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The Psychology of "Saving the World" in the Anthropocene

A conversation with M. C. Tobias, author of "The Adventures of Mr. Marigold"

A new edition of a profound and mirthful novel called The Adventures of Mr Marigold by Dr. Michael Charles Tobias is what I like to call "a tome for our times." But, it really is much more. The book's description tells us why this is so, and below is a conversation I was most fortunate to have with Dr. Tobias (you can read another interview I did with Dr. Tobias here). The description reads:

Michael Charles Tobias — in this colossal comic novel of 625,000 words — has given us a masterpiece of insight about our lives and troubled times. Through his idealistic hero Murillo Marigold and his earthy sidekick Sannazaro, Tobias meditates on everything that matters: poetry, art, philosophy, alternative technologies, environmentalism, human wrongs, animal rights, sustainable living, and utopias future and past. And what style! Passage after passage of inspired prose, from a mind on fire that sees every moment and encounter as hilarious, holy, and unique. The heart of the book is the author’s deeply personal sublime vision: the sacredness of all living beings, the reverence for life, the passionate commitment to social and environmental change. This enormous, challenging beatific vision that reminds us who we are — and points the way to what the new world could one day be — makes Mr Marigold a modern classic, at once entertaining, nourishing, revolutionary, and profoundly wise.

Our free-flowing conversation went as follows:

MB: Why did you write The Adventures of Mr. Marigold and can you please give us a summary of this magnificent historical and futuristic tome?

MT: Marc, The Adventures of Mr. Marigold is first and foremost about saving animals. Imagine a middle-aged hermit living somewhere in northern New Mexico in his moth-eaten pajamas who rarely leaves the dusty confines of his book-infested interiors (think of that legendary image by Gustave Doré of Don Quixote in his study). The novel took over thirty years to write and was first published in hardback in New Zealand in 2005 by Craig Potton Publishers. The two new beautiful paperback and Kindle editions in Ithaca, NY (and its assiduous chief publisher, Michael Pastore) also marks the 400th anniversary year of the publication of both Parts One and Two of Cervantes’ Don Quixote, which is rather fitting given the subject matter of my Mr. Marigold.

MB; Can you please explain?

MT: Well, this quixotic epic – while focusing on the remarkable history of the main characters – Marigold, his neighbor, Sannazaro, and a young Jain orphan, Rajibai – is very much in the genre of what I would characterize as a Bildungsroman, with elements of a capricious Chaucer, an idealistic series of tragicomic expeditions as the history of literature has enjoyed and pondered in such figures as Cervantes himself and Lazarillo de Tormes, but also Parzival and Candide. In the case of my protagonist, Mr. Marigold, his wildly insane flurry of ethological adventures commences in weary midlife when he is informed that he has become one of the wealthiest individuals on the planet.

MB: How does that work?

MT: The back-story empowering that windfall encompasses the whole history of New Spain and the origins of New Mexico – hilarious and, in part, based on my wife’s own amazing true family history - but – most importantly – it deals with animal cognition, emotion, interspecies communications and a spiritual revolution.

MB: A revolution?

MT; And not just in theory, or political posturing. This sweeping tale embodies a simple question: What would you do to save animals and habitat if you had all the money in the world? How could the signing of one check after another (for massive amounts – hundreds-of-millions of dollars without the least hesitation) do anything to arrest the Holocaust-like syndromes inherent to the geopolitical and economic systems of our time that are resulting in the cold calculus of slaughter of trillions of terrestrial, riparian and marine vertebrates and invertebrates for human consumption every year? Is any amount of money enough to disintegrate the systemic violence in human nature? That is the absorbing gist of the existential crises the naïve, innocent optimist who is Mr. Marigold and company, must confront as they attempt to resurrect one (doomed) Utopia after another – from the Antarctic to Tibet; from animal markets in China to the myriad pathways of slaughter across India, America, West Africa…everywhere.

MB: You invoke Don Quixote. How does that actually play out in your Adventures of Mr. Marigold?

MT: The novel addresses this awesome and insane phenomenon – the financial windfall and acompanying wildly quixotic aspirations to save the world. And at every moment of opportunity, Mr. Marigold and his Sancho Panza-like sidekick, the elderly gardener and hypochondriac, Sannazaro (named appropriately after the great early 16th century Italian poet), are knocked down by the windmills of a complex modernity. With so much money, and such high hopes, they are confounded by a bewildering labyrinth of choices; of seizing upon a plethora of priorities amid a rash of ecological imperatives. Which sub-species of elephant to focus on saving in Africa? What about the rabbits of Hong Kong, all the tens-of-millions of oppressed burros, the millions of laboratory animals tortured and destroyed, malaria vectors, the disappearing Amazon, melting glaciers in the Himalayas, the loss of coral reefs, alternative energy, the human population explosion, and so on. Where do you start? Is there ever an end?

MB: Impossible adventures, in other words. It takes more than money.

MT: Well, yes, and no. There are some data to suggest how much it would cost, for example, to save a particular critically endangered species. But these are ephemeral numbers that vary from decade to decade and from one political administration to the next. Meanwhile, human nature requires a kick-start if it is to embrace that anthrozoological renaissance we’ve all been talking about ever since (one hopes) the demise of Cartesian mechanistic thinking. So, in my book, the story hinges upon a lot of data that are half-absorbed by this reluctant Renaissance style dreamer whose heart is totally pure, but he is not necessarily the most practical fellow around. In short, all the money in the world proves to be an illusion, even a curse. The entire story occurs largely at the turn of the millennium, the year 2000, and engages more than one hundred characters and is set in over two-dozen countries. There are a few flashbacks (including to December 31st, 999 at St. Peter’s Square in Rome when it was believed the world was coming to an end) but for the most part this is a sweeping tale of the Now, and the issues acutely choreographed all concern what it is going to take to literally save the biosphere from ourselves.

MB: Why did you choose this name?

MT: His full name, Murillo Marigold, stems from a contagion of European ancestry that is a complex of affiliations, etymologies, languages and long-lost family dynasties that all culminate in this lone individual totally out of sorts in the 21st century. A literary hermit who suddenly is overwhelmed by the religion of ecology and animal liberation, and tens-of- billions of dollars, to boot.

MB: What are the major take-home messages on which you'd like readers to focus?

MT: I hope readers will recognize that each of us can make a difference in the world to save animals, plants, habitat in general; but we have to act now, and be decisive. Decision-making is an art form that requires great science and deliberation, but equally open-mindedness (or “mindfulness” as so many spiritual traditions have regarded it); great heart, experience outdoors, amongst our fellow beings, and ultimately, ethical convictions oriented towards what I term, in a new book my wife Jane Gray Morrison and I are finishing just now, the “biosemiosphere.” A world in which every life form is sending us an urgent telegram, and we better read each and every one of them. And then make wise and compassionate choices accordingly. We don’t have much time, Marc.

MB: Is there hope for us in the anthropocene?

MT: I don’t know. We must do our best to inhibit the worst consequences of the Anthropocene Epoch. We have unleashed a disaster of, yes, geological proportions. The 6th extinction spasm in the annals of biology. If I did know the answer to your question, believe me, I’d be the first to say “yes”.

MB: What else would you like people to know about this book?

MT: Don’t be daunted by the novel’s size. One chapter at a time. It is a vast and complicated story, much of it tragic, but always centered in the comedic poignancy of its characters who embody human nature and human potential in all of their wondrous guises. Our history and evolution do not condemn or liberate us. Only our choices can do that. Choices of huge consequence are made throughout this novel, which keeps it utterly unpredictable. A wink, a grimace, but always another wink. In the end, The Adventures of Mr. Marigold is most assuredly celebratory.

MB: What are you working on now?

MT: As for nearly two decades, running a Foundation, teaching here and there, and writing, always writing. I have a new novel coming out in two months from Springer Science Publishers, Codex Orféo, a very mind-altering glimpse into a rarely discussed aspect of the Holocaust. It also focuses intensely on the ecosystems of eastern Europe. In addition, as mentioned above, Jane and I are finishing a new non-fiction work on anthrozoology and the anthropocene, due out probably early next year, also from Springer Science Publishers. It looks deeply into interspecies communications and the abundance of new scientific data supporting an entirely revolutionary paradigm, which is also at the heart of The Adventures of Mr. Marigold. I would also mention that Marigold is being turned into a “utopian opera” the music for which has been completed by the Grammy and Emmy Awards-winning musicians, Allan Jay Friedman and Jeff Silbar.

The Adventures of Mr. Marigold is a long, detailed, and wide-ranging book. I agree with Dr. Tobias -- read one chapter at a time -- and think deeply about what you've just read. When you're done, it'll all come together into a very succinct message -- that there is hope, but things will not get better unless we pay very close attention to who we are and what we do as big-brained invasive mammals living on and systematically and relentlessly destroying a magnificent but fragile planet -- and that the novel really is celebratory. I might add "cautiously celebratory," because there is a lot of work to be done, right now, by all of us, so that the future will be one that will be celebratory for our children and theirs. As Dr. Tobias writes, "I hope readers will recognize that each of us can make a difference in the world to save animals, plants, habitat in general; but we have to act now, and be decisive."

The teaser image is called "The Earth at night, a composited night-time image of the world during the Anthropocene." We really are all over the place.

Marc Bekoff's latest books are Jasper's Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson), Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation, Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation, Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence, and The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson). (Homepage:; @MarcBekoff)

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