The book I finished last evening was Where the Wild Things Were: Life, Death and Ecological Wreckage in a Land of Vanishing Predators, by William Stolzenburg. It documented many examples of “trophic cascades”—chain reactions initiated by the loss of top predators, spreading throughout the food web and bringing down entire ecosystems. It’s very scary stuff.
For instance, when we eradicated the deer’s predators we created a cascade leading to the loss of countless other species in those habitats: songbirds, bears, orchids, trillium lilies, cedars, whole forests…. In many places which have been studied, up to 80% of species have been lost due to the overpopulation of deer. What remains is a severely altered and dying ecosystem—only the ‘deer-proof’ species, like “poisonous snakeroot and stinging nettles”, can survive at ground level. And the density of deer is also responsible for the epidemic of Lyme disease in the human population.
One of the most interesting parts of the book concerned the reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone. The whole ecosystem had been disturbed once wolves were eradicated in the 1920s. The elk population skyrocketed, causing massive damage to the ecosystem. No new groves of aspen, willow, or cottonwood had been able to spring up in seventy years—any new shoots would immediately be grazed. Riverbanks were eroding with no vegetation to hold them in place. Bird habitat was destroyed, beavers were driven away. But once the wolves were re-introduced all of that began to change. The willows began to spring up in lush thickets along the river, surprisingly quickly. The number of wolves seemed too low to account for such a rapid rebound—they just weren’t killing enough elk yet to have that kind of impact on the vegetation.
What the researchers figured out is the most interesting part of the whole book. The willows were coming back because of fear. When the elk had no enemies they browsed indiscriminately, everywhere. Once they had an enemy again their old survival instincts reawakened. They recognized certain types of terrain to be dangerous and thus began avoiding them. Mostly these places were river bottoms, stream courses, or other incongruities in the land that would cause them to slow down during a chase. A wolf, who is so much lighter and more agile than an elk, doesn’t need to slow down nearly as much to accommodate changing terrain and can catch up with an elk more readily in such places. So when the fear returned, the willows returned—in river bottoms and other places that posed a hazard to the elk. Once the river bottoms repopulate with willows it’s expected to have a (positively) cascading effect—halting erosion, bringing back songbirds and beavers, fish and amphibians and aquatic insects, etc.
In another part of the book a French ecologist, Jean-Louis Marten, studying an archipelago in which some islands were free of deer and others overrun by them said, “For me it was sort of a major light bulb which came on. Suddenly what I realized working there [is] that carnivores are mainly not animals which eat prey but which change the behavior of prey.”
Fear is the glue that holds the world together, or used to. No critter likes fear, and all creatures seek safety, but only we humans have developed the power to eradicate fear. By wiping out predators we feel safe, yet it is a false sense of safety because it is untenable. Without anything to fear the world falls apart.
We’ve wiped out the predators, thus changing the behavior of vast numbers of species, including ourselves. We need to occupy niches constrained by fear. How can there possibly be hope for us or the planet now that we have the technology to make guns and other extremely efficient weapons of death? Our instinct is to create safety for ourselves, and if easy technology is at our fingertips to do just that, we do it. Eliminate the wolves, the big cats, giant raptors, bears, etc. No need to live in fear. But no fear, no world.
What is fear? Beyond emotion, beyond a chemical response in the body, what is it? It seems to be a necessary part of the metabolism of Gaia, a key regulatory function.
It seems ridiculous to think we could bring back fear to the human population. Not without total societal collapse. That’s what the world desperately needs though. Without it we’re doomed.
When I imagine the world full of predators again, it’s a beautiful world. We would live like the !Kung again, a part of the ecosystem, participating, being both predator and prey, co-evolving.
We humans don’t co-evolve anymore and what does that do to the intelligence of the planet? It dumbs it down. Eventually it will kill the planet.
Imagine if we had fear again. If we had fear we would learn how to be present again. Our powers of direct perception would be honed. Our ecosystems would have natural constraints and limits which we would easily recognize. Our human endeavors would arise from the land, co-expressions of place.
A more bizarre thought wants to come through too. Something about the co-evolution of us and predators. We co-evolve by behaviorally influencing each other and by jointly influencing our environment. My bizarre thought is that maybe by us never being preyed upon anymore, the predators miss out on something vital they need. I’m thinking about the food web and how human bodies are the only bodies largely exempted from passing through the gut of carnivores. It gets to my thoughts about the energy of foods—how I learned that herbs each possess unique energy which changes us when we ingest them and how easy it is to extrapolate that everything we consume, animals included, imparts a unique energy or unique qualities to us. So likewise for the predators—everything they ingest helps to form their identities.
Humans (largely) are no longer ingested by anything other than microbes. It seems intuitively important to me that human bodies inform the bodies of other animals by passing through their gut, and by transforming our flesh into their flesh. I realize no science yet exists to show that this matters—the closest “science” would be the field of nutrition—but I think there’s something here. Each living thing concentrates its own unique interactions with the environment into its flesh—that flesh is consumed and it impacts the consumer. Yes we can reduce it all to calories and fats and proteins and carbohydrates and vitamins and minerals and maybe in an elementary way that’s all it is—but maybe not.
What do we know about what happens in the gut? We know that most of our immune system resides there. Why is that? Our immune system has the job of recognizing and responding appropriately to our environment. I’m sure what it finds passing through the gut can trip epigenetic triggers that turn gene expression on and off. I believe we are profoundly shaped by what we ingest.
Back to the issue of fear again. Fear creates diversity—more niches and more species. An elk-free thicket of willows is a pocket-sized niche—a diminutive ecosystem which evolves its own flora and fauna. Humans on the savannahs of Africa knew to avoid thickets, which might be hiding lions, so those were human-free thickets. What evolved in the thickets was surely different than what evolved in the surrounding open lands where humans modified the environment with their hunting and gathering activities and their mere presence. Diversity is a direct effect of fear.
It seems like humans have never come to terms with physical manifestation and what that entails. By physically manifesting we enter a compact that requires us to participate in the intricate dance of eating and being eaten. Life is a process of energy being transformed by death. We try desperately to opt out of that compact—killing off all the predators so we can’t be eaten and even trying to stave off the microbes as long as possible after death by shooting our corpses full of preservatives. But if we’re here in physical form, that’s the compact. Without it, life isn’t possible.