On walking away from the “Native+Invasive” Paradigm

The last two weeks we in SPURSE have been foraging quite a bit of Japanese Knotweed. Everyday we spread it on our sourdough as a chutney, and improvise some other delicious treat. Next we are making some pickles and wine using the basic methodologies we talk about in the cookbook.  Knotweed is a delicious tart plant when picked young perfectly named by Samuel Beckett. A quick google and you will find a thousand online recipes, as well as reports of its success in the world of fine dining from all over the globe (including our friends at Noma/MAD and Forage). It also has a long history as a powerful medicinal plant, as Timothy Lee Scott documents wonderfully in Invasive Plant Medicine. It is a magnificent urban citizen that breaks up abandoned parking lots, making soil, stabilizing riverbanks, doing general duty as an erosion control expert, providing multi-species habitats and tolerating salt and much besides. It is recent immigrant to North America, arriving in the 1870’s after the forced opening up of Japan to American trade (Peter Del Tredici covers this history insightfully). It is labeled, as most recent immigrants of both human and non-human varieties find themselves: “Alien” and viewed with great fear as “Invasive.”

One of the most worrying things to hear from fellow foragers, environmentalists, or others trying to do good by their local ecosystem is:

“Pick as much of this as you can, we are trying to eradicate it — it is an INVASIVE.”


“You can hunt this guilt free — it is not NATIVE” — These are direct quotes by the way.

Incase you might already get the wrong impression on where this blog is headed, two points right off the bat:

1. We do not doubt that most everyone has the best of intentions. We truly mean this. From our own hard won personal experience: good intentions can be as dangerous as more nefarious intentions. We are not interested in criticizing anyone for their intentions — we have neither the skills nor the interest of sitting in judgement. Developing a critical understanding how we act and frame our concepts of reality is not about criticizing individual motives, rather it is an essential part of collectively developing new practices — which is our real concern.

2. We totally get that things need to be managed and strong interventions are a necessary part of management (tho we would prefer to see current management practices shift towards co-shaping). We are ok with the hard transformative work of co-shaping environments. Additionally this is not a call to “leave nature alone” — that is not possible. All creatures are active parts of ecosystems — we are not and have never been in a position to “leave nature alone.”

3. And, let us quickly add a further point: we at SPURSE are not speaking from a position of having all the answers. The goal of the Eat Your Sidewalk project is working our way out of these problematic models and practices towards new ways of being-of-a-world. We are unsure of the right approaches, but we are willing to test out these ideas here and in greater depth in our Eat Your Sidewalk Cookbook and Codebook in the hopes of starting/continuing a difficult but constructive dialog. (Please see the bibliography at the end of the blog for references and further readings).

What is so disturbing about picking and hunting plants and animals to manage an environment then?

It is the attitude that we can, should, and are even required to approach any part of our reality with a vision of eradicating the invaders that disturbs us. For just a moment think experientially about this approach: what does it mean that our most basic framework when stepping outdoors is with the express goal of “guilt free” species murder? What happens to our worldview when we come to inhabit a black and white world of “it belongs here and therefore must be protected at all costs” and “it is not from here, therefore you can and should kill it all.” With this model as a core part of how we think and act in the world, how can we come to pay attention to how any part of our world as actually interacting, evolving and thriving? At what cost do we apply the lens of first checking if something is “native” or “alien” before we deciding how we interact with it? At what cost to ourselves, and to the very environment we are interested in protecting, is the framework of total preservation and total eradication? What is left of ecology after “keep out” and “remove it all” has shaped our thinking?

Perhaps you think we exaggerate, and that while it is true that the Native vs Invasive model is pervasive in the general environmental consciousness, no one is actually becoming a blood thirsty killer hell bent on eradicating all things invasive. This is exactly our worry, our everyday environmental worldview of Native vs Invasive is a banal reflex action. When someone says “Invasive” we think without really thinking about it: “here is a problem that needs to be removed.” And when someone points out a “native” species we reflexively smile and think “how wonderful to see this special thing that has evolved to fit just right.” Our mindset of eradication and conservation is so very mundane and habitual. This worldview is part of larger one that helps us unconsciously see and sort the world into to cascading series of either/or boxes: Is it Natural (yes or no), if yes then is it wild or disturbed, if wild how do we keep things out and if disturbed how to we remove the disturbance? etc. etc.

To what lengths are we willing to go with this model? In 2006 the federal government spent over 722 million dollars in herbicides and pesticides to eradicate invasive species. Are these toxins not affecting the whole of the ecosystem? There are many conservation groups and individuals working with the sole purpose of eradicating specific species, “Broombusters” and “Eating Aliens” being but two examples. Try asking these groups: what parts of ecosystems have come to depend upon those species they are attempting to wipe out? In many cities mobile gas wagons are used to kill invasive species. This is all just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

It should come as no surprise with all this talk of species eradication, true natives and gas wagons, that the model of Native and Invasive passes through the Nazi Regime. A model of a perfect fit between species and an environment is what the National Socialists developed as the cornerstone of their ecological, agrarian and racial policies of “Blut und Boden” (Blood and Soil — Anna Bramwell offers a clear historical account of this). While none of those who use the terms Native or Invasive today are in any way National Socialists, it should be a deep worry to all of us that the model we are using was once central to a modern genocidal regime (see Zygmunt Bauman). The frameworks we apply to humans, we also apply to non-humans. Racism, the drive for purity and exclusion have always been part of the conceptual toolbox of western environmental movements. They remain invisible in full view in the discourse of Native and Invasive.

Having spent a lifetime within this paradigm can we still see the complexity of interactions in the world around us without falling back into these dangerous binaries? Can we still see how all species migrate? Can we still see how species shape environments and how novel ecosystems emerge? Can we see how we as animals are completely and totally part of the environment? Can we still see complex webs of interdependencies that exceed any species by species plug-and-play model? What is clear to us is that in looking at our popular environmental discourse the answer is, for the most part,“no.” This is what worries us.

When we raise these concerns with fellow foragers and citizen scientists, the discussion invariably turns to science: “but the science is clear, look at the massive literature on Natives and Invasives, how can you claim these are problematic concepts?” This is correct, at least on the surface. These terms, and their use in the historical literature is clear — historical ecological science speaks of species as being either native or invasive. But the scientific discourse has been rapidly evolving away from this specific framework. That said, this is a moment in the ecological sciences rife with heated debates on this topic. The model of Native vs Invasive is by no means a settled area of research, nor is there any clear agreed upon definition of “Invasive” (see Pereyra for a good overview).

Even excluding for a moment those who argue that the paradigm is wrong, few scientists would now argue that a species is in itself invasive. The invasive designation has become more of a condition or a state of a species (see Richard J. Hobbs et al). What is being considered is the question: how is an existing ecosystem changing and what are the (multiple) drivers? What conditions or forces are pushing an ecosystem across a threshold into a new state? The species that play a key role in this are now considered to be in an “invasive state.” Which is to say both historically established species and recently immigrated species can go “invasive”. Even here the language is changing ecologists speak of “transformer species” (which given the conditions could be what others might call “native” species). The concept of “native” has equally shifted to some degree towards other terminology: historic, established, current (see Gould for the classical critique of the concept of Native). But just as importantly the developing dynamic systems approach has less of a species center culprit approach, and more of a holistic view of shifting and evolving conditions, thresholds, multiple states, and emergent novel systems.

A big part of this shift is the mounting evidence that the very idea that eradication as a pragmatic and feasible management strategy is not possible in most cases. The on-the-ground evidence from countless costly damaging and failed eradication campaigns demonstrates that the very possibility of “getting rid” of an established recently migrated species is nearly impossible and comes at an enormous cost (think massive amounts of herbicides and pesticides). More and more we are coming to realize that we have to live with things (which does not mean anything goes). The Eat Your Sidewalk Cookbook is a long meditation on how we might imagine new ways of doing exactly this: living with things.

The debates go further than just transforming the existing paradigm, its terminology, and methodologies. We can see paradigmatically different ecological models emerging:

        • That begin by refusing to make a clear-cut distinction between the human world and the rest of the world (what is called Nature and Culture by traditional environmentalists). Samuel Thayer the great foraging guide writer is good example of this shift.
        • There is strong push to study the interactions of human systems and the rest of the world as one system (Peter Del Tredici).
        • There is also a strong interest in recognizing and developing cosmologies beyond our Nature+Culture model (Philippe Descola. Isabelle Stengers).
        • Urban ecosystems and interior ecosystems are being studied for their own merit and not as some failed state of Nature (Richard J. Hobbs).
        • There are ecologists who don’t judge species by where they come from. Species are seen to be ecosystem makers and not just adapters (Mark A. Davis).
        • Species are seen to be entangled networks of mutualistic facilitators and not simply competitors (John F. Bruno).

These shifts, ongoing debates and research are very promising as we all face numerous eco-social issues stemming from Rapid Climate Change. They are also very promising for all of us interested in the hard work of negotiating and co-shaping this world under our feet in a multi-species collaborative manner towards new ecosystems and cosmologies. Here are some of our thoughts on how to begin this work (we really would like to learn of your practices, so please send us your thoughts):

  1. Begin from an experimental position of first co-evolving interdependencies with the species that make up your local environment = develop real dependencies on your sidewalk.
  2. See foraging and hunting as tools of enhancing the mutual flourishing and producing the above condition of dependency. Develop these practices and a local urban level.
  3. Provisionally and experimentally step outside of the Nature+Culture paradigm.
  4. See creatures for what they do not for their designation. Understand what they do as context sensitive, subject to change and complex. See creatures as creatures with agency etc.
  5. Work in a specific place understanding and activating systems: understand system states, ecological succession, see species as your equal and collaborative partner in this activity. Collaborate with others as citizen scientists, and multi-species commons builders.
  6. Understand the actual histories of environmentalism and its political impacts. Work to actively address these present realities.
  7. Evolve new cosmologies and research programs outside of the Nature+Culture cosmology. Leave "invasive" and "native" behind as you develop new terms, practices and paradigms collaboratively. 
  8. We need to really shrink our own footprint radically, let us look at our practices and changed them, rather than condeming other species for our actions.

These are just general introductory notes. The Cookbook, Codebook and Posters are all tools that we have worked hard on to concretely, constructively and pleasurably co-evolve these practices. As we mentioned in our last post: for the month of May when you buy the Eat Your Sidewalk Cookbook we will include the total package: both of our posters and the code book for the price of the cookbook: $40.00 (we have already unofficially been doing this). Just select the cookbook alone and we will simply include the whole kit. Enjoy joining with your sidewalk and foraging into dependencies!

Abbreviated Bibliography:

Modernity and the Holocaust. Zygmunt Bauman. 

Blood and Soil: Walther Darre and Hitler's Green Party. Anna Bramwell. 

Inclusion of Facilitation into Ecological Theory. John F. Bruno et al. 

Beyond Nature and Culture. Philippe Descola.

Don’t Judge Species on their Origins. Mark A. Davis et al. 

An Evolutionary Perspective on the Strengths, Fallacies and Confusions in the Concept of Native Plants. Steven Jay Gould.

Novel Ecosystems: Intervening in the New Ecological World Order. Edited Richard J. Hobbs et al.

Revisiting the use of the invasive species concept: An empirical approach Patricio Javier Pereyra.

Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast: A Field Guide. Peter Del Tredici. An exceptional guide to the Novel Ecosystems of Urban Spaces.

Nature’s Garden: A Guide to Identifying Harvesting and Preparing Edible Wild Plants. Samuel Thayer.  


  • Jennie

    Thanks for the bibliography. I really liked the connection made between plant species and the way in which we discursively structure language about aliens or people who are perceived as “alien.” I have been thinking about what it means to be post human these days, and how language relegates sentient beings, humans included, to a lesser status. I’m still not sure if I could recognize Japanese Knotweed on my own though.

  • Norman Friday

    Commenting is difficult since I don’t know who your target audience is. If it is intended for a strictly academic/legalistic forum it certainly meets that criteria in spades. From a laymen perspective the “scientific model” tenets lost me about half way through the reading with constant redundant supportive data and references. Somehow this rhetoric has to be reduced to simplified kernels if it is intended to impact the general population and inspire them to adopt real time activity. Just saying, s’all.

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