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Fighting rogue garlic mustard draws a parallel to COVID-19 battle

Garlic mustard, an invasive species, is an invisible enemy that is almost impossible to control, says outdoors columnist
garlic mustard_pulled (Hawke)
This rather innocuous looking plant is garlic mustard, an invasive species that provides a challenge to many. David Hawke/OrilliaMatters

There are those who say that we humans are a part of nature, and those who say that we are separate, indeed above, nature.

Being a professional fence-sitter, I say we are both. Yes, like any other species on this planet we are just that, a species… Homo sapiens. Yet as a species we have developed skills and communications far beyond any other critters, to the point that we have a controlling power to manipulate our planet’s co-inhabitants.

As Stan Lee wrote in 1962 within his Spiderman comic book, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Yet for all our ‘power' we are still just another species that must live by the whims of natural forces: torrential rain, hurricane force winds, flooding, drought, unrelenting heat.

As big and important as we may think we are, we are just another species eking survival on this third rock from the Sun as we float through space.

Permit me to segue to my topic of today… invasive species.

At this time of year there is a challenge to control the local spread of an invasive species called garlic mustard. Garlic mustard is a plant that disrupts soil fungus to allow itself to thrive while other plant species wither and die from malnourishment or being crowded out.

It is native to Europe but was brought to North America as a food plant that quickly and inadvertently escaped over the garden wall and went rogue through the woodlot.

For a species to be listed as invasive it has to fall into the following descriptions: it comes ‘from away’; it reproduces quickly; it can survive a wide range of harsh environmental conditions; it has few if any predators in this new location; its presence interferes with and then dominates the accepted natural order of nutrient cycles; and it’s just about impossible to eradicate. All in all, a very successful take-over plan.

But we humans, being of superior knowledge and power, will do our “darndest” to fight back the incursion of these invasive species.

We will pick and pull, dig out, smother, burn or douse with chemicals any and all individuals of said targeted invasive species.

However, if our goal is eradication, then we are setting ourselves up for a disappointment. Just not going to happen.

If we change the expected outcome from eradication to control, then we have a fighting chance at success. Control the spread, control the density and thereby control (lessen) the negative impact on the local natural ecosystem.

For those of us who fight garlic mustard, phragmites reed, emerald ash borer, and the hundreds of other invading species, the rally cry now is “The goal is control!”

Now let me segue back to that heady opening statement.

Dealing with COVID-19 is akin to dealing with an invasive species. It came from ‘over there’, it spreads quickly, it preys on the weak and non-suspecting, it can be deadly, it appears to be unstoppable.

To combat it we have to share our stories of success, of experimentation, of failures… and use the power of our combined experiences and knowledge to come up with a retaliatory plan.

And just like our attitude towards invasive species, the attainable goal will be control. Eradication of COVID-19 is highly unlikely, so how can we adapt to ‘live with it’?

Back again to invasive species. Although I and others have accepted the challenge to keep invasives at bay, there are those in my communities that question my/our efforts, suggesting that perhaps the tramping of the forest floor, or application of herbicide, is worse than the actual impact of the invasive. Yes, there is valid argument and debate with these points.

And so should we let COVID-19 run unchecked through our human population, eventually reducing our population to a manageable size?

That’s what nature does with overpopulation… many examples of waterfowl, deer, rabbits, springtails and others that reach such a high population that the available habitat can no longer sustain them, then comes a deadly crash as disease or forces deal with the weakened extras, followed by a slow and steady increase of population until the next natural intervention is required.

Of course, Homo sapiens often thwarts nature’s population controls by taking the option of waging warfare on the neighbours, and perhaps that is why the language of our collective battle against COVID-19 has a military-like flavour.

So whether globally fighting “the invisible enemy” or the local green carpet of newly emerging garlic mustard, remember the goal is control and only with constant vigilance can this be attained. It is within our power, thus is our responsibility.