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June 2023 Issue [Readings]

The Power of the Dog


From Animal Spirits, which will be published this month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Soon after he graduated in 1909, Aldo Leopold headed to the Southwest to take a job with the U.S. Forest Service—the new federal agency charged with the equally new task of “wildlife management.” For Leopold and his colleagues, managing wildlife meant, among other things, killing creatures deemed undesirable by ranchers, farmers, and hunters. Few were deemed more undesirable—or made for more exciting targets for young men with guns—than wolves. “In those days we had never heard of passing up a chance to kill a wolf,” Leopold remembered some decades later in his book A Sand County Almanac.

So when Leopold and a companion spotted an old she-wolf and her half-dozen pups tangling playfully on a steep hillside, the men started “pumping lead into the pack, but with more excitement than accuracy. . . . When our rifles were empty, the old wolf was down, and a pup was dragging a leg into impassable slide-rocks.” As the men moved closer to size up what they had done, something unexpected and arresting happened. As Leopold recalled:

We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes—something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.

This gaze into the eyes of the other, this glimpse of an animal’s spirit, became a foundational moment in the history of ecological consciousness. Leopold’s account of the dying wolf went on to describe the calamitous consequences of exterminating the entire species: mountains denuded of every edible tree and bush by proliferating deer, rangeland turned into dust bowls by overgrazing cattle. The eradication of the wolf would upset the balance of nature, which the mountain embodied before it was ravaged by men. Like the wolf exterminator, Leopold concluded, the rancher “has not learned to think like a mountain.”

The attribution of sentience and thought to wolves and even mountains—a reanimation of the world—was a portal of discovery for Leopold and it made A Sand County Almanac (first published in 1949) a bible for American environmentalists, but that did not occur until the late Sixties, when visions of a reanimated universe began appearing amid the countercultural ferment. The critique of technocratic domination; the rejection of human mastery over manipulatable nature; the recovery of respect for non-human creatures—all these impulses found a home in the emerging environmental movement. But not many environmentalists were genuine animists in any strict sense. They did not believe in either a single spirit animating nature or a multitude of lesser spirits animating all living creatures. Yet the movement reappraised animistic traditions, recognizing their resonance with ecological notions of the earth as one large living organism composed of countless smaller interdependent organisms. This coincided with a reissuing of A Sand County Almanac in 1970.

The time was ripe for Leopold’s vision of a sentient natural world, full of creatures who could feel and think in ways comparable if not identical to humans. Rising respect for nature fostered renewed interest in the spirits of animals. Yearnings to reconnect body and mind resurfaced. Holistic conceptions of the self melded with ecological awareness. Ecofeminism made its critique of patriarchy part of a broader challenge to human domination of the non-human world.

But all this occurred within a brief historical time frame. Mainstream politics has since remained beyond the limits of popular control or even influence—stuck in stale debates, impervious to pervasive needs, with both major parties subservient to corporate interests that are, at best, indifferent to environmental concerns.

What is happening now may finally transform this situation: rampant wildfires, smoke-filled skies, melting ice caps, and rising sea levels. These signs of global warming have become impossible to ignore, and may be reigniting a politically effective ecological consciousness, a recognition that humans share the earth with other inspirited species that depend on one another and on a habitable, living earth.

This resurgence of environmentalist thinking has been accompanied by a parallel resurgence of vitalist tendencies in geology, physics, botany, and epigenetics. These developments pose a challenge to the assumption that nature is merely an inert “resource” to be plundered for human use; indeed, they point to a renewed and widening vision of universal animacy, a growing awareness that not only living organisms but even apparently solid materials such as lumber, steel, and granite are a ferment of microscopic motion.

The philosopher Jane Bennett posed the questions of ontology that vitalism raises more than a decade ago in her book Vibrant Matter: “Does life only make sense as one side of a life-matter binary, or is there such a thing as a mineral or metallic life, or a life of the it in ‘it rains’?” Since then, scientists have been creating a broader foundation for Bennett’s speculation. Robert Macfarlane converses with some of these scientists in his remarkable book Underland. One of his interviewees is a physicist studying the collisions of dark matter. “He pauses. I wait,” Macfarlane writes about a lull in their conversation. “Trillions of neutrinos pass through our bodies and on through the Earth’s bedrock, its mantle, its liquid innards, its solid core.” Then the physicist says, “as if the phrase has just entered his head without warning, scoring a trace as it passes through—‘Everything causes a scintillation.’ ”

Everywhere he looks, Macfarlane finds evidence of matter’s vibrancy. With a botanist in Epping Forest, he discovers that

living wood, left long enough, behaves as a slow-moving fluid. Like the halite down in the darkness of Boulby mine, like the calcite I had seen beneath the Mendips, like glacial ice drawing itself on over topsoil and bedrock, living wood seems to flow, given time.

From a biologist, he learns about holobionts—“collaborative compound organisms, ecological units ‘consisting of trillions of bacteria, viruses and fungi that coordinate the task of living together and sharing a common life.’ ” None of this would be news, Macfarlane notes, to indigenous peoples, whose animistic traditions postulate a symbiotic relationship with their jungle or woodland environs.

Consider a common origin tale throughout the world: In the beginning, everything was mixed up with everything else. All living things inhabited a world without boundaries. Identities were fluid, species and sexes interchangeable. All was in constant flux, until a trail of cosmic accidents led to tension and eventual separation between women and men, humans and animals, gods and mortals. After this fragmentation, earthly creatures continued to inhabit an animated universe, where rocks, trees, plants, and animals were all ensouled with a mysterious force or spirit—what anthropologists would call manitou, or mana—a force that kept the fragments from flying apart.

This rough outline describes their sense of a cosmos in which humans are not unique and superior beings but participants in a common world undivided by barriers between wilderness and civilization. The universal presence of mana enabled animals to intervene in human affairs, to serve as messengers from an unseen spirit world, or as instruments of divine purpose. The fluidity of this worldview flowed from the deep but implicit conviction that the universe is alive.

A part of our problem in the industrialized West, Macfarlane observes, is that we have neither the grammar nor the vocabulary to represent animacy. Consider the Potawatomi word puhpowee—the force which causes mushrooms to push up from the earth overnight—or wiikwegamaa—to be a bay. We have no comparable language to express these ways of seeing and being.

But maybe we could develop one. The recovery of a grammar of animacy would challenge the reductionist assumption at the heart of technocratic rationality, which requires its devotees reject any vestiges of vitalism they encounter in the cultural atmosphere.

One reason many scientists have disdained the animist view in the past was that it acknowledges that organisms help make their environments, as opposed to merely adapting to them. The idea that organisms can participate in their own evolution has come to be known as “niche construction,” and it challenges the strict adaptationist view with a revived and implicitly Lamarckian emphasis on the ways that ancestral organisms’ modifications of their environment can affect subsequent generations.

In recent decades, epigenetics have made more ambitious claims than niche construction theory, suggesting that changes in an organism’s environment may actually have effects on its DNA. Epigeneticists emphasize the whole context in which genetic material functions, from the cell to the organism to its environment. Nearly all cells possess the biochemical tools for changing their DNA, and they use them “responsively, not purely randomly,” as the historian Jessica Riskin has put it. No gene, it has begun to appear, is an island.

The philosophical implications of this are monumental. Emphasizing what humans have in common with the rest of the natural world allows for our participation alongside other creatures in an interdependent, animated universe. And a clearer understanding of our relationship to nature demands a sensitivity to the ways that organisms engage with the contingent circumstances of their environment on historical scales. For humans, that environment includes religions and ideologies and economic systems as well as air and soil and water. Who knows? Maybe scientists will have something to learn from historians, as well as the other way around.

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July 2023

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