Issue 3: Ecosystems

In which everything is connected

The Yellowstone river is healthier today than it was in 1995. This is a trend that can be traced to that start date, but shows no current signs of slowing. The wild part about this positive ecological trend (which cuts against so many other ecological trends in the world we could point to) is that we understand pretty well why it’s happening.

In 1995, wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park.

And—quite unexpectedly—the results of wolves once again roaming the park is that the river is healthier. The basic mechanics as described here and in other places are that reintroducing a predator caused the moose to move more and stay out of valleys, which allowed more vegetation to grow (moose are munchers), which allowed beavers to flourish, which reintroduced beaver dams, which in turn created more beaver dams and river restructuring, which meant there were more pools and breaks, which allowed fish to flourish, which introduced more nutrients. These points are just the larger impacts, there’s much more in the details.

Everywhere on earth is an ecosystem; a set of interrelated systems that have evolved into some form of equilibrium. But we (colonizing westerners) created the scientific method to help us carefully understand the world and one of the central concepts of this method is isolation so that we can control variables. A lot of human scientific explorations have thus occurred in settings that missed the forest to try and understand a tree.

There is hope, though. Many have been working (for decades!) to develop fields of study about systems thinking, ecology, and more. There are signs that we can figure out how to consider the broad range of connections that exist between everything that lives.

The below books have all challenged me to think about ecosystems; to notice how a topic is situated in a broader environment; to wrestle with what corrections would be minimal versus what might be done to deeply impact the ecosystem. In the cases where these books address systems that are toxic or declining, I find myself asking what wolves are missing and how do we reintroduce them.

Thinking in Systems

by Donella Meadows

This book is about systems rather than ecosystems but the venn diagram between the two is very broad! Ecosystems, what with the “eco” prefix, are about ecology, while systems exist everywhere and are not necessarily about biological subjects. AND YET, Meadow’s book introduces terminology and concepts that will help you engage with systems thinking more broadly, and understand how to step back and try to see the big picture rather than focusing on a small slice. An incredibly helpful book.

Indiebound link

The Mushroom at the End of the World

by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing

It’s been 3 years since I read this book and still I think of it often, because it taught me so much. I’m still very unclear how to summarize it. Tsing is interested in what life might look like after climate change and capitalism render modern capitalism untenable, and she explores a possible model by examining the Matsutake mushroom economy that exists in the modern world. Matsutake mushrooms are the most valuable mushroom in the world, and they only grow in specific conditions that are extremely resistant to capitalist commodification. So Tsing hypothesizes that we can learn a lot from understanding why they are valuable, where they grow, why they grow in those places, and who and how they are harvested. She is unwilling to make arguments or forecasts based on her research, but that does not mean her research lacks things to teach us.

Indiebound link

White Rage

by Dr. Carol Anderson

I’d love to suggest a list of books that are about growth and “nature” and all the things we might implicitly associate with ecology, but I personally am committed to this newsletter living in the real world. The real world that, frustratingly, has ecologies of hate, violence and injustice. Dr. Anderson’s book is a succinct (only ~160 pages, somehow?) overview of the ways that whiteness—and specifically white anger about any possibility of black people’s progress—has been the defining factor of American history since the end of the Civil war. The ecosystem of whiteness, as evidenced dramatically in 2016, has not be weakened or eradicated and this book is a great overview of the ways it has shaped and may continue to shape America.

Indiebound link

Braiding Sweetgrass

by Robin Wall Kimmerer

Look close. Pay attention to the details. Every living plant and animal on this earth is participating in a broader system, and if we patiently pay attention to that system who knows the possibilities we could unlock; the ways we could find to join in the system.

Kimmerer is an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation as well as an ecologist. She is also one of the best writers about nature I’ve ever encountered: able to to weave together cultural wisdom, scientific training, and an eye for detail and environment into gorgeous prose. I borrowed this book from the library, read 3 essays, returned it, then bought a copy so I could underline the hell out of it. I plan on rereading this book often. If you want to try and more clearly see the world white colonizers have built, this book will give you so many tools.

Indiebound link

Turn This World Inside Out

by Nora Samaran

Everyone knows that toxic masculinity exists, what this book presupposes is, maybe it doesn’t have to? (this sentence was a deeply weird reference to The Royal Tenenbaums, a film I now read mostly as about toxic masculinity, so I apologize if it makes no sense to you) Samaran’s book builds on an essay she wrote arguing for the opposite of rape culture; something like care culture that seeks accountability and harm reduction. But Samaran also does this lovely thing in the book where she interviews people who had written to complicate her argument, and thus she creates a small but wonderful book that puts forth a compelling argument for how we can replace rape culture, and simultaneously prioritizes people who think her argument simplifies the broader systems of violence at play.

Indiebound link

The Memory Police

by Yoko Ogawa

What if things in your world started disappearing? Like, perhaps, toasters. What if some external entity removed toasters, and so you discarded yours and then within a day or two, could not even recall that such a thing had ever existed? This is the central conceit of Ogawa’s The Memory Police and I found it to be a profoundly haunting novel. She asks questions about how we make sense of the world, how we deal with a world that is diminishing, and how we find meaning in an unstable and possibly evil world. All questions that—I find—feel incredibly relevant in this climate crisis the western world has created.

Indiebound link

Happy weekend! I hope these books expand your mind, and help you think about the systems you are enmeshed in and what wolves they might be missing.