Lanternflies, Kudzu, and Humans
By Sam Stoeltje
1. A deadly dance
Jogging around Prospect Park over the summer, I observed someone doing a strange, hopping kind of dance, or it was strange at first, until I understood what might be afoot; an attempted crushing was taking place. “Lanternfly?” I asked as I passed.
I wished them good luck because it is common knowledge in the metropolitan area that spotted lanternflies (lycorma delicatula), those fast-multiplying critters evocative of, to my mind, Betty Boop, are to be killed on sight—they are an invasive, alien species. I’m not the kind of person to engage in this type of banter with strangers, but there is a kind of bloodthirsty comradery that has developed among New Yorkers, and here I found myself participating in it. We were united in that moment in our hatred of the lanternfly, and as I continued my circuit around the park, I felt the warmth of spontaneous human bonding, I felt chummy and good. Until I didn’t.
There is something unsettling about the rhetoric of “invasive” and “alien” species, and the kind of relations between both humans and non-humans it seems to indicate. Popular and scholarly writing has pointed this out; it has been the subject of both academic papers and think-pieces.1 Critiquing what he calls the “native/alien paradigm,” Warren writes,
In terms, firstly, of the classification, the paradigm rests on the belief that every species has a place where it ‘belongs.’ Labeling a species ‘native’ implies that it is in its rightful place, while ‘alien’ implies the converse – a species ‘out-of-bounds, out-of-place and out-of-control’. But ecologies are always in flux. Current distributions represent one frame in the film of life on Earth, so asking where a species belongs can have no unqualified, immutable answer.2
As Warren points out, the usefulness of the term among environmental scientists is very much in question, and yet we speak of invasive species with an air of authority, a confidence built upon the notion that an authentic, hermetically-sealed ecosystem has ever existed—a kind of prelapsarian fantasy. And we do so relying upon some troubling tropes, with troubling histories.
2. The vine that maybe didn’t eat the south
The invasive species par excellence is kudzu (pueraria montana). Imported from Japan, kudzu was celebrated by (settler) farmers in the U.S. South as a remedy for soil erosion. As Ellie Irons explains in a piece for Anthropocene Curriculum, following this anti-erosion logic, federal funding was used to plant kudzu along highways through the U.S., where it tended to thrive due to the particular climactic conditions of roadway embankments.3 This created the impression that kudzu had “eaten the South”; after all, it was all you could see out the window when driving through that part of the country. Yet this roadside impression was misleading, and kudzu’s level of success and out-competition of local species is actually an ongoing matter of debate.
Irons and others have shown how in the popular imagination of the later twentieth century, kudzu was subject to the most extreme kind of “invasionist” rhetoric, which often portrays organisms using racialized, xenophobic, paranoid language. In the case of kudzu specifically, this language became inflected with elements of anti-Asian “(new) yellow peril,” especially in the 1970s and 1980s as Japanese growth threatened U.S. self-conceptions of empire and economic supremacy. 4
Yet as indicated, the panic around kudzu has been, demonstrably, overblown. Irons points out that even assuming the (likely incorrect) largest estimates of kudzu growth, it represents an infinitesimal portion of the Southern landscape, in comparison to, for example, turfgrass or impervious surfaces such as sidewalks and parking lots. “So why,” she asks, “does kudzu play such an outsized role in narratives of ecological degradation? And why are these narratives so grounded in fear and hate?”
One simple explanation is that kudzu and other highly visible introduced plants provide an easy target. They live alongside us, integrated into our urban and suburban habitats. They present themselves to us by cropping up along the edges and borders, where they are relatively accessible and vulnerable to destruction at the hands of humans. Ripping them up, spraying them with herbicide, tossing them in the trash bin, or refashioning them as a consumer product has an immediate, visceral effect. 5
Public campaigns to eradicate invasive species reassure our sense of human agency, though it is perhaps the most worrying kind of agency: our ability to discriminate and to destroy. One of the many ironies here is that human agency created the “problem” in the first place. In the case of kudzu, as it seems, there may be no problem at all. While the plant has found a home in the U.S. South, it is not the force of habitat destruction and biodiversity loss that many have feared, these being the more well-founded concerns of ecologists and conservationists when considering anthropogenic species introduction.
Humans, in fact, may have much to gain from our relationship with kudzu, which in its original bioregion of East Asia has been a source of both nutritious food and fiber for millennia. And as Tolu Olatunji has written for this publication, it may even be promising as a low-carbon building material in the near future, representing a benefit to humans and non-humans alike.
3. Aliens among aliens
Warren’s “Beyond ‘Native V. Alien’: Critiques of the Native/Alien Paradigm in the Anthropocene, and Their Implications” charts the rise of the “native/alien” paradigm, as part of “invasionist biology” embraced by conservationists, following the publication of Charles Elton’s The Ecology of Invasions by Animals and Plants in 1958. Convincingly, Warren argues that this paradigm has always been a matter of human social construction, shaped by cultural attitudes and projections, and at its worst, redolent of the ideas of social Darwinism and eugenics. This is a consequence of the attempt to assign value to particular species, and to maintain the illusion of a “pristine” ecosystem before human intervention (“human,” here, often problematically equated with European-colonial), one that must be recovered, paradoxically, through human intervention.
Yet this paradigm also responds to intuitively legitimate concerns about ecosystemic health. What is the role of the human in managing or stewarding the non-human worlds with which we are entangled and inter-meshed? In his conclusion, Warren speculates about what this role might look like, as well as alternatives to the rhetoric of native vs. alien/invasive. Additionally, and encouragingly, there is a rise in openness to Indigenous valuations and methods of ecosystemic stewardship, probably motivated by increasing awareness that colonial technocapitalism has reached a point of apocalyptic untenability. Given that these were the cultural forces that devalued Indigenous knowledge in the first place, such a turn on the part of colonial institutions is yet another irony.
My moment of comradery at the park notwithstanding, efforts to cull the spotted lanternfly through ecological vigilantism are, of course, doomed. As with kudzu, the Pandora’s box of successful species introduction, once open, becomes a matter less of closure than of mitigation and adaptation. The question remains: Where do we as humans fit in this dance of species? As many have pointed out, if such a thing as an “invasive” species exists, humans certainly qualify as the most invasive inhabitants on the planet, though this charge does not apply to all humans, and all human cultures, equally. A question facing “modern,” that is, colonizing human cultures, I think, is: How might we come to see our world, not as the ruins of a once-immaculate garden, but as an ongoing dance, a dance of aliens among aliens?
- See for example Anjali Vaidya, “Native or Invasive,” Orion, March/April 2017, or Banu Subramanian, Ghost Stories for Darwin: The Science of Variation and the Politics of Diversity, University of Illinois Press, 2017. ↩︎
- Charles R. Warren, “Beyond ‘Native V. Alien’: Critiques of the Native/alien Paradigm in the Anthropocene, and Their Implications,” Ethics, Policy & Environment, 2021, 4. ↩︎
- Ellie Irons, “Re-patterning with Kudzu: Reckoning in Search of Regeneration,” Anthropocene Curriculum. ↩︎
- Kenneth Reilly, “The Vine That Ate The North? Northern Reactions to Kudzu, 1876-2009” (MA Thesis) University of Western Ontario, 2020. P. 75. ↩︎
- Irons, “Re-patterning.” ↩︎
Sam Stoeltje, PhD, is a professor at Utica University. He/They specialize in Religious Studies, Critical and Decolonial Theory, and Epistemic Justice.
Plantings Print Annual 2023
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