Calhoun’s Can(n)ons, The Bay News, Tolosa Press, SLO, Ca for Jan 31, 08
Show me a day when the world wasn’t new.
Sister Barbara Hance (1928-1993)
In a recent Tribune story, it was announced that the Morro Coast Audubon Society was awarded a $1.1 million grant from the state’s Coastal Conservancy to add additional acreage to the Los Osos Sweet Springs Preserve. Smiles all around until the subject of “restoration” came up, with the operative word being “restore,” as in, “remove all nonnative vegetation at the Sweet Springs.”
Translation? Kill the Eucalyptus.
Thus the battle once again will be joined between the True Believing Native Purists and what might be called Conservative Pragmatists, both engaged in an epic battle for the soul of California, a biological war of skirmishes that often breaks along very curious lines and includes strange bedfellows and odd assumptions about both past and future, all while wandering in and out of the realm of meaning found in Alice in Wonderland’s Through the Looking Glass, “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “It means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
Consider the words “Native Plants.” First question required: Who decides? And Which era? Pre-human? Post-human, but which migration? Or should we restrict “native” to mean post-human but pre-Spanish? Post Spanish, but pre-Yankee? Which Yankees, those arriving before or after 1840? Why 1840? Why not 1867? Or 1900?
And what constitutes “California Natural?” The landscape prior to human arrival was a landscape far different than anything we see today. Not only did early humans have a profound impact on the landscape via use of fire to modify the areas they occupied, but huge climate changes during those long epochs also changed the natural selection of what plants survived long enough to be considered “Native” by modern Purists, who now claim the right to decide exactly what constitutes a “native plant.”
Muddling things even further is the fact that trying to restore some parts of California to a “natural, native” state is more an ideal dream of returning to an arbitrary Eden than it is a practical reality, because the old Devil that resides in the details arrives fully loaded down with annoying problems.
For example, a friend of mine sent a letter to the editor regarding this story that noted, in part, “Some pruning of old eucalyptus trees could be done, but the trees are a big part of the beauty and quiet of the preserve; and they provide habitat not only for monarch butterflies and birds of prey, but for many other birds as well. I have seen nesting owls there, for instance. They also add much needed environmental temperature control for the pond where turtles can be found basking on boards. It is sad that conservation purists (zealots) rush to rid California of all ‘non-native’ plants, including these spectacular trees, when eucalyptus trees have such a rich 19th century history in California.”
That neatly encapsulates some of the argument. At Sweet Springs, what shall take precedence? Aesthetics, history, a butterfly’s choice of a winter’s rest stop, or an owl’s sleeping arrangements?
Add to that mix the sad fact that we have a bad record of understanding whether something will break left, break right or simply break bad. In short, we are usually not able to see far enough into the future to see that perhaps sacrificing a butterfly’s refuge now in order to create a native plant refuge later may not be the wisest course. Nor do we often fully understand the quirky trade-offs needed to even attempt to restore a habitat. And while we’re attempting to factor in the impacts of urbanization, changing micro-climates, and now the changing macro-climate, too often we see too late that our choices were the wrong ones. Or, more dismaying, that Nature on her own has made an entirely different choice and left us standing in the dust, useless shovel and chainsaw in hand, an arboreal version of a Brooklyn raspberry echoing in our foolish ears.
Which, of course, is one reason to “make haste slowly,” and “above all, do no harm,” when it comes to saving and/or restoring our sacred wild spaces. For that reason, I hope that when it comes to the Los Osos Sweet Springs Preserve, humble caution rather than pre-selected ideology will prevail.