Chemotherapy by John Brittenham


There are many days when I’m worn out and burdened by a job that requires me to spend the majority of my time killing things. I’m not the type of person that wakes up in the morning and says “Alright, I get to go annihilate a few acres of cattails today. Bring it on!” That is not me. Rather my passion and enthusiasm is more often brought out by returning life to the earth. This is such a small portion of Blue Heron Ministries calendar year that I’m always left wanting for more when it does happen. I spend most of the year dreaming of the days when my actions of taking life away from a place will give way to returning life back to the land. Why all this death and herbicide? Is it necessary? I’ve pondered this question often in my years as a restoration ecologist. The answer I’ve come to is yes, it is necessary. And though I often dislike the fact, in this broken world such aggressive actions are required to return many areas to a state of ecological health and/or integrity.


Ecological health/integrity, what does that even mean? When we think of human health, we are usually talking about the body and mind being free from illness or injury and possessing soundness and vigor. As my college biology teacher taught me, health can also be thought of as the body’s ability to maintain homeostasis, or a relatively steady state. This requires a healthy body to be both resistant and resilient to stress. If we get too hot, our body responds by sweating and cooling us down. If we are infected by a germ, our body produces antibodies to help destroy the infection. If we are cut, our blood begins to clot and seal the wound. All these actions keep the body functioning within the parameters needed for survival and optimum function. But sometimes the body gets stressed beyond its ability to handle the stress on its own. At these times, outside intervention is needed or the body will lose its ability to function correctly and severely diminished health or even death will ensue. Most commonly we turn to doctors to assist us in these situations.


Those of us who work at Blue Heron Ministries can be thought of as health care providers of natural systems. We monitor our area’s habitats and ecosystems and seek to make improvements when these systems are not functioning property. In essence, we monitor the ecological health and integrity of the land and the organisms that depend on it. What then does an ecosystem need to be considered healthy? Though there are many ways to look at this and many scientists would argue that ecological integrity is a much better way to frame this discussion, for not let;s stay with the comparison of ecological health to human health. For an ecosystem to be healthy it must be free of illness or injury or at least maintain its ability to support and maintain a biological system resilient and resistant to outside stresses. How do the natural areas in northeast Indiana measure up? As many of you know or would guess, they are almost all sick, some much more worse than others.


One of the largest stresses to the ecosystems around us, and around the world for that matter, is invasive species. These organisms are very similar to cancer as they infect natural areas in which they did not originate. Once introduced, invasive species will begin to reproduce and outcompete native organisms until, in many cases, the natural is almost entirely dominated by one species. Just as doctors today use chemotherapy to remove invasive cancer from the human body, we use chemotherapy to remove invasive cancer from the human body, we use chemotherapy in the form of herbicide to treat the cancer of invasive species. Just like chemotherapy is used for as short a duration as possible while still ensuring the highest likelihood of success, so are our herbicide treatments on invasive species. And just like cancer survivors must undergo regular testing to find the cancer if it does return, so the natural areas that have been healed from their invasive species infections must also routinely be checked for invasive species and dealt with as soon as possible if found.


To be honest, many of the once widespread habitats and ecosystems of northeast Indiana have been injured or infected so severely that they are no longer present in the areas where they once dominated. The prairies, savannas, wetlands, and old growth forests once all too common on the northeast Indiana landscape are now gone. They have experienced “death: or are severely degraded beyond the point of recognition and have been replaced with habitats that thrive on the disturbances that human habitation and have been replaced with habitats that thrive on the disturbances that human habitation brings. You’d be hard-pressed to find any habitats that have not been significantly altered over the past two centuries.



But there is hope. This is the hope that Blue Heron Ministries is founded on. Death is not the end of the story. We here on earth have been invited to take part in the same great restoration that Jesus Christ inaugurated that first Easter morning. Jesus was all about bringing the kingdom of God here on earth. In that kingdom, our relationships are restored. Man to God, man to man, and man to the dead to show us that resurrection after death and the full restoration of all relationships is possible in the Kingdom of God. So, on those days when I am spraying invasive species with herbicide and causing so much death and ugliness, I remember that I am not taking life carelessly. My actions are part of a larger plan to bring healing and eventfully restoration to the landscape. For, it is only through the removal of the disease that the landscape can be reseeded, reborn, and returned back to its rightful relationship with the rest of creation. Of these actions, I am proud to do my part.


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