Tuesday, January 17, 2017


As a frequent visitor to the USA I think I should offer my thoughts.

I visit the US pretty frequently. Once a year usually. Sometimes more. Garden lectures, work trips, leading garden tours etc.
I've read a lot about American history and keep up with the politics.
So, I think I'm in a good position to make some comments, particularly aimed at fellow Europeans who are aghast at the election of the man one US journalist dubbed “Donald Trumplethinskin”. In fact I think I have something of a duty to help explain, and suggest some reading matter. So here goes:

Firstly, the gardening crowd I meet are overwhelmingly well-travelled, open-minded, liberal. I have only once had socialise with someone who asked me things like - “is it true that Muslim fundamentalists are taking over Switzerland?” Yes, really. That was in North Carolina (since you ask). He listened to Fox News, which clearly has a lot to answer for, and gives you a good idea of the kind of misinformation which makes up many people's supply of news.

Oddly though, the garden groups that make invitations are overwhelmingly in the North-East (New England, New York, Pennsylvania) or the West Coast, and perhaps Chicago. I have only twice, in the course of a twenty year history of lecturing in the US, had invitations from The South (capital T, capital S). There is a deep garden culture here though. But it is not necessarily what we might expect After all, they have a magazine, called 'Garden and Gun'. Yes, really, I am not making this up. You can look at their website.

The 'gun' refers to the love of hunting (a form of nature appreciation though many might not see it like this), and linking the two together does help hint at part of the explanation of real difference we Europeans feel about the US. Its the whole thing of being a pioneer: grow your own veg, shoot your own supper, look after your own needs, don't need no government to tell me what to do. These attitudes are particularly strong in the South and parts of the west but can be found anywhere. A good guide to understanding them is the book: American Beliefs

Growing your own supper and shooting your own veg is one thing but in the crowded, interdependent modern world, the extreme individualism of the pioneer mentality militates against community and social responsibility. This atavistic pioneer mindset is what has driven The Tea Party and the hostility to national health care, which we Europeans see as one of the benchmarks of a civilised society.

The question of The South gets to a crucial point in how we outsiders understand the US, and the seeming insanity of their recent presidential election – the United States of America is anything but united, and never really has been. The post-war period did show an exceptional unity, and we can be forgiven for thinking, as we peer across the pond, that 'they' really are one people. Not any more, as the bitter divisions over Trumpthinskin are showing. These divisions reflect some very different political cultures, essentially geographically defined and dating back a long time. One of the most useful books to help you understand this is American Nations.

Which sets out to establish that there are eleven very distinct cultures across North America, whose origins, often during the first few decades of European settlement, have somehow fixed a particular mentality and culture. The author argues that this has stayed remarkably stable over time. Reading this book explains so much, and in particular should warn us away from lazy stereotyping: e.g. gun-toting maniacs? no, most of the guns are owned by people in very distinct geographical areas; a country of immigration? not really, most immigrants go to a few cities or regions. It does a lot to explain the major differences in political behaviour and almost visceral loathing between different political tendencies which we now see developing.

We all know about the Civil War of 1861 to 1865 – a bloodbath if ever there was one. That was the civil war that really took off. The War of Independence (1775–1783) was effectively a bloodbath of a civil war too (wars of independence usually are: ask an Algerian or Zimbabwean). The latter was followed by a series of armed conflicts which almost flared into civil wars. A recent and very well-reviewed book covers this period well and debunks many a myth of national unity: American Revolutions

Looking back over the course of US political history, the election of a failed businessman and game show host does not look so extraordinary. Politics has often been violent and corrupt, especially in the big cities; to take one example Chicago's Richard Daley (Mayor from 1955 to 1976) is infamous for the expression "Vote early - and often". To get an idea of the long history behind Trump look here.
 BTW, Daley's son was Mayor too, but made of better stuff - it was he who got the Lurie Garden and many good green things happening in the city.
To return to The South. Of course there are plenty of good people here, but there is undeniably a large sector of the white population who have never confronted the evil of slavery and the following century of lynching, segregation and denial of the vote as a moral outrage, and who saw the election of a black man to the White House, as something deeply and totally unacceptable. I want to say that I think it is difficult for Europeans to understand how deeply racist the white South is, but then I remember the Holocaust. But then western Europe at least has confronted its horrors, and moved forward in a way the white South has really failed do so.

One way of looking at the last few decades of US politics is to see the poisonous politics of the white South seeping beyond its old boundaries – the spread of Southern-style Christian Conservatism (80% voted for Trump the sexual predator), the continued killings of young black men by the police, the refusal to accept Obama as a legitimate (i.e. American-born) president. For the next few years it is the race factor that really worries me – things could get very nasty indeed. Black Americans' lives have not gotten one iota better under Obama. Remember the Black Panthers? The KKK? With Trump in control, they could both enjoy a revival.

I have mentioned the deepening of already deep divisions. This is one thing which is very frightening about the US right now, two nations who listen to different news outlets, live in different neighbourhoods, keep different friends, and I am not just talking about Black and White, but about Democrat and Republican voting blocks. No-one seems to listen to each other any more. There is a silo-thinking of which liberals are also guilty of; express an opinion which is divergent to the liberal canon and you can get some odd looks – I shall never forget stating how I thought GM crops were a good thing and hearing a dinner table fall silent. At its worst we see this in the universities and the stifling intolerance of political correctness which is increasingly making a mockery of freedom of speech. There are a lot of liberals who need to get out more and listen more.

Finally, don't give up on our friends and colleagues over the pond. There is always a latent anti-americanism in Europe just below the surface, which Trumplethinskin's antics will do much to increase. Visit, keep in touch and show solidarity!

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Eucalyptus and Mimosa - Portugal's Australian problem

A typical cultural landscape in Coimbra district. The distant hills would be about 90% eucalpytus
Just had two weeks in central Portugal, near Coimbra. The Iberian peninsula is not somewhere I am that familiar with, but would increasingly like to be. It is home to some 6,000 native flowering plant species, scattered over an amazingly wide range of habitats. A brief foray into Spain last spring made me feel very optimistic about spending more time in the region. Central and northern Portugal however been a bit of a reality check. It seems to be home to one of the biggest accidental experiments in ecology I have ever seen. One which looks disastrous and which has had amazingly little publicity, at least outside the country.
The trees in the rear include cork oak, some pine but also the characteristic cones of middle-aged eucalypts. The trees appear in many village contexts not just in formal plantations in the hills

The problem is Australians. Not the people I hasten to add, but eucalyptus and Acacia dealbata – the familiar mimosa and Acacia melanoxylon. And a New Zealander – Pittosporum undulatum, and increasingly the South American Cortaderia selloana – pampas grass. I have, as many of you may be aware, often been pretty sceptical about much of the currentdiscussion of invasive aliens. I have always felt that people in Britain who worry about impatiens or Japanese knotweed have very little idea of the damage that really invasive aliens can do; and that many 'invasives' are actually not so bad. Increasingly there is evidence that alien species can even play a positive role in the development of novel ecosystems. Portugal is a good example of where things can go really really wrong, but also just how complex these issues are.

To start with the deliberately spread alien, the eucalyptus, mostly E. globulus. Almost any vista in the region between the mountainous east and the coast, north of Lisbon, that we drove through included it, in vast quantities, the distinctively bunchy growth of the outermost branches being particularly conspicuous in silhouette. Almost all the hills are covered with it – nearly all planted as a forestry crop for the paper pulp industry, although it also has some capacity to spread by seed too. The story is that much of this region has granite or other acidic soils, and is not much good for the pastoral agriculture that one might expect in hilly regions, or indeed for cork oak, which is a major form of land use in the warmer and more calcareous south which the tree prefers. Historically, these hills were dominated by oak and chestnut but centuries of deforestation resulted in them being covered in scrub: gorse, heathers, cistus and suchlike. Economically pretty useless. Pine was often planted or spread naturally. But during the 20th century eucalyptus was introduced and promoted under the Salazar regime (always nice to have a fascist dictator to blame!). The paper pulp industry continues to promote planting the tree. The result is an oppressive monoculture, which with the decline of the pulp industry (now moving to South America), is going to be increasingly worthless. To say nothing of the fire risk, posed by this infamously inflammable tree. A eucalypt fire can turn whole landscapes to ash.

Eucalyptus is a controversial crop. One can't blame poor rural regions for wanting to earn money from forestry. And in fact in terms of the big environmental picture it is actually a good thing. The vast area under the tree here must have soaked up a huge amount of CO2, done much to help reduce soil erosion and hold water in the ground. There is a widespread belief in much of the world that the trees dry the soil out, but in fact there is little evidence that this is the case. In very poor regions their presence can actually help protect native forests by being a superior source of firewood and timber, e.g Bolivia.

Eucalyptus plantations have been accused of being 'green deserts'. This is not necessarily the case either, as from what I have seen in most unmanaged plantations is that amongst older trees there is extensive undergrowth in the form of gorse and heather or bracken (western Europe's main invasive non-alien). The problem is that the trees themselves do not support any biodiversity, unlike native pines or even better, oak. One of their worst aspects is that they are more or less indestructible; fell them or burn them and they simply pop again from the base, getting way ahead of any pine or oak which might compete with them. Planting them has been an almost irrevocable decision. The result is a lifeless green coating over almost all the hills. It is as if the country has signed a Faustian pact with a malign fairy, who agreed to reforest it, but with a green monster which will never go away and supports no life.
Mimosa - notice how closely packed these young trees are - they stay like this with little competition between each other, suppressing all other plants

Worst still are the uninvited aliens, the escapees from ornamental cultivation which in the moist mild climate are seeding and spreading at an incredible rate. Mimosa is a particular menace in the central part of the country. It is the perfect example of the worst kind of invasive alien: rapid-growing, rapid-seeding, nitrogen-fixing and almost totally suppressing all other plantlife. Talking to locals in the area about Lousã it appears that in the last ten years they have spread along roads and streamsides to form a kind of foreground to the eucalyptus. They root into cracks in rock, into banks, over streep, into established maquis vegetation, and then grow incredibly densely. The shade they cast is so dark almost nothing will grow beneath them, killing off entire ecosystems. In many circumstances, these short-lived pioneer species would be replaced in due course by longer-lived canopy trees but there is so little here to seed into them that that is simply not going to happen. The danger is that the tree will become self-perpetuating, smothering what is currently the main refuge for much native vegetation along the eucalyptus forest margins.
The bio-desert beneath a mimosa canopy
 Environmental activists have long been warning about eucalyptus. There does seem to be a growing awareness, but once the tide of opinion has turned, it is going to be an almost superhuman struggle for a not very wealthy country to manage this gigantic and multi-faceted problem.