A follow-up to Kristin Ohlson’s previous book, The Soil Will Save Us (Rodale 2014), Sweet in Tooth and Claw extends the concept of cooperation in nature to the life-affirming connections among microbes, plants, fungi, insects, birds, and animals – including humans—in ecosystems around the globe.
For centuries, people have debated whether nature is mostly competitive as Darwin theorized and the poet Tennyson described as “red in tooth and claw”—or innately cooperative, as many ancient and indigenous peoples believed. In the last 100 or so years, a growing gang of scientists have studied the mutually beneficial interactions that are believed to benefit every species on earth. This book is full of stories of generosity – not competition in nature. It is a testament to the importance of a healthy biodiversity, and dispels the widely accepted premise of survival of the fittest.
Ohlson tells stories of trees and mushrooms, beavers and bees. There are chapters on a wide variety of ecosystems and portraits of the people who learn from them: forests (the work of Suzanne Simard); scientists who study the interaction of bees and flowers in the Rocky Mountains; the discovery of bacteria and protozoa in the mid-1600s by Dutch scientist Antoni von Leeuwenhoek; ranchers, government agency personnel, and scientists working together to restore wetlands from deserts in northeastern Nevada; and more. It is a rich and fascinating book full of amazing stories, sure to change your perspective on the natural world.
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About the Author
Ohlson’s last book was The Soil Will Save Us: How Scientists, Farmers and Foodies are Healing the Soil to Save the Planet, which the Los Angeles Times called “a hopeful book and a necessary one…. a fast-paced and entertaining shot across the bow of mainstream thinking about land use.” She appeared in the award-winning documentary film, Kiss the Ground, to speak about the connection between soil health and climate health. Ohlson lives in Portland, Oregon.
Read an Excerpt
Years ago, I joined a group of women and a few men at an art gallery in the Murray Hill neighborhood of Cleveland, Ohio. It was supposed to be an evening of journaling and shared feelings and uplifting conversation—stuff that makes me a little skittish, then more than now—and I can’t even imagine now what convinced me to go. I remember so little about the event—was the Lego-like brick street outside slick with ice, as it so often was? Did I still have young children waiting for my return at home? But one trick of the convener stays with me still. We were all sitting on the floor, knee to knee, and she asked us to look around the room and make a mental list of all the blue things in the room. There were quite a few of them, and I quickly jotted them down in my brain. Then we closed our eyes, and one by one, the convener asked us an unexpected question. Name one of the yellow things in the room! As I recall, no one—and certainly not I—could remember anything yellow because we were all so intently focused on blue. The yellows had faded into background along with the greens and purples and reds, erased by our inattention.
The exercise buttressed one of the themes the convener would pursue that day, that what we decide to focus on not only informs our view of the world but will also guide our path through it. I found that idea valuable as my life went on its twists and turns, especially during times of fear or despair. During the recent pandemic, for instance, our walks with the dogs offered many small distracting wonders if I remembered to look for them: moss growing in old lettering on the sidewalk, clouds of excitable bushtits settling into an overgrown shrub, bark peeling like ringlets off a birch tree. All the couples walking hand in hand around the neighborhood, keeping a respectful six-foot distance from everyone else. Neighbors having tiny, candlelit parties on their lawns throughout the summer and fall. The young musicians who brought a bass and a violin to the small park across the street from my house and played for an hour. People who went into a frenzy of giving, as much as they were able, to others harder hit by the disaster. As the wonderful Fred Rogers (Mr. Rogers) said on the first anniversary of 9/11, “Look for the helpers.” There were so many helpers.The Soil Will Save Us, I discovered a wellspring of optimism as I met farmers, ranchers, scientists, and others figuring out how to restore damaged agricultural landscapes. But if the world is characterized by greed and grasping and selfishness, as so many people believe, would the growing numbers of ordinary ecological heroes be enough? The Soil Will Save Us, I was thrilled to learn about the life-giving partnership between plants and soil microorganisms. Really, it was the greatest of revelations to find out that plants don’t just suck nutrients from the soil and leave it as barren of goodness as a Twinkie, but are engaged in a constant give and take with the billions of tiny organisms there. At the conference, Simard talked about this kind of fertile partnership spread out across the forest landscape, powered by a vast underground skein of fungi. I almost levitated from my seat with excitement.
I drove from Portland to Vancouver that year to talk to Simard and her students, but it took me a few years to find other researchers and landscapes yielding similar insights. As they accrued, I felt as if I was really on to something worth writing about. Most of us have forgotten much of what we learned in science class, but a few concepts persevere—and “survival of the fittest” is certainly one of them. Charles Darwin posited that the species we see around us today are the winners of a challenge that’s been going on for nearly four billion years; all living things are the culmination of changes passed on from ancient forbears that made them more successful at harvesting resources, avoiding predation and other dangers, and reproducing. Other thinkers pounced on Darwin’s findings and enshrined the concept of competition as biology’s brutal architect. The idea that competition rules has been lodged in our collective brains ever since. Even if people reject the theory of evolution or can’t quite recall how it works, they still think of nature as “red in tooth and claw,” as the poet Tennyson wailed—a vicious and never-ending battle of survival for meager resources. Even many scientists don’t grasp how pervasive cooperative interactions are in nature. “Today’s ecologists grew up with the paradigm of organisms primarily competing with each other,” biologist Richard Karban told me. “A lot of ecologists are surprised by how much cooperation exists among plants and other organisms. They’re not looking for it in their research.” Consequently, we seem to have developed a zero-sum game view of nature, suggesting that whatever we take—we humans, or those ravens, cypresses, invasive garlic mustard, and any living thing—comes at the expense of other living things and the overall shared environment. As we humans keep growing in number, this view suggests, it must regrettably follow that the rest of the world will suffer.
But what if we’re applying Darwin’s insights wrongly to the world and thus missing the generosity and cooperation that exist in the natural world? That’s what Simard’s research suggested to me. And if we are missing the generosity and cooperation in the greater world, we are likely also missing these harmonious connections in ourselves. Because we are part of nature, of course. We exist because of complex, vibrant, creative relationships with the rest of nature and are as much a part of it as the racoon lounging in the tree near my front door or the grasses growing along the highway. How might our behavior change if we understood the extent to which cooperation within and among species undergirds the natural world and makes it thrive? If we looked for that cooperation, just as I was instructed to look for the blue things in that gallery? Could we begin to see ourselves as partners and helpers, part of a greater fabric of giving, instead of exploiters and colonizers and wreckers?
It seems to me that the best and highest use of science these days is to figure out how nature works—as many of the brilliant scientists I interviewed in this book are doing—and then to help humans change our behavior so that we can roll back the damage we’ve already done and avoid further damage. So that we encourage and bolster the world’s hunger to thrive. And not just because that would benefit us, although it certainly would, but because other life forms have as much right to flourish as we do and don’t exist for our use. Many scientists are learning from the ways in which older cultures understood their place within nature and how they balanced human needs with the needs of the other living things. I’m convinced that if we can learn to respect, not ravage, the rest of nature, we’ll also become more generous and nurturing with each other. “What you do to the people, you do to the land,” says Gopal Dayaneni, an activist with the Movement Generation Justice and Ecology Project. “And what you do to the land, you do to the people. This is a common concept across many Indigenous and land-based traditions.”
The person who might best articulate this respectful bond with the rest of nature—at least, I’m smitten with her writings and recordings—is the Native American botanist and writer Robin Wall Kimmerer. Humans must take from nature to survive, she says, but we have to make sure it’s an honorable harvest. Never take the first plant or animal or the last. Ask permission: the world is generous and creative but sometimes the answer is no, and science is a powerful tool for understanding that limit. Do as little harm as possible. Practice gratitude. Share. And reciprocate—we need to learn how to give back.
We humans are engaged in so many harvests, and they are often not honorable. When we take fish from the ocean or grow tomatoes in a field; when we seize land from the prairies or forests to make a home or a city; when we divert water for our urban areas or for agriculture; when we take the labor or the confidence of other humans … all are an opportunity for honor. Parts of this book look at the cooperation and mutually beneficial connections that hold together the creatures and ecosystems in and around us; I find that to be thrilling science. But for me, the most thrilling parts of the book look at how people are acting on new understandings of what the rest of nature needs from us. They are deciding to be partners with the living world, partners with each other in this mission, and showing that bleakness does not have to be our shared fate.
Table of ContentsPreface
Chapter One: An Underground Tapestry of Give-and-Take
Chapter Two: We Need Better Metaphors
Chapter Three: We Are Ecosystems
Chapter Four: Transforming Deserts to Wetlands
Chapter Five: Agriculture That Nurtures Nature
Chapter Six: I'll Take My Coffee with Birds
Chapter Seven: Healing from Ridgetop to Reef
Chapter Eight: Living in Verdant Cities
What People are Saying About This
“Deftly weaving together science, social thought, and a remarkable cast of characters, Ohlson’s book uncovers the marvelous partnerships that make life possible, showing that cooperation, not competition, is the key to survival.” Elizabeth Carlisle, Author, Healing Grounds: Climate, Justice, and the Deep Roots of Regenerative Farming
"Ohlson looks at nature through the lens of cooperation, from the intricate workings of one-celled creatures all the way to entire forests and cities (above and below ground). This deeply reported and stunning book holds up a mirror to us humans, showing how we thrive when we embrace nature’s generous spirit. ” Judith Schwartz, author of The Reindeer Chronicles and Other Inspiring Stories of Working With Nature to Heal the Earth.