A New Creation Story

Our relationship with nature is changing rapidly, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. For one thing, there is more of us and less of it, although the very phrasing of this obvious fact betrays the perspective that got us into this mess. The idea of nature (animals and all of creation) as something out there, something dangerous, separate, overwhelming, and inexhaustible is an atavistic imaginary concept that may have made sense when there was more of it and less of us, but, as these three books show in their own creative and insightful ways, that perspective is both outdated and itself a danger. (This revelation, on a psychological seismic scale, is reminiscent of the brouhaha caused when Darwin announced his theory of evolution via natural selection.) If the raw genetic data — 98.6 percent of human DNA is the same as chimpanzee DNA — doesn’t convince you that our fate is inexorably linked to the fate of the species we share the planet with, perhaps the wisdom in these books will.

Bernd Heinrich is a walking, talking data bank. He’s an old-school naturalist, the author of seventeen books, and a scientist who includes himself (to the extent that the observer affects the observed) in every experiment. After World War II, Heinrich and his family lived as refugees in a forest in northern Germany. “We foraged for acorns, beechnuts, mushrooms, and berries. My father had brought rat traps, and we ‘hunted’ small rodents with them as well as with pitfall traps.” His memories of that time, and of subsequent travels as a scientist doing research in Africa and around the world, are of a natural world teeming with greatly varied life. His research is full of historic accounts (such as Darwin’s accounts from the Beagle) of swarming fish and animals that stand in stark contrast to the species loss in our lifetimes. “A murder is a great grievance,” he writes, “but it is a minor one compared to the loss of a species.”

Species loss was not, however, Heinrich’s impetus for writing Life Everlasting. Inspired by a letter from a friend, who asked if he could be laid out in the woods on Heinrich’s property in Maine when he died, the author began to think about death in nature, about the great recycling of organic material, and about the role of insects, birds, and animals as undertakers. He began to view these undertakers and scavengers from a new perspective, as an “essential link for the continuity of life; without them, life would have come to a grinding halt. Over millions of years, through evolution, the body size of herbivores and predators and their handmaidens, the scavengers, increased. As the herbivores grew larger, so could those that took advantage of their fallen bodies. For every individual that walks, one dies, and each one becomes a resource of highly concentrated food.” His tribute to their role in our world is written in the style of field notes, with gorgeous, detailed drawings by the author of the beetles, vultures, fungi, and other creatures he observes so patiently.

Zoobiquity, by Barbara Natterson-Horowitz and Kathryn Bowers, is also about acknowledging that we are, as Heinrich wrote, “a part of it.” “Deep homology,” the authors write, “traces our molecular lineage to our most ancient common ancestors. It proves that all living organisms, including plants, are long-lost relatives.” They mine the relatively new field of epigenetics to examine how genes, culture, and environment interact, in animals of every species, including our own.

For too long, write Horowitz (a cardiologist) and Bowers (a writer, producer, and editor), human doctors have stayed aloof from veterinarians and have failed to learn from diagnoses, procedures, and research in the world of animal health. Zoobiquity advances what the authors call “a unified field theory of biology,” an insight into our genetic and evolutionary connectedness with animals. Horowitz and Bowers were shocked to find that animals experience some version of virtually all human diseases — emotional and physical. Cancer has been found in dinosaur DNA; drug addiction in Tasmanian wallabies and many other species; depression, obesity, cutting, eating disorders, erectile dysfunction, chlamydia, bullying, risk taking among adolescents — the list goes on and on.

In the animal world we get a clear view of the pure biology driving many of these diseases — chemical reactions to stress, viruses that can cause obesity, industrial pollutants and other toxins that play a role in autoimmune disorders and various cancers. Animals, in the authors’ view, are the sentinels that warn us of dangers to our health and well-being. If we had been keener observers, more willing to acknowledge similarities, we might have seen epidemics like the West Nile virus of 1999, the swine flu (2001), avian flu (2005), SARS (2003), e. Coli outbreaks, Lyme disease, and many other threats that first presented in the animal kingdom.

Daphne Sheldrick’s memoir Love, Life, and Elephants is wildly different in style from Zoobiquity and Life Everlasting, but the connection between human and animal and the unbreakable, profound bond with the natural world is the same; it is simply illustrated with different brushstrokes. Sheldrick’s Scottish ancestors left Europe in the 1820s to settle and farm on large tracts of African land given to them by the British government. Born in 1934, she grew up in Kenya’s Great Rift Valley and spent a blissful childhood among its animals — at age four she was given an orphaned bushbuck antelope, and she has continued, throughout her life, to care for orphaned animals — zebras, mongooses, birds, and especially, elephants. Her memories of her childhood homestead — of various camps and safaris, of lying in the dark and listening to lions licking the outside of the tent she and her sister slept in, of swimming in the ocean south of Malindi, of the sheer variety of plant and animal species and the utter interconnectedness of man and nature in that environment — make thrilling reading.

Daphne married young, at nineteen and went to live with her husband, Bill, in Tsavo National Park in Kenya. There she met and promptly fell helplessly in love with the warden, David Sheldrick. Fortunately, her marriage was dissolved in what seems to have been an unusually friendly divorce, and what follows is a passionate love story — but not only human. After David’s untimely death from cardiac arrest, Daphne devoted her life to ending poaching and to the creation of an animal orphan nursery. She formed a forty-year bond with an elephant named Eleanor and has worked tirelessly to conserve Kenya’s wildlife.

Sheldrick writes about elephants the way Heinrich writes about ravens. She is inspired and thrilled by them. She is proud of her intimacy with them and her insight into their way of life. “Over my many years of involvement with elephants,” she writes in the Prologue, “Eleanor had taught me the most about her kind. We had been through many ups and downs together. She was my old friend…. We had shared many tender moments, her massive trunk prickly as she wrapped it gently around my neck, one huge foot raised in greeting for me to hug with both my arms.” Heinrich does not allow himself to gush in quite the same way, but the elation he feels in the presence of ravens is palpable. He describes their flying antics as “plain exuberance” and decries Edgar Allan Poe’s depiction of corvids as “ghastly” and “grim.” “If I could choose,” he writes, “I’d be reincarnated into the raven.”

All of these writers make exactly this point: reincarntion aside, there’s an excellent chance part of you will be recycled into one of the plants or animals they all observe so closely. Doesn’t this, shouldn’t this change something about the way we interact with other species? Whether you come at it from the naturalistic, the scientific, or the romantic perspective, it’s high time, they all say, to rethink your relationship to nature. If for no other reason, as is amply evident in all three books, than the fact that it feels good to be a part of it; joyous and correct.