FOREWORD - Ecological Intelligence: Rediscovering Ourselves in Nature - Ian McCallum

Ecological Intelligence: Rediscovering Ourselves in Nature - Ian McCallum (2008)


We are connected with each other in surprising ways.

I LEARNT THIS WHEN I WAS JUST EIGHT YEARS OLD, A CURIOUS CHILD TAKING pleasure in wandering barefoot and alone across the Great Karoo, semidesert plain that covers most of South Africa’s dry interior.

At first acquaintance these are bleak places, rusty and unforgiving, stretching to horizons broken only by occasional flat-topped stone koppies. But like all deserts, their delights lie in the detail.

Every day I discovered something new. Floral stones sculpted by the sun and wind and, between them, a wonderful variety of succulent plants camouflaged to look like pebbles waiting patiently for the next rare fall of rain. And once in a while I would be encouraged to encounter a whip-tailed lizard, a trap-door spider, or even a fossil shell left behind by an ancient sea.

These signs of life delighted me. They promised continuity, but I was totally unprepared for what I stumbled over one cloudless day…

It was a shiny stone, larger than my foot, one amongst many others, polished by the elements with reflective desert varnish. But this one was different. It was golden and beautifully shaped with the sort of symmetry that set it apart from the others. More than just a stone.

I knelt to get a closer look, and for a long time that was all I dared to do. I was afraid to touch it, but eventually my curiosity overcame my hesitance and I put my hand gently on it. And as I did, every hair on the nape of my neck bristled.

I knew what it was! A hand ax, carefully crafted to fit even my small hand. A message from the Stone Age, passed directly from the maker’s hand to mine across the gap of a million years.

I learnt much later that tools of this kind were manufactured by Homo erectus who used it as an all-purpose instrument for throwing, hammering, skinning, cutting, and scraping. The Paleolithic equivalent of a Swiss Army knife. Something made and used on the spot, or carried to the next site if it was found to be especially pleasing.

I still have this strange gift on my desk and it now fits my hand like a glove, continuing to give me great pleasure. To me it proves that intelligence is not peculiar to our species. It is the product of collecting, collating, crafting a deliberate choice, a work of art and early science.

This is what Ian McCallum calls ecological intelligence—involving “rediscovering ourselves in nature.” And it seems to me that his insights are the product of three skills.

Ian is a physician who doesn’t believe that there are any quick medical fixes, nor any easy ways to heal, for ourselves or our environments. But like Pythagoras, he suggests that everything is intelligent in its own way. He practices remedies that involve our return to nature. He encourages the rediscovery of our place in the world, and he teaches the restoration of ‘soul places’ whose absence from our lives are a direct cause of homesickness.

He is also a Jungian practitioner. He understands the importance and significance of having both a collective unconscious and a personal shadow. Armed thus he has a sound and balanced sense of evolutionary history, vital to understanding some of the mysteries inherent in the construction of weaverbird nests, termite mounds, shoaling fish, and all the other ‘ideas’ that help a number of species to compete in their Darwinian struggles for survival.

But perhaps most important of all, Ian is a published poet, a romantic who is not afraid to stretch scientific horizons and is uniquely qualified to deal with the paradoxes that run wild in the mindfield that lies between the extremes that science is forced to confront in questions involving the existence of the mind.

I admire this brave attempt to tackle a very difficult subject, which sheds new light on James Lovelock’s forecast that through human beings, the Earth may have its best chance of becoming conscious of itself.


Ireland, 2005

I am the keeper of the zoo: I say yes and no:

I sing and kill and work…

Carl Sandburg

We are a poetic species.

Richard Rorty