[rh10] Unnatural: Is discounting interdependence at the root of our struggle to build flourishing communities?

Gary Ferguson on four decades of encountering resilience and wonder in the natural world

CHRISTIAN: I’m here with naturalist and author Gary Ferguson. Gary, it’s such a pleasure to have you join us.

I thought we could start by talking about trees, which provide a startling and profound illustration of how our understanding of the natural world is shifting. What are recent studies revealing about how they interact in a forest?

GARY: Well, what we’re seeing is individuals acting in support of the community, which allows the individuals to flourish. A discovery made not long ago by Suzanne Simard has to do with how trees are connected to one another through vast mycelium networks, or fungal networks. What those do basically is allow the trees to talk to one another. That communication might be giving notice that hey, there’s a pathogen or pest in the area, and when that’s shared, young trees may actually experience a genetic expression of a pest resistance. Older trees also send energy and carbon to younger trees that are struggling. So if you’re an undernourished sapling, it’s quite likely that your grandmother tree nearby will be helping you out. When this grandmother tree begins to die, she’ll start really dumping all of her resources to the other trees so they’ll have the best shot at surviving.

It’s just a fascinating opportunity to begin to think in terms of systems and communities, and what’s happening where the individual is participating in the strengthening benefits of being in a community. 

CHRISTIAN: And you’ve said that it’s to the extent that when a sapling is growing up under the canopy of its elders, it is 3-4 times more likely to survive. 

GARY: Exactly right. We used to think well, those trees that aren’t doing so well outside the system are just in different climatic conditions, that’s what’s causing them stress. But now we know that it’s that transferring of essential nourishment.  

CHRISTIAN: It really is remarkable. Here we are as a society mostly shrugging off responsibility for climate change and its consequences for future generations, while even the trees are providing for their offspring.

Can you tell us a little more about how plants defend themselves by communicating?

GARY: That’s another fascinating bit of investigation. It’s been around for oh, forty or fifty years, but with our increased ability to really get down and see what’s happening, new discoveries are being made. We now know that a tree can release pheromones to call in wasps to tackle an insect invasion, and that flowers can adjust their scent levels to call in pollinators or to call in the predator of an insect that’s troubling them. Apple trees, when they’re getting invaded by a certain type of caterpillar, call in songbirds through the release of their pheromones. The songbirds come in, eat the caterpillars, and everyone’s happy. 

CHRISTIAN: Along the same lines, I thought it was so interesting when Peter Wohlleben wrote about how a tree can tell when a deer is eating its leaves. It recognizes when deer saliva has been left on the branch and releases compounds that taste really terrible to the deer. And scientists realized that when a branch breaks off for any other reason, a tree will just produce hormones to heal the damage.

All of this sophistication in their ability to process information and formulate a response.

GARY: It brings to mind this notion of present moment awareness. I’m not used to using that in conversations about the natural world, but in fact, that’s really what we’re considering now. Just a very heightened state of awareness of what’s going on in a particular moment. Once I assess what’s going on in my environment, I can choose the right action. Metaphorically as a human being, I try to remind myself of that when I’m stuck in anxiety or regret.

CHRISTIAN: We’ve understood the process of evolution over time, but for me it was an awakening to learn about these present moment responses in plants. 

This is an aside, but while we’re on the subject of forests, I look at how so many of my friends have migrated to large cities and lead transient lives. And Kathryn and I talk about how because of that, it feels like as a generation we haven’t maintained an attachment to place. We’ve lost our intimacy with the ecosystems that surround communities spread across the country, while they’re being developed without much in the way of strategic planning that would protect our remaining forested acreage. It seems like we’re more likely to fight for the preservation of wild spaces when we have both a familiarity with and rootedness in them. I’m curious about your thoughts on how attachment is built without access and investment.

GARY: Well, there is a term called native wisdom which is applied to the depth of a relationship that any of us can reach when we live in a certain place and experience it over and over again, and that has happened to me being in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem for 34 years now. But the benefits that we’re seeing express themselves in human beings through interactions with nature don’t require you to be out in the wild. My favorite example is that we now know that trees release chemicals called phytoncides, which we’re beginning to understand are important for strengthening immune systems, adding vitality to your essential organs. This doesn’t require big open spaces but does call on us to put attention into green spaces in cities. We’re used to thinking about trees in terms of carbon storage, managing heat islands and flooding; they’re all of those things, but they also allow people who live in the city to build a thread to nature without having to load up the family car and drive to Yellowstone. 

CHRISTIAN: The jumping-off point for our conversation came from an observation in your book The Eight Master Lessons of Nature, where you wrote that “as humanity has drifted away from the natural world, we’ve lost the ability to perceive interdependence.” We live in a culture that is perpetually busy and has sidelined the natural world in our day-to-day lives. You’ve laid out the case that we haven’t just lost touch with nature because we’re so distracted, but because it’s also how we’ve been taught to think. Could you get into how that happened? 

GARY: I think that’s a great entree into our discussion, to look at how we’ve been taught to see things in terms of subject-object thinking, in terms of us being isolated individuals living in a sea of isolated individuals. That’s far, far, far from reality. We think it’s real, but science with each decade is showing us that it’s anything but.

This way of thinking started to gain traction with the Greeks, who developed a philosophy that removed what was being looked at from the person who was doing the looking. You would regard and consider and take notes and learn about the world by virtue of being a very careful observer. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, it’s a very useful tool. That tool got supercharged, absolutely supercharged, about 500 years ago with the dawn of modern science, by people like Descartes, Francis Bacon, even Galileo. This was the beginning of what we know now as the scientific method. Let’s say we want to study one of the trees we were talking about. The ideal in early science would be to disconnect that tree from us as the observers so that none of our preconceived notions taint our research, and we disconnect it from its natural community. And we also disconnect it from the atmosphere, the soil, the pests… we just hold that which we can get our heads around in isolation.

There’s absolutely no question that that sort of consideration allowed us to develop all kinds of technologies. The thing is, it caught on and became an absolute obsession not just by science, but by the cultural institutions that increasingly took their lead from science. I would say today that any institution you can name, whether it’s healthcare or education or still, in some cases, science itself, is stuck in having made the mistake of believing that what was a useful tool was reality. That’s where we’ve fallen off. 

So part of our healing the planet and ourselves is going to be a perceptual shift. The notion of kinship and bonding that we have with our friends and family–what if we had that on a planetary scale? That, I would argue, brings a kind of deep joy and satisfaction that fuels all of the hard work and struggles that we have to take on to develop the solutions to climate change, all the changes we need to have a sustainable planet. They can seem overwhelming. What keeps that overwhelming feeling down across the long haul, I would say, is that kind of kinship. 

CHRISTIAN: Backtracking for a moment first, I thought it was interesting in your book when you wrote that the end to pure objectivity really came with a hammer. That hammer was quantum physics, which “shredded the deeply held idea that nature could be dissected and held fast by objective observation.” 

I wanted to tie in your observation that nature can move us past the elevation of intellect above the sensory experiences and emotions and intuition that we also use to understand the world. This is something that hasn’t been fully integrated even within the environmental community. Can you talk about how in an era of sustainability narratives focused on mitigating damage, it is important and powerful to not lose sight of wonder? 

GARY: You know, Albert Einstein used to tell his students on a regular basis that if you have a choice between mystery and knowledge, always choose mystery. And he was really referring, to some degree, to wonder.

We all come wired with an ability to perceive wonder, and we’re especially good at it when we’re kids. Over a lifetime, what society tells us is most important as far as facts and performance and whatnot overshadows, to say the least, that sense of wonder. Part of the problem now is that we are so distracted and so glued to information streams that the couple breaths of quiet and lack of prepackaged input that are necessary to cultivate wonder are hard to come by. 

Elaine Scarry at Harvard talked about how for her, this is one of the magic traits of anyone going into nature. It draws you in, engages and fascinates you, but at the same time this fascination moves you off to the side of the stage. And I find this, after 35,000 miles of walking trails around the world, I find this to be true. I can participate in and feel like I’m part of the system, but it’s no longer the me-story. I think any experience that can give us an intriguing regard for what’s going on without us having to be the center of the story is a step towards wonder. And so when we go out into nature, quieting down allows our natural hardwired sense of curiosity and wonder to come up again. It’s not rocket science but nonetheless, given the conditions of modern life, it’s very hard for a lot of us to just give ourselves those moments during the day when it feels like oh gosh, I’m not being productive. That’s okay. You did not evolve to be productive every waking hour. 

CHRISTIAN: And Einstein would seek out nature as well.

GARY: He would go out onto the Princeton campus to the Institute Woods when he had a problem he couldn’t solve in his lab, some kind of mathematical conundrum–I can only imagine!–and he would begin by trying intentionally to comprehend what was going on around him with the trees, in the soil. He knew very well he couldn’t, but he kept following the trail of his thoughts into this system until his brain was overwhelmed. He essentially blew his mind out in nature. At that point, he put his analytical self–which was considerable–down and opened himself up to a kind of intuitive present moment sensing. Not that he could’ve articulated everything that was going on, but he was able to develop the relationship with mystery that he was talking about. At which point he would go back into the lab and often be able to solve the problem.

CHRISTIAN: So I ran many miles in Institute Woods; unfortunately I never had any breakthroughs on the level of Einstein. 

GARY: [laughs] There are some interesting studies with corporate folks going off on let’s say a six-hour hike in some beautiful place, and when they’re tested before and after, the results are really remarkable–how much more creative, how much more improvisational they are.

CHRISTIAN: Can you talk about nature and its effect on the brain after trauma? 

GARY: What’s just starting to be understood, and Stanford has done some of the most profound studies on it, is rumination, which happens in the subgenual prefrontal cortex. It’s when you have those thoughts that invade your mind and make you perhaps anxious or make you relive something that didn’t go well a month ago or ten years ago. Scientists are noticing that the levels of the chemicals that cause that kind of rumination dramatically rise when you’re in any kind of danger. When people go through trauma, that watchful part of their brain, the amygdala, is very jumpy. Depending on the depth of the trauma, it can stay that way; you can get stuck on that. We all know people who have had PTSD for years or even decades after an event. Well now they’re learning that 30 minutes a day in nature serves as a kind of counterbalance to these corticosteroids that are elevated in your brain when you’re suffering from PTSD. This is one reason why vets returning from combat are finding extraordinary help in wilderness programs that provide a bridge from the traumatic place they were to the realities of being home again. 

That, to me, suggests that the tools we need are around us and that we evolved with that set of tools, that we have them within us. 

CHRISTIAN: You wrote about how we’re prone to low-energy thinking, which is so relevant in our political climate that I want to just share an excerpt here: 

We employ a kind of shorthand, a black-and-white way of describing the world that takes very little effort. And we do it with even more gusto when we think we’re talking to someone who sees the world like we do. We feed these categorical imperatives with deeply entrenched binary thinking. Cambridge University psychologist John Teasdale found that therapy patients with what I’m calling categorical thinking were at significant risk of depression. Neuroscientists have discovered that the use of absolutist words in language–like “you always” or “every time” or “never”–may predict mental distress. In mental health chat groups focused on personal depression and anxiety, absolutist language was 50% higher than in the population at large. In suicide-focused groups, it was 80% higher.

You go on to talk about how being in nature can steer us away from binary thinking. And that’s partly because you’re slowing down and you’re cultivating curiosity, and partly because nature defies categorization. In a world that’s increasingly in crisis, that’s fraught with tension, you’re saying that nature can help us build resilience.

What does the research say about nature and happiness? 

GARY: Yes, so happiness is a very slippery term, but my wife, who’s a social scientist, turned me onto the fact that a growing body of research correlates happiness with the number of relationships you have and the depth of those relationships. And that doesn’t sound earth-shattering, but that same research then looked at nature, and it turns out that your relationship with nature–your inclination to love nature, let’s say– is actually a bigger predictor of happiness than even your relationships with your friends and family. It’s like we have evolved to have a special slot in our psyches for the natural world. 

So you’re right, resilience depends very much on being able to have connections not just with people but with all that is sustaining you… this sort of oh, benevolent disinterest, I would call it with the natural world. There is a benevolence there, there’s so much working with the atmospheric gases and water cycles and nutrients and sunshine, all of the things we need to be here today. That’s comforting. 

CHRISTIAN: You’ve also applied nature to the case for restoring a balance of masculine and feminine insight in society, by looking at how instrumental female leadership is within groups of other mammals. You point in particular to relational instinct and coalition-building.

GARY: I think this is one the biggest missteps we’ve made in human history–the extent to which we’ve subjugated and made irrelevant archetypal feminine insight (and when we’re talking about the feminine in this way, it is not exclusive to women, it’s a way of seeing and being in the world). Three thousand or so years ago, the mythology of the world tended to be balanced; goddesses and gods were responsible for different aspects of the world. This changed as it became possible to accrue and amass wealth, which started really with the Fertile Crescent. Crops are a fantastic currency, and as control of the wealth that they brought became a dominant idea, more relational ideas started to drift away. Ultimately, the feminine perspective was put totally in the back room. This is another part of subject-object thinking; it’s only through subject-object thinking that you could not only take the natural world and position it as a commodity, but it leads to this tendency to identify types of people as being something to control. And when our storytelling systems began to evolve to focus on the male and the masculine and to make the female of little or no worth, science followed in culture’s footsteps. Even in the early 20th century, research suggested that girls shouldn’t be allowed to pursue higher education, because it was directing energy away from and doing damage to their reproductive organs. Science was employed to prove something that was never true. 

If you look at elephants, matriarchs make decisions for the herd and intervene in disputes as peacemakers. The same thing happens with wolves, with lions; in fact, with all mammals where the males and females are roughly the same size, it’s typical for the female to have a stronger leadership position as far as decision-making. And this doesn’t mean the male doesn’t have a role in the system as well.

Something that just came out in the past year had to do with female orcas who are post-menopausal. Now, science has been scratching its head over the whole deal about menopause forever. Why would a female of any species go through a change that renders her unable to reproduce? We’ve been so inclined to think it doesn’t serve the propagation of species. But those female orcas immediately take on a strong leadership role in the pod. They’re relieved of child-bearing in service to that group. Well, that’s how things have happened in certain indigenous cultures where the elders become leaders, sources of wisdom that only experience can lend to the perspective. 

CHRISTIAN: And in the case of the orcas, you’ve said that research shows an adult male is eight times more likely to die in the year after his mother’s death than while she’s alive.

GARY: Yeah and if we have evolved as a species that is arguably one of the most cooperative on the planet, if our way forward is through cooperation, then feminine relational energy is something that we’re going to need to lean on in the years to come. 

CHRISTIAN: In addition to indigenous cultures, you’ve written about another precedent for a more relational worldview that I hadn’t come across before. Can you talk about that movement?

GARY: When it emerged, it was a strong component of Protestant churches all over the UK and just held in great respect, but I too only learned of it fairly recently. At the time, let’s say the 1600s to 1700s, a driving philosophy came from folks like Thomas Hobbes, who just thought humans were really debased and that they only act for the good if they have very stern, no-nonsense autocratic leaders pressuring them. Well this movement was by a group called the Latitudinarians, and they made it their mission, if you will, to talk about and honor what they referred to as the man of feeling. It was still a fairly sexist time, so they said man, but the man of feeling was revered because that person could have sympathy and empathy. They could be quiet long enough to really try to understand and get their head around the suffering of others, and therefore took action in response to reduce that suffering. 

This is, when you think about it, a kind of efficiency, a survival strategy for the group. You get a significant percentage of your society to think in terms of what’s the best for the most people–if you can do that, the Latitudinarians thought, then you would really have a chance at eliminating some of the scourges that humans were facing, war and pestilence and economic inequality, etc. 

CHRISTIAN: And your wife’s research in community health has shown that the groups who are most likely to engage in sharing are those that have the least.

GARY: It’s interesting to me that evolutionary biologists and anthropologists are starting to offer the idea that rather than evolution having been the survival of the fittest (which in itself is problematic because the original intention of the word fit or fittest by Darwin has to do with how able you are to react to changes in your environment, but we through Social Darwinism decided fittest meant the strongest and perhaps the meanest and those can gather the most goodies before they die), some of these scientists are saying that a more accurate description of survival of the fittest is survival of the friendliest. And this natural sharing that Mary talks about with homeless folks, with migrants, is a kind of deep efficiency. 

You don’t have to go too far down the road in terms of research or looking to nature to get that yeah, the community supports the individual–allowing the individual to have his or her own unique expression, but that expression is also aligned with, or you might say compliant with, the realities of the community itself. 

CHRISTIAN: Can you talk a little more about dominance and competitiveness in the context of the natural world?

GARY: Sure, and competition does of course happen in the natural world, but the context in which it happens tends to be an organism taking what it needs and not exceeding that. Wolves don’t kill all the prey animals even though they certainly could, they could wipe out an elk herd easily.

As far as aggressiveness, if you get a couple red deer bucks who are supercharged with aggression during the mating season, who are going at each other all the time… when those individuals take it too far, while they’re busy fighting other red deer bucks are mating the females. So they’re basically losing out from the gene pool. Or baboons–when the males are too aggressive, females will rebuff them. The lower-ranking baboons, who have maybe over the years established friendly relationships with the females, are the ones who end up actually breeding. 

CHRISTIAN: You’ve also said that scientists are now considering whether we should start to define health not by competitiveness, but by the degree of established cooperation.

I want to dive further into the concept of efficiency. How is efficiency expressed within other species? You’ve talked about how drafting allows geese to fly about 70% farther.

GARY: Yes, efficiency is a really important way that the world is able not just to survive, but to thrive. Geese have a leader and there’s this constant stream of communication, honks and chortles, just to check in and see how everybody’s doing. Each goose behind the leader positions themselves in a way that they’re being drafted along, and it allows them to fly without using more calories than are absolutely necessary. We turned to that V-formation as early as WWII to save fuel.  Now, what’s a fascinating aside to me is that when a goose suffers some sort of problem, that goose will of course leave the group and fly down to the ground. Well, two other geese will typically follow that struggling goose down to the ground, and they stay with it until it recovers or dies. 

CHRISTIAN: I have to say that since I read your book, every time I see two geese flying I wonder what happened to the third. 

GARY: [laughs]

CHRISTIAN: Sloths were another example that Kathryn and I found fascinating.

GARY: Sure. Sloths feed on leaves, and you might think what a great strategy, why don’t more of us feed on leaves? But leaves are quite hard to digest and it’s difficult to get the calories and nutrition you need to keep going just by eating leaves. Well, the sloth ended up taking the approach of, how can I minimize my calorie expenditure?And the way it did that is by developing these small shoulder blades and long arms, and feet that allow it to hang upside down surrounded by leaves, so the eating is really all right at hand. You don’t have to travel to get the food, and you actually save a lot of calories by not having to balance yourself on tree branches. They can adjust their body temperature; most mammals are around 100 degrees but the sloth can do just fine at 75 or 80. The lower the temperature, the fewer calories are being burned. 

CHRISTIAN: Which you’ve pointed out does mean that they have to warm up in the sun at the tops of trees, and that when they’re napping, they curl up in balls in the forks of branches to recirculate their own body heat.

GARY: Yes, and then they also make their fur sort of a home for various organisms, to the point that algae grows in the moisture of their fur. So not only is a sloth very difficult for predators to see under all the algae, but when it cleans itself that algae supplies some of the calories it needs to keep going. They’ve got very slow everything, including digestion–a big meal can take a month to digest. Sloths have said, I’m just going to spend as few calories as I can and that’s going to be my ace in a hole, and sure enough, it has been. 

CHRISTIAN: So much more going on there than there appears to be.

GARY: [laughs] Right.

CHRISTIAN: I want to ask you about how dolphins and ants, because they’re at what I would consider opposite ends of the spectrum, but they both pass along knowledge within their communities.

GARY: Sure. Dolphins have a very complex society as people are starting to realize, and they even seem to have names for themselves that are recognized by the rest of their pods. Bottlenose dolphins feed in a variety of ocean habitats, and in places there are populations of bottom-dwelling fish like sand perch. Those bottom dwellers tend to be fattier fish, so again we’re back to efficiency–if you eat fattier fish, you get more calories with less effort. Well the bad news if you’re a dolphin is that sand perch are well hidden under a layer of sand. You would have to scrape your beak along the ground, and that opens you up to injury from coral and other sharp objects. So what dolphins do, and mothers teach this to their young, is they’ll find a sponge and fit it over their beak, and then they’ll sweep the ocean floor of sand until they come up with a place where a sand perch is dwelling. 

You also mentioned ants, and ants are full of wonder as well. There’s this ant called the rock ant. If one ant finds a good food source, it will go back to the ant mounds and get another ant or two, and essentially show them the way to this food source, which may be quite a distance. They’ll lead the other ant, but they’ll stop and pause every so often for the follower to apparently take note of the vertical landmarks around it. And when the follower feels like ok, I’ve got this mapped, they will tap the lead ant on the back and on they’ll go. 

CHRISTIAN: This feels like the time to talk about anthropomorphism, and you’ve told a story about a conversation you had that you felt shifted your perspective on anthropomorphism. 

GARY: I happened to be, just luckily so, in a remote mountain valley north of Yellowstone with a Northern Cheyenne elder, and I was, as I have been for some time, wrestling with this notion of anthropomorphism. It’s an absolute bane in the scientific world; the last thing you want to be accused of is projecting something human onto animals. So I thought it would be interesting to ask the elder his thoughts about it. He gave me–I wouldn’t say a dirty look, but almost a pitiable look–that told me something good was coming. And what he said was you know, we don’t really get that whole idea. To us, the animals are the ones that gave us as humans our qualities. We came from animals. It seems insane to us that you spend so much time worrying about plastering qualities back onto animals, when to us it goes the other direction. 

Now, that doesn’t mean that anthropomorphism should run wild. We do need high-integrity science. But if we’re going to grasp that sense of wonder that we started the conversation with, I think you anthropomorphize to the extent that you can go oh, that wolf that just lost her mate has gone off alone, which wolves almost never do, maybe she’s grieving. And I saw this happening with the Delta wolf pack in Yellowstone, she spent two weeks wandering on her own before she was willing to rejoin her pack. Or elephants who lose a member of their herd and they not only touch the body and stand there and contemplate it–and by the way, elephants now appear to have brains that are far more contemplative than human brains–but come back to that place during the following years and seem to just stand in quiet, huddled shoulder to shoulder. That doesn’t mean they’re experiencing grief like we do, but I think it’s a great source of wonder to consider that, among mammals, we’re with fellow travelers who have had to deal with many of the same circumstances, so why wouldn’t there be grief? Especially in species that bond so tightly. Many readers will remember Tahlequah the orca who carried her dead calf for 17 days, and when it fell off she would go down to retrieve it. It is hard to imagine that anything was going on other than a kind of mourning.

CHRISTIAN: Yeah. I thought the story you included in your book about elephants at a sanctuary in Tennessee was so touching. When one died, her elephant friend brought her own favorite toy, a car tire, to the grave and left it there.  

How has our perspective on animal emotions evolved over the past few hundred years?

GARY: It has evolved from that really dark chapter, that epicenter, in the 1600s, 1700s, 1800s. Claude Bernard, to give you an example of how disconnect can operate, is revered as the father of experimental medicine and had much to do with developing physiology knowledge, but he absolutely wholesale operated and experimented on–and some would certainly say by today’s sensibilities tortured–animals all the time to see what made them tick. It was to the extent that he and others, in order to quiet the vocal expression of pain, would cut their vocal cords. 

Now remember, he’s coming out of a tradition in the era of Descartes that said that animals are absolutely not able to feel pain. There’s kind of an apocryphal story of Descartes taking a dog on his lecture circuit. He’d kick it in the side and the audience would gasp, and he’d take that as a teachable moment to say yeah, it it looks like this dog is feeling pain, but it’s just an autonomous response. So I think there was nowhere to go but up. Science has certainly increasingly given the nod to animals that are tool users as sentient beings that do have emotions. I think we lag behind in how we treat animals in agriculture. 

CHRISTIAN: You wrote that we still see the ramifications of that mindset when it comes to exploiting the “other,” which you’ve said can mean “either animals or entire groups of people… what a scientist or leader wants to find out or control justifies using whatever means are necessary to make that happen.” 

In terms of agriculture, you’ve pointed out that there will always be a temptation to make decisions based solely on the bottom line. Which is why even if we eat less meat or buy from farms run in a humane manner, which can be part of regenerative agriculture, there’s still a need to push for regulation. You’ve mentioned Ruth Harrison, who wrote a book in the ‘60s that you equated to Silent Spring for industrial agriculture. Harrison pinpointed two changes that led to a decline in the treatment of livestock, one being when animals were kept in buildings concealed from public view, and the other being that–I’m still quoting you here–“the relationship between individual farmers and their animals had unraveled, with the animals no longer a daily part of life on the farm.”

Statistics point to consequences of this shift beyond our commodification of animals. You found research that shows that industrial farming in the US has contributed to 173,000 miles of waterways being classified as “dead zones” and that “waste slurries from hog production facilities are 75 times stronger than human sewage.” Something I hadn’t noticed but that you pointed out in your book is that in 2017, the Tory government essentially reversed 400 years of history in terms of defining animals as having no emotions. What ended up happening with that?

GARY: Yes, that was a very depressing development, but I have some good news; as I understand it, there’s a bill before Parliament right now declaring that animals are sentient and therefore legally guaranteed a certain kind of treatment. So while that was a dark chapter, it seems to be coming happily to an end. 

CHRISTIAN: I’m glad to hear that.

As we talk about evolution in our relationship with animals, I’m curious if the studies on the role of old growth trees are being integrated yet into management policy?

GARY: Well I think there is just a tidal wave, within the scientific community, of focusing on systems and focusing on connections. As far as management decisions, if it’s a leadership that’s really stuck in separation thinking, in zero-sum thinking, then it’s very difficult to get policies that result in meaningful change. But even where political leadership is lacking, people within agencies and the sciences are trying their best to apply what they’ve learned. 

So I’m hopeful, I feel that not only when it comes to technology do we have pretty much what we need to respond to climate change, but perceptually and knowledge-wise the importance of connection is really catching on. With some luck and some willingness to make sure our leadership reflects the reality of how things work, maybe we can make the most of the next several decades. 

CHRISTIAN: I think one question I always find interesting is to understand what gives somebody hope… do you have any further thoughts on that you would share?

GARY: Well, when you begin to look at the reality of how the world works, you gain this sense of gratitude for how much is working. It really depends where we put our attention in terms of whether we can draw inspiration and find solutions to our problems, or whether we retreat or withdraw into that isolated and siloed thinking we’ve become so good at. 

CHRISTIAN: Thank you so much for all these stories and for such a thoughtful perspective on interdependence as part of our place in the natural world. It feels like interdependence is the elephant in the room when we talk about political polarization, refugees, income inequality, ocean acidification–so many of the systemic issues facing society.

Since one of the themes for this conversation was wonder, why don’t we wrap up with one more anecdote. Can you share what you witnessed during your time in Yellowstone in the ‘90s, when you were asked to chronicle the return of 14 wolves to the park?

GARY: The wolves blew me away… I left them with the understanding that there’s a complexity to their systems that is so beyond what we can comprehend.

Play is a cooperative behavior, and wolves are very social mammals. In fact, they’re so social that a number of native tribes have said that they based their societies, their ways of governing and how they are with each other, on watching wolves. They’re extremely well-bonded, they take turns in childcare, they hunt together. And one of the ways they bond or come to like each other is through play. So one day I was out watching wolves in the Lamar Valley. This would have been in June when there were still some snowfields, long tongues of snow dropping across some of the foothills. And the pack that was living in that valley would go up to the top, the whole family, and get on their backs and slide down. Their tongues would be lolling and they’d be having the greatest time, and then they’d all run up to the top and slide down again. 

The Druid pack was quite known for a time for the younger wolves that loved to take torn pieces from an elk carcass that had been killed for food, tossing them in the air and then jumping up to catch them. So if you’ve ever wondered why your dog loves to play frisbee, this love of catching stuff goes way, way back. 

It was an opportunity for me and for so many others who have seen wolves now in Yellowstone to rekindle that sense of wonder and consider the fact that here may be a sovereign nation of sorts, that has a way of being in the world and perceptual abilities that I could never understand but that is completely worthy of respect and protection, to the extent that I do what I can to make sure they have a place to be wolves for a long time to come.

This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.