It feels like for a long time, the Western view of nature was through a lens of competition. I remember growing up in school and reading about the survival of the fittest and natural selection. That was how I was meant to understand nature. And it seems that—in part due to your work—there has been a shift towards seeing collaboration, too. I love that you say it’s not either or; it’s both. Can you expand on that idea a little bit?
Trees and forests are as complex and sophisticated as our human societies are. They have many ways of interacting and communicating with each other. It’s not just one thing, and thank goodness! Otherwise, they would get into a lot of trouble really fast. It’s just as in a human society: If we were all competing with each other, there’d be nobody left standing at the end, right? It would be one dominant individual, and everybody else would be subservient. And so, it just doesn’t work. It makes more sense that we have these multiple ways of behaving towards each other. It creates a sophisticated, resilient, strong society. Same in forests. There’s a plethora of ways that trees interact with each other. They do compete, but it’s just one of several ways that they interact.
The idea of competition, as you so rightly said, really took off when Darwin was talking about survival of the fittest. Competition is what helps select for the fittest, but even Darwin knew that wasn’t the whole story. Even Darwin knew collaboration was important. Scientists tend to—when they see something that explains a lot of variation in phenomena, they latch onto it and say, “Oh, this is it.” Right? And then, that became the dominant way of looking at all kinds of phenomena in nature and how we manage it. So, in forests, we’ve managed competition for years. We get rid of the plants that we think are competing with the crops that we want at the expense of all the other plants, thinking that if we can take away the competition from the crop, then we can get all those resources into this crop tree. The same in agriculture. We put a lot of effort into fertilizing and cultivating the fastest growing corn plants and getting rid of the weeds.
So, that idea really took off, not just in how we saw evolution but in how we managed ecology. And when you get hung up on a single idea like that—and I’m sure it was not Darwin’s intention to make us so singularly focused—you make all kinds of mistakes, because nature is multifaceted. If you just look at one facet and just manage for that single facet, all those other things start to fall apart that actually make that ecosystem or that society whole and strong. And so, we’ve made a lot of mistakes. We’re still making a lot of mistakes. It still has not changed. We’ve started understanding that collaboration is now just as important or maybe even more common in nature than competition.
In the book, you ask the question: “What am I, if I don’t give back?” That speaks to what can be viewed as, in many ways, the deeper existential question at the heart of the climate crisis and the ecological crisis, which is: Who are we as a species? And what role do we want to play in the larger ecosystem that we’re all a part of? I really loved that you brought this theme in at the end, this notion of how science and spirituality have been separated for so long. I’m curious how that has evolved for you, especially having such a scientific background.
We all come from a place of spirit, right? We think of ourselves as these physical beings, but it’s really our spirits that are the most important. And even our physical beings are hard to define in a lot of ways, because we’re collaborative. Even our bodies are a collaborative consortium of different organisms. And our ideas are a collaboration of all the thoughts among our community and our peers. That’s where spirit lies: in our community and our caring for each other, our love of nature and where we come from. And so, when I started working in the forest industry, that was all stripped out of it. Science, that’s all stripped out of it. If you mentioned spirit alongside science in natural resources or in my field, it’s like, “Oh, how could you do that? That’s terrible.”
How do [trees] perceive what we’re doing to them? I always think that they’ve been waiting so patiently for us to figure things out and have endured so much abuse. And I think, “If only we just listened.” And our First Nations, the aboriginal people—that’s always part of their way of approaching their place in nature. Their epistemology is to listen and respect, and if the forest is not welcoming you or providing you the gifts of its creation, it’s because it’s not well or it needs more time to grow old. If we don’t listen, then we never tap into its spirituality. And that all harkens back to the Western European separation of man from nature, mind from body. And now, it’s deeply, deeply ingrained in science.
One of the consequences of me trying to tap into the spirituality of forests and the intelligence of forests and their perceptions of us is that I get accused of anthropomorphizing a lot, even with the term “mother tree.” And I just think, “You know what? It’s us that’s missing out.” If we are so blinded and so rigid that we can’t even go there to look at our spiritual connection to forests and their spiritual connection to us, then we’re going to continue to screw up, because we are part of nature. We are part of these forests ourselves.