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Sweet in Tooth and Claw

Nature is more cooperative than we think.

Key points

  • Mutualism, the theme of the compelling book, "Sweet in Tooth and Claw," offers hope for a threatened planet.
  • Those plants and animals that are allowed to live as an empathetic community—you help me, I’ll help you—are the ones who thrive.
  • And it’s not just one species that ends up the victor; it’s all of us.
Approved for use for promotion by Patagonia Works
Source: Approved for use for promotion by Patagonia Works

Charles Darwin’s theory of "survival of the fittest" introduced a competitive mindset about nature—the strongest survive at the expense of the weak. In Sweet in Tooth and Claw: Nature Is More Cooperative Than We Think, author Kristin Ohlson offers a different model, one of mutual support. Those plants and animals that are allowed to live in a spirit of mutualism—you help me, I’ll help you—are the ones who thrive. And it’s not just one species that ends up the victor; it’s all of us.

The title is a counterpoint to Tennyson’s famous poem, “In Memoriam A.H.H.,” in which he rails against “Nature, red in tooth and claw,” of battles and brutality in the natural world. This mindset, Ohlson writes, creates a “zero-sum 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.”

What if we embraced the natural world and its own messy, life-sustaining patterns? What if we considered nature sweet rather than vicious? What if nicely mowed lawns and neat rows of corn were viewed as the problem rather than the ideal?

Did Darwin Change His Mind?

Ohlson says we might be misinterpreting Darwin’s insights and missing his emphasis on the generosity and cooperation shown by plants and animals. She notes that, in his later writings, he said that “communities with the greatest number of the most sympathetic members would flourish best and rear the greatest number of offspring.”

Mutualism, the theme of this broad and well-researched book, offers hope in an era of climate risk. Ohlson shows us a world high on sympathy, empathy, and support. Also on weeds, bugs, and bacteria.

Author of The Soil Will Save Us, Ohlson begins with a deep dive into forests, in which an underground layer of fungi, if left undisturbed, can channel water from wet areas to thirsty trees. It’s a community where mighty Douglas firs thrive in a diverse system with deciduous trees, bushes, and rotting trunks. This especially resonated with me, as we’ve been trying to help regenerate a burned forest in Southern Colorado. Instead, we might have just left it alone for 10 years, as one of Ohlson’s experts suggests, then come back to find that nature has repaired things herself. It’s been nine years since the fire, and seedlings are finally returning. Meanwhile, locust bushes, which we initially considered invasive plants, have been providing nitrogen as a natural fertilizer. Many of the bushes are dying down as trees take over, part of the natural order Ohlson outlines. The trees we’ve planted are generally healthy, so we did contribute a bit, but it looks like Mom Nature was on the job in a big, and clever, way.

Babies Thrive on Bacteria

The human body is much like a forest, with thousands of different forms of bacteria running our internal ecosystem. Without bacteria, Ohlson says, “life would not exist.” Our immune system, she reminds us, consists of good bacteria fighting for us, maintaining our biological system of hardworking microorganisms. For example, babies born naturally, coming through the birth canal with its multiple “germs,” including Mom’s feces, form a healthy shield of inoculation. As the child grows, playing with dirt helps sustain the bacteria that keep their growing systems working smoothly. Keeping healthy babes in a sterile environment weakens their natural defenses.

Regenerative Agriculture Saves Soil and Money

Ohlson writes extensively about regenerative agriculture, in which nitrogen-rich plants feed those in need, others soak up carbon, and cover crops protect the soil and reduce flooding. Most important, in many cases, farmers come out ahead because natural compost and low-tillage practices save them the enormous costs of fertilizers—in large farms, an investment in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, much of which drains away and pollutes streams and rivers.

If we keep carbon in the soil, our plants and our planets are both healthier.

Saving the soil can naturally sequester carbon and could be a major factor in reducing global warming and cleaning up our waterways. Erosion from agriculture in the United States, she writes, costs us $44 billion a year. We lose a pound of topsoil for every pound harvested in Iowa. We lose two to three pounds for every pound of soybeans.

A Perspective of Hope

Published by Patagonia, this is a gorgeous book, full of color photos of natural systems, some that are working, some that have been dangerously changed—a lush rebuilt waterway in Nevada that replaced an arid landscape; sheep chomping on weeds, then fertilizing a California orchard; tiny Peruvian tomatoes that can be used to develop new varieties; parts of the Amazon rain forest destroyed for agriculture.

Readers who loved The Overstory and Braiding Sweetgrass will see some familiar names and themes here. The book is solidly researched, enjoyable to read, and packed with innovation and hope for the future of humans and the planet.

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