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Thursday, April 9, 2015

What Does It Mean to Be Exotic?

My gardener confided to me the other day that I am lucky to have any peaches at all. He told me that most people around here who try to grow peaches have very little success.

This surprised me, because when I moved here, I took my peaches for granted. I can't take any credit for them, though, because the previous owners had planted them. "They require a lot of pruning and care," my expert told me.

To me this rings of: it's not native here. It's probably exotic. And I asked him to try to find me trees that are as close to native and natural as he could, while meeting my needs. I didn't say this because I have some ingrained prejudice against exotic plants. I don't uproot trees that came from somewhere else, and I don't kill wildflowers just because someone calls them exotic invasives. It's just that I want my trees to grow easily, with minimum effort on my part.

Blossoms on my first pear tree this morning

But thinking about it, I am beginning to suspect that all my fruit trees are exotic. They may be "traditional" for people to plant, in the sense that this has customarily been done since the first non-native American settlers appeared here, but this does not mean that any of these trees originated here naturally.

More of my First Pear Tree blossoms
Can a fruit tree be both traditional and exotic? It think it can, "Pear, Asian" is listed under  "Traditional Crops: fruit and nut crops in commercial production" in the first table on the site I linked above. If the pear tree comes from Asia, it is not native to Missouri. So it must be exotic. And yet it is also "traditional".

Blossoms of the Second Pear Tree This morning
People are often confused about the meaning of the word exotic. The lowly service berry may in fact be native to Missouri, but it is much less traditional a fruit tree than a pear.

So what does exotic mean? According to Merriam-Webster online, it means:

Full Definition of EXOTIC 

:  introduced from another country :  not native to the place where found  <exotic plants>;

archaic :  foreignalien
:  strikingly, excitingly, or mysteriously different or unusual ; <exotic flavors>
          :  of or relating to striptease ;<exotic dancing>;

 Taking striptease entirely out of the discussion,  exotic means coming from another country. It also has the connotation of being striking, exciting, mysterious. different or unusual. It used to mean foreign. It is derived from Latin, from a word whose root means "out" or "outside." In its derivation, it is not that different from the English word "outlandish." Exotic was first used in English in 1599.

I was called exotic once. I did not know what to make of it. I was at a friend's house when I was a little girl in Texas, and a woman visiting there kept staring at me. Finally, unable to restrain herself any longer, she blurted out; "What are you?"

"What do you mean?" I asked, confused.

"You just look so different," she said. "Are you Italian?"

"Oh," I said, finally understanding what she meant. "I come from Israel."

"Well, I knew it was something exotic," she said.

To me that was a very odd incident. I spoke English with an American accent, so she was clearly referring to my appearance, not my speech. Nothing quite like that has ever happened to me, before or since, but I think it is just because most people are more polite. I don't mind that she asked that, but I was confused by her question for a minute. 

Prejudice against outsiders is usually known as bigotry, and it is considered politically incorrect. But when it comes to exotic animals, people feel free to display their attitude quite openly, sometimes in a belligerent manner.

Yesterday, I posted on Facebook about  a Texas House Bill 3592 "Registration and Regulation of "Dangerous" Wild Animals". I was just trying to warn my friends in Texas that their rights to own big cats, bears, primates and other species were being threatened and suggested that they get in touch with their representatives. The post was intended for my friends in Texas, as this concerned them, but a few other people came by and left friendly comments about the right to own exotic animals. Others  voiced concerns about rattlesnakes, which are actually native to Texas and not exotic at all. Then one person, from Canada of all places, declared categorically: "Sorry, I don't think people should have exotic pets." When I pointed out to her that the post pertained to Texas, she replied: "I don't care where you live, people should not have exotic pets."

This a woman who lives in Canada, is from Scottish ancestry and resides in an apartment with a cat. The cat, like all cats, did not evolve in North America. How can she be against exotics? Neither she nor her cat are native to the region where she lives.

If she had said "animals that have not been domesticated", rather than "exotics", then I could maybe understand her claim. But then again, according the wikipedia: 

In comparison to dogs cats have not undergone major changes during the domestication process, as the form and behavior of the domestic cat is not radically different from those of wildcats and domestic cats are perfectly capable of surviving in the wild.[

I did not speak to her about her cat. I merely pointed out that the laws are quite different in Texas than in Canada, and that this particular bill only affects those in Texas. Neither she nor I have any right to tell Texans what laws they should pass. I was merely warning those of my friends who live in Texas that this legislation was about to be voted on, so that they could do something about it, if they wished. Lawmakers often pass laws of this sort without consulting their constituencies.

We are all exotic one way or another, Even native Americans migrated here and did not evolve in North America. If exotics were tolerated only in their place of origin, then all of us would have to go back to Africa. And this would include not just the humans. All life is kin. Scientists have yet to replicate the production of life out of non-life, and so it seems that all of us have a common origin, and  it was in Africa that all our ancestors were spawned. Should we all go back to Africa? Would we be welcome there, do you think?

Bow was born and bred in Missouri, so has greater claim to native status than I do
It is usually those people who are totally  unaware of their own bigotry who display it the most clearly. My friend from Canada probably has never thought through the exotic conundrum, so this is why she feels so uninhibited in speaking out against exotics. But one way or another, we are all exotics, and it is best to learn to get along, and to live and let live. 


  1. You know discussions like that made me stop getting involved in political ones. People come on too strong, and it took me awhile to realize my view of the world might not be someone else's view of the world. I feel more at peace when I finally realized that just because I might not do something myself, it does not mean I need to tell others what to do. I think the hall monitor mindset is getting kind of old anyway, but it seems things are going more that way.

    1. Thanks, Julia. I appreciate your supportive comments and your non-interventionist stance. I did not even mean that particular FB post to start a political discussion. I just wanted friends in Texas to know about that legislation. One friend who lives in Texas did share that posting on her wall, so hopefully people who needed to know saw it. But it surprises me that some people feel free to be so aggressive as to make global declarations about exotics without considering what exotics even are.