Biodiversity and Invasive Species in Queer Brighton
Postdoctoral researcher Harrie Neal considers the need to think about the history of human relations to land in debates about non-native species.
The well-worn narrative of the emergence of invasive species goes something like this: during the eighteenth century, species movement accelerated around the globe through imperial networks of horticultural trade and agriculture – what the environmental historian Alfred Crosby famously dubbed ‘ecological imperialism’. On plantations, accidentally imported species were controlled as ‘pests’, while intentionally-imported ‘exotics’ were prized and kept in hot-houses and walled gardens. By the early twentieth century, some of those ‘exotics’ escaped the confines of private property and thrived. Of these species, some came to be seen as naturalised, whilst others were seen as invasive threats to native species, habitat stability, and/or economic interests. What determines whether a non-native species is naturalised or invasive has been a key question for invasive biologists since the mid-twentieth century. Meanwhile, the categorisation of species as ‘invasive aliens’ has been characterised as an extension of xenophobia. In fact, recent historical research on Charles Elton and Julian Huxley has shown that the figures most associated with the articulation of biological invasions applied their ecological research directly to the management of colonial settlements in South Africa. This might suggest that the categorisation of invasive species is less a projection of human attitudes onto nature, than the co-development of invasion narratives in multispecies contexts.
Much of the scientific literature on invasive species tends to emphasise the role human values play in defining invasive species. The quest has now become to work out how ecological value is formed. In response to this mission historians have recently adopted the anthropological framework of ‘matter out of place’ to explain how different species in different places are valued and categorised. This is important since species’ invasiveness status can change over time and vary across different regions and among different stakeholder groups. To get around the difficulty of tracing all the different factors that shape human attitudes to species over place and time, the ‘matter out of place’ framework places less emphasis on the different kinds of values (cultural, economic, etc) that inform whether a species is considered invasive or not, and instead focuses on the larger dynamic of belonging, or rather not belonging. In other words, ‘matter out of place’ indicates the particular cross-species relations that mark out a species as being an outsider and a threat to a native community. This model is useful because it locates the tension of the invasive species debate at its borders.
A point frequently made against the invasive species framework is that defining native and non-native species by whether they move outside of their native range involves drawing artificial boundaries around ecosystems. At the same time, it implies that there once was, and indeed should be again, a point in time that was stable, static, and free from invasion. Some historians have pointed out that when invasive biologists draw native ranges they are attempting to erase the damage humans have done to the planet by idealising a past earth prior to human invasion. This could mean that what defines a species as invasive may have more to do with histories of human relations with land than is often realised. If so, this leaves us with a few unanswered questions: 1) whose histories are we talking about? 2) who gets to erase and write new histories? 3) what is lost in the erasure? A starting point for answering these questions is the criticism that in trying to erase those human histories ecologists use the very tools of mapping, surveillance, and border control that enabled the acceleration of anthropogenic drivers of species movement in the first place. As has been discussed elsewhere on this blog, the construction of historic baselines often rests on the partial and uncontextualized use of historical sources, such as maps, and consequently has a tendency to reproduce colonial, nationalist, and romanticised ideas of the past in ecology policy today.
Climate change ecologists argue that species have always migrated around the globe, but stress that species movement is on track to accelerate further due to the rate at which climate change is transforming ecosystems. As such, native ranges for many, if not all species, will likely undergo change in the future. Thus, species have four options: either they adapt to their changing environment, hybridise, move to a new similar biome, or go extinct. Those that survive would all be characterised as novel introductions and treated under the ethos of invasive biology as non-native species and potential invasives. At this point, invasive biology will be unable to distinguish between species that threaten habitats and those that don’t. Recent attempts to adapt the invasive species framework based on these criticisms, such as introducing the category of ‘neo-native’ to describe species fleeing because of climate change, do little to alter the fact that most non-native species are not invasive, or the fact that many native species behave invasively but have rarely been the focus of invasive biologists. For the interest of the historian or social scientist, this all indicates quite how arbitrary the categorisation of native, non-native, and invasive species can be.
One recent example where a narrative of invasion played a key part in driving a land improvement scheme illustrates the need to think about the history of human relations to land in debates about non-native species. Earlier this year Brighton and Hove City Council announced that development was under way to transform the Black Rock area of Brighton seafront into a thriving site of eco-tourism with ecology walks, cycle lanes, and disabled access to the beach, lined with shops and cafés. Many of the proposed areas for improvement, including a former lido and a pathway down to the promenade on Duke’s Mound, were said to be disused, dilapidated, and overgrown with ‘invasive non-native species’. The species in question was tamarisk – the frothy frond-laden trees that have lined much of Britain’s coastline since the early nineteenth century. The council claimed that the tamarisks were invasive because they block out light, preventing other species from flourishing at their roots. They proposed replacing the tamarisks with native species that promote biodiversity, such as mullein, rampion, bird’s foot trefoil, and some local grasses. These native species would be provided by the Millennium Seed Bank located at Kew Gardens.
The genus tamarix refers to dozens of species, some of which can be easily purchased from garden centres. Many are native to southern Europe, the Middle East and South Asia, but given that they have been planted across much of globe for centuries their native range is indeterminate. In fact, no species of tamarisk is listed anywhere as an invasive species in Britain. There was, some years ago, a dispute about whether tamarisks could be considered invasive in North America on the basis that they remove water from rivers and are responsible for droughts. A recent article argues that tamarisks were ‘monstered’ by these claims, and points out that mid twentieth-century dam-building across much of the Southwest could be considered largely to blame for the dry rivers. Even if tamarisks do pose a risk to freshwater habitats, their ability to take up water in salinated soil could be a good thing on coastlines where few other species survive, especially in the future as temperatures and sea-levels rise. They provide areas for migrating birds to nest, pollen for a range of pollinators, and may even prevent soil erosion. Nevertheless, Brighton and Hove City Council removed the tamarisks from Duke’s Mound during the third UK lockdown.
What distinguishes this story from others about the removal of tamarisks in Britain is the specific context and history of the strip of land where the tamarisks once grew. Named after its one-time owner, the Sixth Duke of Devonshire, William Cavendish, Duke’s Mound has a long history as a habitat for non-native species. Cavendish was a prominent horticulturist, President of the Horticultural Society and founder of the Royal Botanic Garden at Kew. The much-exploited Cavendish banana is named after him. The Cavendish family owned extensive swathes of land in England and Ireland, and in the early nineteenth-century they played a notable role in the development of several seaside towns. In Brighton, the topographical and demographical transformation from fishing port to commercial seaside resort began in the mid eighteenth century. By the time Cavendish was filling his estate with exotics, the fishing industry had already been pushed to the outskirts, vying for space alongside wealthy tourists visiting for the health benefits of sea air and the thrills of bathing machines. According to the social historian Allan Brodie, the fractured interests of local residents, seaside planners, aristocratic landowners, and commercial stakeholders in early nineteenth-century Brighton led to tense relations over the use of space, which were intensified by the town’s growing number of visitors. Historical studies of Brighton have tended to focus on this narrative of land improvement and its social fallout as one defined by pushing out poorer social groups in favour of commercial interests and tourism. We might also see this process as tied to nonhuman species that were similarly displaced as part of that same change in land use.
In the 1870s, a sea wall was built to join up the aristocratic terraces at one end of what is now Madeira Drive with the piles of rubble that acted as sea defences at the other end. In an attempt to make the area more visually appealing, town planners based their architectural and horticultural design on the island of Madeira; when Oscar Wilde visited, he recorded how much it reminded him of the island. Madeira, as several environmental historians have shown, was one of the first islands to be environmentally exploited as part of European colonisation. Heavily deforested after centuries of sugar cane and timber plantations replaced its forests, species that thrived there had to withstand windy conditions and depleted soil. Tamarisk is one such species. Brighton’s town planners needed plants that could thrive in similar conditions after spending over a century building the promenade and tourist access routes, hotels and sea defences on what used to be marsh land.
By the early twentieth century, Duke’s Mound was released from private hands and became a public space. Very soon after this, it became a popular cruising site. Hidden by the tamarisks, sex-behind-the-bushes remained a common activity on Duke’s Mound for nearly a century. After the publication of the Wolfenden Report in 1957, and the decriminalisation of homosexuality that followed in 1967, gay bars were established along the streets surrounding Duke’s Mound. Brighton, along with London and Manchester, became a hub of gay nightlife and a place known to be relatively tolerant of gay people, despite the city’s otherwise conservative politics. When the AIDS epidemic hit in the late 1980s Brighton was slow to organise a grassroots response compared to places like Manchester that had a longer history of public protest. Given the higher-than-average proportion of those infected with HIV in Brighton, clinics were set up on the very outskirts of the city. According to historian Matt Cook, the AIDS epidemic forced gay people from public spaces and into private homes and clinics. The atomisation of gay people was compounded by the passing of a series of laws under the Thatcher government, known as Section 28, which prohibited the promotion of homosexuality by local authorities. Between 1987 and 2003 in Britain LGBT people were effectively pushed out of public sector jobs, schools were forbidden from providing materials relating to homosexuality, and LGBT support centres were shut down. When activists began organising protests for healthcare and public information in the early 1990s, Duke’s Mound became a regular spot for handing out condoms and pamphlets. Locally, Duke’s Mound became particularly associated with the virus and some newspapers warned people away from the place as if you could be infected by the virus simply by brushing through the trees.
In the 2000s Brighton’s gay scene bounced back. Bars and clubs drove a lot of the city’s tourism — Duke’s Mound even appeared in tourist guides as an eccentric attraction. However, for all the rainbow flag-waving and mainstreaming of gay culture, queer spaces came under threat. Nationally, gay bars have been disappearing over the last two decades. This would appear to be in contrast to the expansion of legal rights spanning civil partnership, marriage, fertility, and adoption for same-sex couples, and the otherwise apparent embrace of gay culture in many parts of Britain (though certainly not all). More subversive queer spaces that don’t operate on the platform of monetary exchange — places that might be considered truly public — have fallen through the gaps left by public defunding. Duke’s Mound is a site of historic importance in the making of queer history, but more than that it is an example of one of the very few places where public space has been claimed by and for gay people. For decades public money was designated for trimming the tamarisks just enough to prevent them overflowing into the road below but not enough to leave the land exposed. National tabloids were sometimes irked by this parochial rarity and complained about the risks Duke’s Mound posed to unwitting children and what they saw as the misuse of public funds.
When the improvement scheme got underway and the tamarisks were replaced with knee-height ‘native’ species, an article appeared in the local paper accusing the council of homophobia. A piece in The Argus argued that the council had used the auspices of the UK lockdown and the absence of social mingling to remove the tamarisks, and claimed that Brighton’s residents, far from resenting those who occupied Duke’s Mound, appreciated it along with the nearby naked beach. Further mishaps, including the accidental demolishing of fig trees and Japanese spindle that lined Europe’s oldest and longest living wall, just next to Duke’s Mound, didn’t help matters. A vigil for the lost green wall, though notably not for the tamarisks, prompted a public apology by the council.
On the webpage that details the different stages of the Black Rock development, one city councillor and Chair of the Black Rock working group is quoted claiming that the removal of the tamarisks will address the ‘biodiversity emergency’ and ‘allow native species to thrive’. They say that the overgrown tamarisks were ‘limiting all other species and discouraging people from accessing the area’, and that their removal ‘will bring this area back into use for everyone and make it more of a pleasure to visit.’ The choice of language here is interesting: by aligning native species with a general public that is discouraged from Duke’s mound, the implication is that those who do visit (i.e. mostly gay men) aren’t part of that public. Though not explicit, the subtext of the councillor’s remarks seems to be that if tamarisks are a threat to native species then so are the people who visit them. This ‘othering’ of tamarisks and cruisers rather effectively dehumanises the latter. Whether these words are a dogwhistle blown knowingly or not, they are a reminder of the claims made about victims of HIV (and of course, a virus is an invasive species too) just a few decades ago. As such, the council’s attempt to forge ‘an improved public realm’ on Duke’s Mound appears to involve the removal of particular sexualities and activities — the sort of cleaning-up of public morals that was so associated with nineteenth-century improvement schemes. Meanwhile, the contents of the biodiverse, native and public realm remains nebulous but normative, defined by what it is not rather than what it is.
If we are to see the categorisation of invasive species as a process of ‘othering’ then we might do well to see it as an expansion of Said’s orientalism; a practise of nation-state building that occurs within the nation as well as between, and that sees nativeness as a cultural discourse in the battle over land control. As the Duke’s Mound example illustrates, narratives of invasive species can become a way of naturalising land use change. The council’s statement about the biodiversity benefits of land improvement mirrors the orientalist language of colonialists who promoted the empire for the multicultural exchange of knowledge (and species) it would bring. The aim of most biodiversity policy is to increase biodiversity. It is an inclusive and global aim. Biodiversity consequently works similarly to its human cousin, diversity; it imagines an even playing field of variety without ever addressing the wider cultural and socioeconomic factors that drive inequality, thereby creating further exclusions. This appears to have been what happened on Duke’s Mound: by creating a biodiverse space ‘for everyone’, some are inevitably excluded in the very process of what it means to imagine a public realm.
The gays and tamarisks of Duke’s Mound are not the only ones who have been excluded from public spaces as part of Brighton’s biodiversity improvement scheme. Homeless people camping on the abandoned Black Rock site and Travellers were also reportedly moved on without alternative provisions being made for them. What the Duke’s Mound example shows us is that the invasive species issue is less about inherent characteristics or behaviours of species themselves than it is about who owns the land they occupy, who gets to control that land and its inhabitants, patrol its borders, and write its history. We might then see biodiversity not as a recent ‘emergency’ to be solved by replacing non-native species with native ones, but as a narrative tool that glosses over the drivers of global species loss: the control and exploitation of land and its occupants. In any case, we may not have seen the last of the tamarisks of Duke’s Mound — they are a notoriously tenacious lot.
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