Where Do Humans Belong?

A slightly naive review of Where Do Camels Belong?, the story and science of invasive species by Ken Thompson (Profile Books, London, 2015), and how it revealed to me my xenophobic tendencies.

It took me nearly a year to finish Ken Thompson’s book, Where Do Camels Belong?. Partly because I’m bad at giving myself time to read, and partly because his tone often reminds me of people I know who argue for the sake of arguing. He annoyed me until it became clear that he is alarmingly right about a great deal of what he argues.

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Where Do Camels Belong? (Where does this picture belong?)

I won’t go into detail about Thompson’s evidence (usually solid, sometimes dubious), because I highly recommend you read the book for yourself. In a nutshell, he makes a strong argument for a less gung-ho, more nuanced approach to our interaction with so called invasive species, exotic pests, noxious weeds. He demonstrates that not all introduced species are bad, and many are of overall benefit to the economy or to wildlife (think potatoes, and shrubs which offer forage for bees and berries for birds).

The reader is encouraged to view the natural processes of the world on a bigger timescale than our human-centric society is used to. Consider a constantly, gradually shifting world in which ecosystems balance themselves out and plants and animals introduce themselves to new territories following changes in climate and geology.

The available scientific literature focuses on a relatively small number of introduced species which have caused actual biodiversity loss or economic harm. Thompson cites many cases where the costs of attempting to eradicate a species comprise the bulk of the economic damage of which the species is accused!

What I have come to see is that the introduced species is often a scapegoat for damage caused or enabled by human interference in natural processes. Focusing on the harm caused by a handful of invasive species distracts us and diverts funds from more urgent conservation issues such as destruction of existing quality habitat and climate change. In other words, from addressing the underlying problems.

Does this scapegoating sound familiar, in this era marred by Brexit and Trump, the rejection of refugees, and disturbed, disenfranchised young people blowing up the natives?

Obviously, it’s not a direct parallel. Humans of every race and nationality are all of the one species. But the language we use to reject species and people we feel are different or don’t belong, shares similarities. Invasion, exotic, non-native. It’s a language of fear.

What startled me the most about reading Where do Camels Belong? was discovering my own disproportionate fear of introduced species and the perceived harm that every new species which enters the country might do to my beloved Irish wildlife. “They’re importing bumble bees from Europe to pollinate crops inside polytunnels? Fools! What about disease? Encouraging people to scatter wildflower seeds from the UK? Our local wildflowers will be destroyed! Somebody please think of the outbreeding depression!” I have even been known to wander through parks wondering how much meat there is on a grey squirrel…

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“The only good squirrel is a red squirrel!” (The Nessapotanian Revolution, 2007)

I realised that part of the reason Thompson annoyed me was the defensive attitude with which I began reading the book. Fuelled by the media, and many of my scientific peers and mentors, I was convinced that invasive species could be a major contributing factor to the downfall of our remaining wildlife.

I’m not saying that plants and animals which multiply vigorously and have an above average effect on the make up of an ecosystem are never a problem. We do need to talk about it, and work on preventing it where we can. Where do Camels Belong? is just one book and I’m still making up my mind about it. All I’m saying is let’s be careful, calm, open-minded and scientific about it, and put ourselves in other species’ shoes now and then.

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Standing up for bugs and other environmental essentials at #MarchForScience in Dublin
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Hope Blooms at the Central Mental Hospital

The hyacinth first bloomed from the blood of Hyakinthos, a divine hero struck dead by the jealous West Wind. The crocus flower opens its petals to the first sun of springtime, a reminder to open our hearts to the goodness of all that surrounds us, to “discovery beauty in everyone”. Discovery Gospel Choir were greeted by these natural symbols, of hope in the face of tragedy and of open-hearted acceptance, as we entered the Central Mental Hospital in Dundrum for an extraordinarily moving concert.

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I want to tell you that the grounds of the Central Mental Hospital are beautiful at this time of year. That there are swathes of spring flowers breathing a gasp of colour and surprise all amongst the tall, inspiring trees. I want to tell you that they have donkeys, chickens, rescue dogs and bee hives now, for the patients to care for and to care for the patients.

I’m dying to tell you, stumbling over my sentences with excitement, every detail of the most joyful and meaningful concert I have ever sung with Discovery Gospel Choir! And how I’ve never felt as connected with and as appreciated by an audience as I did with the patients of the Central Mental Hospital for the criminally insane (and we get some truly awesome audiences).

Yet I have held back and hesitated to publish this blog post, because not everyone had the privilege of being there, so not everyone will understand. I expect people might put up high walls in their minds when I tell them, maybe even respond with disgust or anger. Because (and this startled me too) many of the forty or so people in our chapel audience had killed someone, in many cases even a member of their own family. They had been found not guilty of murder by reason of insanity, so they were sent here instead of to prison. But the media vilifies and mocks those who suffer from mental illnesses, so those who lack awareness fear them even after their medication has healed them.

Take schizophrenia as an example of one such illness during which a person can act without understanding the reality of their actions. The rare story of a young man wielding an axe sells more newspapers than the one cowering in his bedroom afraid for his own life. The bizarre tale of the person who kills someone they believe to be Satan gets more clicks online than the local “mad woman” wandering the streets and harmlessly and humorously (if it wasn’t so sad) telling strangers about her chats with God on the phone.

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From everything I have heard and read the two non-violent examples above appear to be much more likely manifestations of schizophrenia for the roughly 1% of the population in Ireland who will suffer from this awful illness. One percent of our documented population amounts to roughly 45,950 people. There are roughly 100 patients in the Central Mental Hospital, the only forensic psychiatric unit in Ireland. I’m not a doctor or a statistician, but do the maths and break down that stigma.

Psychosis (an umbrella term which mainly covers hallucinations, delusions and disorganised thinking, which can be tormenting and terrifying for the person who has it) is the primary symptom of schizophrenia and features in a number of other illnesses. It’s also something you can experience once off. It is estimated that 8% of the population at any given time have had psychotic experiences. It’s the luck of the draw what you or your loved one might hallucinate about if they have the misfortune to be struck by this illness.

That’s all that has brought these patients here – illness, and an unfortunate set of circumstances, which could strike anyone at any time in this society where mental health is so often an afterthought, a regret. Can you imagine recovering from a serious illness to discover that you have killed someone you love dearly? It seems like the cruellest sentence. Your life and the lives of your family and your victim’s family are changed beyond recognition forever.

We met a member of staff whose dedication to these patients goes far beyond his remit. While also lamenting the lack of supportive resources for victims’ families, he blames these tragedies on the lack of availability of mental health services in the outside world, and I agree. If the public were equipped to recognise the signs, look past the stigma, and seek and receive help as soon as it is needed, many of these cases could have been prevented, not to mention the suffering of thousands others who go under the public radar.

 

We heard from our hosts that the Central Mental Hospital used to be more prison-like. When you hear “high security psychiatric unit” you think Hannibal Lecter. It’s an image that strikes fear into people’s hearts, and the beings encased in hard layers of security become dehumanised. The grey stone buildings date back to 1850. The 18 foot high outer walls tower above the suburbs which have grown up around it.

Nowadays, there is much more of an effort towards rehabilitation. There is more of an atmosphere of hope and healing, at least around the flower beds and in the beautiful old chapel where we sang. The patients have something to talk about other than their past, and they sell their own brand of honey: Patient Bee. Outside of these walls, Ireland needs to reform its attitude to mental health to prevent others from ending up here. We can no longer brush this problem under the carpet like so many others.

Lifting the roof of the hospital chapel with four-part harmonies, songs gathered from around the world, was a mere drop of compassion in the ocean of troubles this country needs to face right now. But, for the gentle-spoken migrant patient in the front row who recognised and sang along to a song in his native language, for the smiling toothless man who danced like he was at a rave, and for all of us who clapped and danced and sang and opened our hearts and minds in joyful connection, it was a storm surge.

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Master bee keeper Liam McGarry at the Central Mental Hospital (Photo: Cyril Byrne, Irish Times)