When I was in third grade, my class went on a field trip to the Marin Headlands. It was our first overnight in the “outdoor ed” program that we would continue until the end of eighth grade, where we ramped all the way up to a week-long backpacking trip. So there we were, all 45 of us plus our teachers, loaded up into a school bus, across the Golden Gate Bridge, and down toward the headlands. From the few distinct memories I have of this time over 10 years ago, I vividly remember learning about invasive ice plant and having a chance to help try and get rid of them.
Ice plant is a succulent-looking plant that is native to South Africa, a place with a similar temperate climate to the coast of California. Ice plant was probably brought to the pacific coast in the 1600s with colonization, but started its boom with purposeful and widespread planting in the early 1900s. Continuing until the 1970s, people believed that the drought resistant, quickly growing mat-like structured plants were beneficial for sand dune and soil erosion. They thought that these non-native plants would hold sand in place better than the native shrubs and allowed ice plant to thrive as it took over dunes and out-competed native plants. What people know now is that the ice plant is extremely aggressive and actually destabilizes soil as its leaves are big and heavy, good for storing all of the water it sucks up without losing much, and the roots are shallow, clinging to the soil tightly, increasing erosion and the frequency of landslides. The mats of ice plant build up so much biomass that the soil below sometimes, unexpectedly, collapses.
At the time, in the mid-2000s, as I wandered the Marin Headlands with my other eight year old classmates, one practice to try to eradicate ice plant was to physically crush it. So in learning about watershed systems and local ecology, we also walked up to the top of some sand dunes overlooking Rodeo Beach and discussed ice plant and the harm of the wildly out of control plant. Then, each of us took a turn pickle-rolling down the dune, smashing as much ice plant as possible under our little bodies. And making sure we avoided the abundant poison oak also surrounding us. The instructors there at NatureBridge in the headlands then pointed to another portion of the dune that had no ice plant on it. They told us, see, this is where another group rolled before and look! Now there’s no more ice plant. And I felt like we were really doing something! Just from rolling down a sandy hill, I could help get rid of this bad (invasive) plant that was crowding out the good (native) plants.
Here we are in the spring of 2022 and I am still doing the same thing, but a little differently and having learned and grown a lot in the years since third grade. I volunteered one Saturday in February with the Big Sur Land Trust, pulling ice plant from Martin Dunes in Marina. The day started by getting picked up by a friend, the volunteer coordinator for the land trust, so we could all carpool. We headed to Marina and drove through dry, tired-looking agricultural fields, arriving at a badly rutted dirt parking lot. Though there was a deep pit with various tire tracks through it in the middle of the lot, the dirt looked like it hadn’t seen rain in years. And it probably hasn’t. Or at least seen enough of it. Once all of the volunteers assembled, we ventured out to the beach and then along the dunes to an unmarked trail of sand between dunes that wrapped to a couple of decaying wooden picnic tables. And for the next couple of hours, we all worked by hand to pull out as much ice plant as possible and lay it root-up in piles in the sun so that the plant would die. Something that has changed in my time since rolling over ice plant in the headlands til now has been my deep immersion into climate change and environmental justice. And what I noticed while ripping plants out of the sand is that ice plant is just like climate change.
You need to get to the mother root
Ice plant generally has one big main “mother root.” There may be smaller sections of root that spread out and run right under the sand, but they all connect to this one thicker root. Same with climate change. When looking at the climate crisis, there are so many different aspects to get invested and discouraged by. There’s the acidification of the ocean and collapse of marine systems and food and livelihoods of millions. There’s the deforestation of the planet’s lungs and burning of the very trees that make it possible for humans to breathe and survive. There’s the growing variability and inconsistency of global circulation patterns and currents, the driving forces of all global systems. What gives the planet weather and climates and moisture and nutrients and much more. And with that, the increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events that our human systems don’t have the capacity or care for. Every season is record breaking and one day may bring intense heat while the next has intense rain. Weather whiplash. There are polluting power plants in the backyards of communities that have long disproportionately suffered the harms of a small group of elites prospering. There are millions and millions of refugees, fleeing instability, violence, climate disasters. And this is just a glimpse. You need to get to the mother root. The other roots may be thinner and slippery, hard to grab onto. Or they may be in stringy clusters, difficult to continue to pull out of the sand. But all of them connect back to the mother root. What connects all of these different injustices and the destruction and suffering? Climate change is rooted in the separation of people from the rest of nature and prevailing mindsets of domination, extraction, and exploitation. This disconnect between people and the environment looks like the proliferation and thriving of colonialism and racial capitalism. The whole plant can’t be killed until the mother root is found and yanked out, laid down to dry in the sun, and decimated by the power of something much bigger and stronger than it.
The sneaky bastard is everywhere, especially where you don’t expect it
Don’t forget to give ice plant some credit. It is a sneaky bastard. And if you don’t look closely and with an eye for it, it can evade your gaze, hiding under other plants and intertwined with the beautiful plants you do love. That bastard of colonialism is much the same. Until you open your eyes and are able to see the tricky ways of colonialism and exploitation, you might not see the small patch of ice plant hiding under the shelter of the taller, native saltbush. And these ideas of domination and extraction seem to have proliferated almost everything. If you look closely, at the toaster that you can buy for $4, past the convenience and ease and higher standard of living for most people (alongside much larger gaps in equality) you see metals and other materials that have been mined in all parts of the world and then shipped somewhere else to come together in manufacturing and then sold somewhere else. These areas are where people aren’t paid a fair and livable wage for the work they do. And where the natural environment also pays the price in having its soul and structure extracted in the cheapest, often more destructive, way possible. And maybe these people or companies or countries don’t have a choice in how they contribute to the global market. Trading their mined exports for more accessible imports and safety and a better relationship with the powerhouse countries that have gotten to where they are with centuries of colonialism. Colonialism hides along in the shadows, creeping on through, touching all in sometimes not fully seen and understood ways. All issues and injustices today can be traced back to a disconnect between people and the environment. This mindset that is essential to colonialism, of domination and disrespect for other beings, leads to extraction and exploitation, now so widespread that people are actively killing other humxns, animals, plants, the future. These destructive dominant ideas also only accept and duplicate themselves. As Audre Lorde wrote, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Hierarchies reinforce themselves so that those with power can stay in power. Mats and mats of ice plant are pulled out, only to reveal oxalis below them, another invasive plant. The small green sorrel leaves peek in between fingers of ice plant, finding shelter and protection within another invasive. The name of the game is exploitation and there’s a race to the bottom.
She’s an octopus! Novapus? Decapus? Why so many arms?
The surprising part of needing to get to the mother root of ice plant is because with its sprawling mat-like structure and arm after arm after arm of plump, icy fingers, you’d expect there to be roots all along each string of the old thing. But that’s not the case. All of these arms stretch out from that one main root and spread, intertwining, interweaving, becoming complex, and sometimes simple, and creating a messy, complicated front. And the climate crisis is the same way. Upon first look, all you see is a big tangle of mess that is difficult to even know where to start. But when you creep a little closer, you can find the end of one arm that you can grab onto and see where it leads. There are many different access points, because everything is related to the climate crisis. You can start pulling up ice plant on one side or another or another or another and you’ll still end up working towards that mother root. Everyone needs to be involved and invested in climate justice and the equalizing part of the climate crisis reaching everyone in some regard or another is that no matter your interests, strengths, values, passions, you can do important work. The art and culture that you create contributes to helping people imagine and envision a more just future. The data you clean up and crunch can help create projections and models, laying out an exact timeline essential to policymakers and scientists. The love you have for hiking can be shared with others, helping to connect more people with the environment and their surroundings, in turn developing their sense of stewardship and responsibility in taking action. There’s infinite ways in to limiting the harm and suffering of the climate crisis. Find the arm that stands out to you and start getting in there.
You think you’re better than me? Hah try again
Ice plant was introduced to California’s landscape by people who thought they could control the environment with something new and different. But in reality, the native plants that co-evolved with the landscape over millions of years are much better equipped for providing the services their ecosystem needs than plants that have been blindly dropped into a different context. Native plants know their areas and have mutualistic relationships. And so do indigenous people. People indigenous to an area have grown and lived alongside the same local context for thousands of years, cultivating knowledge in relationship with a particular place and all of the beings at play there. Moving away from colonialism’s wrath of extraction and exploitation, people need to look to indigenous people for examples of how to live in reciprocal relationship with the environment and what living locally looks like. Rather than techno-fixes and shiny new ideas or Band-Aid fixes like atmospheric geoengineering, we need to focus on communities and relationships. We need smaller systems where people rely on and steward the landscape they live in. We need to invest in communities and celebrate the local. These smaller scale models and practices of reciprocity and gratitude can be connected, creating worldwide change.
Let’s get nice and up close and personal
Looking over and across most sand dunes throughout California, you see a beautiful sea of red and green and varying shades of those colors. And that’s tons and tons of ice plant. It covers most dunes and even when people try to remove it, it comes back. And while climate change can be overwhelming and lead to dissonance because of the sheer hugeness of it, each and every person still needs to put in the work. It is hard work. Pulling out ice plant requires you to use your muscles. You’ve got to pull with your legs lest you risk straining your back. It will get you sweating and tired and maybe sometimes discouraged if you look up at the pile of ice plant you’ve pulled out over the last 20 minutes and meanwhile one glance to the left shows one hundred times the amount of ice plant you just pulled out. It’s daunting and discouraging. And it takes hand pulling plants out twice before they stop coming back. Supposedly. But your ice plant pulling does make a difference. No matter how little ice plant you pull out, getting out there, yanking a plant or two, and trying is something. As long as you are doing something, it’s important. And you never know what small action may lead to a bigger impact, especially on others. That one patch of sand you cleared may become the happy home of a native CA coastal buckwheat plant and feeding ground for native pollinators. And it takes hard work that is up close and personal. Spraying ice plant with herbicide may not be the best way to eradicate the plant. There are unknown impacts and many times the plant comes back anyway. The way to engage with climate justice work is to get in there, get personal, confront the challenges, and figure out what you can do and how you can make an impact. There aren’t big blanket solutions that can be used, sprayed from afar and nonspecifically. Take some time to figure out your skills, passions, and goals, and then get started. You’ve got to be face to face to find your grip on the plant.
Climate change and ice plant are more alike than they may seem. All people have a stake in climate justice because nothing in your life remains untouched by the environment and the harms of humans’ separation from the, especially local, environment. Take some time to figure out how you are already up close and personal with climate change, and use your skills and experiences to find an arm of the plant that you can grab onto and start ripping away at. Keep in mind the mother root and do what you can to eradicate it. Look to others for knowledge and wisdom and invest in your surrounding community. One person can’t do it all but everyone needs to do something. It’s hard work but good work. And don’t forget to plant something new once you get that ice plant out.