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Deep Eco-Psychology, Non-Violent Activism, and Science

A new book by Michael Tobias calls for a renaissance of virtue

Dancing Star Foundation president on deep eco-psychology, non-violent activism, and science

A new and wide-ranging work titled Codex Orféo by noted author, ecologist, and filmmaker Michael Tobias, is all about the continued and unrelenting intrusions into the lives of human and nonhuman animals (animals). Readers of Psychology Today will find much of interest in this expansive novel that blends in solid science with fast moving fiction.

With permission of Michael Tobias
Source: With permission of Michael Tobias

The book's description reads as follows:

Explore shattering ethical, political and practical quagmires in this gripping ecological thriller. A tense plot deals with devastating scientific, secret intelligence and geopolitical issues.

“You alright, Professor?” Mal asked in a whisper.
“Yeah, I’ll be alright.”

World renowned ecologist, UCLA Professor David Lev, aged 84, has just begun a contemporary odyssey. From delivering a plenary address on climate change at the Rio+20 UN Summit, he must prevail on a journey through sub-zero hurricane-force gales, impenetrable bogs and twelve foot drifts of ice in the forests of Belarus. Along the way, Lev’s journey directs us to consider such profound questions as: Are we our Brother’s Keeper? What are the ethical limits of science? And, finally, at what price, glory?

It is not only Lev’s story that is the key to this page-turner but also an account from the days of World War II and the Holocaust, which hinges on survival. A constellation of richly nuanced, deeply drawn characters whose enmeshed lives and unique circumstances speak with resonance, melancholy, inspiration and unrelenting drama are all part of this complex and thought-provoking novel – including cutting-edge biochemist Dr. Taman Chernichevsky. What has he discovered?

I was most fortunate to conduct an interview with Dr. Tobias in which he asks, "Are we a demonic, suicidal species? Can good conquer evil? And if so, when will that renaissance of virtue occur?" He also notes, "This is truly 'psychology today.'”

MB: Why did you write Codex Orféo and what is deep eco-psychology?

MT: We often speak of “deep ecology,” but this is also Deep Eco-Psychology: how the environment can remind us of, and help mend, mental and psychic wounds. The story has been brewing in my mind for many, many decades. It was galvanized in the magical forests of Eastern Europe, particularly in those expressly “scientific” areas with rare access allowed. But these same portions of Europe’s last “Pleistocene Island” had been the site of countless horrors over the centuries, mingling memories of life and of death. Searching the hallowed grounds of what remains one of the most biologically rich region on the European continent (a site of much rewilding and ecological corridor discussion amongst scientists) aroused in me a deeply mixed response to its living, intricate beauties as well as its tragic past, the slaughter of so many members of my own family, and the families of so many other Jewish communities across Europe. Jews and many others. These forests are like a massive, living brain, psychologically containing the memories of so many souls; of that complex psychic phenomenon that is human nature at its most desperate hours. Within this neural complex of living connections lies buried the majesty of lives lost, unknown graves of those unimaginable times of terror from World War II, and before. And throughout it all are the interdependent liana, woodpeckers, wild boars, the largest concentrated assemblage of fungal species within temperate deciduous forest biomes anywhere in the world, with one of the last wild populations of Wisent roaming these enigmatic shadows. Swamps teeming with ticks that can prove fatal to humans and, in winter, outrageous blizzard conditions, freakish micro-climates.

Misty Forest Creek sunset in Belarus; With permission of Michael Tobias
Source: Misty Forest Creek sunset in Belarus; With permission of Michael Tobias

MB: Can you elaborate on your phrase “deep eco-psychology”?

MT: Any rational human being is horrified and existentially baffled by the reality of the Holocaust meted out by the Nazis, by the majority of Germans throughout the 1930s and World War II; and by the countless countries, communities and individuals who collaborated with the vast constellation of Hitler’s monsters in the gruesome murder of well over 60% of European Jewry. Codex Orféo reminds us that the root of that insanity is continuing in the form of contemporary Holocausts against other species, with equally systematic, atrocious and inexplicable madness. I find that fact of humanity so unbearable as to make life itself a fundamental question mark. Are we a demonic, suicidal species? Can good conquer evil? And if so, when will that renaissance of virtue occur? This is truly “psychology today."

This new novel fictionalizes a contemporary odyssey on the part of an elder statesman of global ecology from the U.S., and a fellow mycologist from Belarus who is a leading biologist and chemist. The Belarusian is immersed in mushrooms and their chemical impact on root structures in forests – and he works right smack in the middle of a lost portion of the forest that was the site of countless human massacres emblematic of those that occurred across the geography of World War II. There are flashbacks to those nightmares. Both men are in grave jeopardy. They are being followed by satellite, by trackers, by corporations and governments that want their research. And the fast-moving story conjures up not just those who are lost, but all the Others who are still with us. This fiction translates the unprecedented Evil into a modern setting that I suspect few people will be prepared for.

It is a “thriller” because, as the English etymology of the word connotes “to pierce” – facts, circumstances, the emotional convolutions of key characters in the novel, uncanny as well as horrible luck, all combine to make this a shattering experience that “pierces” the heart and the mind, and will fully resonate with today’s readers. A dizzying journey that hinges upon deeply sinister geopolitical ticking-clocks and scientific time-bombs.

MB: What are some of your major messages of Codex Orféo?

MT: The same Holocaust-syndrome continues. It is difficult to speak to the crucial “key” in this novel, without giving away too much. But I will tell you that Codex Orféo looks at the ecology and psychology of human violence. Its epicenter is the geography of the Holocaust, and it considers, as a major victim of the drama, the human victims, but also the myriad creatures of the forests of Eastern Europe. Consider the images in the book – 14, starting with the cover photograph – and in particular, that of a Wisent, a European bison, related to the American bison, but larger, far less tameable, a mammal that refuses to hybridize with cattle, and that went extinct in the wild as of 1927, only to be reintroduced to certain national parks and reserves. This extraordinary Being, with whom I have had the great privilege of communing, is central to the novel’s message; a poignant icon of wilderness and of survival. Your readers are in for a surprise.

This is a novel from one of the world’s leading scientific (non-fiction) publishing houses. Which means that science, herein, blends with fiction. There are huge scientific implications of this story; bewildering discoveries of the rhizosphere, soil, bacteriology, climate change, punctuated evolution, biosemiotics (interspecies communications) – anomalies that are truly astonishing. This realm explodes upon some key characters who quite literally are holding on to the future by their fingertips. It’s a survival epic lodged within burning ethical conundrums that we all must confront every day. In essence, the Holocaust is very much part of our contemporary lives. It is being replicated in nearly everything we do. Most people prefer to ignore it. Talk around it. Isolate it into some anomalous horror story that is called World War II. It erupts in various daily quadrants – civil wars, gun violence, a proliferation of quotidian human tragedies, as just happened in Nice, France. But surely our past is not a prelude to tomorrow? Yet, most people are utterly conditioned to expediencies, blinders, mindsets, distractions that obfuscate a massive truth of what humanity is doing to the Earth. And we are doing it as we speak.

MB: How does Codex Orféo reflect your life's mission?

MT: Non-violent ecological activism, scientific research and art are pillars of my experience. But I am also a story-teller. I merge science, and my passion for literature whenever possible if it helps me to wrestle demons, and to more effectively communicate what I believe to be most important to our lives. As an ecologist I am hard-pressed to grapple with “opinions” or untested hypotheses, sightings, my own encounter in the Himalayas with a "yeti" nearly forty years ago on a Himalayan first ascent. When you ask about “mission” it is easy to reference a “mission statement” which, in my case, is the quest, however Quixotic, at times, to sensitize everyone I am in contact with to the miracle of life on Earth, and our sacred responsibilities to preserve, protect and revere biodiversity, at every possible juncture of our days and nights. We have very little time. That said, we have enough time to be kind, generous, virtuous, loving – towards everyone. And by everyone, I mean everyone. Individuals of every species.

In the case of this novel, Codex Orféo, it stems from hundreds of pages of handwritten notes I took down in conversations with my late maternal Grandmother, Dora, who lost most of her family and immediate loved ones during the turbulent years of the Pogroms, World War I and the Holocaust. And then it combines my own biological and aesthetic research in the forests of Eastern Europe. Visiting war memorials, museums and libraries in many countries and discovering heretofore unknown burial sites in very rugged places. This story took me nearly half-a-century before I was ready to enshrine it. As part of my ecological field research, it turned my life upside down and provided me the requisite set of metaphors with which to convey the parallels between the Holocaust and modern-day human experience. A time that we know to be the height of the Anthropocene Epoch, the Sixth Extinction Spasm in the annals of biology. We are living in the midst of the worst Holocaust in 66 million years. What happened to the many millions of Jews (and readers might want to look up the unimaginable basics, and I would refer them to three thorough websites: the Jewish Virtual Library, the Simon Wiesenthal Center Multimedia Learning Center, and the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow) is indicative at an excruciating level of what we are doing to nearly three trillion vertebrates, and approximately 16 million populations of organisms every year: slaughtering them. At this rate, the biological world, and humanity as we know it, will cease to exist. Will humanity go extinct? That is the question. Shakespeare's Hamlet certainly asked it.

This is why Codex Orféo is important, and key to my “mission” as you called it: I want to see life survive. That singular volition constitutes a page-turner, if anything.

MB: You are prolific and many of your books express a worldview in the form of a novel, rather than a scientific treatise. Why do you choose this way to communicate with a wide audience?

MT: I write both, as you know, dozens of ecological and social scientific and historical works, dozens of novels. It’s hard to describe a novel that grapples with the horrors of World War II as anything but grueling. But Codex Orféo is somehow…well, I hope, riveting for readers. Deeply provocative. Cinematic in a nearly surreal sense. Opinions fly. Issues of science are relegated to the emotions and the gut where intuition becomes empirical. History is firm and implacable, but the “actors” in this novel, and their utterly outrageous, original and mind-bending circumstances come at us without warning. You just cannot imagine what is going to happen on the next page. The title of this novel harkens back to one of the darkest hours in human allegorical and mythological storytelling. But also – in the case of Claudio’s Monteverdi’s first opera (1607), to one of the most thoroughly harmonious and musically groundbreaking events in human history.

And, of course, as a character who plays music for other species – and listens to their music – Ovid’s Orpheus, and his beloved Eurydice, from Book Ten of Ovid’s astonishing Metamorphoses, is a crucial biotic component woven into the story. Not to mention the whole history of illustrations of Ovid’s masterpiece, which were thematically reinvented by Renaissance visions of Arcadia, and the myriad translations of Aesop’s Fables and The Phaedrus.

MB: What do you tell youngsters about hope for the future?

MT: The Holocaust most assuredly challenges any and all faith in God. Faith in humanity. Faith in nature. Faith in the future. I don’t “tell” young people anything. I ask them to consider many things, particularly, their assumptions regarding their natural obligations to be loving towards all living beings. Many of my works – both literary and film – are fictional, like Codex Orféo. And that’s because the genre has always allowed me to suggest things that are opinions, spiritual impulses and intuitions, not necessarily provable. Emotions are critical. Poetry, song, stories, art, our reverence for nature, are key to our survival as a species, and to the survival of all species, I believe. You can’t always extract such emphatic hunches and activist stances from a scientific maxim or mathematical axiom.

MB: What are some of your current and future projects?

MT: As you know, I am the President of an international ecological NGO, the Dancing Star Foundation, and have been for nearly two decades, along with my wife and partner, Jane Gray Morrison. Our work is 24/7, as it is with any committed ecologists, conservation biologists and animal rights activists. We have scores of partners and projects in many countries. But sometimes, late at night, I also write novels, plays, films, librettos, etc. Jane and I are just now wrapping up a new non-fiction book on anthrozoology (a book about interspecies communications and co-evolution), also for the publisher of Codex Orféo, Springer Science+Business Media, which also published our anthologized work, Why Life Matters: Fifty Ecosystems of the Heart and Mind (2014), which, of course, greatly benefits from a wonderful interview with you about compassionate conservation. In addition, just recently, Zorba Press brought out my magnum opus, if you will, in paperback and as an eBook: The Adventures of Mr. Marigold (for a review of this book and conversation with Dr. Tobias please see "The Psychology of 'Saving the World' in the Anthropocene"). That was quite a task for the Ithaca New York-based publisher, Michael Pastore (Zorba Press), considering the first (2005) edition was 1,836 pages. That work is also being turned into a Utopian stage piece, a symphonic opera or musical. There are many other books and films and works for the stage coming up.

MB: Is there anything else you'd like to tell readers?

MT: Codex Orféo is something you won’t see coming at you, but it does. It’s all about kindness to other species, and to one another. If we can work that out, the world will take care of herself.

MB: I highly recommend Codex Orféo. But be prepared! What awaits the reader is a riveting literary expedition. Solid science, animal behavior, conservation biology, and human psychology all within a fictional odyssey by a very wise scientist. It's an unrelenting and powerful drama, the result of which we can all hope will be a true renaissance of virtue.

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). The Animals' Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age (with Jessica Pierce) will be published in early 2017. (Homepage:; @MarcBekoff)

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