INVADERS!

Invaders!

Invasive species threaten habitat and human health.

Whose fault is it? Who can fix the problem?

The word itself–”invasive”–blames unwanted behavior on the invaders themselves. Vikings storming through Britain; Imperialists denying the rights of native citizens;  Nazis invading, well, almost everyone: these suggest willful and aggressive purpose.

But when it comes to the environment, the term invader (or invasive) is misleading. Animal and plant invaders aren’t willfully charging into new environments to conquer them.

In addition to being hazardous to young trees, rabbits can also cause other problems (see Plant a Tree-Sunbreak Press)
Photo by Cherie Ude

The first step in understanding invasive species is to define what an invader is. With stomping boots, flailing swords, and booming canons, it’s fairly to define and denounce the aggressive behavior.

But what transforms a warm and fuzzy bunny into an invader? (See National Geographic for the history of  rabbits in Australia).

How does a species become an invader, destroyer of habitat, and a danger to human health?

Definition of Invaders

Defining an invasive species has proven controversial (Smithsonian Magazine). For the purposes of conservation, the definition from The International Union for Conservation of Nature, (IUCN) given in the Smithsonian Magazine article is commonly accepted:

“…animals, plants or other organisms introduced by man (emphasis my own) into places out of their natural range of distribution, where they become established and disperse, generating a negative impact on the local ecosystem and species.”

Clip Art Library Invasive Species Cartoon #2307916

In other words, humans not only identify and define the problem, they cause the problem.

Because of unthinking human behavior, defined invaders include animals and plants that we love and those we hate; those we brought with us on purpose and those who hitched rides on ships, planes, and even automobiles.

Because invaders enter new territory, they either quickly perish (wrong conditions) or thrive (no predators and more aggressive). Because of these factors (Invasive Species Specialist Group), invaders often eliminate natives and consequently alter entire ecosystems.

“Invasive alien species (IAS) are one of the five most important drivers affecting nature, and the fourth most important direct driver of species extinctions (Butchart et al. 2019; Ichii et al. 2019).” (PMC)

In other words, by creating this problem, humans are the cause of Invasive species that destroy habitat, damage ecosystems, and drive extinction. Since humans are the initial cause of the problem, humans must provide solutions. First, we must understand the problem.

Illegal Wildlife Trade–Many Victims

The illegal wildlife trade is responsible for many invaders. Animals are captured, transported, sold, and often die because someone wants the prestige of an exotic pet. Unfortunately, few people are able to care for exotic pets. People try, for instance, to keep full-sized jaguars in the city.

Even those who are supposedly professional find that providing fresh meat, ample space, and vet care exceed what they can provide (U.S. Department of Justice).

When care becomes too difficult or just boring, people “free” animals into the wild. Some don’t last long, but some find an Eden with no known predators, such as Burmese pythons and other exotic animals in Florida’s swamps National Geographic article.

Defying laws, people often think they have a “right” to own or consume any animal they want. However, wildlife trafficking is not a victimless crime. Consider this information from the 2022 US budget:

Law Enforcement—The 2022 budget provides $95.0 million, an increase of $8.1 million over the 2021 level, for the law enforcement program to investigate wildlife crimes and enforce the laws that govern the Nation’s wildlife trade. FWS continues to work with the State Department, other Federal agencies, and foreign governments to address the serious and urgent threat to conservation and global security posed by illegal wildlife trade and trafficking. A program increase of $7.7 million will provide for proactive law enforcement efforts to target and stop illegal trade; ensure sustainable legal trade through the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora; reduce demand for illegal wildlife products in consumer countries; and provide technical assistance and grants to other nations to build local enforcement capabilities. FWS will also continue to strengthen its smuggling interdiction efforts at the Nation’s ports of entry by using trained wildlife detector dogs in its frontline force and working with the State Department to support attachés in key wildlife trafficking countries in Asia, Africa, and South America. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

So the burden of policing and cleaning up after wildlife trafficking is placed on taxpayers. The same is true in other countries trying to prevent this crime. Citizens in these countries also suffer as animals go extinct and habitats are lost. Humans risk their health as well (World Wildlife Fund and above BBC article). Meanwhile, animals, too, endure capture, injury, and death.

Although many species come from other countries, we can’t simply blame other cultures for illegal wildlife trafficking. No one would capture the animals unless the market existed. For instance, social media has helped make the pangolin one of the world’s most trafficked animals – and not just because it’s cute. People unabashedly buy products made of their scales. World Wildlife Fund Is this a non-issue in the U.S.? No. This Portland, Oregon woman was selling the scales in the US U.S. Department of Justice.

The US is one of the largest consumers of illegal wildlife and products (One Green Planet: America’s Role in the Illegal Wildlife Trafficking Trade and How to Stop It).

The cute and cuddly aren’t the only deliberately purchased wildlife. Consider the lionfish, originally from the South Pacific and Indian Oceans, are now found in Florida coral reefs (NOAA ). People buy and then release these and other tropical fish in the sea. Now bounties are being offered to divers for killing lionfish (who have no local predators) before reefs are devastated. Again, the clean-up is costly and the environmental destruction extensive.

Kudzu sculpting a different forest landscape. (Photo by Kerry Britton, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org)

With plants, people who think something is pretty or interesting can create a serious environmental problem. Kudzu is swallowing up some landscapes.

At the same time the Himalayan blackberry offers a tasty treat, it can also overwhelm native plants (and even houses).

In some cases, the plants that take over an area can be hazardous to livestock and humans, such as tansy ragwort.  Tansy (WSSA World of Weeds ) has been in the States for hundreds of years, and is considered noxious everywhere. It probably came over on ships accidentally, in ballast or agricultural products.

Invader Laws Vary

Every location that has had humans also has invasive species, both plant and animal. Each place has different rules and laws for invasive species management. For instance, the eastern grey squirrel is considered a “non-native” species in Washington State where I live. It’s legal to kill them, but illegal to move them off your property. Debate continues about how seriously they threaten native wildlife.

On the other hand, the European green crab (brought to the country aboard sailing ships) is a serious threat, and people are encouraged to report sightings. Check out National Invasive Species Information Center for specific information for your area. If you violate wildlife laws, you become subject to prosecution according to your state’s laws.

What Can You Do?

Be part of the solution.

  1. Read all labels when you purchase items, from clothing to furniture to toys to food. What are the materials and where do they originate?
  2. Buy certified products (US EPA Identify Greener Products and Services)
  3. Don’t buy exotic pets. If you want a pet such as a parrot, check out rescue centers. Many exotic pets need homes. Understand the animal’s needs before obtaining it.
  4. Don’t support markets or pet stores that sell any products that aren’t certified.
  5. Report any illegal wildlife trade. Share information about the problem with friends and family.
  6. Eco-tourism choices will help support local environmentally friendly economies.
  7. Support charitable organizations that fight wildlife trafficking. Check out World Wildlife Fund to start.
  8. Be informed. Do some research. Then be ready to speak out in person, on social media, or in letters to newspapers or congress about the problems and solutions.

Be part of the solution!

Next post will be on WATER in early March

Genre Discussion: Helpful Guide or Straitjacket?

The other day, I ran into a friend while I was talking to a librarian about my new book. My friend asked to see my book. She looked at the blurb on the back and said, “Oh, dear, I have a terrible time with books like this. Fantasy. I just don’t understand it.”

“Well, it’s science fiction…” I began, but she was shoving the book back at me.

“I just don’t like dragons and swords and stuff like that.”

“Not all fantasy has that,” I said, abandoning a discussion of both my book–which lacks dragons and swords–and science fiction.

“Yes, it does,” she said.

I started listing some books I thought she would like, everything from The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker and Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord to Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley. Most she hadn’t read (because it was fantasy) but “Oh, I loved Mists of Avalon!” she said and then added, “But that’s not fantasy.”

“Of course, it is,” I said always willing to state my opinion.

A couple days later, I ran into this friend again, this time at the post office. She was bubbling over with excitement because she’d talked to her son about the Golem and the Jinni and found out he’d read it and loved it. She’d started it, and she loved it, too. I don’t know if this is going to open up her thoughts to reading outside her “usual” genres, but it points out how writers can fail to reach readers and how readers can miss out on great books because of genre:

  1. Readers become trapped in the idea that genre defines a book’s content, theme, style.
  2. Writers find themselves trapped into writing stories that don’t take unique paths.

Writers suffer the most damage. Genre conventions dictate what they can write and/or how they can write it. That can smother creativity. This starts early in a writer’s career. For instance, one of my friends was denied admission to a university MFA program because she wrote science fiction. Many programs still limit work to “literary.” It’s not just academia. For instance, writers in the fantasy genre must be careful to not mix character origins. Take care not to mix a mythological god in a story with randomly chosen creatures such as dinosaurs and the Cheshire Cat. 

Of course, all these genre boundaries shift about. What a shock when genre fiction writers became recognized for their literary accomplishments; for instance, writers such as Vonnegut and LeGuin have work that science fiction writers sometimes now claim as “literary science fiction” and the academic world calls, simply, “literary.”

Sometimes this classification game begins to look as complicated as listing all the animal species (a couple million or so). Wikipedia breaks down the “common fiction genres” into 25 categories. Various departments of education often cut that down a little, but in reality the genres multiply as professors of literature (one of the fields I taught for decades) bring books into the classroom. The classifications become as narrow as the hair on a villain’s chin.

Of course, many writers shrug off the rules and write what their imagination dictates. This often results in wonderfully imaginative and unique books, which is what I’d say about Redemption in Indigo and Going Postal by Terry Pratchett. Each page is a surprise.

Even cross-genre (or genre bending) writing has become a genre. I keep seeing articles such as “Three rules for writing a cross-genre novel.”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for writing rules. Grammar and punctuation (I was a teacher after all) are essential, in my opinion, for clarity. Rules also apply to style: show don’t tell, for instance. Essentials of plot and scene building keep a story from dying on the page. On the other hand, one purpose of learning rules is to know how and when to break them effectively. For instance, a well-used sentence fragment adds spice and characterization.

“Ticket-sellers in the subway, breathing sweat in its gaseous form…. Farmers plowing sterile fields behind sad meditative horses, both suffering from the bites of insects….Grocery-clerks trying to make assignations with soapy servant girls….”            –from “Diligence,” A Mencken Chrestomathy–H. L. Mencken

So sometimes, if you’re willing to pay the penalty, genre rule breaking is an option (including cross-genre rules). For instance, in my last book Quantum Consequences, I used science fiction as the main genre; however, I took on fantasy to account for the origin myth of elves and dwarfs as well as some abilities of central characters. I was aware of the fact that I was violating many traditions of the fantasy field. In so doing, I also knew I was limiting publishing options. Few big publishers want to risk a book that breaks with genre tradition unless the writer is already well-known and popular.

Look how hard it was for Stephen King to move out of horror. Even so, his work is sometimes still restricted. I recently read an article that said he had mastered almost all the genres except literary. I guess that means that his nearly 20 awards for writing won’t ever include a Pulitzer.

So who wins in this genre box building?

Academics

In literary circles where analysis is the name of the game, genre allows for historical, social, and cultural contexts. Taking something apart to study it is SOP.

Institutions

Libraries and stores know where to shelve books. Publishers and publicists know where to market.

Writers

Marketing is easier if you write mysteries that follow the genre boilerplate. Finding publishers and readers is marginally easier. One writer I know has churned out five or six books a year by following this practice and now has almost 200 books attributed to his name. Readers devour such books in the same way that my husband eats potato chips (except the books aren’t fattening). Likewise, getting publicity is easier if you have a clear genre.

Readers

Readers who don’t want surprises, don’t want their assumptions challenged, also benefit. If they pick up a Regency romance, they already know the time period, the basic plot (romance), the likely class of characters, and the outcome. Readers who don’t find the expected in such a novel will be as upset as a Texan who orders sirloin steak and gets tofu. That doesn’t mean either the Texan or the tofu is bad. Likewise, genre preferences don’t make advocates “bad readers.” Books for escape (entertainment) have an important place in our culture. This, for the same reason, means that writers of such books are not “bad writers.”

***

With all that said, the controversy over genre continues. Some writers and readers like risk, like taking a literary journey where no one has gone before. Natural rebels? Eager to tell their own stories in their own ways? More in love with the art and craft of writing than publication? Or, for readers, more in love with meeting unexpected people and traveling on unexpected paths with uncertainty always in the balance and utter delight only one sentence away?

We need those who write within conventional structures and those who don’t.

Sometimes the unconventional becomes conventional. Edgar Allen Poe and Anton Chekhov pioneered the short story. Murasaki Shikibu penned the world’s first novel (according to most sources) The Tale of Genji in the early 11th century. Short story and novel are now standard conventions.

Who knows what the next convention will be?

Whatever it is, the result will no doubt be named and placed in the growing hierarchy of genres becoming standard, like steampunk novels today.

Experimental Nonfiction: Is It New?

Last week on Sunbreak Press Facebook page I posted a call for submissions to a publication wanting “experimental nonfiction.”

A few people have since asked, “What is ‘experimental’ nonfiction?”

The answer lies in another question: What is traditional nonfiction? That is, what do you expect in a piece of nonfiction? A number of answers jump to mind, some focusing on the goal of the genre and some on the craft.

To start with the goal of nonfiction, one answer may be truth. Well, as we know, writers have been debating the differences between fact, memory, opinion and, therefore, truth for eons. Because that concept is abstract (elusive), some authors use the term essential truth, which means, most closely, truth as perceived by the author. Consequently, most nonfiction relies on personal memories–either those of the writer or other voices in the essay. This is a truth for the individual that may become a universal truth to which readers can relate.

With that answer in place, the idea of experimental nonfiction may be to use sources other than memories to come to an essential truth. That can be done through need (memories are missing) or choice; this gets into craft.

***

For instance, to take the first reason for using other sources–need: suppose you’re writing an essay that comes from the events of your sixth birthday party where, according to family stories, your discovery of your mother and the neighbor kissing created havoc, which led to the family home burning to the ground. That has been the simple version of a family truth for decades and maybe you’ve always felt a little guilty about being party to the disaster, so you’re going to write about the event. However, in the family library, you’ve recently found pictures of that kissing neighbor, who was a different race than your family; this happened when racial tensions were high in your town. Then you find a newspaper article about that neighbor’s murder, which took place two days after your birthday.

You have no memories of your own, and writing with “perhaps” and “if I connect the pieces” throughout the manuscript becomes tedious. Suppose you drop standard chronological details and instead use a collage of newspaper articles, song lyrics of the time period, and quotes; with these, you may juxtapose birthday cake candle images with various other fires: burning crosses, passion, hell. You’re dealing with an essential truth that has emerged through juxtaposition. The story morphs. This is still nonfiction, but it’s not within what we think of as traditional nonfiction today.

This technique can also be used for the latter reason (choice), which is based on choosing technique to help you discover your own message. You let an essential truth build in your reader’s mind and even in your own (with, of course, your guidance).

***

When this sort of genre mixing and chronological omission is practiced, first person often is abandoned for third person. We expect memoir, for instance, to be written from first person (with the author being the speaker). To shift person is another way to experiment with the genre. This sort of approach can change the voice, the tone, and the style of the work.

Another technique that often involves person switches or omission of first person is to use multiple story lines, weaving them together, to create an essential truth that none of them would have on their own. In a beautifully written essay on writing essay, “The Art of Memoir,” in Michael Steinberg The Fourth Generation, first edition, Mary Clearman Blew compares this sort of writing to that of creating quilts from scraps of material, each with its own story:

But any story depends upon its shape. In arranging the scraps that have been passed down to me, which are to be selected, which discarded? The boundaries of creative nonfiction will always be as fluid as water.

Although this was written in 1993 and deals with selection of details, the concept of experimental is at its heart; these writers were just not using the term experimental.

Whenever you’re using multiple genres to create your work, you are using experimentation. Although writers often wrote in boxes in the past, cross-genre work and genre bending have become increasingly popular. As mentioned above, you may well include articles, songs, and poetry in nonfiction to give it added depth and interest. Check out an interview with Margot Singer and Nicole Walker in TriQuarterly for some more thoughts along these lines.

Another aspect of essay that is usually expected is that it will be personal, focused on the self; after all, the word essai to Montaigne was his effort to provide thoughtful, personal honesty with his “little thoughts” (as a side note, the tradition for years was that only men could write essays, for only men could think).

Any essay that uses second or third person, of course is drifting from that idea of personal honesty, but that can drift even farther. In the 1990s, the term literary journalism was used to separate the personal essay from the rich essays that strove to avoid pitfalls of fiction (including telescoping time and creating composite characters) used by some creative nonfiction writing. According to John McPhee, artistry did not need to correlate with “made up” (Literary Journalism). McPhee and other literary journalists often objected to the term creative when correlated with nonfiction.

Literary journalism is often about situations, places or people other than the author or even anyone well known by the author (such as family).

Essays have, of course, been changing constantly over the decades. Perhaps these changes are all experimental, but over time we have fallen into thinking of essays in traditional ways (first person, chronological, memory-based reality). Perhaps thinking in terms of “experimental” is just one way of putting the creative freedom back into how we write nonfiction (or artistry if you prefer).

In essence then, experimental nonfiction is neither new nor particularly experimental; it remains, however, writing that seeks truth.