RECONCILIATION - LOOKING AHEAD - Ecological Intelligence: Rediscovering Ourselves in Nature - Ian McCallum

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




IN THE INTRODUCTORY CHAPTER TO THIS BOOK, I WROTE OF A NOTION that our sense of self and our sense of place is linked—that our identity is somehow intimately associated with a deep historical sense of kinship with wild places and wild animals and that we are dependent upon them for our psychological health. How we care for them is surely a measure of how we care for each other. Such a notion might help to explain why there was no surprise when two countries with conf licting political ideologies teamed up to free two whales caught up in an ice f low in the Arctic Circle. This happened at the height of the cold war between Russia and the USA in the early 1980s. It does not concern us that the effort cost millions of dollars and the reason for this non-concern, it would seem, is that our response in such situations is archetypal. For many, the situation grips us. We are compelled to participate, even at a distance, and the energy we expend cannot be measured in dollars. We will continue to dig deeply into our resources to help save animals that are endangered or in trouble. And we will do it for the same reasons. We do it for the sake of the animals, but I believe we do it also because we know that at some deep level their fate has something to do with us; that any step toward a reconciliation with the land, with whales, wild dogs, and butterf lies is a step toward our own healing.


Perhaps it is no coincidence that the adjectives we use to describe those occasional deep feelings of connection with animals and with the land are often the very ones that best describe the phenomenon of healing—indescribable, unpredictable, unforgettable.

The big question of course is can this reconciliation be facilitated, or will it remain a series of unpredictable one-off events? I believe it can be nurtured, but it is going to require a profound change in our attitude toward the Human-Nature relationship. Earlier, I made a number of suggestions that could help us, namely, to stop speaking of the Earth being in need of healing; to become more evolutionary and psychologically minded and to nurture a language that is healing. However, it is going to require something else. It is going to require that we develop what analyst James Hillman refers to as Adam’s eye—a way of seeing animals and landscape beyond human parallels and the usual laboratory explanations, beyond grasping at the meaning and metaphor of the animal. It is an aesthetic eye, he says, “a perception for which psychology is yet to train its senses.” It is an eye that promotes survival; that excites the emotions; that takes us to the unexplored edges of the human-animal interface and to the realization that everything is intelligent. It is a process that begins when we are grateful for the mere presence of the animal. It ends when you know the animal in yourself.

But why Adam? Put yourself into the skin of the first allegorical man on this one: “And out of the ground, the lord God formed every beast and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them; and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.” How would you have responded had you been asked to name the animals? Where and how would you have begun? Surely you would need to know something about your own animal nature. In this poem, I salute the Adam in us.

Long before the message
of a Word made flesh;
long before his loss of innocence
and the naming of his soul,
a man of clay and a lonely heart
gave names to his animal flesh.
by twisting threads,
he found his way to the scales of dawn,
to his open gills,
to the turn of the tide of blood
and the crossing back to air.

in a long necked night
of remembering,
he sloped his way toward the light,
he raised his arm to a passing whale,
his thoughts took flight,
by then…he’d named

If we are serious about rediscovering ourselves in Nature, we all need to take that journey. But we each have to do it in our own way. To know ourselves we have to know our own animal nature first. We have to wrestle the beasts in us, as Adam did. Why? In order that our animal energy can be transformed—that it can be given a human face. We have to learn how to say yes and no to the crocodile, the fox, the lion, and the bear in us. It is a priceless journey.

However, you have to be willing to be disturbed. To enter into the wild places of the Earth is to enter the wild places of the human psyche at the same time—it is both a reaching out and a homecoming. As happens in the wild, you may need a guide—someone who knows the terrain, who can read the territory, who thinks like a shaman, and who knows when it is time to turn back. You may need someone who can help you to bring your wild images back into the everyday world and to embrace them.

In almost every traditional culture, animals have been and remain the guiding spirits of the shamans, those rare individuals whose role, more than anything else, has been that of defending the psychic integrity of their communities. They are the men and women who know the language of the animals and of the land and because of this, they know the terrain and the animals in the psyche of their people.“We are part of the Earth and it is a part of us,” wrote Chief Seattle in 1855 in a letter to the president in Washington.

We know the sap which comes through the trees as we know the blood that courses through our veins. Every part of the Earth is sacred to my people, every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every meadow, every humming insect. The rivers are our brothers. They quench our thirst. They carry our canoes and they feed our children. So you must give to the river the kindness you would give any brother.

And then there are these insightful lines from a poem by Pablo Neruda, “I’m Aware of the Earth’s Skin.” He is reminding us of the core of our nature:

No one can be named Pedro,
no one is Rosa or Maria,
all of us are dust or sand,
all of us are rain in the rain.

They have talked to me of Venezuelas,
of Paraguays and Chiles,

I don’t know what they’re talking about:

I’m aware of the EART H’s skin
and I know that it doesn’t have a name.

We are in dire need of modern-day shamans, men and women who are aware of the Earth’s skin, or, as Mercia Eliade, the former head of the journal History of Religions at the University of Chicago, wrote in 1964, “we are in dire need of modern day specialists in the sacred.”


There is another requirement for the reconciliation that we seek. It has to do with honoring the gods—we have to ask permission to do so. To ask permission is not only an act of respect, it is an art. It begins when you acknowledge that every encounter with Nature is a dual experience; that it involves the intelligence of the other; and that the other may be more intelligent than you—that you may be the one who is lost. What do you do when you are lost, when you can’t find your way through your world? “Stand still!” says poet David Wagoner in his magnificent poem “Lost”:

Stand still!

The trees ahead and the bushes beside you…

They are not lost.

Remember, wherever you are

Is also called here

And you must treat it like a powerful stranger;

Must ask permission to know it

And be known.


The forest breathes…it whispers

I made this place around you

And if you leave, you may come back again

Saying “Here!”

No two trees are the same to raven

No two branches the same to wren

But…if what a tree or a branch does is lost on you

Then you are truly lost.

Stand still!

The forest knows where you are,

Let it find you.

Wagoner’s words remind us that there is a critical distance between all living things, an invisible territory that must never be taken for granted. Be mindful of it for it is real. It is dynamic, contextual, unpre-dictable, and powerful. It is a space that is filled with the ancient chemistry of yes and no—the first language.

To enter into the space of another without permission, be it the land, the sea, or that of an animal, is to violate that space. How do you ask permission from the land? You do it in the same way that you ask permission to enter the space of a patient, a friend, a lover, or a stranger. You take care. You listen to the intelligence of the other. You pay attention. You listen—feelingly.

In the African wilderness, as in all the wild places of the world, to listen to the land is to listen to the wind, to its direction, to its touch, to its scents—the promise of rain, the perfume of spring, the pheromones of decay, excrement, and spray. It is to heed the caution that you may be upwind of that which is listening to you. It is to listen to the signatures in the sand and to what the birds, the squirrels, the baboons, and the antelope have to say. The alarm calls of these creatures are for the same predators that unsettle the human animal. The animals tell us when to look up, down, and around. They also tell us when to go away.

When asked by Barry Lopez what he did when he visited a new place, the Inuit hunter answered: “I listen. That’s all. I listen to what the land is saying. I walk around in it and strain my senses in appreciation of it for a long time, before I myself ever speak a word.” This man believed that if entered in such a respectful manner, the land would open to him, said Lopez. This is the art of asking permission.

Stand still. Listen. Be patient. Try and make sure that the space between you and the other is safe and containing for you both. As practiced in analytical therapy, “begin by giving a free-floating attention to the encounter,” says London-based psychoanalyst Eric Rayner. Keep a close eye on your reactions. Remember you are in a shared field of influence. Engage yourself in what could be called a primal correspondence—the way a parent, on a nonverbal level, is receptive to what her infant is trying to say. Be deeply receptive to what is rising and falling around you—the intentions, the emotions, and the needs of the other. Develop a sixth sense, what Aristotle called a common sense where the primary qualities of intensity, motion, rest, unity, form, and number are represented in abstract form and trans-lated into any one of our senses.

Try and see yourself through the eyes of the other. Be utterly present and open to the guiding potential of whatever impressions or images may emerge, mindful that you do not know what is going to happen next and that what you bring to the encounter could be rejected. As poet Ortega y Gasset puts it, “create an attention that does not consist in riveting itself to the presumed but consists precisely in not presuming anything and avoiding inattentiveness.” In other words, be especially careful of trying to understand the behavior of the animal according to your own needs and expectations. As Lopez reminds us, this is an old trap and to fall for it is to end up knowing very little about the animal at all. Even worse, it is to deny the animal. Animals do not have an ego consciousness as humans do. If they did, then prepare yourself for what Rilke wrote in this verse from the “Eighth Duino Elegy:”

If the animal moving toward us so securely
in a different direction had our kind of
consciousness—it would wrench us around and drag us
along its path. But it feels its life as boundless,
unfathomable, and without regard
to its own condition: pure, like its outward gaze.
And where we see the future, it sees all time
and itself within all time, forever healed.

Get back to basics. Know something about the behavior of the animal other—its preferences, its territory, and its threat displays. Sometimes the permission you seek may not be granted. If so, respect the refusal. Back off.

Pay careful attention, therefore, to detail—the swish of a tail, the angle of the head, the inclined ear, the positioning of the feet. Appreciate the timing of the encounter. Were you there first or did you stumble into the space of the one that confronts you? With elephants, for example, to be there first invariably ends up with them giving you a wide berth. When the situation is reversed, be prepared to do the same for them. Watch out if you don’t. Try not to surprise them. Note the time of day. Not all animals see well in twilight. Keep the flashlight low. Try to understand the dolphinness, the elephantness, and the heronness of the one who is with you. Ask these questions of yourself: am I too close, too big, too quick? Have I inadvertently crossed the critical line? Ask of the other: “What is your way?” And then, “Can I share it with you?”

Don’t be too hasty to discard or interpret the images and feelings that may arise, for they can present in any number of ways—a pattern, a shape, a sound, a memory, a feeling. Sometimes the encounter brings a deep sense of familiarity and other times a silence that is both humble and fetal; it may be a sense that this is delicate; that it will take time; that there is no hurry. With time, you will begin to find that your interpretations will become a lot more appropriate and meaningful. And when the encounter is over, say thank you.


What does the traditional hunter mean when he says you must become the animal? In its most practical sense, if you are living in wolf country, to become a wolf is to know how to see like a wolf, says Barry Lopez. It is to know how to find your way home in polar darkness and in a whiteout. It is “to be comfortable without that one thing indispensable to a Western navigator—an edge.” It is to have an affinity for relationships rather than boundaries, to read the wind, the contours of the land, and the language of the snow underfoot. To become that animal, borrowing words from naturalist and author David Abram, is to “turn inside out, to loosen the psyche from its confinement within a strictly human sphere.” It is to discover that intelligence is not peculiar to the human animal, but a property of the Earth and of every living thing, where each terrain, each ecology, each animal seems to have its own particular intelligence.

To become one with the other is to be receptive to a one-to-one exchange that is physical, cognitive, interpersonal, but most of all, intuitive. It is what Rayner refers to in psychotherapy as “matching activity.” Emphasizing the intuitive aspect of the exchange is an acknowledgment that the way we perceive and translate our correspondence with others is mostly subliminal—we are not aware that we are doing it. We focus on things, yes, but we are essentially unconscious scanners, taking in information that is not censored by the ego and that, from time to time, is perceived on a subjective level as a hunch, a resonance, or a sense that something is happening out there. And, as the following example will show, it can happen while you are asleep. It is an example that is supported by many of the wilderness guides with whom I have worked.

During the months that I spent in Botswana’s Linyanti wilderness consolidating the content of this book, I was often awakened at night by elephants, lions, and sometimes by leopards, not because they were making a noise, but because of the silence. Sitting up and peering through the gauze netting of our tent, I would see them—the dark silhouettes of the gray giants on their way to the river. Sometimes there was nothing to see, but the morning would confirm the reason why I had been awakened. There, in front of the tent, like an open diary, were the records of the nocturnal visitors. Perhaps a leopard and, later, a lion had come and gone. My internal antennae were active. Of course, there were other nights when the sounds of breaking branches or the thundering roar of lions could awaken the dead. However, thank heavens for the safety of the tent. Without it I would have slept very poorly.

But what about mismatching—the sensing of a relationship where the chemistry is absent, or where the contact is premature or threatening? If to ask permission to enter the space of another is an art, then the awareness of mismatching is part of that art. This, too, is intuitive. Matching and mismatching are essential aspects of a process in which neurochemical/archetypal responses of withdrawal, flight, approach, challenge, cooperation, and delayed gratification can be triggered. Sometimes mismatching has much to do with one’s own sense of vulnerability. Sometimes you simply don’t have time to ask permission. What do you do when there is no neutrality in the space between you and the other? What then? Sometimes, the only choice you have is to let the wildness in you meet the wildness out there—head on. An example of this comes from an encounter my wife and I had with a spotted hyena.

One new-moon night, while camping in the Savuti Channel in the Linyanti, I found myself suddenly awake. Next to me, my wife was sit-ting bolt upright, listening. Out of the dark night we heard the footsteps of something very close. In an instant, we simultaneously roared our territorial call: “Hay!” Reaching for my flashlight I quickly picked up the eyes and the shape of the intruder. Having smelled the leftovers of our supper, a spotted hyena had come to investigate. Reflecting on the incident, I was intrigued by the explosive, anxious, animallike nature of my response. Where did it come from? Who knows. What I do know is that it was loud, it was natural, it was territorial, and it was aggressive. I believe it was coming from the depths of an ancient mammalian bloodline, or, if you prefer, an ancient evolutionary Self.


We all know that our domestic animals somehow see through our deceptive sweetness and avoid us or mysteriously disappear when our intentions are to get them to a vet. It is also well known in the wild that animals quickly learn the difference between a hunter and a photographer and that even a photographer can be threatening.

Researching the sometimes baffling ability of humans and animals to anticipate other people’s intentions, a group of Italian neurophysiologists at the University of Parma may have stumbled onto what they believe to be a key to this mystery. They have described in humans and in our primate cousins a new class of nerve cells called mirror neurons. These remarkable cells are situated in the premotor cortex of the frontal lobe. Studying macaque monkeys, they noted that this particular area of the brain becomes active not only during certain motor tasks such as reaching out for food, or moving to pick up specific objects, but they also become active in monkeys that are observing the ones that are performing the action. In effect, the observer unconsciously mirrors the action of the performer. Upon closer examination, they discovered that the patterns of the brain waves were not only specific to the task, but were shared by both the performer and the observer. In other words, you could expect a different anticipatory brain wave in an animal observing a man picking up a camera to that of a man reaching for a gun.

Linked to memories and emotions surrounding similar tasks, actions, and situations, these mirror neurons appear to be essential to the way we anticipate and understand the intentions of the other. They are therefore essential for what we call learned behavior. In humans, the mirror neurons are situated close to Broca’s area, that part of the brain responsible for executive speech. Could mirror neuron activity be the neurological precursors of speech and language—an older evolutionary function than speech itself? Are they the neurological triggers of the alarm calls and contact calls that we share with all red-blooded creatures? But there is more. The fact that they appear to be firing in sympathy in both the observer and the performer suggests that they could be linked to the neurobiology of empathy, compassion, and what has been frequently referred to in this book as the art of getting into the skin of the other. The poets, like Rilke (in these lines from “Turning Point”), have known about mirror neurons for ages:

Animals trusted him, stepped
into his open look, grazing,
and the imprisoned lions stared in
as if into an incomprehensible freedom…

There is no doubt that some people have a way with animals. Notwithstanding the bonds that build up over time between animals and their handlers, mutual trust, sometimes immediate, has much to do with the demeanor, the attitude, and the intention of the animal handlers themselves. The following remarkable and well-documented story is an example of what I mean. It involved a Botswana-based American safari operator, Randall Moore, and a wounded elephant bull in the Pilanesburg Game Reserve in the Northern Province of South Africa. The wound had been caused by a deep hippopotamus bite to one of its legs which had then become infected, resulting in a need for surgical intervention. The animal was darted, anesthetized, and the infected area appropriately treated. The wound did not heal immediately, however, and it was soon realized that several interventions would be needed. The surgeon was faced with a dilemma. On the one hand, the animal needed to be treated, but on the other there was a serious risk to the elephant if it was to undergo repeated anesthetics. Moore, who had released this animal from captivity into the wild twelve years previously, was called in from his elephant-back safari operation in Botswana to help. To the astonishment of all involved, the elephant immediately recognized Moore’s call and approached him as if to greet him. Moore, in turn, expressed his intention to help in the way that he “spoke” to the animal, telling it what was required. As if permission had been granted, the sugeon was able to treat the animal’s wound and, over a period of several days, the elephant would stand and quietly allow the wound to be bathed and dressed.

In another fascinating story about animal-human communication, Heinz Koors, a veterinary surgeon involved in an elephant relocation program near Kruger National Park, was asked why “his” elephants seemed to be so relaxed while those handled by another operator kept breaking out of their enclosures. He answered, “I speak to the matriarch in the group and ask her not to break out.” When I asked him to confirm this story, he confessed that he couldn’t be specific about it. However, his reputation had preceded him and a fellow wildlife man-ager supported the popular version of Koors’s particular gift.

Does this imply that there is some special technique for communicating with elephants or other animals? I suspect there is, but it is not something one can learn from a book. I believe, even if it is on a subconscious level, you would have to know the animals with whom you are relating, and if they happen to be elephants, you would have to know the elephant in you.

To me, the aim of human-to-animal communication is clear. It is not about trying to get the animals to like you, or to have them at your beck and call. Instead, through body language, tone of voice, or even music (on several occasions I have inflicted the gentle strumming of a guitar on elephant bulls as well as spotted hyenas), it is to let them know that you mean no harm; that you want to learn not only about them, but from them. I believe it works. Whether they warmed to it or not, I don’t know, but on two separate occasions I had a hyena, at less than 100 feet, respond to the strumming with its characteristic contact call. On each occasion the hyena then moved on. The elephant bulls, on the other hand, would often stand quite still, listening, the base of their trunks expanding and contracting in what I believe is an infra-sound response to the musical strings. I was subsequently delighted to read, in Douglas Chadwick’s book The Fate of the Elephants, a report by longtime elephant researcher Joyce Poole about elephants “drawn to the strains of guitar music issuing from camp some evenings.” She observed how, compared with other elephant incursions into the camp-site, no one bothered to chase these elephants away.

In a poignant and humbling record of a piece of research in which the importance of the seeking of permission is powerfully evident, University of Michigan primatologist Barbara Smuts describes what she has learned about herself from her encounters with baboons.

I was lucky to be accepted by the animals as a mildly interesting, harmless companion, permitted to travel amongst them. Under the guise of scientific research, I was in the company of expert guides—baboons who could spot a predator a mile away and who seemed to possess a sixth sense for the proximity of snakes. Abandoning myself to their far superior knowledge, I moved as a humble disciple, learning from masters about being an African anthropoid. Thus I became (or, rather, regained my ancestral right to be) an animal, moving instinctively through a world that felt (because it was) like my ancient home. The baboons stubbornly resisted my feeble but sincere attempts to convince them that I was nothing more than a detached observer, a neutral object they could ignore. Right from the start, they knew better, insisting that I was, like them, a social subject vulnerable to the demands and rewards of relationship. The deepest lessons came when I found myself sharing the being of a baboon, because other baboons were treating me like one.

What I see as a creative or critical distance between one’s self and the other, Smuts sees as an invisible line that defines the personal space between each troop member, a space that expands and contracts, depending on the circumstances. Anyone involved in the dynamics of one-on-one psychotherapy will know about that invisible line.

Do we still need reminding that we have within us millions of years of life as corresponding, reflecting beings? We must not forget this. This, in essence, was Smuts’s secret. She stopped thinking about what to do and instead “surrendered to instinct, not as mindless, reflexive action, but rather as action rooted in an ancient primate legacy of embodied knowledge.” She learned how to ask permission to be with the baboons. And it was granted.

One of the most sobering experiences I have ever had in the wild occurred on an open plain in Botswana’s Okavango Delta. I was guiding a group of tourists when a herd of elephants just over a mile away began to run away from us. Having picked up the scent and sight of humans, the reaction was one of obvious mistrust. The reason for this was clear. The area I was in had been a hunting concession less than a year previously. Who could blame the elephants? Our timing was wrong, and so was our sensing of the critical distance between us. As it is with humans, experiential memory runs deep in the animal kingdom. It did not matter that our intentions were benign. Human beings had lost the elephants’ trust and our group had unwittingly crossed the invisible line. It would take a long time for other humans to reestablish the trust. We would need to get to know that place all over again.

Thomas, the Saint, has urged us to follow the birds and the beasts, for they will show us the way. Is this really applicable? I believe it is and what follows confirms this belief. It concerns the recreating of ancient migration routes of large animals like elephants. The question is where, exactly, should these corridors be established? Iain Douglas-Hamilton of the Save the Elephant Foundation and, more recently, Michael Chase of the Elephants Without Boundaries project in Botswana have come up with a brilliant answer—let the elephants decide. Let the animals show us the way. Absurd? Not at all. As a result of his outstanding radio-tracking studies on the seasonal paths and patterns of migrating elephants, Douglas-Hamilton has been able to tell us more than we previously understood about elephant migrations, the directions they wish to take, as well as the land areas in which they are comfortable or uncomfortable—they move at high speed through these uncomfortable areas. Not surprisingly, these very areas are the ones that are in close proximity to human habitation and to hunters. Who could argue that these elephants were not telling us something? Should we not listen to them? And could we take this work further? How about a north-south and an east-west elephant corridor through central and southern Africa, with the elephants showing us the way? And remember, where elephants go, many other animals follow. I can see the heads shaking and I can understand why. Veterinary fences and civil conflict will make it impractical. It will be too expensive, too political, too risky, and it is going to take a long time to implement. Political and economic logistics aside, I believe it is an idea and a dream that we must not give up on. After all, are we not trying to open the corridors in the human psyche?

In conclusion, what, if anything, does the correspondence between humans and animals mean to us? Lopez answers this question, albeit cryptically: “If you are trying to fathom wolves,” he says, “ I think it can mean almost everything.” He could have been referring equally to elephants, leopards, or hyenas. To understand this correspondence will be a huge step toward rediscovering ourselves in Nature and to seeing the world, at last, as a mirror. We will come face-to-face with ourselves. It will certainly bring us face-to-face with one of the most emotive issues of the new millennium—the ethics of recreational and trophy hunting of wild animals.


And only then, when I have learned enough
I will go to watch the animals, and let
something of their composure slowly guide
into my limbs; will see my own existence
deep in their eyes.

Rainer Maria Rilke