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Aesthetic considerations in the debate with native plant advocates

November 15, 2013

Recently, we have been writing about the classification of eucalyptus as “invasive” by the California Invasive Plant Council (Cal-IPC). Judging by the traffic to those posts and the volume of comments, this topic has been of interest to our readers.  Therefore, we plan to continue mining the Cal-IPC assessment of eucalyptus.

However, we are making a brief digression today to discuss an interesting comment we received from one of our subscribers that speculates that the “aesthetics” of the native compared to the non-native landscape is yet another reason why it is so difficult to find common ground.  Here is the comment from Presley Martin:

“It was the eucalyptus page on the Cal IPC that made me realize that much of this debate comes down to aesthetics. They don’t like it because it’s “encroaching on the ocean view.” And from the Cal IPC website, “Stature and growth form are distinctive and unlike native tree species, which compromises the visual quality of natural landscapes.” They’re upset about the “visual quality” of the landscape, which I see as, man those trees are tall, they’re blocking my precious view. This is not really about loss of habitat and dead birds, it’s about what we think our view of the land should look like. That is why I think art can be one of the most effective tools in this fight to stop the destruction of living plants and animals. You can see my efforts to this end here: http://presleymartin.com/invasive-species-project.html

We visited Mr. Martin’s website and were even more intrigued by his suggestion that “art can be one of the most effective tools in this fight to stop the destruction of living plants and animals.”  Here is his explanation from his website of how art can be a weapon to fight against the pointless eradication of non-native species.

“With the precariousness of our environmental situation ever more apparent, the cultural discourse surrounding our place in the environment is still dominated by an outdated paradigm. My works present images, forms, and performances that are contrary to the dominant environmental discourse surrounding so called invasive plants and animals. They highlight the inseparability of natural and man-made phenomena.

Snail Tenement at Montalvo Arts Center.  By Presley Martin with permission

Snail Tenement at Montalvo Arts Center. By Presley Martin with permission

The work provides documentation of the pockets or gaps in the urban metropolitan environment, under freeways, along rivers, so called waste places. These are places where the disaffected, and homeless congregate, and also where nature stakes a claim. Most of the plants and animals that are willing and able to grow in such places are non-native. Plants and animals that have wandered the globe and taken up residence far from where they originated. It should be pointed out that the movement of plants and animals is tied directly to the movement of people. These “invasive” species are global citizens of the non-human world. The places they occupy are the newest “wild” places, and they are precisely the breeding ground of a new relationship with the environment and way out of our environmental predicament. These works are examples, sign-posts on the path to a future where our culture no longer suffers an invisible impoverishment because of looming environmental catastrophe. If our culture is to survive we will need a blossoming of empathy for all living creatures”

We applaud the generosity of spirit expressed in Mr. Martin’s explanation of his work.  It brings to mind the open arms of the Statue of Liberty and the poem engraved on it:  “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore  Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,  I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”  We welcomed our immigrants at one time and they have made us a great nation.  Why not welcome the plants and animals that inevitably made the trip with them? 

The aesthetics of native vs. non-native landscapes

We have rarely discussed the question of aesthetic judgment of native compared to non-native landscapes on Million Trees.  The one exception to that general rule is a report of the reaction of early explorers to the Bay Area to the dry, summer landscape.  Frankly, they didn’t think it was very appealing.  Visit that post HERE to see what they said.

Although we happen to agree with the opinions of the early explorers, we have rarely used that argument on Million Trees because we consider aesthetics strictly a matter of opinion.  As they say, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”   Consistent with that opinion, we always urge native plant advocates to plant whatever they want, but just quit destroying everything else and we always say, “we respect your horticultural preferences.”  We have horticultural preferences too, but it never occurred to us that we had the right to impose them on those who don’t share them.

Although we believe those statements and stand by them, fall is a good time of year to illustrate the stark contrast between the native and non-native landscapes.  Virtually all of our fall color is absent in the native landscape.  Here are a couple of photos to illustrate that point.  The first photo was taken recently.  It shows a colorful house flanked by colorful trees that complement the color scheme of the house.  Could anyone dispute that this house would not be nearly so lovely without its surrounding landscape?

fall-color-3

Ginkgos & Japanese Maple

The second photo is of the Serpentine Prairie in Oakland.  The photo was actually taken in June, but that landscape will continue to look brown and dead until the rains start.  As Bay Area residents know, the rain is late this year and so our brown natural landscape persists.

Serpentine Prairie restoration.  East Bay Regional Park District

Serpentine Prairie restoration. East Bay Regional Park District

The Serpentine Prairie is one of many “restorations” by the East Bay Regional Park District.  EBRPD destroyed 500 trees to return the landscape to a treeless prairie.  Many of the trees were native oaks and bays.  The prairie is predominantly non-native annual grasses, but the hope is that native bunch grasses can be restored there because the serpentine rock suppresses the growth of plants that would otherwise compete with the bunch grasses and other rare native plants.  The prairie will have to be burned periodically to prevent natural succession to shrubs and eventually trees.

We assume native plant advocates like the look of the Serpentine Prairie.  Since they demanded this particular “restoration,” they are surely obligated to defend it.  But what do you think?  Do you think it was worth destroying 500 trees, including many oaks and bays?  And do you think aesthetic arguments against the destruction of non-native species deserve more coverage on Million Trees?  If so, please give us some examples of suitable comparisons that support your viewpoint?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Madeline Hovland permalink
    November 16, 2013 4:37 pm

    The most annoying argument against preserving non-natives is that they are bad for the environment, while natives supposedly contribute to environmental health, whatever that means. About the aesthetics of eucalyptus, in my opinion, when they are properly maintained they are beautiful trees. The rainbow eucalyptus, with its many-colored bark, has been called the most beautiful of all trees. Even the trunk of blue gum eucalyptus, when stripped of loose bark, shows various colors in sunlight, and after rain, a sunlit blue gum euc trunk is lovely, with colors shading from blue greens to brown, white and black. The loose, open branches of tall eucalyptus trees standing on a ridge are quite wonderful because one can see the sky in the spaces among the branches. They are so much more interesting to look at and more graceful than redwoods. We should be grateful that in this area we can see so many of these wonderful trees; we should treasure them and take care of them, to keep them fire-safe and living long among us.

    • November 16, 2013 6:27 pm

      One of my favorite views of the Blue Gum is from the tower on the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco. If you take the elevator to the viewing deck at the top of the tower while the Blue Gums are flowering (from December to May in California), you can look down on the flower bedecked canopy of the Blue Gum. Since the Blue Gum is tall and most of the flowers are found at the end of its branches, it’s difficult to appreciate how many flowers there are without such a birds-eye view.

      I often wonder if the bizarre myth about the flowers “gumming” up the beaks and nostrils of birds would have persisted if the flowers had been more accessible to people. Once you have the opportunity to touch the flower to realize that the nectar in the flower is watery, you realize how ridiculous that myth is.

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