Dog Stranglers in the National Park? National and Vegetal Politics in Ontario’s Rouge Valley

Dog-Strangling Vine, Cynanchum rossicum. Source: Jon Hayes

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By Catriona Sandilands

This is the third of a series of articles on the history of Toronto’s suburban environments. NiCHE is publishing this series to provide some context for participants of the 2014 Canadian History and Environment Summer School at York University. The theme of this year’s CHESS is “Suburbia and Environmental History.”

Excerpt from: “Dog Stranglers in the National Park? National and Vegetal Politics in Ontario’s Rouge Valley.” Journal of Canadian Studies 47:3 (2013), 108-9. Full version available here.

In many ways, [dog-strangling vine] … complicates the controversies surrounding the nationing practices of the Rouge National Urban Park. Most obviously, of course, it both highlights and interrupts the specific discourses of nativity, integrity, and biodiversity in which many national park desires are entangled (Head and Muir 2005). Dog-strangling vine is classified as an invasive exotic plant. As many have argued, the line between a native and an exotic species turns out to be somewhat hazy; it turns variously on the recency and the mode of introduction, but clearly also rests on the degree to which the species’ presence is seen as unwanted (see Rodman 1993). Although the range of any given plant species is always subject to change for a complex combination of anthropogenic and other reasons, and although what counts as an invasive varies dramatically across times and spaces—many so-called native species, including common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), are considered invasive in some contexts—there is a frequent conflation of nativeness with national belonging in botanical, horticultural, and popular literatures, to which the invasive exotic is opposed. Of course, there is here an uncomfortable proximity between plant aliens and human ones, in which the supposed sanctity of the native landscape is something to be preserved and protected from unwanted species, and possibly from unwanted persons. The idea of indigeneity invoked in these discourses ironically overlooks the relatively recent arrival of colonial settler society to North America, complete with a whole host of plant species—apples, wheat, oats—that clearly altered the long-term botanical history of the region (and the continent) but whose naturalized economic importance exempts them from current sanction (see also Sandlos 2005).

In addition, however, the precise capacities of DSV, in its particular regional emergence in the later twentieth century, seem to interrupt nationing desires. Simply put, dog-strangling vine offends ideas of good plant citizenship: it is not static, not agreeable, not subtle, not docile. It disregards supposedly proper botanical temporality and established ideas of plant immobility (Marder 2013; Phillips forthcoming) and moves very quickly, both in its rapid tendrilling up the bodies of other plants and its dramatic annual territorial expansion in areas in which it is established. It actively creates a new landscape on its own terms by chemically and physically inserting itself into prior plant/animal/insect communities, with no economic value to humans, thus claiming territory without anthropogenic redemption. Its vine-like qualities display it as a species that relies on other species, in contrast to the ideal of the noble, autonomous tree represented in such places as Group of Seven landscape paintings (it is, quite literally, creepy); in its rapid, almost chaotic growth, it refuses to stay in the background. It is, in addition, a highly opportunistic, prolific, and successful species as opposed to a rarity, making it difficult to make a case for preservation as it is doing very well on its own terms. DSV reminds us of its agency; although it has been deemed infinitely killable in discourses of biological invasion that are entirely oriented to its suppression and control, its persistence and exuberance in spite of these efforts demonstrate forcefully that this plant is actively involved in shaping the landscape with no regard for historically specific (human) national interests.

Professor Sandilands will lead the CHESS 2014 field trip to Rouge National Urban Park. To learn more about the politics of invasive species and dog-strangling vine in Rouge National Urban Park, you can read the full article in the special issue of Journal of Canadian Studies on environmental studies.

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Catriona Sandilands

Cate Sandilands is a professor in the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University, where she has taught, researched, and written since 1994 at the intersections of environmental literature and cultural studies, feminist/gender studies, and social and political theory. She was Canada Research Chair in Sustainability and Culture from 2004 to 2014, and has recently served as President of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE) and of the Association for Literature, Environment and Culture in Canada (ALECC). Her work focuses on the ways in which the humanities – particularly, literature and literary criticism – illuminate and shape the cultural (including gendered) politics of environmental change.

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