If you spend your waking hours watching video of crocodiles attacking wildebeest and falcons downing doves in midair, you’d be forgiven for believing that relations between all species is merciless, that each form of life on earth is an island of self-interest. Well, turn off that television and pick up a copy of Sweet in Tooth and Claw: Stories of Generosity and Cooperation in the Natural World—Kristin Ohlson wants to show you that examples of mutually beneficial relationships are everywhere across the natural world.
Contrary to the still commonly-held belief that the natural world operates on the basis of competition, domination, and “survival of the fittest,” your generous, compassionate, and concerned book shines light on a new paradigm: that nature, mostly unseen by humans, is engaged in cooperation, and even generosity. What discoveries and/or technologies have made it possible for us to become aware of the degree to which nature is really a cooperative enterprise?
Of course, many indigenous cultures—based on generations of observation and interaction—have always known that nature is laced together with helping relationships and cooperative connections—and have understood that people are part of nature, not separate from it, and need to behave as cooperators and partners. But it’s taken a planetary crisis for the dominant, dominating, technology-powered culture—what many of us used to think of as progress!—to reconsider that view.
One of the very earliest scientific discoveries of the cooperation that undergirds the natural world was in the late 1800s, when the Dutch microbiologist Martinus Beijerinck was able to explain a phenomenon that farmers had observed for centuries. Farmers knew that planting legume plants like peas or clover restored fertility to tired soil, and Beijerinck discovered that bacteria living in nodules on the roots of the legumes were responsible for that transformation—they were able to convert atmospheric nitrogen into a plant-available form and thus fertilize the fields. That kind of bacterial largesse goes on in natural landscapes everywhere and is one of the many mutualisms—mutually beneficial relationships between two or more species—in the world around us. Since the late 1970s, new scientific thinking and technological advances have thrown open a huge window into the invisible workings of the microbial world.
The study and understanding of mutualisms has also grown pretty dramatically since the 1970s, too. One of the biggest changes in thinking was prompted by evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis, who argued that life on Earth was transformed millions of years ago when two different single-celled microorganisms combined—collaborated!—to form new and more dynamic cells called eukaryotes. Those cells had the ability to create multicellular organisms, and that transformation led to all the diversity and complexity that followed. Pretty much all the forms of life that we can see—animals, plants and fungi—are made of eukaryotic cells. We are built from the bottom up by cooperation.
What inspired your interest in following the line of investigation that resulted in your book?
Probably what excited me most about my last book, The Soil Will Save Us—other than meeting fabulous people who were figuring out how to heal agricultural landscapes—was the realization that plants are not just takers: they also give. The people from industrial agriculture make billions of dollars on the claim that you have to dump a lot of chemical fertilizer on plants because they just suck everything out of the soil—the water, all the nutrients, all the good stuff. It was exciting for me to learn that this wasn’t true, that plants are engaged in an ongoing partnership and dialogue with the communities of microorganisms living in the soil, that they are sharing the carbon fuel they make during photosynthesis with these other living things in exchange for nutrients and water and chemical messages—in fact, there’s so much back-and-forth among plants and fungi and bacteria and protozoa and insects and little mammals in the soil that we’ll probably never figure it all out.
I wanted to build on that realization, and when I heard the Canadian forest ecologist Suzanne Simard talk at a conference about the incredible sharing and connection that goes on between trees and fungi in the forest, I became convinced that I wanted to look for examples and more big thinking on the subject.
Why has the desire to safeguard at least some of the pristine, natural world resulted in the creation of a national park system that further separates humans and nature, rather than efforts to create communities that integrate humans and nature into a cooperative ecosystem that benefits both?
I wouldn’t say that the national park system here in the US separates humans and nature—humans are invited there for recreation and revitalization, to gasp in wonder at what is, for the most part, amazing geology. And I think it’s important to protect some natural areas in which any human activity might damage the local flora and fauna, or geology. But we can’t protect the rest of nature with parks and preserves alone. If anything, they may give us a false sense of agency—that we are, in fact, doing something to protect the rest of nature—when the fact is that we’re not doing nearly enough.
The insects and birds and mammals that we want to protect can’t be confined to a park; most of them need to move around to forage or migrate. In my book, scientists John Vandermeer and Ivette Perfecto argue that parks and preserves are kind of like islands in a hostile sea or oases in a toxic dessert, because the land around them does not welcome or support wildlife. Often, these fragments of wilderness are surrounded by agriculture in its least nature-friendly form—monocultures (land on which only one crop is grown, which is so different from the biodiversity in nature), heavy tillage, chemical fertilizer, pesticides, genetically modified seeds—and the wildlife we hope to protect will struggle to survive there. We need more parks and preserves, but we also—and I think this is even more important—need to make sure our farmlands and cities aren’t toxic for us and the rest of nature.
What might it take to create such environments, often called “biophilic cities,” and how and why are places like Singapore leading the way? What can the US learn from Singapore?
Fifty years ago, Singapore decided to reconceive itself as a “garden city;” now they are stretching that idea to “a city in nature.” They’ve known for a long time that cities that welcome the rest of nature—especially the plants, the insects, the birds, and the mammals native to the area—are also going to be more pleasant for humans as well as more resilient in the face of climate change. They are enthusiastically greening just about every available surface in the city. They not only have 350 parks but also 225 miles of park connectors so that people can walk, jog, and bike from one to another, always surrounded by greenery. They not only have 295 acres of green roofs, but greenery going up the sides of buildings.
Most amazing to me: as the city population grows, the percentage of urban greenery has also grown. And they have been successful at increasing the numbers of some native species. Lena Chan directs the city agency responsible for the greening, and I love her definition of a biophilic city—which means, a nature-loving city. She says a city is biophilic when the tree canopy and green cover increase every year; when more areas are restored with native species; when the number of native species actually grows; when the participation of citizen scientists grows; and when at least fifty percent of the population can name at least ten native plants, birds, and butterflies. That last part really speaks to me, because if you can name something and recognize it, you’re much more likely to protect it.
Singapore proves that you can have thriving urban areas AND biodiversity. It doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game in which human development and prosperity means the impoverishment of the rest of nature.
You quote author and editor Brian Doyle as having said, “The whole point of our evolution, it seems to me, is for us to find a way to fit back into the world as it really is, rather than try to remake the world to fit us.” What might daily life look like for a twenty-first century person, community, or nation choosing to “fit back into the world as it really is?” What would have to be given up? What would be gained?
That quote reminds me of one of my favorite stories in the book—that of the two cyanobacteria that live side by side in floating communities in the seas. Both feed themselves by photosynthesis, but as they do it they also create a toxic byproduct and need to protect themselves against it squirting an enzyme into the water. It’s a lot of work to make that enzyme, and at one point in time, both types of cyanobacteria had the genetics do to it. But it turned out to be better for the two of them if just made enough of the protective enzyme for both of them and the other used all their energy to grow. That second cyanobacteria is called Prochlorococcus—and it makes enough of itself to feed thousands of sea creatures and create 5 percent of the earth’s oxygen.
I think that one way we need to fit back into the world as it is to do less of some of the things we know how to do very well. We know how to make dozens of kinds of toothpaste. We know how to launch big ad campaigns to sell millions of units of Beanie Babies, or whatever the latest toy is. We know how to use some of the oil we extract from the ground to make plastic green mats that look like grass and that some people are now using instead of lawns. But I think we need to let go of some of those skills, or at least, turn them in drastically different directions. We are such a creative and energetic species that we can solve most, if not all, of the problems we’ve created on this beautiful planet. A first step would be curbing consumption, recognizing every single product represents resources mined from the rest of nature and energy expended to process them. We would of course have less stuff—and the storage unit businesses might have to do something else with the space that they have dedicated to our excess—but we would have greater peace of mind.
One of the most moving and powerful examples of human partnership with nature in your book is that of Nevada cattle ranchers who, by changing their grazing practices and respecting the role of beavers in a healthy ecosystem, saw barren desert transformed into thriving wetlands. Please tell us about a few other scenarios in which people are working in partnership with nature to heal the land and its inhabitants.
There are so many good stories one encounters daily about people coming together in communities to heal nature together—I so applaud the entrée of Solutions Journalism to the media scene so that more attention is paid to these triumphs. In my book, I especially loved the story of the organic farm in Costa Rica that completely changed its approach to farming, and in response, the animal population on the farm and in the area completely rebounded. Finca Luna Nueva had been an organic farm for years, but even though that meant they avoided some of the really negative practices of industrial agriculture—no chemical fertilizers or pesticides—they were still doing damaging tilling and still grew monocultures in rows with bare soil between them. They realized that something was wrong when they had their soil tested, and found that it was low in carbon and biodiversity. So they embarked upon a completely different approach. Instead of monocultures in rows, they now plant their market crops—turmeric, black pepper, cinnamon, vanilla, cacao and more—tucked around the thousands of native trees (including 100 species of fruit trees) they’ve planted. That incredible diversity of plants provides great habitat for insects, birds, and mammals, which have returned in droves—including creatures the local people hadn’t seen in decades.
Your book mentions the exciting work of Suzanne Simard, who uncovered the hidden give-and-take between trees and other living things in the forest, including billions of tiny soil microorganisms and a vast underground web of information-carrying fungi, all engaged in continual communication, cooperation, and replenishment of the nutrients each needs to thrive. What do you see as the most important message her work brings to the fore?
Everything is connected! Her work, and that of her students, shows that trees and other plants are connected in complex ways that we can’t even begin to understand. Yet until a few years ago, no one had any idea that this was the case because it was all hidden. I think this work prompts us to have fun thoughts, such as how the plants in our garden are communicating with each other. I think of my garden as a place where I have created a neighborhood of plants whose connections get more complex every season. It fosters more profound thoughts about how all humans are connected.
There is so much frightening news about the effects of climate change these days, but your book brings a real infusion of hope. What, most of all, fuels your optimism and hope, and why?
If we look for it, there is so much evidence that nature can heal quickly once we stop our ruinous practices and step out of the way. And there is even evidence that humans can heal our most damaged relationships, if we resolve to do so. I love the story of the Nevada ranchers not just because of how their actions led to the healing of local streams and reversed desertification—I also love that story because it showed that people of starkly different experiences and viewpoints—even people who have had conflicted relationships in the past—can work through their differences and arrive at consensus, and even respect.
One of my favorite moments of the book (I have so many favorites) is at the very beginning, at the end of the Suzanne Simard chapter, when Katie McMahen talked about restoring a landscape ruined by mine flood. Katie and her colleagues are using “ecosystem legacies and memories”—basically, soil from the nearby forest—to replant trees in the ruined land. She explains that the DNA and other bits of biology in that soil may give the seedlings a boost. I love extending that idea to just about everything that has been destroyed or disrupted. In just about every case, there are legacies and memories that we can count on as we move towards wholeness.