Sweet in Tooth and Claw
Many have been taught that nature is inherently competitive. But Kristin Ohlson's new book describes a different natural order—one of generosity.
Editor’s Note: The prevailing scientific consensus claims that nature is inherently competitive—“red in tooth and claw,” Lord Alfred Tennyson decried, or more directly stated, “survival of the fittest.” But for those who have cared to look closer, deeply cooperative relationships emerge as the dominant natural paradigm. In her latest book, Sweet in Tooth and Claw, best-selling author Kristin Ohlson captures stories of generosity in nature and profiles the people who learn from them, from trees and mushrooms to beavers, bees and more. And in recognizing cooperative interdependency as the natural order, Ohlson sketches a path of balance humans must walk in order to navigate the climate crisis.
The following excerpts are from the preface and from Chapter Four of Sweet in Tooth and Claw, published by Patagonia and available in the fall of 2022.
Listen to an Excerpt from the Preface
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 forebears 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, or 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 Suzanne 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 raccoon 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, 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.”
Listen to an Excerpt of Chapter 4: “Transforming Deserts into Wetlands”
The original 1980 photo had been taken as part of an interagency effort beginning in the late 1970s to document the alarming deterioration of area streams that was taking a toll on the native Lahontan cutthroat trout. The photo was one of thousands taken along about 1,000 miles and more than 150 streams in the Elko District, including Maggie Creek and Susie Creek watersheds, in addition to measurements of factors like stream depth, width, temperature, and the amount of vegetation on the banks and their stability. [Carol] Evans has been working in and around these streams for over thirty years and was in the process of examining and rephotographing the original sites in the Maggie Creek and Susie Creek watersheds to document the great change that’s taking place. She herself had been the source of the waves cruising toward the ladder as she slogged around the creek in her waders a few weeks before we met in early October 2017, trying to get as close to the original spot as she could without going under.
Aside from the ladder, this was a beauty shot, with an abundance of water and willows, sedges, cattails, and other riparian vegetation hugging the creek banks. A spine of high-desert hills arched in the background. Then Evans flipped through the hundreds of photo files on her laptop to show me the photo from thirty-seven years ago. In October 1980, this site—the Maggie Creek Stream Survey Station S-9, just north of Carlin, Nevada—was all about desert. The only vegetation in the photo was sagebrush and rabbitbrush, upland shrubs that were far from the stream and laden with dust. There was no riparian vegetation at all, and the ground surrounding the narrow creek was as desiccated and yellow as the distant hills. In this older photo, a mustachioed young man stood in the exact same spot as Evans’s ladder—back then it was dry land—holding out a large card with information about the site’s location, with a mark indicating that the photographer was looking upstream. This was before GPS and geo-referenced cameras, Evans says, so these cards and the people holding them are a relic of the past—one that she often finds hilarious, as some of the young people holding signs sported bell-bottoms and other bygone fashions, and sometimes, in hot weather, didn’t wear much at all. Evans has taken to collaging images of extra clothes on them when she uses these old photos for public presentations. But in October 1980, this guy was warmly dressed, his completely unnecessary waders gaping away from his khakied hips.
I came to see Evans because this transformation from desert to wetland is taking place all over northeastern Nevada—and she’s been involved since the beginning. Restoration ecologist Jim Laurie, a founder of Biodiversity for a Livable Climate, had told me that Evans and a group of bold thinker-doers—ranchers, other agency people, and scientists—have shown that it’s possible to rehydrate the American West. “For hundreds and hundreds of years, water has been draining off the continents,” he told me in a brief phone call. “Humans keep wrecking everything that nature does to slow down water and keep it on the land, and the continents are desiccating.” Carol and this group, he said, were working to reverse that.
Rehydrate the American West? This piqued my interest immediately, since I grew up in California’s Sacramento Valley and experienced what I considered its utterly unappealing dryness firsthand. I loved to run around barefoot as a child but had to be careful. The pavement in summer was so hot it burned my feet. The wild grasses dried into tiny lacerating spears; if I stepped into them, my mother would be at my feet with tweezers and a needle, its tip still hot and black from being held to a flame. I don’t recall there being any of the wildfires so prevalent in the West now, but the fathers in our neighborhood always took steps to forestall them; at some point after the grasses dried out, they’d conduct a controlled burn along the streets, armed with garden hoses and gunnysacks to remove the fuel from a flicked cigarette or other incendiary. We drove frequently from our house in Oroville to Lake Tahoe, and I was always eager for the landmark that told me we weren’t far from the lake: a sign with a picture of Smokey Bear and a rating of the level of fire danger that day.
Rehydrate the West? It seemed to me that it had always been dry.
But recent memory—including my only somewhat recent memories of growing up in the 1950s—can be misleading. White settlers heading for California in the mid-1800s passed through the Elko area, and their written records indicate a rough landscape ribboned with lush creeks and wetlands. I grew up fascinated by the story of the ill-fated Donner Party, about half of whom died of starvation and exposure in the Sierra Nevada mountains in 1846. My family often drove over Donner Pass toward Lake Tahoe in the winter; as our car slid on the icy highway, despite my father’s inexpertly applied snow chains, I feared our bones would wind up resting on top of theirs. The Donners and members of their wagon train passed through these lands that Carol Evans has been documenting, arriving after a scoundrel land speculator named Hastings directed them along a so-called shortcut that added weeks of bitter struggle to their trip. They staggered away from the Hastings Cutoff into a broad valley watered by creeks jumping with fish.
Where the Donner Party emerged from the cutoff, a rancher named Jon Griggs now manages the Maggie Creek Ranch for a nonresident family. Like the Maggie Creek Stream Survey Station S-9, the creeks on Griggs’s land have transitioned from bare-banked trickles that dried up in some places in the middle of the summer to active streams well clothed with riparian vegetation and a more consistent, steady flow throughout the year.
Recent memory had Griggs fooled, too. He came as a cowboy to the Maggie Creek Ranch in 1991, when the then-ranch manager had already started working with Carol Evans on some of the changes that would lead to the transformations she’s now documenting. Griggs didn’t quite get the fuss about these creeks because he assumed that it was normal in these parts for them to be bare of vegetation and to dry up in the summer, to cut so deeply into the valley soil that they trickled along at the bottom of gullies. Then he read a memoir of Nevada ranching life in the early 1900s called A Long Dust on the Desert. The author recalls talking to an older rancher who arrived in the area in the 1860s who told him that the creeks once flowed on top of the land, not in gullies, and that they often overflowed and provided great pasture for the cattle.
“That’s a powerful piece of intelligence,” Griggs told an audience at one of Jim Laurie’s conferences. “The creeks used to run on top of the ground. That told me why we should be doing this.”