Common Ground

Splashes of bright, even garish, yellow punctuated the chaparral on the hillside. The color was an anomaly. It was from a completely different palette than that of the chamise, buck brush, and manzanita. French broom provided this brilliant jolt. Broom is not a California native. It has not learned how to fit in, to relax California-style and blend comfortably with the lives of the plants and animals that surround it. It is fierce, vigorous, rampant and raucous. Nothing can stop it.

Pampas grass bursts up in fountains of foamy seed heads along shores and inland valleys. It washes in waves up coastal hills shaping the land. It replaces the plants once blanketing the slopes leaving little to eat for those creatures whose larders it has overrun. Its name declares its place of origin.

Star thistle covers hillsides where cattle graze, outlines back roads, fills lots left vacant. Thorns bristle like spikes on a mace around flowers of bright clear yellow. This nomad from Europe is foreign and friendless. It cannot be approached or trod upon lightly.

These waywards have their animal counterparts, creatures from a distant soil—bullfrogs, starlings, the red fox. They disrupt the natural order of things as have all intruders since time began. They devour land and destroy forage providing nothing in return. They have no predators and can move swiftly, and so the upstarts thrive.

But what is a native? To be a California native, and brag about it, for humankind means simply to have been born here. Most California natives these days are not Native Americans even though they are native to America by birth. To be a Native American one’s ancestors had to have been part of the human migration that came from Asia when it was connected, or nearly so, to Alaska by a bridge of land.

Native or not, we are all here to stay. There is no way to get rid of any of us–the thistle, the bull frog–or me, the native Iowan with ancestors from Scotland and Wales. Surely time will have its way with all of us, and we will settle into middle age. No longer the aggressive newcomer, we will have found, or been put in, our place.

The eucalypts, those adaptable Australians so favored a century ago, have come on such times. Having been here for decades, they have lived in our midst long enough to have become tolerated, if not comfortable, neighbors living peacefully like fugitives in a foreign land. But they could not hide out here forever. At last Australian psyllids, small bugs that fly from tree to tree and suck eucalyptus sap for refreshment, have found them. What happenstance reunited these Americanized eucalypts with their now-foreign foe? A chance reunion, no doubt.

Life is aggressive, not passive. It looks out for its own. Native–the word itself–permits an opposite, an intruder, a foreigner, or foe. Will a time come when we, as native Earthlings, find we have more common ground than we know?

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