Trail Trouble: Encounters with Nature’s Invaders

There is truly nothing more rejuvenating than spending time outside. I’ve always known this to be true. When I’m overwhelmed with schoolwork, or stressed about the chaotic nature of life, I know I can find solace among the trees and the little creatures that live within them. There is so much beauty in the greenery. As I take the deepest breath, I am engulfed with feelings of groundedness and oneness with the world as I smell that signature earthy scent. Almost like I’m being hugged by Mother Nature. Yet, as I sink my roots deeper into environmentalism, sometimes I find even this peaceful respite to be troubling.

When they say, “ignorance is bliss,” I often find myself disagreeing. Frankly, the unknown can be uncomfortable. In most circumstances, I prefer knowing too much and having a grasp on every possible outcome. However, sometimes ignorance is bliss when it comes to the climate crisis and the general state of the world. Learning about invasive species has also made me realize that now and then, the less you know, the better. The world is changing. Bird species, like the Carolina Wren and Red-bellied Woodpecker, are now expanding their range much further north as temperatures continue to climb. Meanwhile, global expansion and colonialism have brought numerous new species to our continent. Many of these are known as “invasive species,” defined as “a non-native organism whose introduction causes or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm, or harm to human, animal, or plant health.” Invasives are characterized by their ability to thrive in substandard conditions and left without natural predators, they overtake and choke out the native competition.

Until recently, I had no idea how common these invasive species have become. I spend most of my time split between Maryland, Washington, D.C., and North Carolina. Japanese honeysuckle ran rampant on my elementary school playground. English ivy climbs along the trees in my neighborhood. And, I see kudzu blanketing trees on my train rides between D.C. and Baltimore. I used to marvel at the vast overgrowth and admire the tenacity of these plants to grow despite the seemingly inadequate conditions. As I dove deeper into nature study, though I’m still an amateur, the more I learned, the more concerned I grew. The Japanese wisteria that I used to admire endlessly, hanging with dazzling purple blooms, became something that filled me with deep concern. The tough, woody wisteria vines climb over native maple and dogwood trees, strangling them. How could something so beautiful be so detrimental to the ecosystems I hold dear to my heart?

This spring, I went for a nature walk with my fellow Rachel Carson Council Stanback Fellows in D.C.’s Rock Creek Park. During our walk, I made it a point to pay attention to the invasive species around me, while also soaking in the ever-present magnificence of spending time outside. The very first things I noticed were the wineberry bushes (Rubus phoenicolasius) lining the park entrance. There were several of them, forming a dense unit, blocking out native plants as they spread. They have spiky little buds that become raspberry-like berries in the early summer. As we walked, I noticed English ivy (Hedera helix) and ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea) reaching across the forest floor like a deep, sprawling sea of green. But as I wandered and allowed myself to feel my disquietude for the sheer amount of invaders taking over, the underlying wonder, curiosity, and amazement for nature never ceased. I still felt the same ease I once did when spending time within the greenery. It is still the same comforting and revitalizing space it once was and always will be.

My reflections on invasive species have only caused me to dig deeper and cultivate a better understanding of the importance of supporting native wildlife. Although learning more about the natural world and its changes can be alarming and distressing, all hope is not lost. There is much we can do to help. Biodiversity is vital for the health of our ecosystems. By raising awareness of invasive species and addressing their presence, we can help preserve the natural beauty and ecological integrity of the green spaces we love to explore. Here are a few simple steps we can all take to feel a bit less powerless and move towards the safekeeping of our natural world.

Although ignorance is bliss, knowledge is power. Educating yourself on the invasive species in your area is the first step towards action. This handy book,  which helped me a lot on my own journey, is a free guide to plant invaders in the Mid-Atlantic region. It contains an overview of what native and invasive species are, as well as explaining the importance of natives and biodiversity. The USDA’s National Invasive Species Information Center (NISIC) is another great place to begin learning about invasive species on the federal, state, and local levels.

When out and about exploring nature, staying on marked trails can help stop the spread of invasive species. Human activity often spreads invasive species, such as ornamental planting and unknowingly carrying seeds on your shoes and clothes. Cleaning your hiking clothes and boots of any seeds you may have picked up along the way will also help to curb the spread to other areas. Many local nature parks want to hear about invasive species you find while you are enjoying those spaces. If you spot an invasive species, report it to the proper environmental organizations or authorities in your area.

If you have property you can plant on, remove any invasive plants you find, and plant native species instead. Not only will this support local wildlife and ecosystems, but it will also take up space and prevent invasive species from spreading. You can also help by supporting regulations and local initiatives that restrict the sale of invasive plants.

Collective action and momentum toward change start with individual actions. Each of these steps can contribute to protecting those natural spaces that fill us with awe and wonder. As someone who has suffered through doomist perspectives, which are a major roadblock to action, I can confirm that doing a little bit as often as you can makes a big difference. Don’t let the powerlessness that sometimes accompanies news of the climate crisis overwhelm you. Recognize that knowledge is power, and power creates change. These steps can help to ensure that we can enjoy these peaceful, restorative, and wondrous spaces for years to come.

RCC Stanback Presidential Fellow – Sophie Valkenberg

Sophie Valkenberg is a Master of Environmental Management student at Duke University, concentrating in Community Engagement & Environmental Justice and Ecotoxicology & Environmental Health. She was born in the Netherlands but quickly moved to and grew up in Baltimore, Maryland. Coming from a country with a very robust eco-friendly infrastructure initially sparked her interest in environmental studies and sustainable living.