Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Poison Ivy CAN, in fact, be a Good Thing

On my drive home yesterday, I found the evening weather cooperative enough that I drove the last hour and half with my windows rolled down. The sun was painting its farewell colors in the sky as it set and the temperature hovered around 80 degrees. The warmth heightened the pungent smells of bush honeysuckle, even along an interstate at 75 miles per hour. Thanks to a stint on an exotic invasives removal crew, I no longer see (or smell) the bush honeysuckle as exclusively "lovely." It grows throughout middle Tennessee, especially along roadways. However, it does not belong here.

Trail running through lush green provides
much food for thought
Thinking of the abundance of bush honeysuckle yesterday reminded me of some thoughts I had on a trail run a few weeks ago. Again, I encountered a number of exotic, invasive plants, but I also encountered a number native plants that would be considered a nuisance for other reasons. Plants like poison ivy belong in this ecosystem, but are often removed because of the allergic reactions they cause to humans.

Because of those months working on a removal crew, my eyes have been trained to spot the non-native plants (well, and those native plants that cause massive rashes... a lesson learned with a heavy dose of calamine lotion). I learned through my colleagues and research about the negative impacts of exotic, invasive plants. I went on to lead a number of education programs to school groups about the importance of biodiversity.

Now, back to my "running thoughts..."

At first glance, it is a lot of green. A more extensive
examination might reveal a heathy ecosystem (or not).
I mentally wandered back to a time in my life when I went and did a series of photographs along trails of any "pretty things" I saw. That was well before I worked as a park ranger or on that removal crew. I was a historian and spent more time at the library than anywhere. My plant identification skills rested somewhere between "that one is green" and "I think it might need water." So as I passed through the Tennessee woods, I wondered about others' interactions with the space. What do they see? Green? Lush? Pretty? Can they identify plants? What percentage would know of the exotic plants (and who will be walking away with new rashes?)?

Since my brain is wired the way it is, I always appear to come back to the idea of interpretation and the public. And since my background is heavily in history, I wondered about those same ideas with the overlay of history. Think of those exotic plants as myth or legend or a poor movie presentation of a historical event. Maybe they are pretty. Maybe they smell good. But in reality, those myths or legends interfere with a more accurate understanding of the past. And how about the irritating native plants, like poison ivy? It isn't "bad." But it surely is uncomfortable. I don't care what era of history you study, you are aware of uncomfortable parts that our gut reaction is to remove or just avoid.

An irritating native plant, poison ivy
BUT. In a healthy ecosystem, the native plants interact with each other (and other forms of wildlife) with no interference of the exotic plants. Those plants are allowed to thrive (the exotic plants, meanwhile, thrive in the regions where they are native... everything has its own place). How does an ecosystem get to its healthiest state? Humans have been the largest contribution to the spread of exotic, invasive plants and now have to be a part of the solution (no, it isn't an easy solution). Some areas (parks or public lands) have people who manage that ecosystem to the best of their ability, removing the exotic while planting natives as best they can. Education also plays a huge role. Ecologists are trained to understand how plants interact and work to achieve healthier ecosystems.

I will again continue that thought into history and interpretation, how do interpreters (or historians... or both) encourage a better understanding of history? On case-by-case basis, interpreters interact with visitors and can maybe instill some thoughts to encourage alternate thinking (remove a myth, for example, or inspire a new idea). But how can a broader historical understanding be encouraged? Is there a mass-approach method to encourage these types of thought?

I know this is a question that has been deliberated by many for a long time.