What does it mean to collaborate with nature?
In soil regeneration circles, we tend to hear the words ‘nature’ and ‘natural’ quite often. Indeed, The Soil Food Web team selected Collaborating with Nature as our 2023 Soil Summit theme. But what does the term ‘nature’ evoke? Let’s consider how it is defined in the dictionary:
“All the animals, plants, rocks, etc. in the world and all the features, forces, and processes that happen or exist independently of people, such as the weather, the sea, mountains, the production of young animals or plants, and growth.”
Is that a good definition? Is nature fundamentally independent or opposite of human influences? Who wrote that definition, and which cultural viewpoints influenced the outcome? Do humans stand apart from nature? Robin Wall Kimmerer (see podcast) does not agree, as she reflects on the inseparable bonds between humans, land, and all forms of life.
“Like other mindful practices, ecological restoration can be viewed as an act of reciprocity in which humans exercise their caregiving responsibility for the ecosystems that sustain them. We restore the land, and the land restores us”
The emergence of cooperative ecosystems
Wisdom from ancient China, as well as other philosophical traditions, suggests nature is a self-organizing system where the connections between components create a harmonious whole. This idea points toward emergence of complex interactions that transcend the abilities of individual species. Maybe that perspective can challenge humans to reimagine our organizational and social values. But, can humans be an integral part of ecosystems?
As we look across worldviews, we find many indigenous cultures do not detach humans from nature and suggest we have a valuable role to play. Should we reject human-nature dichotomies that mentally detach people from relationships with everything else on our home planet? Maybe with the term ‘collaborating’ we need to emphasize that we’re always in partnership, cooperation, and community with every tree, rock, microorganism, and one another.
Yes, our accumulated knowledge, capacity to collaborate with each other, and technologies do provide unique opportunities for humanity – we can destroy ecosystems, or we can establish a healthy connection with all forms of life around us and facilitate a thriving biosphere.
Wolves can be our teachers
Perhaps we can look to wolves for inspiration. With their many inherent virtues, wolves can act as stewards of their environment. Wolves have seemingly unconscious habits that enhance the functions of their local ecosystems (see Figure 1). In fact, as top predators, wolves shape the behaviors and populations of many other species around them.
Caption: Reintroduction of gray wolves (Canis lupus) in the Yellowstone National Park had a profound impact on multiple species (direct influences shown in green and indirect influences shown in orange); these ecosystem-wide effects of top predators are often referred to as trophic cascades (see Ripple & Beschta, 2012 and Beschta & Ripple, 2019). Notably, wolves directly influence both populations and behavior of coyotes and elk, which each influence numerous other species within their area. For example, elk consume fewer small trees along river banks, resulting in greater plant production and more beaver. Beaver provide habitat to support larger populations of birds, fish, and amphibians. Species eaten by coyotes also increase, as do several species, such as bear and raven that feed on elk carcasses.
Can we be inspired to relate to our environment more like wolves? Like us, wolves have capacities for intelligence and cooperation, yet their ecological interactions tend to create ecosystem resilience rather than overexploitation.
Opportunities for humans to support biodiversity
If we recognize the potency of our influences over our world, what individual and collective responsibilities should guide us? I can’t answer that for everyone. For myself, I’m seeking transformation of my mind and actions, cultivating greater awe and respect for every creature – great and small – and sharing my love for our living planet with anyone who will spare the time.
“Through our eyes, the universe is perceiving itself. Through our ears, the universe is listening to its harmonies. We are the witnesses through which the universe becomes conscious of its glory, of its magnificence”
All of us have the ability to notice, cherish, and help reestablish living systems that self-organize. But are there voices who can lead the conversation about reconnecting human culture to earth’s ecosystems? Though currently reduced to a small percentage of the global human population, indigenous communities are guardians of global biodiversity.
Conversely, the vast majority of our human population extracts resources beyond what planetary systems can sustain. Indeed, due to the substantial accumulated harm that is directly attributed to human activities, we’ve invited speakers to this year’s Soil Summit who will challenge us to rethink our mindsets, as well as our collective social and economic practices.
The conversation continues
If our view of humans within nature leads us to greater disconnection from our membership in a holistic biological community, perhaps now is the time to shift our views. Perhaps we can remind each other to think as ‘co-creators’ with the rest of life, rather than ‘mechanical engineers’ who seek to command and control the world around us.
“But man is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself”
This is only the beginning of the conversation! There’s space in our community for diverse perspectives, so we hope you’ll express and represent your own personal viewpoints, especially during our upcoming Soil Summit. We’ve invited exciting speakers, such as Ash Ritter, Lyla June, and John Liu; each one has developed rich ways of expressing how humans can relate to the rest of life on Earth. We hope you’ll watch their talks and panels and participate in breakout sessions. See our full list of speakers and register for the 2023 Soil Regen Summit here.
Ripple, W. J., & Beschta, R. L. (2012). Trophic cascades in Yellowstone: the first 15 years after wolf reintroduction. Biological Conservation, 145, 205-213.
Beschta, R. L., & Ripple, W. J. (2019). Can large carnivores change streams via a trophic cascade?. Ecohydrology, 12, e2048.
Dr. Adam B. Cobb
Adam's passion for agriculture emerged in 2008, during his three months of volunteer work on organic farms in New Zealand. His time in graduate school cultivated a broad vision for the restoration of living soils, as well as utilization of research and community engagement to address current and emerging global food production challenges. After completing his doctorate at Oklahoma State University in 2016, he was funded as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow and Instructor. During the past 5 years, Adam authored or coauthored 20 research publications focused on agroecology and plant-microbial symbioses. He also taught multiple undergraduate and graduate courses on global food security, restoration ecology, and environmental science. He joined The Soil Food Web School in 2021, following his dream to help regenerate soils, improve human nutrition, and protect our planet.
Dr. Cobb appreciates the valuable feedback that Dr. Godschalx, Dr. Portugal, and Heather Boright graciously provided while drafting and revising this blog.