May 272011

It’s fascinating that a discussion of the merits of an introduced species vs indigenous species would generate more comment and discussion than any topic that has appeared on this blog.

The whole question about what is a native species is interesting. Native species, whatever they are, are worthy of support. But it’s a confusing and often surprising issue. (In January we had a private tour with the plant curator of the Waimea Park on Oahu’s North Shore. I was shocked at how few of the tropical plants I’d become accustomed to seeing in Hawaii were natives. Most have been introduced. Many with extremely negative impacts on the natives).

Lummi Island seems to have an interesting lack of natives (mammals, for example). We have deer, coyote, river otters, some kind of ground squirrel, mice, rats and voles. Bears, mountain lion, wild goats, skunks and possums are noticeably absent. One wonders if most, if not all of our mammals, were introduced. As far as people go, we don’t have any natives that I’m aware of. (One might be tempted to call our pioneer families “natives” but they are late arrivals not appearing on Lummi Island until after the infamous honey bee arrived in the Western USA).

What, as a practical matter, is a native? What sources do we have to tell us what might have been here long ago? One good source of information on natives is the native—that is the indigenous people who we now in political correctness refer to as “Native Americans.” Most non-native Americans are able to completely ignore Native Americans because the Native Americans have been walled off into geographical ghettos of varying quality around the country. Lummi Islanders, on the other hand, are particularly aware of the native of the human species because of…you know…the ferry thing.

It turns out we have quite a bit to learn from our predecessors on the island about, in the case of this blog post, native plants. A book I keep close at hand is Food Plants of the British Columbia Indians Coastal Peoples by Nancy J. Turner (out of print). From this book we can discover what might be the real native plants. In addition, and more to the point of self-sufficiency and self-reliance, we can learn how the Coastal tribes used these plants as food.

For example, giant kelp (Macrocystis integrifolia) was gathered from canoes and laid on rocks to dry. Before use they were soaked over night then broken into bite-sized pieces boiled in cedar boxes then served with eulachon (candlefish) grease. This sounds pretty much like something Mr. Wetzel might dish up as an amuse bouche at the Willows.

Kinnikinnick leaves were used as a tobacco substitute. Plus they ate the berries.

Hazelnuts were picked in the fall and allowed to ripen completely before eating.

Salal berries were eaten fresh and dried in cakes for winter eating.

Salmonberry and thimbleberry sprouts were great favorites, eaten raw and occasionally steamed. The berries too, of course.

These are just a few of the plants we might be safe in calling “native.” There are dozens more listed in the book: wild rose, berries of all description, additional seaweeds, wild flowers, tree bark, etc.

Whether or not these plants evolved here or not is a question of broad scientific interest and one on which we could spend much time researching given a full stomach and no other pressing basic needs.

More to the point, it is good to know that in our local habitat we could learn to forage as if we were a native. We can begin to act more like natives aware of our surroundings and focused on what might sustain us long term. It would be like The Return of the Native.  (Unfortunately, there don’t seem to be any similarities between Mr. Hardy’s novel and the theme of this post other than The Return of the Native is one of the great titles of all time).


  5 Responses to “The Return of the Native”

  1. I’ve heard that smoking kinnick-kinnick was a bit more exciting than tobacco …

  2. Otters and deer swim, so surely there’s no need for them to be “introduced”, i.e., imported by humans.

    As for ‘native’ human islanders (you know, those folks who walked or canoed here from Asia or the South Pacific), the Coast Salish have been using Lummi and other San Juan islands for thousands of years, apparently mostly for summer homes and work (fishing). Rather like “snowbirds” of today, just smaller migratory distances.

    Since Homo sapiens (actually, I prefer Bozo sapiens) started our journey, we’ve been *the* major vector for plant, animal, virus etc migrations, expansions, extinctions etc. Lots of good books about this for plants, with a full range of perspectives. Three of my favorites are David Fairchild’s charming, enthusiastic and very readable “The World Was My Garden” (plant importation, private and government, in the US, ~1890-1938 — everything from Washington cherry trees to kudzu; I have a copy to loan) to Michael Pollan’s “The Botany of Desire” to Andrea Wulf’s recent “The Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire and the Birth of An Obsession” covering key personalities and players in the great plant exploration period of recent times (~1650 to 1900 or so).

  3. I asked Wikipedia what it thought of “Native Species” and they said, “In biogeography, a species is defined as native to a given region or ecosystem if its presence in that region is the result of only natural processes, with no human intervention.” I really have to question that human intervention part. Aren’t we and everything we do a part of a natural process? Maybe it should have read ‘is the result of genetic variation over time’.

    10,000 years ago Lummi Island was a bare, glacially scraped rock (with some glacial till deposits here and there) and probably isolated from the mainland as soon as the ice melted. Anything growing on the island after that was introduced by wind, waves or animal, or self introduced (birds, otters, deer, humans, etc). In a biogeographical sense, a native species is one that evolved genetically in that location to be different from other species (can’t interbreed) and so I don’t think we have any native island species. When and how each of our island species came to exist on Lummi is interesting as well. The Asian-Americans that came over via the Bering land bridge could reasonably have been around Puget Sound about 8,000 years ago and could have inadvertently introduced berries, shrubs, grasses and other plants by seed transportation in their food. So I don’t see a difference between whether a bird transported berry seeds via ingestion or a human did so. Therefore, the distinction of non-native because of human introduction is pointless to me. And whether an Asian-American did so 8,000 years ago or a European-American did so 100 years ago (fruit trees, honey bees, rabbits) seems also not to matter much. So this whole discussion of whether introducing a non-native species to the island is bad or not should maybe be reframed to look at how disruptive is the latest introduced species going to be to the existing ecosystem. Any introduction will change the ecosystem in ways too complex for us to know beforehand, and whether it is beneficial or not depends on what ecosystem you think should be achieved. And who are we to decide what should be achieved? We are part of the ecosystem. When a squirrel transports an acorn across a river to an area that has never before had oak trees, it is changing the ecosystem to benefit itself. We would be doing the same thing in introducing honey bees to Lummi Island, as did the Asian-Americans when they introduced Salmon Berry seeds 8,000 years ago. Maybe we have a greater responsibility because we can know in what ways we are changing things. I think we have as much of an equal right to exist as any other species, not a greater right. But it is good to remember that there are species out there that would eradicate our species in order to survive (like wolves, and Earth Firsters), and if we are too passive, we will be deselected from the gene-pool, and that would be a shame as well. So whether we should introduce a non-native species in order to survive on this island if a great calamity were to befall us, I think is a balancing act that this forum helps us to get right.

    As I have been thinking about this, it is harder and harder to call what we know as Lummi Indians “native Americans”. If the Viking settlement in eastern Canada had taken hold, and then the English had found them at Plymouth Rock, would they be native Americans? Neither evolved in the Americas and they are only separated in their arrival by a mere 7,000 years. If you were born in Bellingham and were talking to someone who just moved there from Arizona, you would call yourself a native to Bellingham. I guess it is all degrees, perspective, shades of gray and semantics I suppose.

  4. I agree that the discussion of who/what is a native is pretty dang academic. Even more interesting to me are the specifics of how things/people got here. “How I found Lummi Island stories are always fascinating. (In my case from the internet after having grown up only 60 miles away in Everett). In his extremely illuminating talk at LICA last week Dave Dickinson pointed out that our ubiquitous Himalayan blackberry was brought to the island as a cultivar by the owner of cannery at Village Pt.
    To learn that there was a farm that stretched from Blizzard Road along Tuttle all the way to Legoe Bay was a mind-blower for me. I wanted to hear more about that.

  5. Here is an interesting article that gives credence to the idea that there is nothing sacrosanct about what species existed in an ecosystem at the time that modern scientists first started their observations. Some very respected biologists are claiming that the prevailing notions that “introduced species offer only deleterious impacts are misguided”.

    I also noticed that Himalayan Blackberries are in my book Native Plants of the Pacific Northwest. So how should we view honey bees, rabbits, Scotch Broom, and the number of humans on the planet? The article also states that “evaluating whether a species ‘belongs’ in a particular place is more complicated than just finding out how and when it arrived.” There could be quite a few implications to follow this line of thinking.

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