Mysterious semantics of the native plant movement

In 2000, we wrote a public comment about plans to close areas at Fort Funston for native plant restoration that began with this quotation from Henry David Thoreau:

It is in vain to dream of a wildness distant from ourselves.  There is none such.  It is the bog in our brain and bowels, the primitive vigor of Native in us, that inspires that dream.  Thoreau

We chose that quote to introduce our comment about Fort Funston because it is a place that was entirely altered to serve as a military fort, its sand dunes stabilized with ice plant and studded with gun bunkers; it is not a place that is easily imagined as a pristine native landscape.  As with most poetry, Thoreau’s exact meaning escaped us, but what resonated was the suggestion that “wildness” exists in our minds, not in the material world.  We found comfort in knowing that over 150 years ago, Thoreau was as mystified by the concept of wildness as we are today.

Fort Funston
Fort Funston San Francisco 2011

Today, we revisit the question of the meaning of wildness or wilderness, prompted by the publication of an op-ed by Mark Dowie in the Point Reyes Light. (1)  Dowie is a journalist who is best known as the author of Conservation Refugees, in which he informs us that hundreds of thousands of indigenous people all over the world have been evicted from their ancestral lands by public and private land owners who believe humans are antithetical to their conservation goals.  Dowie tells us that the tradition of evicting humans in the interests of preserving “wilderness” began with the eviction of Native Americans from Yosemite Valley as advocated by John Muir.  This concept of preserving land by excluding all human activities is aptly called fortress conservation. 

Dowie begins his op-ed in the Light with the observation that some words have “attained such a vague and ambiguous definition that [they have] become virtually meaningless.”  The word “sustainability” has attained such status, he says and we agree.  But his focus in his op-ed is on the word “wilderness” because it is a word that has become a tool in a dispute about land use in Point Reyes, where Dowie lives.

The National Park Service defines “wilderness”

Drakes Estero.  NPS photo
Drakes Estero. NPS photo

After a protracted battle that lasted years, the National Park Service was finally successful in shutting down the Drakes Bay Oyster Company based on its contention that the existence of the oyster farm violated a commitment to return the Point Reyes National Seashore to “wilderness.”  This was a battle that tore a small community apart and the wounds from that fight are still deep.

Mark Dowie was one of many people who opposed the closing of the oyster farm and he was often eloquent in its defense in the Light.  One of many issues in this controversy was the National Park Service’s claim that the oyster farm was harming the environment.  Highly qualified scientists debunked that claim and after a review by the National Academy of Science, the claims of the National Park Service were entirely discredited.  Unfortunately, that had no influence on the final decision to close the oyster farm.

Within days of the oyster farm closing its retail operation, those who demanded its closure were on the warpath again.  In an op-ed published by the Oakland Tribune, William Katz asked the National Park Service to evict ranchers and dairy farmers in Point Reyes:  “The European invasion of this side of the continent over just the last 200 years is obviously a done deal.  This fact makes it especially necessary to complete the original mandate of the park’s creation by removing the ranchers and their bovine accoutrements and re-establishing a natural area in which we may only be visitors.”  The connection between those two sentences eludes us.  In fact, they seem contradictory.

Dowie searches for the meaning of “wilderness”

And so, the question of what defines a “wilderness” is still very much alive in Point Reyes.  Mark Dowie tells us that he has been actively seeking a meaningful definition for some years.  He turned to several indigenous cultures based on the modern assumption that pre-European cultures occupied the elusive “wilderness:”

“Over the next four years of research, I met and conversed with many indigenous people who thrived in landscapes that looked as wild as anywhere I had ever been, whose language had no words for ‘wild,’ or ‘wildness,’ or ‘wilderness.’  Naturally, I began to wonder why societies populated by urbane people who spend most of their lives, if not all of them, on the streets of places like New York City, London, Rome, Los Angeles and Winnipeg do have a word for wilderness.  And I wondered what exactly they meant by it, if anything.”

“What I finally figured out about ‘wilderness’ was that it’s really a concept that does not translate well from language to language, especially from western to indigenous languages.  So it’s really not the word that has to be translated, but an entire ecological enthnography.”

And so, Dowie turns to those who use the word “wilderness” as their definition of the goal for what our public lands and open spaces should look like and what activities should be allowed in them:

I recently overheard a debate in which to refine and defend his own personal definition, a local wilderness romantic divided the whole concept into two separate categories—uppercase and lowercase wilderness. Uppercase, he said, was “real” wilderness: vast roadless, trail-free areas occupied by many species, including large predators that want to eat humans.  Lowercase wilderness could be found in state and national parks; as virtual or abstract wilderness, it was a cunning, managed artifice of the uppercase version designed to convince eco-tourists that they are having a true wilderness experience.  The argument descended from there into such ridiculous semantic subterfuge that I walked away mumbling to myself that wilderness may not be a word at all, or a place for that matter, but as Roderick Nash concludes at the end of his 400-page tome on the subject, merely “a state of mind.” And that if wilderness exists at all, it could be as easily found and appreciated under a bench in Central Park as on the barrens of Baffin Island.”

Some of the stumps of the trees that were destroyed in Glen Canyon Park in 2013.  Taken June 2014
Some of the stumps of the trees that were destroyed in Glen Canyon Park in 2013. Taken June 2014

Yes, Mr. Dowie, you have indeed found the mysterious meaning of the word “wilderness” as a “bog in the brain,” to quote Mr. Thoreau.  We have our own example of a similar debate with native plant advocates about the future of Glen Canyon Park in San Francisco.  Our readers will remember Glen Canyon as the scene of the devastating removal of many huge, old trees and the repeated spraying of herbicides to prevent the trees from resprouting and destroy the non-native understory.  To those who objected to this destructive project, a native plant advocate responded:

Please note the term “wilderness.” It implies natural, native flora and fauna; the wild plants and the bird and animal populations that support one another. That is what we want to have if we want a wild retreat. A morass of garden escapes and foreign invasive species is to be deplored. Let’s progress toward returning the area to a REAL wilderness. Do not let the concept that a plant’s becoming established in an area is a sign of its becoming native to the area. It remains an invasive element, a weed. It disrupts and destroys the normal habitat of native plants, animals, and insects in its surroundings.  It will be a huge and long term task, but we can restore the entire canyon to a truly wilderness state. Let’s get started!”

In this version of “wilderness,” trees and plants must be sprayed with herbicide and a new landscape planted.  The result—if it is successful—will be an entirely artificial landscape.  There will be nothing “REAL” about it.

 Language is an obstacle to agreement

 One of many obstacles to reaching agreement with native plant advocates about the future of our public lands and open spaces is that we don’t share a vocabulary.  “Wilderness” is one of many words that cannot be defined by our mutual understanding.

“Sustainability” is another word that is used by native plant advocates, which we believe is inappropriately applied to the projects they demand because it is inconsistent with the realities of climate change and evolution.   The landscapes they are creating are no longer adapted to current environmental conditions.  They are not sustainable.

 “Integrity” has recently become a favorite buzzword of nativists, used to describe their idealized landscape.  We have absolutely no idea what that word means in the context of the contrived landscapes they attempt to create.

And so the debate continues with no end in sight.  Meanwhile our public lands are being destroyed in response to the demands of native plant advocates.  For us the word “wilderness” is now synonymous with “destruction,” which creates a fortress in which humans are not welcome.


(1) Mark Dowie, “The tortured semantics of wilderness,” Point Reyes Light, September 4, 2014

6 thoughts on “Mysterious semantics of the native plant movement”

  1. It was interesting that the Oyster Bay Company pretended to be the original long-term business at Pt. Reyes, which was not true.

    I believe they paid local people to put up their signs saying “Save our oyster bay company” that were made to look home-made, but which were clearly not since they were identifical. But this dishonesty will trick a lot of people.

    When I found out that what is called our national or state or local park lands actually are very little wilderness since they allow clear-cutting of Old Growth Forest as well as mining and cattle ranching (which destroys the land), I was horrified. The least that could be done is to leave the trees and remaining plants alone. Only an idiot would want to destroy beautiful ice plant which prevents erosion and is perfectly suited to this drought.

    Thank you for this wonderful blog again.

    By the way, I’ve started a petition to save our local East Bay Park trees, if you all could spread the word. It was a shock to see the few politicians who I’d trusted join in in asking for FEMA money to destroy our parks, trees, animals, and to poison for decades.

  2. Yet another beautifully written, logical assessment of the sad state of ecological activism in Northern California. It is reassuring to know that we still have intelligent thinkers among us who can put poetic language and persuasive argument together to produce an actual, honest-to-goodness Essay.

  3. The horse is a native North American species having co-evolved with North American plants and wildlife for 55 million years. During this 55 million years, horse either adapted, emigrated across land bridges on either side of the continent depending on the geological time, or became extinct. However, the horse always returned to North America which is why this is the only continent with 10ths of thousands of fossils from Florida to north of the Yukon. In fact horse lived in coastal prairies now underwater off the Atlantic coast all the way to California and the LaBrea Tar Pits. After the Isthmus of Panama connected North and South America, horse migrated to South America as well. Scientist do not know what caused the last North American horses to die out 7,600 years ago, but they have eliminated species differences, climate change alone, and human overhunting, but not entirely eliminated human causes. I wonder if a lot of horses migrated before the Beringia flooded and the ones here at the very end were those that had been humanly confined or prevented from getting there in time.

    At any rate your native plant folks are interspersed with the native wildlife folks that plan to eradicate native horses in the wild as if those 55 million years of co-evolution meant nothing, as if we had no holarctic travel of mammals and plants. This is a political movement that began in 1973 with regard to the native horse. I think it is about very wealthy, influential people trying to get access to the areas where horses grazed millions of years ago that are now rich in fossil fuels, precious metal, and rare Earth elements. I believe that there are some true believers, but the wilderness areas overlap with wildlife corridors horse used for all this time, and yet they want to kill off the horse. Insanity. But this is something Al Gore personally invested his money, time, and influence in. Scientists are loathe to be skeptical about other scientists motives, but they underestimate the power of the horse-human bond.

    The government is enacting this eradication plan in North Carolina and we do not want to lose our horses. Federal agencies have no scientific sources to document any of the plants or animals it claims are native or non-native. Not one. Given all the traveling around mammals and birds have done across the northern hemisphere this is simply absurd.

    1. The definition of “native” is entirely arbitrary. Nativists choose to define “native” as those species which existed prior to the arrival of Europeans. If species were not present when Europeans arrived, they are considered non-native even if they existed in the more distant past, such as the horse.

      There are many other equally ridiculous examples of plants and animals being eradicated because they weren’t present on the East Coast in 1491 or on the West Coast in 1769. Here in California, Monterey pine is being eradicated everywhere except its very small native range around the city of Monterey. There is fossil evidence that it existed in the San Francisco Bay Area several times in the distant past, but as far as the nativists are concerned, it “doesn’t belong there” now because it didn’t exist there in 1769. Truly ridiculous. Plants and animals come and go. Always have. Always will. Human attempts to prevent dispersal are destructive and fruitless.

      Thank you for your visit. Best of luck in saving horses from being pointlessly slaughtered.

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