Four Fifths a Grizzly: A New Perspective on Nature that Just Might Save Us All
Douglas Chadwick, Four Fifths a Grizzly: A New Perspective on Nature that Just Might Save Us All. Ventura, CA: Patagonia Works, 2021.
Reviewed by John Miles, Rewilding Earth book review editor
This beautifully written and designed book is pure advocacy – of the idea that we humans are nature, and our future depends on accepting this fact. This seems obvious to many of us, but as a species we don’t act as though we understand its implications. We are special. We are exceptional. The laws of nature do not apply to us. The Earth is made for us, and we can do whatever we want to it with impunity, like remove the forests, kill the coral reefs, and drive myriad fellow travelers to extinction. This is all nonsense, writes Douglas Chadwick. We are of the world like all other living things, and we need to wake up to that fact. It is in our enlightened self-interest.
Chadwick, trained as a wildlife biologist, is a marvelous writer who has traveled the world for National Geographic magazine and written books such as A Beast the Color of Winter (about mountain goats), The Wolverine Way, and Tracking Gobi Grizzlies. In Four-fifths a Grizzly Chadwick sets out to help people “to better understand the microbial, genetic, and behavioral connections we already have with the living world.” A second goal is to suggest what we can do today to address what seem intractable challenges of conserving the nature of which we are a part and upon which we depend.
Addressing such goals could make for dry and preachy reading, but Douglas Chadwick knows how to present and interpret science for the lay reader, writing in a relaxed, personable style that is accessible, clever, even entertaining, and he does not preach. Over decades of studying and writing about wildlife, he has gained a special affinity with grizzlies, trying wherever he could to “keep grizzlies in view. These bears have always been particularly good at helping me figure out when to stay quiet and watch carefully, and when you’d better make some noise and get ready to move. Like NOW.” He doesn’t want to dwell on the bad news about our treatment of the natural world, but he has to make the case that now is the time to “make noise” because human impacts on that world are severe and, with our growing population, worsening. The trajectory of human perception and treatment of nature must change or there will be hell to pay, he argues, not only for grizzlies and other creatures, but for us. He does not dwell on the bad news but covers just enough to make clear why we must get ready to move – and NOW.
Chadwick writes of his strong affinity with grizzly bears, “I’m aware that this sense of connection is in my imagination and that the bears don’t give a grizzled goddamn what I think. But I know something they don’t, which is that we genuinely are connected in a way that makes us kin. We share a majority of the genes that serve as instructions for building and managing our bodies and minds.” He draws his title from knowledge of this connection and in this passage reveals that his writing style will be personal, engaging, sometimes blunt, and urgent. He goes on to say that “Like every creature, grizz are more than fellow Earthlings. They are our greater selves. I realize now that what mostly drew me to the bears from the start is that I get keyed up enough in their presence to be able to see and sense myself in them and them in me.”
After he introduces himself and how he came to write about grizz and other wildlife, he follows with chapters titled “Ka-Boom,” in which he describes human population growth and the consequent decline of other Earthlings; “The Living Planet Quick Reference Guide,” a brief review of the domains that comprise the living planet; and “The State of Our Union,” explaining his view that “There is so much nature in human nature that I can’t see where any more could fit in.” All of this is to explain how we are an organism not apart from but of nature and integrated with millions of other creatures without which we would not exist as a species. All living beings, including humans, are interdependent, and in clear and simple language he summarizes how this is so. All are engaged in symbioses, are symbionts, reaping benefits from relationships with other organisms, and he illustrates examples. “We are not merely symbionts but communities of symbionts. A more accurate term for what we really are would be holobionts – assemblages of partners.” “We might even,” he says, “be viewed as ecosystems consisting of multiple smaller, interacting ecological units.”
The significance of all of this, he argues, is that humans are rapidly depleting the richness of life on the planet, putting themselves at risk by ignoring the reality of interdependencies necessary for thriving or even survival. Chadwick’s stated goals, as noted, are to promote understanding of these realities, which he does in the first half of the book, and to then consider what might be done to stop and even reverse the damage being wreaked. His approach is not to prescribe what might be done, but to offer dramatic examples of successful initiatives already underway, and thus point us in productive directions for action.
Island species are at special risk of extinction and especially in need of attention. Island Conservation, with partners, has taken on that challenge and “has led or helped with successful projects completed on at least sixty-four islands, including the largest yet – 1450-square-mile South Georgia Island in the subantarctic region of the southern Atlantic.” Chadwick writes,
The island biodiversity database notes that humans are absent or have only a minimal presence on a majority of islands with highly at-risk vertebrates. That makes rescuing a bit more than 40 percent of the terrestrial vertebrates closest to vanishing from the planet forever all the more doable, not just within our lifetimes but much sooner if enough people jump on board and help. Look at that! All done! Next?
His second case study illustrating what is being done is the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, but before he gets to that story, he explores other insights science is gaining into how the fabric of nature is knit together.
Chadwick delves, in two chapters, into what is known about why strawberries are what they are – incredibly sweet, fragrant fruits which offer much to us humans. Their benefits go far beyond the obvious pleasure of taste, and those benefits depend on symbioses, which he describes. Mycorrhizal fungi, cyanobacteria, a dose of the history of science probing life’s mysteries, a bit of biology 101, parthenogenesis, superorganisms, insights into the consciousness and social behavior of our fellow travelers, all come into the strawberry story, all buttressing his case that we humans, along with strawberries and virtually all other creatures, are “by nature a collaboration or collective – a joint venture – of fellow Earthlings.” He offers encouragement to those who might think being a “joint venture” rather than an independent, exceptional species reduces human stature.
Our newly realized position doesn’t undermine our prowess and potential, doesn’t make us any less amazing. Our spectrum of biological relationships makes us more than human. And being human was already pretty marvelous, for we possess an extraordinary brand of imaginative intelligence coupled with social mechanisms for sharing and building upon information that appear to be unrivaled. So, make of those qualities all you will. But for goodness’ sake don’t look for insight from anybody not particularly interested in the fate of nature on a living planet, much less willing to do something about it. That holobiont missed the memo to Know Thyself.
Chadwick has been studying the scientific literature, writing about nature, and traveling the world for four decades. Four Fifths a Grizzly is a distillation of a lifetime of knowledge and experience. His awe at the complexity of nature comes through, as does his deep conviction that the time has come to change our ways and that it is possible.
Perhaps because he wants to encourage positive change, Chadwick seems reluctant to criticize others. Although there are surely forces at work in the human community that are avowedly and intentionally contributing to the rapid decline of many species – climate deniers and fossil fuel interests, for instance, he observes that playing blame games does not help solve problems:
Despite plenty of finger-pointing and name-calling, nobody is really to blame for the present state of affairs. People are merely continuing to strive for more space and resources. It’s what species do. Our species is so skilled at displacing others that we have succeeded massively – even to the extent of altering the chemistry of the oceans and atmosphere, the appearance of entire landscapes, and the living contents of ecosystems. Nothing about that implies some flaw in human nature. What happened is that we evolved and adapted, just as every creature does, except we did not do it entirely through genes – the information coded in our DNA. We also did it through memes – the information coded in language and transmitted from one generation to the next through learning.
Here the biologist overwhelms some of Chadwick’s other critical faculties. True, there isn’t much to be gained from blaming in this crisis, but it lets some miscreants off the hook to say that people are “merely” striving for “more space and resources.” There is more to the crisis than that. There is a moral dimension to the situation, and framing it as Chadwick does here ignores that dimension.
This book is published by Patagonia and is elegantly illustrated cover to cover. The layout is beautiful, the superb photos and illustrations perfectly placed to complement the text. Chapters are separated by one or two double-page photo spreads. For instance, text over a two-page photo of a female grizzly gazing out at the reader between chapter one, “I’m at Least Four-Fifths Grizzly Bear” and chapter two, “Ka-Boom,” is as follows: “… we and this master mammal are much more alike than not … kindred spirits insofar as both of us are curious about the world and live a fairly long time, learning all the while.” This statement is placed strategically in the book, challenging us to believe that we can, and must, learn. It also makes the point that we are not the only “master mammal,” which in our arrogance we seem to think we are, and that is a big part of our problem. The book has many nice touches like this.
Four-Fifths a Grizzly is a wonderful book. It is full of information yet engaging because Chadwick takes us with him on many ventures into the field. Each essay in the book could stand alone for our enlightenment, but they knit together nicely to make a coherent and powerful argument. He is a presence throughout as wildlife biologist and conservationist, yet the book is not about him. It is about us. He closes with this thought:
Being one with nature sounds like an aspiration. It really isn’t, because we already are. Nature remains omnipresent within us. That is our starting point. It follows that the greater the share of fellow Earthlings and vibrant ecosystems we usher into the future along with us, the wider the range of possibilities we will discover awaiting us there.
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David Brower, then Executive Director of the Sierra Club, gave a talk at Dartmouth College in 1965 on the threat of dams to Grand Canyon National Park. John, a New Hampshire native who had not yet been to the American West, was flabbergasted. “What Can I do?” he asked. Brower handed him a Sierra Club membership application, and he was hooked, his first big conservation issue being establishment of North Cascades National Park.
After grad school at the University of Oregon, John landed in Bellingham, Washington, a month before the park was created. At Western Washington University he was in on the founding of Huxley College of Environmental Studies, teaching environmental education, history, ethics and literature, ultimately serving as dean of the College.
He taught at Huxley for 44 years, climbing and hiking all over the West, especially in the North Cascades, for research and recreation. Author and editor of several books, including Wilderness in National Parks, John served on the board of the National Parks Conservation Association, the Washington Forest Practices Board, and helped found and build the North Cascades Institute.
Retired and now living near Taos, New Mexico, he continues to work for national parks, wilderness, and rewilding the earth.