Consider the Wildflower: Our Unsung Ecological Hero

When literary legend David Foster Wallace penned his 2004 essay Consider the Lobster, he turned a would-be review of the Maine Lobster Festival into a poignant reflection on the rights of beclawed nonhumans, as they were boiled up and served with butter en masse in a bizarre spectacle of festive massacre.

In the essay, Wallace expunges on the idea that whilst lobsters almost undeniably feel pain and have the potential capacity to suffer as a consequence – many still feel it appropriate to subject them to a brutal fate of being boiled alive. This is even more relevant today, with recent studies showing that the capacity for decapod crustaceans to feel pain is a slap-in the-face reality for gastrophiles across the globe.

Wallace goes on to question why our treatment of nonhumans differs wildly; indeed, those capable of boiling lobsters alive would recoil in horror at the idea of doing the same to their beloved cat or dog. Whilst this practice has been banned in places like Switzerland, most of the lobster-eating world continues uncaring or unawares – fifteen years after Wallace’s essay was published, and with lobsters now facing the threat of warming seas from climate breakdown.

To the ecologically-minded, these basic principles of suffering and pain are familiar foundations of the animal rights movement, and are appropriate qualifiers for protecting nonhumans from exploitation and abuse. But in light of Stephen Thompson’s recent article on wildlife by roadsides – highlighting the dire straits of wildflowers due to shocking mistreatment – we’re left asking, is it high time to consider the wildflower?

It is, naturally, much easier to consider the lobster. Lobster’s have pain receptors, and display behaviours that emulate suffering. Wildflowers possess neither – but are under arguably greater systemic threat, as they are buzzed, grazed, trampled, plucked, and poisoned into ecological oblivion.

Indeed, in the UK alone, 97% of wildflower meadows have disappeared since the Second World War. The reasons as to why are multifaceted in the extreme, from blundering councils hungrily mowing all in sight, to the indiscriminate spewing of fertilisers and herbicides, and EU farming directives – wildflowers are rarely spared the deadly stick of development.

Across the world, similar stories echo around the halls of conservation, with few on the outside caring to listen. For many, it’s difficult to empathise with the glossy-black gaze of a lobster in strife – so for wildflowers, the palms of upset are even more empty. But whilst the plight of lobsters is infuriatingly absurd, the disappearance of wildflowers is a mounting ecological concern for us all.

Key pollinators are already struggling under the cosh of industrial agriculture, as pesticides and crop monocultures devastate their numbers. In a troubling publication by insect charity Buglife, two-thirds of pollinators are declining in the UK. Relying on wild pollinators for plant reproduction, if this decline continues, there could be severe repercussions for food production and an 80% loss of wild plant species – affecting human and nonhuman survival.

The reliance of terrestrial ecosystems on pollinators is well-researched, with biologist Francisco Sánchez-Bayo stating insect extinction could occur within a “few decades” – the results being “catastrophic” for “the planet’s ecosystems and for the survival of mankind.” The attack on wildflowers contributes to this ecological car crash, as their dwindling numbers are caught in a “parallel decline” alongside insect pollinators, with losses in one spurring further losses in the other.

As wildflower habitats are systematically destroyed, pollinators have little refuge from environmental onslaught. Relying increasingly on protected sites, only 6% are in “favourable condition” – meaning most are insufficient in battling the biodiversity crisis. Thus, preserving and proliferating our wildflower population should be on a pedestal of ecological importance.

But it isn’t. Whilst conservationists work hard to raise awareness on the issue and restore wildflower habitats, progress is slow, and they’re losing the race against unforgiving agricultural techniques. “Fundamentally we are still failing to protect our wild plant diversity,” states UK charity Plantlife. Threatened species such as the corn marigold continue to wilt into extinction, as current agri-environment policy fails to reform to the necessary measures required.

With the government firmly in the cash-stuffed pockets of the National Farmer’s Union, serious legislation on reckless herbicide and pesticide use is avoided, and the government has given up its goal of protecting 50% of SSSIs – whilst seeking to reduce or remove farm inspections. Furthermore, as George Monbiot reports, our regulatory bodies are “collapsing”, meaning enforcement of habitat and species protections from farmers is threadbare at best. All of the above spells further catastrophe for wildflowers.

Turning up our own pockets, animal welfare charities receive nearly double the amount of contributions compared with environment and conservation organisations. Although public concern for the latter is increasing, plants come low on the list – with the majority focusing on megafauna and issues such as plastic pollution. Ultimately however, when it comes to nonhumans, the cash rains on domesticated cats and dogs.

This disparity of treatment between wild and domesticated nonhumans continues further into plant life; houseplant sales are booming in the UK – worth £2.2 billion as of 2018 – as gardening enjoys an overall growth. Although this boom is partly due to genuine worries over air quality, pollinator wipe-outs from wildflower disappearances should be equally distressing – and receiving equal investment.

Unfortunately, this is not the case – leaving us scratching our ecological heads. Whilst we cannot stomach violence on our beloved pets, we (quite literally) lap up the same when done to other animal species – despite their similarity in suffering. As this crippling divide of the domesticated/wild seems to continue with flowers – could it be the divide itself that is the problem? And does the divide need tearing down, allowing us to view wildflowers on an equal plane with our favourite cactus or garden rose?

This type of discussion has historically fallen on weeds, with weeds to the common gardener or agriculturalist being a matter almost purely of perception. A weed is typically considered a weed on the basis of human desire – depicted by the varied attitudes to weed management on farms depending on whether the farmers see them as valuable or not. Indeed, the presence of weeds can reduce pests, and boost pollinators – benefiting crop production. Thus, a weed is often a weed in respect to our own prejudices, and what we feel is right or wrong in a horticultural setting. Although there’s no denying that a rambunctious weed may threaten your azaleas – it may be more beneficial to wider biodiversity.

And of course, many flowering weeds walk the tightrope of cultural value. Although further divisions between weeds and wildflowers exist, this is similarly uncertain. Take the simple dandelion for example – hugely important for pollinators, yet dug up with an unrelenting fury by gardeners. Furthermore, one academic paper highlights how such flowering weeds are vital to the survival of bees, as well as strengthening the livelihood of other wild flora. Both flowering weeds and wildflowers have huge ecosystem value, blurring the lines to an indistinguishable squint.

With the hierarchy of weed and wildflower thoroughly distorted, is it possible to extend this to the heights of domestication? Posthuman philosophers would think so, going the extra-ecological mile in declaring that there is no such thing as external nature – instead, everything exists together in a multispecies web. Posthumanists argue that this entangled existence demands inherent respect and the attribution of agency to all nonhumans – regardless of the historic cultural perspective – wildflowers included. Our anthropogenic categories of wild/domesticated, nature/human are thus irrelevant, and removing them would provide the seed for interspecies harmony to grow.

At first, it may be tempting to tear these distinctions limb from limb in pursuit of species equality. And with good cause. For instance, if the human inhabitants of Maine saw lobsters not as exploitable natural resource, but living beings much like themselves – perhaps they wouldn’t subject them to a yearly holocaust of being boiled alive. Or if farmers saw wildflowers as inherently valuable as their domestic crops, they mightn’t put the herbicide boot in without remorse.

But could we consider the wildflower, whilst keeping the wild? In his book The Practice of the Wild, Snyder affirms that although nature includes everything, wild is the undomesticated; the innate organic that lives in us all, but is beyond domineering human development. Consequently, wilderness is an area where the wild still holds dominance, evidenced by diverse, healthy ecosystems populated by living and non-living beings existing to an order not overseen by humanity. As Snyder puts it, wilderness is a “place where the wild potential is fully expressed.”

Such wilderness is virtually non-existent in the UK. Yet the majority of wildflowers are considered wild not due to existing in wilderness, but because they peek through pavement cracks, or tremble at the edge of a rapeseed field. But this doesn’t mean we should ignore the wild in wildflower, as it can act as a mirror to our twenty-first century selves – reminding us of our own inseparable connection to the wider ecological world – and the wild roots of our beginning.

As Jason W. Moore puts forward, language in the ecological crisis is not a matter of intellectual pedantry, but of key importance in unearthing the socio-political and cultural complexities that aggravate climate disaster. Although he’s talking about capitalism, enshrining the wild in wildflower could be of similar value; it may just need to change from external ‘nature’ to something within us all – as the very organic, spontaneous, and vital essence that makes life worth living.

Although the nature/human divide is a destructive falsehood, we don’t necessarily need to pluck apart the wild/domesticated distinction in total. We must simply reshape our approach so that wild and domesticated are given equal attention in the struggle for nonhuman rights and preservation of life. With a posthuman approach and a dash of wild, we can consider the wildflower with deserved significance, and continue the fight for their survival. The wildflower will no longer be undesirable weed trapped in a calamitous limbo, but valued ecosystem member. And the same goes for the lobster.

The Millennial Ecologist

Article images © Edd Carr Media

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