What we consider “natural” is never a static form, but a constantly changing and mutating thing. Even human-based changes to an environment are “natural” and part of an important process. What changes when we add humans to this process is two-fold. One is the magnitude of change, we can easily push a natural process far beyond what the environment was capable of dealing with. The second is our “unnatural” cultural systems’ ability to adapt environmental changes into weapons to preserve the status quo.
Invasive species are such a colonialist weapon. This has been true throughout history, whether overtly with British colonists releasing foxes and hares into “savage” wilds in order to make them more “British” or whether unintentional products of travelers carrying rats and bugs with them as they saunter across the map. Of course, species have moved and traveled since species existed, and there is no innate malice in, say, a new land bridge bringing competitors from North America that wipe out South American marsupials. But one of the most insidious things our cultural systems have learned how to do is subvert natural processes into weapons. Just because an invading species was unintentionally unleashed by a colonial power doesn’t mean that it isn’t an intentional tool of a larger system. After all, one of the most successful ways to subjugate a people is to destroy their environment.
The longfin eel of New Zealand is one of the most fascinating and wildly studied fish in the world. They can grow over 6 feet long and live over 100 years. They have mysterious habits and secret spawning places. They’re also an important commercial product today. But they were not always as well regarded by certain New Zealanders (and those outside New Zealand) as they are today.
The Maori have always valued the eel, as it serves as a cultural keystone species. It is an incredibly important food source, traditionally the main source of protein. The Maori learned early on that the eels could be encouraged to congregate in specific places, and that whenever a single eel mother left to spawn, thousands more would return in her place. As a result, the Maori developed a form of semi-domestication of the eels. Many families would tend to an eel pond, and because of how long lived the eels could be, a single eel could end up being cared for by multiple generations of one family. In the wilderness, the “wild” eel population was carefully monitored, and so the supply never ran out.
As pure speculation, perhaps the eel management techniques were pursued as a direct result of the ancient Maori driving another early food source, the large flightless moa bird, to extinction through over-hunting. Then again, careful management and attention to the eels is reflected in the earliest Maori folklore. The eel is an important mythical figure, and its role in Maori legend is not just as a food source but as the progenitor of other food sources. The giant eel Tuna is killed for his evil actions toward Sina, and as penance promises to reward Sina if she buries his head and visits the grave. From his skull the first coconut grows. In another variant, the eel god Tuna’s body becomes the origin of countless edible species of fish as well as eels. Tuna is a god from Polynesian folklore that predates the Maori, but the shared legend is only found among Polynesian islands where the eel is an important food source. So while the legend came with the first ancient sailors who would become the Maori, it took root only because the longfin eel would become such a culturally important animal.
The eel is so important that it is the primary form of the Maori concept of “taniwha.” A taniwha is an intensely personal and spiritual experience to the Maori people. The concept is often translated into English simply as “monster” or “sea serpent” but this is a disservice. Taniwha can occupy a combination of roles including that of guardian spirit or a physical catalyst for divine inspiration. The fact that so many taniwha take the form of the longfin eel is again indicative of how important the eel is to the Maori people.
Everything changed when the British arrived. The British brought many species they released around their colonies to make them feel more like “home.” This is how you get European rabbits in Australia, starlings and house sparrows in North America*, and trout in New Zealand.
*The starling story deserves a quick mention just for how ludicrously goofy it is. A group of wealthy gits known as the American Acclimatization Society wanted to introduce every bird ever written about by Shakespeare into the US to celebrate the bard’s work. They released multiple batches of starlings into Central Park until a wild population finally took hold.
In many cases, the damage done to the local environment by these introduced species is “accidental.” Rabbits compete against local grazers for food, mongooses and rats eat the eggs of ground birds not used to predators, blackberries choke out a native plant species that is a local animal’s main food source, a foreign disease wipes out 90% of the indigenous people on the continent causing a temporary explosion of passenger pigeons, etc, etc, etc. However, sometimes humans continue to take a more active hand in the damage done. In New Zealand, colonists enjoyed fishing for trout as a past time, and so put out bounties on longfin eels which they claimed were eating their precious trout. Eels were also blamed for killing adorable baby mallard ducks, another animal colonists introduced to make New Zealand more European. Eel hunters were hired to go out into the waterways and kill as many eels as possible. Politicians gave speeches about how it was every right-thinking and god-fearing person’s duty to kill eels. These eel hunts and continued up into the 1960s, with the Southland Acclimatisation Society (noticing a pattern in naming conventions?) offering bounties for dead eels. It isn’t hard to see how many Maori saw the attacks on their familiar environment as a thinly-veiled attack on them.
As colonists worked to change the New Zealand landscape itself, more damage was done to eel populations. Waterways and wetlands were drained to make room for settlements and farms. Roundup was sprayed on the “unruly” water plants to create “cleaner” rivers, which in turn destroyed the habitat of the frogs and small fishes the eels fed on. Dams built miles from wild wetlands or Maori eel ponds would end up blocking mature eels’ path to the sea, preventing entire generations from spawning.
What changed the New Zealand attitude toward the eel? The discovery that it was a commercially valuable product! Suddenly everyone wanted to protect the eel. Of course, the Maori themselves were prevented from taking part in the eel industry until the 90s, and then were forced to abide by new quotas to protect the eel from “exploitation.” Meanwhile, there was still the issue of habitat loss and dams blocking spawning routes that fishing quotas wouldn’t solve. But as noted above, the eel was traditionally a key element in the diet of the Maori. In the decades they were prevented from fishing for eel, or when the eel numbers were so drastically reduced that they could no longer be a staple, a number of health issues rose in the Maori community.
It may come as a surprise to those used to nutritional “experts” of today telling us about universal diets or needs, but the truth is there is never been a universal human diet. The best diet varies wildly from location to location, and person to person. Cultures adapt diets over years of experimentation and necessity. Eels contain a great deal of oils, fats and chemicals which, among other things, help prevent type 2 diabetes. Today, diabetes is an epidemic among Maori who are unable to eat eel regularly. This same pattern can be seen in many indigenous cultures today, such as Inuit communities suffering from rickets after being prohibited from hunting seals for Vitamin D (both seal species at risk because of non-native over-hunting and seal species that are plentiful but protected by western governments because they are cute). As traditional food supplies get replaced by colonial foods that may or may not provide the sustenance that is lost, new diseases emerge that traditional medicine has never had to deal with. The colonial system then tells people that their knowledge has failed them, even when the source of the diseases is the colonial system itself. In cases where traditional medicine can treat a disease that is new to the colonists (such as quinine to treat malaria) it is quickly adopted into the colonial system and its origins as traditional medicine obscured*.
*This is not to say that ‘traditional” or “scientific” medicine is superior, because the truth is that is a false conflict. In truth, there is no “traditional” or “scientific” knowledge, there is simply knowledge. Knowledge can be useful or useless depending on the context. However, the colonial system has become incredibly good at declaring any knowledge currently useful (or even only perceived as useful) as its own. A western pharmaceutical company getting rich off alkaloids indigenous people knew about first and a white hippie homeopath company getting rich off bogus claims of “traditional healing” are both part of the same system and taking part in the same shell game.
The reason a Maori community might not eat eel regularly anymore is not just because of the lack of eels. As colonial environmental policies and acclimatization takes place, the native language itself ends up in the crossfire. Colonists introduce their own poetry and stories based on the introduced species, and slowly the idea of what is “the environment” changes. Look here in the US, how many of us consider earthworms, knotweed, starlings and mute swans part of the “natural” landscape? How many natural parks intentionally manufacture “pristine” looking vistas because tourists expect nature to look a certain way*? Meanwhile, people growing up without interacting with traditional species daily simply can’t connect the traditional language and stories to their own lives. With the traditional landscape replaced by a colonial landscape, people are forced to use a colonial language to describe it. The system supports this by the deriding traditional language, stories, culture and religion as old-fashioned, irrelevant and lost. That is how a spirit that brings divine epiphanies gets reduced to another rpg monster even among the descendants of the people who first named it. Cultures neither emerge not exist in a vacuum. They continue to exist because they connect to peoples’ lived experiences. Invasive species become a form of invasive culture, damaging and replacing the human ecology just as much as it does the environment.
*One of my favorite personal examples comes from Acadia National Park in Maine. Tourists who spend big money come to see the leaves change every year. As a small concession, park officials planted some non-native (to the park at least) species of maple along the road. These maple turn a bright red in the fall, and also blocked the roadside view of less attractive, but far more natural, bits of the park. However, native porcupines discovered these new trees and found them incredibly tasty. While native trees had evolved means of dealing with gluttonous porcupines, the foreign maples couldn’t regrow their bark fast enough and died out. Now the roadside was full of ugly, dying trees and standard, non-breathtaking views beyond. This led to complaints to the park from tourists about how porcupines were ruining the “natural beauty” of the landscape.
Across the world, the most exciting environmental activism is taking place where intersectional activists meet. A big part of what is saving the eel is a combination of Maori environmentalists and Maori social justice activists. Maori who want to protect the eel draw from traditional knowledge of eel behavior*, ecology and husbandry. They also rely on the next generation of Maori to care about the eel. Social activists in turn rely on the survival of the eel to help support the health and economy of their community. Protecting the environment also provides other benefits to the human community, as it provides touchstones for cultural stories, beliefs and traditions. The connection between a culture and its environment becomes an important tool in helping the next generation value itself and its history in the face of a colonial culture telling them they are obsolete.
*That traditional knowledge of eel behavior deserves a mention. The biggest scientific mystery surrounding eels is how and where they spawn. Eels are unlike, say, salmon that are born in the river, voyage to the sea to grow, and then return to the same river to spawn and then die. Eels are born in the sea, voyage to the same rivers and wetlands their parents lived in, then return to the same spot in the ocean they were born to spawn and die. How eels find this single spot in the open sea was unknown to western science for a long time (hell, we still can’t even find that spot). Maori tradition hypothesized that eels found this mysterious spawning ground by scent, based on observing how eels hunted and seemed to recognize locations and people. Scientists scoffed at this idea, seeing it only as a whimsical story, but it turned out they were right. Eels have one of the single best senses of smell in the sea, and they leave a chemical trail for their babies to follow.
Whether we intend to or not, we each carry with us preconceptions about the environment and the status quo will do its best to use whatever those preconceptions are to undermine both cultural and ecological systems it perceives as a menace or exploitable. One of the best allies the environmental and social justice communities have is each other, and that partnership can only emerge when we carefully examine how we relate to the environment around us and who we allow to define it.