What Weeds Taught Me

by Wayne Heinze

Yellow flowering weeds grow through a park bench“… the kind of control you’re attempting simply is … it’s not possible. If there is one thing the history of evolution has taught us it’s that life will not be contained. Life breaks free, it expands to new territories and crashes through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously, but, uh … well, there it is … I’m simply saying that life, uh … finds a way.”

Those words spoken by Dr. Malcolm in the original Jurassic Park movie were not only accurate, but also my all-time favorite bit of cinematic philosophy. Not too surprising really, since it was just an affirmation of something I’ve always believed: everything belongs. More completely, everything belongs somewhere, whether we want it there or not. Extinctions and infestations are part of nature, often caused or exacerbated by humanity, but humans are part of nature too. Same as a squirrel, a toadfish, a mosquito or vegetation.

We all belong somewhere, but where that somewhere should be is often unclear. Along with extinction theories and predictions, topics such as invasive species or non-native species, and reintroduction of native species, and our role in all of this are all frequently debated. If an angler dumps his minnow bucket in a lake after fishing and introduces the goldfish he was using illegally for bait into the ecosystem, the blame and the consequences are pretty straight forward. Same with a power boater or kayaker who doesn’t wash off their boat and transports milfoil or zebra mussels from one lake to another.

But what of the heron who transports fish eggs that adhere to it’s legs, from the bass pond to the trout lake? Or the loon, cormorant or merganser who does the same with milfoil or lily pads? Or the gull who plucks a zebra mussel or crayfish or snakehead from one waterway and drops it into another? Harder to assess blame in those cases. And if we as human components of our ecosystem, discharge invasive species from the bilge tanks of ships, or by release aquarium pets, or consciously transport non-native species from waterway to waterway, or build dams or ski resorts or beachfront condos? What to make of that, if you consider that to be part of an ecosystem is to impact it.

Definitely hard to blame ourselves, but we must. Extinctions, migrations and hybridization have gone on far before the human factor was introduced, but we have exacerbated the problem and have multiplied and spread to all parts of our planet. And unlike the rest of the flora and fauna, we bring things, so our impact on our environment is exponential. And the Johnny Appleseed mentality on the land and the Johnny Pumpkinseed mentality on our waters were the wedges that completely unhinged the lid on Pandora’s Box. We make noble and much needed efforts to limit the damage and minimize the losses, and we sometimes succeed. And in the echo of the old Dick Cavet public service spot proclaiming the “Wilderness we save today is the only wilderness that will ever be saved,” we now try to replenish and restore. We bring more impact to the earth than any of our fellow travelers on this planet, but we do have the ability to correct some of our mistakes as well. Or perhaps just adapt to their consequences, we can do that too. I see this most commonly in the flora we call weeds.

Petty's Island and Oil Storage TanksRecently I had an opportunity to take a touring hike on Petty’s Island, a nearly 300 acre dredge spoil enhanced island that lies in the Delaware River between Philadelphia, PA and Camden/Pennsauken, NJ, which is not yet open to the public. The island was owned most recently by Citgo, who operated a refinery and storage farm there. The nation of Venezuela owns Citgo, and has reached an agreement to turn the island over to the US, a process that has already begun. The transfer will be complete in 2020, with the remaining Citgo offices and a small international container shipping/ receiving operation, closed by then. As part of the transfer, Citgo has agreed to begin remediation and restoration of the island during their remaining years. The immediate plans for the island are to have it restored as a nature preserve, with opportunities for passive recreation and nature observation, administered by a collaboration of the New Jersey Nature Conservancy, the Delaware River Keeper, the Cooper River Watershed Association and the New Jersey Audubon Society.

It was the Audubon Society and the Camden County Historical Society who put this limited “sneak preview” tour together, which happens a couple of times a year. Along with an occasional volunteer clean-up day, these are the only opportunities to see the island at this time. The hike I participated in was along the southwest shore of the island, on a trail built on top of the earthen levee built to hold back the drainage ponds or “tubs” that processed the dredge spoils. From the trail head and the parking area at the narrow access bridge, paved roads, storage tanks in various states of disassembly, sundry buildings in various states of disrepair, and the small container port were visible. In several areas along the trails, old iron discharge pipes were present, and a few rock walls, and a few other small structures.

But, so were a small herd of whitetail deer (including a couple of magnificent bucks), red fox, woodchuck, squirrels, chipmunks, sundry upland and shorebirds, as well as beaver and muskrat sign on this raw November morning. And although not visible today, a couple of pairs of bald eagles call Petty’s Island home. The fauna was obviously thriving, and so was the flora. But whereas the wildlife consisted primarily of native species, the island was, as one biologist put it, “a perfect laboratory for invasive species.” Back to “life will find a way,” in this case heavily influenced by humans. Multitudes of non-native species were introduced intentionally and randomly since colonial times, and accidentally in the dredge spoil operations and international commerce that took place here, allowing species from around the world to gain a foothold. And from there life found a way. Native oak, pines and cedars still maintain a hold, but many others have been supplanted by a host of invasive species like red maple, stilt grass, knotweed, thistle, loosestrife, buckthorn, black locust, wisteria, burning bush, Siberian elm, alders, various honeysuckles, ad infinitum. Or on a general sense, weeds.

Weeds can be broadly considered any flora growing in competition with, or to the detriment of, more desired or required species. The dandelions in our lawns are a real good example. But, I always liked those persistent little yellow flowers. A lot. So when I hike around Petty’s Island, I am not disappointed in the artificiality on the surface, but awed by the nature that thrives beneath. Even with decades of restoration, the island will never be the place that was home to the Lenni-Lenape for a thousand years before the Swedes rowed ashore more than four hundred years ago. But it will be something else, a refuge, a place of Phoenix-like return to habitats similar enough to the original to support descendants of the original fauna, and some of the flora. The fox I saw makes little distinction whether he ambushes his dinner from under an invasive Chinese bush clover or a native white snakeroot — or probably whether its meal is a native cottontail rabbit, or an invasive Norway rat.

So what weeds have taught me is not only to be vigilant about accidentally introducing non-native species, but to appreciate those that have established themselves, often against all odds and probabilities, and are part of our 21st century ecosystems. The same holds true with fish, reptiles, amphibians, mammals and birds. As an angler. I can tell you that the invasive populations of flathead catfish and Northern snakehead in the Delaware watershed are thriving and will never be eradicated, and controlled only with great difficulty. And I have come to believe that a island full of weeds, re-claimed from over industrialization, is good thing too, and beautiful in its own way. Petty’s Island offers hope that all we have lost is not beyond recovery to some degree. Weeds have told me this.

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