At Governor’s School, where I taught for several summer, a famous computer scientist from MIT was once a guest speaker. I’m talking a name that was off the charts in his field. Yet, early in his lecture he completely lost his audience of high schoolers, when he compared the rumors he had heard about kudzu, all unbeknownst to him quite true, to falsehoods sometimes associated with his discipline. How, imagined dozens of adolescent minds simultaneously, could anyone claim to be knowledgeable and not know about kudzu
Invasive plants and animals are often introduced on a pipe dream of easy solutions to chronic problems. Kudzu became, for a couple of unfortunate decades, a way to stop soil erosion. That’s before it became known as “the plant that ate the south.” Looking to develop a local fur industry, Louisianans brought the nutria up from South America. Remarkably prolific, a copious eater and responsible for water bank erosion, it’s now, not too kindly, known as the “river rat.”
Sometimes invasions are simply accidents. The flooding in New Orleans probably contributed to the release of toxic lionfish in the Caribbean. Escaped pigs mated with wild Russian boars brought to North America for hunting farms, leaving herds of the destructive beasts in eastern national forests and parks. Chesapeake Bay’s problem with the northern snakehead arose, some say, when a hobbyist tired of his pet fish and dumped them. Given that a single snakehead female can have as many as 100,000 eggs a season, it’s understandable that they began to eat all their better tasting, native competitors.
I was reminded of the MIT professor and invasive species when I read in a recent Smithsonian magazine about the effects of Burmese pythons on the Everglades. People unfamiliar with the Everglades think of it as a swamp on the tip of Florida. Yet, it is, even today, a complex “river of grass.” With a geography found no where else on our planet, the Everglades features an interconnected set of separate ecosystems – of mangrove forests, piney rocklands, hardwood hammocks, and sawgrass marshes. I’ve been to the national park a couple of times and found it a place of beautiful mystery. You have to get out and walk the trails or float on the water to appreciate it; you haven’t seen the Everglades, if all you do is passively drive through.
Although humans have been in that part of Florida for up to 15,000 years, it was in the twentieth-century that we tried really hard to kill it. We constructed canals. We developed residential communities. We diverted its water to places like Miami. We drained some of it for farmland. We hunted its wildlife almost to extinction. For example, the plumage of its myriad birds, both in quantity and variety, provided millineries across the nation with feathers for decades, until their deaths by humans were outlawed.
Beginning in the 1980s we started Everglades restoration projects in an attempt to reclaim some of its vibrancy. Then came the python. An exotic pet, not native to this part of the world, it was accidentally (purposefully?) dropped in the glades, where it thrived. Today, less the hum of mosquitos, much of the Everglades is quiet; the pythons have managed to eat most of the small, warm-blooded mammals that once scurried about and rustled the underbrush. Mostly gone are the squirrels, the raccoons, the rabbits. The snakes have now taken to eating some of the smaller deer.
A Burmese python is approximately two feet at birth. It can grow to 20 feet and 200 pounds. Although we think of it as a constrictor killer, it has a mouth full of very sharp teeth. An alpha predator with a primal appetite, the snake has no respect for its fellow critters. And it potentially, by itself, dooms any effort to save the Everglades.
Of course, being me, I made some metaphorical leaps as I read. What, for example, might an invasive civil predator look like? Could such a thing gobble up the low-hanging fruit of a community, if there were no natural predators around? And would it then turn to bigger prey?
What, for example, might happen when someone invades a system governed as much by historically grounded expectations, like truth telling is good and lying is bad, as by written laws? When the expectation of a modicum of civility is shouted into silence by loud hyperboles best on display in reality shows or professional wrestling matches? When facts no longer matter? The canals are not canals. The diverted water is better diverted. The small mammals weren’t really all that necessary to the health of the ecosystem. The snake is good.
Is someone who behaves in a society like the proverbial bull in a china shop full of red glass or the python in the glades, a necessary disrupter or an invasive predator? There is certainly an argument to be made for the need to reexamine and recommit to a democratic republic periodically, to take nothing for granted. In other words, sometimes disruption of the status quo is necessary. But with the exception of the Civil War, its prelude and its aftermath, we have done so generally, albeit often too slowly, within the unwritten rules of the road for civil discourse and policy-making. No longer.
Perhaps a Burmese python wormed its way into our body politic when we were distracted and has proliferated, both in Washington DC and in Raleigh. How else do you explain a nation that claims it is pro-life, unless that life is “other?” Or, as we say in western Carolina, “from away?” A nation that believes in certain unalienable rights for people, simply because they are people, except when they don’t?
I admit to being daily plagued by images on our border of abused children, of mistreated adults, of shameless authority figures. I do not like what is being done in my name and with my tax dollars. I have a hard time wrapping my head around the notion that “there are good people on both sides.”
I see kudzu daily. I’ve seen what the nutria has done to the river systems of Louisiana, a once neighboring state when I lived in Texas and visited regularly for its good food and jazz. Toxic lionfish swim in the coral reefs in my favorite scuba site in Cozumel. The descendants of Russian boars tear up dirt throughout the Smokey Mountains National Park and on the Blue Ridge Parkway. I even encountered one at an overlook on a spring afternoon. I fished almost a decade of summers in Chesapeake Bay before the snakehead arrived, so I know what’s lost. And I have walked in wonder in the beauty that is the Everglades, even in decline.
Something is loose and abroad in the land and, like the python, is loathe to take prisoners. The small things are already devoured and it is in search of its meal.