Fieldwork: Weeding for Biodiversity

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I ended last week's blog post with a draft of a mission statement for my work. I've been trying to explain to myself for years what unites the varied passions that propel me through life.

I'm a writer and plant ecologist, a person happiest outdoors, whether just in my yard or in wilder places. (Though my yard is pretty wild at times!) I'm rooted in the inland West where sagebrush perfumes the air after spring rains, sandhill cranes bugle as they migrate in to nest in summer, and winter days are edged with snow. 

I'm passionate about nature, both the study of earth's web of life and reconnecting humans to our place in the planet. Specifically, I'm drawn to plants, especially those native to this continent, for their ability to evoke place and also their myriad of relationships that weave that web of life.

I have spent decades restoring nature, often on my own and without pay, particularly nature in the places where we live, with a special interest in gritty industrial landscapes and urban creeks and rivers. 

I garden with an eye to growing habitat for pollinators and songbirds, as well as providing food, scents and colors, tranquility, and beauty for humans. 

I write as a way to understand and explore the meaning in life, both my own life, and the larger cycle of capital 'L' life, existence. To show us why we are here, and to reveal the wonder and incredible variety of the world we live in, including the myriad of other life forms with whom we share this planet. 


The thread is clear: I'm passionate about nurturing and celebrating life in all its glorious diversity, with a particular emphasis on plants and words.

Which is why I'm spending my annual  "vacation" in Yellowstone National Park, digging out invasive weeds to help restore these iconic landscapes to health. So that this island of wild biodiversity may continue to thrive and inspire us all. 

Houndstongue, AKA Cynoglossum officianale, a plant imported from Asia and one that truly does not play well on this continent.

Wait! You say. How does labeling plants as invasive weeds and then killing them square with nurturing biodiversity? 

Like everything else in life, it's complicated. The phrase "restore the integrity of nature" is key to what I'm doing in Yellowstone. Some species don't play well when they're transplanted to new places, where they lack the interrelationships with other species that give them a positive role in the community.  

They may "go rogue" and actually endanger the health of the whole community. Think salt cedar or tamarisk in the inland West, crowding out the diverse ribbons of species along the region's rivers and streams, and poisoning the soil as they shed their salty leaves. 

The plant I'm focusing on, houndstongue (Cynoglossum officianale), a native of Eurasia, protects itself from grazers by manufacturing compounds that act as liver disrupters in wild ungulates like deer, elk, and moose. If for instance, an elk calf munched enough of houndstongue's large, felty leaves (which are at their most attractive just as the baby elk are learning how to graze), it might well die of liver failure in a few weeks or months.  

Houndstongue may also do something more subtle and potentially more disruptive to Yellowstone's ecosystems: it may co-opt the attention of native bumblebees by growing tall stalks of flowers that bloom for a long time and are attractive to native bumblebees.

Bumblebees and other native bees are critical to the survival of Yellowstone's native wildflowers: they pollinate their flowers and ensure the next generation, seeds. If say, a plant from somewhere else takes over whole areas and keeps bees from pollinating the native flowers, they decrease and the invader increases, which fragments the integrity of the ecosystem and ends up reducing biodiversity. 

So here I am in Yellowstone, digging up trash bags full of one invasive, non-native species to nurture biodiversity in the larger native community. (I hiked five miles yesterday, and dug up about 50 pounds of houndstongue. Hard, rewarding work!)

I'm working for the health of the lupine (the native wildflower being pollinated by the bumblebee in the photo above), the sagebrush, the elk, and the whole interwoven community that forms these iconic landscapes.

And I'm having a wonderful time, camping in Red, and listening to elk and western tanagers, admiring wildflowers and hot springs, and taking in time in a place where I began this work of celebrating and nurturing biodiversity decades ago.  

Of course, I'm still playing with that mission statement. (Writing really is 95 percent revision!) Here's another version:

I nurture and celebrate biodiversity, plant by plant, word by word. I work to restore the integrity of nature and to honor all forms of life. Because diversity is key to health--of cultures, neighborhoods, and ecosystems. That our planet may thrive, and we along with it.

The Gardner River below Mammoth, roaring with spring snowmelt.

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