our local parks (except for themselves). I’ve been writing a series of articles on this issue, which is also about fire prevention….
Once upon a time, people in the San Francisco Bay Area were thrilled to live in a place where so many exquisitely beautiful and edible plants from all over the world could survive. It’s not a tropical region, but sub-tropical, so there are limits to what grows here, and it depends on the area (such as that along the coast and cities like San Francisco, which are much colder in summer are warm enough in winter for species that cannot survive the cold just a few miles away.) But, still, there is so much magnificent variety that cannot live in other parts of the US.
People loved to plant what they missed from their homelands. In our small yard, the previous Lebanese owner had planted a Greek Bay Laurel, Olive, Sour Orange, Apricot, Nectarine, Apple, Pear, and Plums. Our poor neighborhood that was once mostly barren dry grass and juniper hedges, now has so many beautiful herbs and plants that just taking a walk is like a trip to a Botanical Gardens. There also has been an increase in birds and other native animals.
Visitors used to be stunned that even the California freeways could be beautiful, with South African Ice Plant in full glowing bloom, and large trees and shrubs that bloom throughout the year to help clean the air from the traffic and soften the noise.
And then, something very disturbing happened. A movement began to spread that many of us recognized as being frighteningly similar to the racist hatred against immigrant people, but this time it was about nature, in the guise of being for nature. Most of the luminous Ice Plant is now being eradicated. Flowering plants, including edible herbs, who most rational people would revere for their beauty and ability to survive in an increasingly inhospitable and dry land are being called “trash,” and targeted and killed. (This has become such a popular fad that sometimes the nativists aren’t even sure which plants to hate and mistakenly include native plants, like Poison Oak, on their non-native hit list.)
For no apparent reason and without the input of the majority of people living here, these people have been given the power of life and death for countless living beings. Their fanaticism has extended to their killing forty large healthy native Redwood trees in a small local urban park in the wasteland of the barren, mostly treeless part of Oakland, because those trees had been originally brought from a city north of the Bay Area and so weren’t “native.” (Most of what is planted anywhere has been grown elsewhere.) The nativists also use massive amounts of pesticides in their “restoration” projects, which then poisons our creeks and bay, where animals are “mysteriously” dying. We now never know when we go to a park if trees or even lakes we have loved for decades will be gone. In Pt. Reyes National Seashore, the nativist fanaticism led to the destruction of a beautiful little lake where Great Blue Herons and Great Egrets nested and many other species, from Kingfishers to Muskrats, lived. The lake was a significant fresh water source for deer, bobcats, etc.
Great Blue Heron Black-Crowned Night HeronGreat Egret
There is nothing wrong with loving native plants and animals, but why should that mean hating and killing non-natives?
The fact that most of the “nativists” are primarily non-native themselves and are among the most privileged people in the Bay Area is no surprise. Neither is their hypocrisy when it comes to their own gardens (many of which are full of non-native roses, fruit trees, vegetable and herb gardens, and showy ornamentals, as well as their own chosen companion animals who are also not native and often are a danger to native animals. The other aspect of their arrogant hypocrisy is that it never occurs to them that, as a non-native animal, they should remove themselves before removing any plant or animal, and especially any plant benefiting native animals (which is all the plants they have targeted for execution.)
It’s not just innocent plants (who do feel and think) who being reviled and killed, but animals are also are being poisoned, trapped, and shot for no rational reason. The killing frenzy even includes important keystone native animals, like the California Ground Squirrel, who has complex language like their cousin Prairie Dogs, simply because of propaganda and nativists’ lack of knowledge about nature.
California Ground Squirrel babies
My first introduction to nativism was when I got involved in an Audubon project to help the Burrowing Owls, who are tiny owls who use Ground Squirrel burrows to live in. Once, they were one of the most common birds in California, but no longer. Those in charge of the Audubon project knew nothing about the owls, so they asked a UC Berkeley “expert” who told them to cut all plants down in the owl area. So they cut down every plant, leaving the returning migrating owls to stand forlornly behind the stump of their shrub, which also left them exposed to off-leash dogs. (At least they did later apologize to those of us who had been horrified at what they’d done, but too late for the owls.)
The Audubon people also talked about native versus non-native plants, making it obvious that they had no idea which plant was what. They were unaware that we were lucky to have anything growing in what used to be the Berkeley dump or that the nearby businesses had multi-million dollar landscaping with non-native ornamentals, so doing nativist “restoration” made no sense. Their next focus was to eliminate the Ground Squirrels, ignoring that there would be no owls there if not for the Squirrels since they provide the burrows for the owls, as well as help divert the most serious danger, which are off-leash dogs.
It was a disaster. The people who knew the most about the owls were those who were being driven out of the park: the poor people who daily fed the squirrels and loved and knew each individually going back generations, and who also protected the owls from dogs and humans. (Boys throwing rocks at wild animals is a popular pastime here, as elsewhere.) Now the squirrel-lovers were being fined for feeding their friends. (Remember when feeding squirrels in parks was one of the few pleasures of the urban poor?) These true experts knew that the owls depended on their shrubs, so that cutting all the plants down exposed the owls to dogs. It turned out that the “mysterious” decline in the owls was most likely because of the increase of off-leash dogs where most owners ignored the leash laws and let their dogs kills the owls. But the Audubon project people never seemed to figure that out and instead chastised anyone who would confront people with off leash dogs near the owls.
The designated habitat for the owls is a small area, yet Audubon next allowed an “art project” to be built right there, where an inadequate open fence was constructed that still let in dogs, and where concrete benches were placed, with one put on top of one of the last two owl burrows. The remaining burrow then was destroyed when the dirt path was replaced by a much larger paved path, for no reason. I had become involved as a docent and finally could not bear it any longer. It’s still painful to go to that park where we once could see the beautiful little owls just a few feet away.
I did manage to help stop the plan there for poisoning all the rest of the Ground Squirrels. In another East Bay Regional Park, however, they continue to poison them, even though that also means killing raptors and other wild animals who eat them. When I asked why they were doing this, the smug park representative simply asked if I’d seen the horror film, Willard, which was about rats. That was presumably to provoke me to shriek in horror and jump on a table at the thought of seeing lots of rodents. (Wrong move. I not only love squirrels but love rats even more. Such incredibly loving and kind and smart animals. Cover me in rats and squirrels and I couldn’t be happier. Now, crowds of humans polluting our parks is another story….)
Baby Rattus Rattus eating morning glory flowers in our loquat tree.
This is typical of our massive East Bay Regional Park system, which theoretically is a wonderful thing to have, where we can escape from the cities and increase in destructive humans to nearby wildness parks. But they are constantly spraying herbicides (which has been stopped in a nearby, but much richer county). The park authorities planned an aerial spraying of poison near a reservoir, to kill one of the only plants that can bloom in the driest, hottest time of year, which is the Yellow Star Thistle. They also targeted the exquisitely beautiful artichoke relative, Cardoon, which is edible and sold in gourmet produce stores. Their lack of coherent answers made it seem as if the park people don’t expect to be questioned about why they are poisoning our environment. This time, the stories changed each time one of us called. “We’re trying to help the boy scouts when they camp.” Since I’m a woman, they assumed boys would be priority for me over poisoning our environment. Why don’t the boy scouts camp in a designated area instead of spraying poison over a huge park from a helicopter? (Don’t even bother asking if there is a program for girl scouts to camp.) A friend was told, “It’s to protect bicycle tires from thistle punctures.” Again, why not just stay on the trails, which is the law since erosion in the parks is an ongoing concern and why risk running over wild animals? But our Coalition to Defend Our East Bay Forests did stop the spraying (for now).
The real issue about the spraying was to kill non-native plants. What is astounding is that this small group of nativists now has so much power in controlling decisions made by local government agencies and parks, that enormous numbers of healthy trees (and the native animals who depend on those trees for survival) are slated for clear-cutting, followed by extensive pesticide spraying. The nativists also have managed to bypass safety regulations and laws against poisons so that they have increased the use of pesticides on our public lands, including what leads to stream, lakes, reservoirs, the bay, and the ocean. Then there is surprise when some native animals in the bay are “mysteriously” dying. Even knowing that every one of us has the carcinogenic herbicide glyphosate in our bodies and in our ground water has not stopped the nativists. Nor has the increasing rate of cancer and chronic illness.
Even the organic wines made in our famed North Bay Sonoma and Napa counties have glyphosate. (A friend figured this out before it was well known because she got stomach pain from drinking Bay Area “organic” wine but had no problem with imported French or Italian wines.)
Meanwhile, our climate is changing and we need every tree we can get as our native trees are suffering and dying. Many of the introduced species from hotter, drier climates are doing fine and are more disease-resistant. They cool the air, bring down significant water from fog drip (up to 16 inches annually), and are needed by native animals for food and shelter. The most maligned tree here, the magnificent Blue Gum Eucalyptus, is the preferred nesting tree for eagles and hawks and large owls.
But that tree, as well as the beautiful Monterey Pine (who also enriches the soil and creates incredible plant and animal diversity) is the most targeted tree for killing because of the myth that they increase fire risk, though 90% of fire here is arson and it starts in the dry grasslands (no rain here for 5 to 6 months a year) with non-native Poison Hemlock and thistles, which is what grows after the trees are clear-cut.
I suggest everyone who has accepted the myths about fire danger from Eucalyptus learn the truth about how they actually help prevent fire. (These sites explains so much in detail: http://bapd.org/treenotes.html
While other parts of the US are frantically planting trees, the supposedly progressive Bay Area is killing them. People who get depressed in the darker months of January and February could realize how glorious the golden blooming Acacias are. (Australian trees do better here than our native trees.) And those who hate the Scotch and French Broom who also bloom gold in winter and help hold up hillsides (and houses) in danger from landslides could learn instead to treasure their evocative scent and beautiful flowers.
The nativists also should learn which “non-natives,” like the targeted Monterey Pine, Pinus Radiata, are actually native, based on fossil records (which can be seen in the map showing Marin and perhaps Sonoma counties, the peninsula, and the East Bay.)
I live is a hot, dry, concreted poor part of East Oakland, where any living plant feels like a miracle. A few months ago, a small Australian Bottlebrush tree/shrub in a median strip had been hit by a car and left a shattered mess. She had to be dead, and yet, with no water for months, she made a small flower and now is putting up leaves from her broken branches and base. What a survivor. I didn’t use to value them until I realized how long they bloom, feeding hummingbirds the entire time, and how many other animals benefit from them. In a friend’s neighborhood, there are a handful planted as street trees, grotesquely pruned into a lolli
pop shape, yet, when I go there, the birdsong is stunning because no predators can reach the birds who nest safely in the Bottlebrush trees.
Most people don’t know that many of our local spiders are also immigrants, usually from Europe and Asia. One of my favorites is a fairly recent undocumented immigrant from Australia. Badumna Longinqua is a shy sweet little spider who is perfectly adapted to our increasingly hot region. They began to appear along the West Coast a few years ago and are now all over the Bay Area. (I can show them to anyone who’d like to meet them.) They are easy to recognize because they make a unique, interesting lattice web that they fluff up, and then they have an opening where they hide, similar to our funnel weaver spiders who we can see along fences and other structures and in plants. http://www.terrain.net.nz/friends-of-te-henui-group/spiders/grey-house-spide.html
Badumna Longuinqua web
The females (who are usually the majority of spiders and web-builders) are a lovely soft brown/tan/grey/black with symmetrical geometric patterns similar to what some reptiles make. What I am amazed by is how they can tolerate conditions where most animals would die. One built a home behind my car side mirror and has become my car companion and survives even in hundred degree heat. (I do water her, but still….) She asks for nothing, and I enjoy knowing she travels with me and is likely to live for two years at least, as the previous one (her grandmother?) did. I am so fond of her. Yet most people have no idea about her, and if they did, they might call for her to be exterminated. Instead, she deserves our love and appreciation as do so many of the other wonderful plants and animals who now live among us. And who are we, most of us descendants of immigrants, to say who has the right to live in the Bay Area and the United States and who doesn’t?
All photographs (except for the owl) by Bev Jo