THE BLIND SPOTS - LOOKING AHEAD - Ecological Intelligence: Rediscovering Ourselves in Nature - Ian McCallum

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


I want you to feel the blurred edge
between good and bad,
to say no to the urge to look away
or to take sides…
but to give
with both eyes

I make no apology for a fascination with the soft edge of science.

It is here, it seems, that we get fleeting glimpses of strange shadows just beneath the surface of current understanding.

Lyall Watson



THE NOTION OF AN ECOLOGICAL INTELLIGENCE, OF LIVING IN A MINDFIELD, and of the need for a poetic language—all for the purpose of a deeper awareness of the multifaceted relationship between humans and Nature—may sound appealing and even logical, but it is going to require rhetoric as well as logic, and that is not an easy task. I use the word rhetoric in its classical oratory sense—the art of persuasive language, the art of influencing the one who hears. To some, the notion may be too far-fetched, not in keeping with conventional wisdom and, in all probability, too difficult to apply.

Don’t be surprised if, in some instances, the resistance to what the poets have been trying to say is as dismissive as it was about Galileo’s moons. Change is always unsettling and often threatening, but we must not shy away from it. We must face up not only to the mounting environmental pressures of our time, but to the nagging internal pressures also—the ones that urge us to come to terms with the significance and responsibilities of what it means to be the human animal. Who knows, we might find unexpected patterns or directions within the very pressures we are trying to avoid. Consider the surprising truth about the short-range subnuclear forces of intergalactic space, for instance. These are not detectable until they are crushed together by huge stellar pressures. And yet, says Karl Popper, these are the very forces that are responsible for holding together all the more complex atoms of the universe. When looked at differently, our external and internal pressures, like those massive stellar forces, could be both appropriate and necessary—a reminder that there would be no evolution of size, shape, or consciousness without them.

The environmental pressures of our time could be the very pressures behind a new evolutionary leap—not another expansion in brain size, but of a consciousness and an intelligence that can redefine our sense of history, our sense of Nature, and our sense of coexistence.

I believe the pressure is on and that it has to be taken personally. It is in the heated poetry of Antonio Machado: “what have you done with the garden?” It is in the voice of the ecologically intelligent Rainer Maria Rilke: “tonight, I want you to take a step out of your house.” It is in the challenge of Rumi who asks: “are you faithfully with us?”

To be ecologically intelligent will demand nothing less than the courage of Oedipus. It is to discover that Sophocles’ timeless myth is far less a story of incest than of our ultimate responsibility as human beings—to be accountable and conscious of our citizenship. Looking deeper into the myth is to discover that Oedipus, in addition to his self-imposed banishment from his kingdom for having unwittingly murdered his father and then having married his own mother, decreed that his own eyes be put out. A much-loved king, the people under his rule were horrified. “How were you to know?” they wept. His reply was, to the average mind, absurd. “I should have known,” he said. “I have no excuse.” Psychologically speaking, to blind oneself is to look inward. It is to develop what we most lack in our dealings with the outer world—insight. And so, as we face the environmental crises of our day, do we have it in us to say “We have no excuse?” Or will we turn our heads, pretending we just did not see?

To be ecologically intelligent is to be unafraid of stretching the measured horizons of rational thought. “Only those who risk going too far know how far they can go,” said poet T. S. Eliot, but that does not mean divorcing ourselves from the core of reason. It takes a certain willingness to go to that horizon and to look straight into the things that at first we don’t understand. But that is the demand of science, is it not? It is certainly the demand of the poets. True science is like true poetry. It suppresses nothing. It acknowledges that reason is a precious human asset, but it knows that our Cartesian reasoning cannot adequately explain the real experiences in our lives, the real human-animal stories, the synchronicities, or reasons why we come to the rescue of endangered species and of those who suffer.

Ecological intelligence is heretical, and yes, it is critical of what might be called the cult of rationality, but it does not reject it. It is an intelligence that recognizes that every creature exists within and beyond itself, that an animal is never just that—an animal. A human being is never just that, either. Every species in its own way is poetic, every individual a unique, interacting component in a complex field of life. And if there is anything absurd about this way of thinking, then it is time to risk that absurdity. It is time to take our souls to the horizon.

So far, I hope that the poetry in this book has taken us a little closer to that edge, or, as Seamus Heaney puts it, to a sensing of “something coming right, of something moving for us, a little ahead of us.” I hope that we have come a little further than we had expected.

And so, if promoting an ecological intelligence demands that we take a peep through an alternative telescope, then let’s do it. I hope you will discover that it has little to do with the existence of far-off moons and extraterrestrial life. Rather, it focuses on the here and now. It is about becoming more aware of the miracle of biology, of knowing that within and beneath the skin of our hands is a universe of unconscious life, and that every cell that makes up the you and the me has its own individual life. It is also about coming to know ourselves, warts and all, as 2-million-year-old creatures of soul, spirit, and Earth and of being prepared to be changed by that awareness.


The first blind spot or resistance to the notion of an ecological intelligence is that it is subjective, anthropomorphic, and therefore unscientific. My response to such a perception is to quote from Robert Pirsig’s 1974 classic on science and subjectivity, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: “If subjectivity is eliminated as unimportant… then the entire body of science must be eliminated with it.”

Anthropomorphic thinking—the tendency to ascribe human attributes to beings or things that are not human—is irresistible. As Jung noted, we need no elaborate proof to show that children think in this way…they animate their dolls and their toys, and with imaginative children it is easy to see that they inhabit a world of marvel and magic. To put oneself in the skin of the other is therefore not a passive phenomenon. It is an act that takes us beyond ourselves, toward the experience of a sense of relatedness and relationship with the other.

A stick, for example, is never just a stick. It is also a detachable extension of an arm, which can reach, probe, scratch, and protect. It can become a weapon. It can be thrown, taking the energy of the human deltoids, the biceps, and the fist with it. It is something to lean on, in which case it becomes an additional leg imbued with “muscles” and “ligaments” to support the human weight. It is as if the trajectory of the stick, the spear, and the arrow not only reflects the trajectory of human thought, but stimulates it. From sticks to space rockets, the anthropomorphic principle has been a major catalyst for the creative imagination of science.

Another sensitive but nevertheless classic example of anthropomorphic thinking is in the Genesis image of a Creator and the idea that human beings are made in the likeness of that image. Whether this image is right or wrong is beside the point. What matters is that we create these images, and we do it, it would seem, because our sense of meaning as a social and psychological species depends on it. Consciously or unconsciously, the tendency to connect, to make symbols, to invent analogies, and to see the world as an extension of our-selves has been of enormous significance for the development of the human mind. It is central to our notions of continuity and belonging.

Empirical science insists on objectivity—detaching one’s personal feelings and prejudices from the subject under observation. And yet quantum physics reminds us that the very act of observing the other, because it involves an exchange of influence, is intrinsically subjective. Any observation will arouse feelings. Subjectivity, the act of putting oneself in the skin of the other, is unavoidable. It is essential, not only to the methodology of tracking wild animals by the hunter-gatherers of the Kalahari, but also to the tracking of atomic particles.

In his book The Art of Tracking: The Origin of Science, Louis Liebenberg suggests that anthropomorphic thinking may be the result of the creative scientific imagination. In other words, an imagination that observes, analyzes, interprets, and synthesizes preempts the capacity to understand and predict the thoughts and feelings of others. He adds that this kind of thinking arises from the need of the tracker to identify with the animal in order to predict its movements. The tracker must there-fore be able to visualize or internalize what it would be like to be that animal in its particular environment, suggesting a sense of observer-animal-environment continuity. Prediction of an animal’s movements would appear to be impossible unless one had learned how to ask the question: How would I respond if I was that animal in this environment and in these circumstances? In short, you would have to think like an eland, an elephant, or a fish. You have to put yourself into their skin.

Liebenberg continues: “In the process of identification with the animal, the tracker superimposes his or her way of thinking onto that of the animal, thereby creating a model of animal behavior in which the animal is understood to have certain human characteristics.” To do this, the tracker would not only have to be highly familiar with the ways of the particular animal he was tracking, but, in all likelihood, would adopt some of the characteristics of the animal as well.

In an outstanding documentary on the Kalahari bushmen hunters by Craig and Damon Foster entitled The Great Dance, one of the hunters describes the process of putting oneself in the skin of the other:

I, !Nqate, live in the Kalahari. I know all the water-holes and pans around here, the places where the animals come. When you track an animal, you must become the animal. You feel a tingling in your armpits when the animal is close. These are the things we know. When tracking is like dancing…this is the Great Dance…you are talking with God when you are doing these things.

From the Kalahari Desert to the laboratory of the nuclear physicist, says Liebenberg, it is well known and expected that the hunter’s/ experimenter’s preconceived image of the process under investigation will determine the outcome of the hunt/observations. When the scientist has such a clear visual image, wrote L. E. Walkup, the nature of the seeing or the sensing is described as though the scientist felt like the object being visualized. In thinking about a phenomenon they are interested in, some physicists, even in highly abstract theoretical physics, may more or less identify themselves with a nuclear particle and may even ask: What would I do if I were that particle? According to physicist M. Deutsch, writing in 1959, these preconceived images are symbolic anthropomorphic representations of a basically intuitive or, for some, an inconceivable atomic process. They are also a reflection of the boldness of the imagination of the scientist.

Putting this into practice, try sitting at a water hole in the wild for a while, watching a herd of antelope coming down to drink. It takes ages. The animals move a few steps and then stop. Some of them look around, nostrils flared, ears pricked. They move forward again and then suddenly they freeze. As if by command, they all look beyond the water hole. Your eyes follow and there, exactly where they are looking, is a solitary lion dozing in the mottled shade of an acacia. You catch your breath. A flock of doves take off from the near edge of the water precipitating a startled retreat. The tension belongs to you. But the antelope are thirsty, and the process starts all over again. It is hot. Thirst begins to outweigh the threat of danger. You reach for your water bottle. The lion lifts its head and then flops back into a one-eyed sleep. The antelope bristle with tension and a muscle in your shoulder begins to ache. You want them to drink, and yet your muscles are filled with the same antelope uncertainty. You are in their skin. Their thirst and their vigilance belongs to you. For a while you have become the animal that you have been watching.

As you stay with the situation—the antelope, the lion, the doves, the water hole, the heat of the day, and the land, the more coherent the relationship between you and the activities of everything going on around you becomes. The longer you stay with it, the clearer it becomes that you are linked, and, as writer David Abram puts it, you stand “face to face with another intelligence, another center of experience.”

Sometimes to really be with the other we have to put the book away…we have to keep our necks still…we have to shut our eyes. Try entering into the flow of Rilke’s ink as he writes this poem for the gazelle, Gazella dorcas.

Enchanted thing: how can two chosen words
ever attain the harmony of pure rhyme
that pulses through you as your body stirs?

Out of your forehead branch and lyre climb,

and all your features pass in simile through
the songs of love whose words, as light as rose-
petals, rest on the face of someone
who has put his book away and shut his eyes:

to see you: tensed as if each leg were a
gun loaded with leaps, but not fired while your neck
holds your head still, listening…

To put one’s self in the skin of the other is at the core of poetry. It is a prerequisite for a sense of coherence and meaning. One thing is certain—the human animal cannot avoid it, for, as Lyall Watson writes in his book Dark Nature, we are born animists “happy to believe that everything we encounter is alive, just as we are, and that all objects are equally able to encounter us.” Sometimes, the feeling that is born out of these encounters is deeply religious, connecting, and sacred. And it begins to slip away as soon as we think we know it, as soon as it becomes familiar, as soon as we begin to take it for granted. It is as if, as soon as the poetry is lost, the connection vanishes.

The call of the wild, of kinship and companionship is in our blood. The very act of asking the questions about what that animal, that stranger or that object would do if I were it, or what I would do if it were me, enhances not only a sense of a shared identity, but also our capacities for empathy and compassion. Without these capacities, both of which imply a sense of shared coexistence and suffering, there would be no science and there would be no society.

Modern science, then, need not be cold and impersonal. Instead, there’s good reason for it not to be. Einstein put it this way: “It would be possible to describe everything scientifically [i.e., objectively], but it would make no sense; it would be without meaning, as if you described a Beethoven symphony as a variation of wave pressure.” I believe that as we review the animal-human interface, the gap will begin to be bridged when we acknowledge, in the words of wildlife biol-ogist and writer Douglas Chadwick, that “when scientists warn about the dangers of anthropomorphism, what they are really concerned about are the dangers of breaking through into new and uncertain ground…that it amounts to the same old fear of upsetting established ways of looking at the world that has always stymied the practitioners of science.” Yes, we will make mistakes when, based on our own feelings, we make claims about the feelings of animals. But let’s not make the mistake of denying that their feelings could be remarkably similar to ours, or worse, that they don’t have feelings at all. Anyone who owns a dog, who has spent time with elephants, chimpanzees, baboons, dolphins, or killer whales knows that these creatures express what we sometimes call the sophisticated emotions of delight, joy, disappointment, even embarrassment, and that they grieve. And when it comes to our relationship with wild animals, we quickly discover that there is a difference between habituation and trust. Why not say so? Whose permission are we waiting for to enter that uncertain ground where the voice of our wild relatives will be heard? How long is it going to take to acknowledge that there is indeed a menagerie within each of us…a wolf, a hyena, a lion…a wild man and a wild woman?


It is likely that the next blind spot to what is being proposed will come from those who feel that poetry has nothing to do with them. Poetry, they will tell you, is for the poets and the physicists. “We have more pressing issues to deal with…we are not interested in poetry and besides, we don’t like poetry,” they will say. Agree with them and then tell them, in these selected lines, what the poet Marianne Moore says about that…

I, too, dislike it: there are things that are
important beyond all this fiddle.

Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it,
one discovers in it after all,
a place for guidance…

That, surely, is the whole point: we need guidance. Tell them that poetry redresses the balance of things. Quick to add weight to the lighter scale, it is the poet in us who knows when things are unbalanced. Tell them that poets are the best watchdogs of the wild.

Poetry is a mirror—it asks us to look at ourselves. Where are you in this powerful poem, “The Fable of the Mermaid and the Drunks,” by Pablo Neruda?

All these men were there inside
when she entered, utterly naked.

They had been drinking and began to spit at her.

Recently come from the river, she understood nothing.

She was a mermaid who had lost her way.

The taunts flowed over her glistening flesh.

Obscenities drenched her golden breasts.

A stranger to tears, she did not weep.

A stranger to clothes, she did not dress.

They pocked her with cigarette ends and with burnt corks, and rolled on the tavern floor with laughter.

She did not speak, since speech was unknown to her.

Her eyes were the color of faraway love, her arms were matching topazes.

Her lips moved soundlessly in the coral light
and ultimately she left by that door.

Scarcely had she entered the river than she was cleansed, gleaming once more like a white stone in the rain;

and without a backward look, she swam once more,
swam toward nothingness, swam to her dying.

I wonder if there is anyone who has not at some stage in their lives identified with that mermaid and perhaps, at another stage, with the drunks? The poem is a clear reminder that unfamiliar ideas are bound to be rejected, sometimes brutally. It is also a reminder that you have to learn how to “dress,” to learn the language of the corporate body, of conservation and management boardrooms, if you are to make the notion of an ecological intelligence understandable and workable. At the same time, it is crucial that you do not disparage those who hold a different view of Nature. Do not underestimate the intelligence of the other.

If you are interested in what is raw and genuine, then you are interested in poetry, says Marianne Moore. I agree with her but right now, wherever you are, I am interested in your poetry. I am interested in those first wild and awkward words that find their way through your pen or pencil onto that first page of your notebook. I want to know whether you can see the moon not only as a satellite of the Earth, but as a daughter in a tidal dance around her mother, or perhaps a migrant with a scarred belly, and whether or not animals can find their way into your skin? Just write it down…


I want you to see the moon
as a migrant,
to say yes to those pathways of scars
through which animals curve their way
into your skin
and to know that a hungry belly
is a wild thing

I want to know what it is that dies in you and what it is that resurrects when an animal or a forest dies or vanishes, forever. Could you put this down on paper, please?

Poetry is about learning to look and to write with both eyes—the one that measures and the one that refuses to be measured. If you are doing formal research writing, make space in your reports to describe the feeling that might come over you when you enter a forest or when you engage with an animal. Yours might not be the first technical report that describes a loss of a sense of proportion when surrounded by a herd of elephants or a flock of carmine bee-eaters. You will not be the first to include poetry or to describe the sense of the sacred in a dissertation, but you will be the first to do it in your own unforgettable way. Better that you let the poetry write you. Let it take you to that edge, to where there are no subjects and objects, and let it bring you back again. Look carefully at what you have written and afterwards, if you hear yourself saying, “Where the hell did that come from?” then it is likely that what you have written is poetry.

Poetry is disarming. It challenges the limits of objective reality. It goes straight for the heart. It speaks to a forgotten side of ourselves. It rages. It protects. It is noble. “It is a violence from within that protects us from a violence without,” says poet Wallace Stevens. It heals. “It speaks like the rain,” said Karen Blixen. It is a “requiem for a broken world”—the title of this poem by Barbara Fairhead:

This is a song
of loss and betrayal,
of broken things
and endings.

This is a song
of ancestral memories
of ancient covenants
and forgetting.

There is a rage in me,
and a sorrow
and a song of grief
so deep and full,
my soul suffers the singing.

There is a wound in me
that shall not heal
the deep wound of the kingdom,
the wound of your kind

There is a wound in me that shall not heal, says Fairhead. For her, it is not a wound that cannot heal. Instead, it is deliberately left open and raw in order that it may be felt and mourned for first. Even the finest of poets knows that there are places into which words cannot reach, says Stephen Watson. And so to mourn, he says, is one of the most exacting forms of inner work that a human being can undertake, and to grieve is the prerequisite of all healing. It is what this book is ultimately about.

Poetry is a language of hope. It inspires. It heals. It belongs. It is a wild gift. It goes for the jugular, like this poem by Mary Oliver, who pointedly tells us what we need to do if we are to rediscover ourselves in Nature:

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting,

You only have to let the soft animal of your body
Love what it loves.

Whoever you are no matter how lonely,
The world offers itself to your imagination,
Calls to you like the wild geese,
Harsh and exciting, over and over again,
Announcing your place in the family of things.


For some, because of the usual religious connotations of words like spirit and soul, the notion of ecological intelligence is bound to be off-putting. My response to this blind spot would be to offer a line from poet John Keats: “Call the world, if you please, the ‘vale of soul making,’ then you will find out the use of the world.”

Taken literally, the word religion comes from the Latin root derivative ligare, which means “to bind” or “to connect.” If an ecological intelligence promotes a sense of connection or relatedness to the other, or if it sees the world as a vale of soul making, then the answer has to be yes—it is religious. I think we are all in some way “religious,” for it would appear that we cannot survive without a sense of connection, be it to one single living thing, to something wild, to a landscape, a domestic animal, an invisible deity, or to the memory of someone we once loved. What is more, that ancient sense of relatedness to the other has been with us for a long, long time, for as E. O. Wilson writes:

People need a sacred narrative. They must have a sense of larger purpose, in one form or another, however intellectualized. They will refuse to yield to the despair of animal mortality. They will find a way to keep the ancestral spirits alive. If the sacred narrative cannot be in the form of a religious cosmology, it will be taken from the material history of the universe and from the human species. That trend is in no way debasing. The true evolutionary epic, retold as poetry, is as intrinsically ennobling as any religious epic.

To me there is something both soulful and sacred in the knowledge that there is a wolf in me…and a fox…and a fish.

If a sense of the sacred is included in the definition of religion, then the answer again is yes—ecological intelligence is religious, for it looks for the sacred in things. A sense of the sacred is not some kind of sentimental whim and neither should it be seen as “a frivolous side issue next to the ‘real’ concerns of hard science and economics,” says Herbert Schroeder.

It is deeply historical, deeply psychological, and deeply human.

It must be remembered that there are many people who do not associate themselves with any officially recognized religion but who never-theless have a deep and genuine sense of the sacred in certain forests, in wilderness areas, and in the powerful notion that some things are simply not for sale. It is therefore crucial that we understand that the threat to the existence of wild nature is also a threat to the central spiritual value of many people’s lives and that it will be met with fear, then anger, and then defiance. We must be careful, says Yeats, in these poignant lines:

I have spread my dreams under your feet;

Tread softly, because you tread on my dreams.

On the other hand, ecological intelligence is not a religion. It is without dogma or prescription. It is a personal discovery that you and I are deeply rooted in the history of our planet and that we have a debt to repay for what we have done to it. It is to discover that we exist in a vast web of life and that every creature, in its own way, is a soul maker. And it is not about being lovable. It is about being elemental, as D. H. Lawrence might have put it, true to one’s own variations as water is. It is an attitude reflecting a commitment to a sense of authenticity, of learning to speak for one’s self, of remembering your ancient name. In these lines from Stephen Watson’s interpretation of the bushman poem “What Is Your Name,” how would you answer the homesick Kalahari hunter?

Your name, your real !Xam name,
what is it? Call it for me,
say it out loud for me that I may hear once more
its sound—what it is like.

Tell me, what is your name,
your true !Xam name?

Call it, say it for me.

I long to hear it now, the sound that it will make.

And do not tell me stories.

Do not deceive me.

Talk only our own !Xam
that I can truly hear you,
how you speak our only tongue.

But you, a !Xam like us,
you do not tell us plainly.

The country that is yours—
what is its name? I say again:

tell me where you come from.

And so, what is your name? Where do you stand? Where is your voice?


Another blind spot to ecological intelligence reflects the belief that decisions pertaining to our natural resources have little or nothing to do with the public and that ecological decisions are best left in the hands of the “experts.” I have already outlined the powerful subjective, archetypal responses that are sometimes evoked in a public that does not agree with what it regards as the sometimes high-handed deci-sion and policy making, not only in conservation biology, but in other fields such as politics and medical health. A doctor might be an expert with respect to the diagnosis and management of a particular pathology, but he should be careful never to underestimate the intelligence of his patients. Their skepticism, but more than that, their criticism, is good for us. We need more than their signatures to take them along what we deem to be the appropriate path or course of action—we need their participation.

Scientists appreciate how important it is to present their work to the public and this alone is good reason to listen to their protest. They are not all misinformed or ignorant. Linked to the powerful evolutionary dynamics of fair play, protest does not necessarily reflect or respond to classical reasoning and rational persuasion. But this does not make it wrong. If anything, because it is so often vindicated, it would appear to have its own rationale. We must welcome it. Protest is often the key to the unlocking of hidden agendas, a reminder that every policy is worth a review. It should also be a reminder that the first rule of scientific investigation is to ensure that one’s mind is not clouded by prejudice—a necessary prerequisite for distinguishing non-science from nonsense.

In spite of its intentions and its successes, the hierarchy of advanced science carries an inevitable shadow of which we need to be aware. As Louis Liebenberg says, it comes in the form of authoritarian elitism, an attitude that distances people with less background knowledge from both the advances and the limitations of science. What do they know? is a classical shadow question. We should also be asking What is it that we don’t know? As scientists, we need to be aware that our way of thinking is not the only school of thought and that in certain situations, even when we believe that we are right, it could be no more right than any other value system.

I think we need to become a lot more egalitarian in our attitude to the public. Egalitarianism does not mean that all things and all people are equal either in strength, or knowledge, or in intellect. Instead, it is a belief in the high value of equality and of the desirability of removing inequalities. It is an attitude that is both purposeful and democratic, one that reaches out with the intention not only of bringing out the best in the other but of learning from that other. And that means learning from the layman, the children, the forests, and the animals.

The writings of Scottish psychiatrist R. D. Laing, for instance, are a profound reminder that our psychiatric descriptions of the behavior of people occur in a behavioral field that includes the psychiatrist. “The behavior of the patient,” he writes, “is to some extent a function of the behavior of the psychiatrist.” Laing, in a way, was referring to the observer effect in quantum physics. He was therefore cautioning us to be careful of who or what we label as dumb, stupid, or insane.

The dynamics of the doctor-patient relationship is not that different from any relationship, be it human-human, individual-public, or human-animal. In other words, we have to understand the existential position of the other, where they’re coming from, and how they experience us. History has shown that there will always be missing information in our decision making and that they, our psychiatric patients, the uninformed public, or a herd of elephants, can, when we are willing to listen, teach us a lot about themselves and about us—the so-called experts.

For the record, here is a statement from an “authority” on wild animal behavior. It comes from a 1956 report by the then director of the Uganda National Parks, who, in a damning and subjective statement, unwittingly declared his lack of understanding of the African wild dog, Lycaon pictus.

Wild dogs hunt in packs, killing wantonly, far more than they need for food and by methods of utmost cruelty. They do not kill quickly as the lion does but often start to devour the antelope which is his victim before its life is extinct. They do more damage than almost any other carnivore, for whenever they enter a particular stretch of country, the disturbance they cause is so great, that for the time being, all buck are driven out. A particularly unpleasant characteristic is that they will, without hesitation, turn upon any member of the pack that falls by the way through wound or sickness and show no reluctance to consume their own kind.

From what we know about wild dogs today, this statement is frighteningly subjective and misleading. They will certainly fight with dogs from another pack, but they do not turn on and devour members of their own. Their manner of hunting is anything but cruel. It is quick and efficient. What is more, their prey is shared and the order of eating is determined by the age of the individual members of the pack—the yearlings go first, followed by the adults, who, if there are cubs at the den, will regurgitate portions of meat for them upon their return. There is nothing unpleasant about wild dogs at all. Unrelated to wolves and domestic dogs in terms of evolutionary bloodlines, they serve as a model for the human animal when it comes to teamwork and care of the young. Sadly, they are highly sensitive to diseases such as canine distemper and therefore, to the encroachment of human populations on their ranges. Is it any wonder that there are only about three thou-sand wild dogs left in Africa?

Public participation and, with it, public protest has to be under-stood as essential, for one reason more than any other—responsibility and vigilance becomes shared. If protest is silenced, as it so often is, it does not mean that it has disappeared. It might take a long time, but it will be heard again. Anyone with a reasonable sense of political history will vouch for that. Any psychologist will tell you that unexpressed dissatisfaction or anger turns inward, often predisposing to depression and demotivation in the one who is silenced. However, with time, as Rilke reminds us, the children will go out in search of the church that the fathers have forgotten. A classic example of this was the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. It was impossible for that wall to remain standing—it had already come down in the minds of the younger generation of East Berliners. The forgotten church was on the other side of that wall.


A likely objection to the notion of ecological intelligence concerns the significance of dreams. In chapter three, I wrote that it was impossible to understand the admonition of Apollo—know thyself—without an understanding of our dreams. Whether we understand them or not, our dreams are a reality. We have them, or perhaps they have us.

No one who has had the privilege of owning a dog would deny that our canine companions dream. Watching their twitching—often accompanied by plaintive high-pitched calls—as they sleep, one can almost picture them chasing rabbits or squirrels in some ancient field of hide-and-seek. What need would there be for such an animal to dream, we might ask? Perhaps it is this—to reinforce the survival strategies, the vigilance, and the other wild instincts in our otherwise thoroughly domesticated pets. Could this be the reason why human animals dream?

Freud once said that dreams are the royal road to the unconscious, and if this is so, as many therapists believe it to be, then it is a road well worth exploring. When viewed from an evolutionary perspective, they can be seen as an essential language of Nature—a primal correspondence. To me, our dreams are poems from the unconscious. They say yes and no. They affect us. They color our nights and, when we learn to acknowledge them, our days too. Our dreams are homeostatic and mindful. They modify, motivate, remind, reward, warm, warn, and deflate us. They keep us in touch with our feelings.

In this light, it is likely that we dream because we need to. “If sleeping and dreaming do not perform vital biological functions, then they must represent nature’s most stupid blunder and most colossal waste of time,” say Anthony Stevens and John Price in their thought-provoking book Evolutionary Psychiatry. Freud also believed that in addition to their symbolic significance, dreams were “the guardians of sleep and not its disturbers.”

Irrespective of how dreams are interpreted, sleep research has shown that our mental health suffers without them. It appears that it is not so much sleep deprivation but dream-phase deprivation that affects us. Dreams are intimately associated with specific chemicals and structures in the mammalian brain as well as with certain phases or periods of sleep. And sleep is not a passive process either, a time in our day when we like to think that the brain switches off. It is precisely the opposite. The brain, through increased nocturnal electrochemical activity in the evolutionarily older brain stem, liter-ally switches on. As a result of this measurable activity, a remarkable physiological phase of sleep, common to all mammals and known as RE M or rapid eye movement sleep, is initiated. Accompanied by f lickering eye movements as well as a deep relaxing of the muscles, particularly those around the head and neck, RE M sleep in humans begins about an hour after sleep onset. Throughout the night it alternates with non-RE M sleep, but the alternating patterns vary from person to person and with age. Newborn infants, for instance, spend about half of their sleeping time in RE M phase, while the average for adults is about 25 percent.

A significant aspect of RE M sleep is that 75 percent of our dreaming occurs in this phase, and until fairly recently, many sleep researchers believed that RE M sleep and dreams were synonymous. Based on this belief and on the fact that RE M activity is generated in the lowly brain stem, these same scientists saw dreams as mindless or, to put it more politely, as having no intrinsic value. As we shall see, support for this theory is diminishing, for there are those, like neuropsychologist Mark Solms, who regard dreams as anything but mindless. “What about non-RE M dreams?” he asks, knowing that at least another 25 percent of our dreams occur before and after the onset of RE M sleep, with some of our most vivid dreams occurring in the non-RE M phase before we awaken. His research shows that non-RE M dreams are generated not in the brain stem but in the forebrain, giving them a home in the more evolved parts of our brains as well. What is more, the neurochemicals secreted are significantly different from those involved in RE M dreams. In RE M dreams, the main chemicals are acetylcholine, nore-pinephrine, and serotonin with acetylcholine in the dominant role. In non-RE M dreams, the dominant neurotransmitter is dopamine.

So what, you may ask? What is special about dopamine? Dopamine is the prime biochemical ingredient for seeking, striving, exploratory, predatory, and anticipatory behavior in humans and other animals, and as such, do our dreams have anything to do with seeking behavior? I believe they do. But for what, in our dreams, are we seeking? Surely, in an evolutionary light and with the defensive waking ego out of the way it is for what we anticipate or what we might need to examine, pursue, or prioritize in our lives. Could our dreams be part of a persistent, predatorlike search for cohesion and meaning? Often the same theme comes up time and again. It is as if the unconscious, that great wilderness of the psyche, wants us to know something, and until we pay attention to them, it will not let us go. Pay attention to your dreams. Honor the gods, said Apollo. Like poetry, they redress the imbalances in our lives. Our psychological integrity and, who knows, even our survival could depend on them. Freud may have been right when he said that many of our dreams are wish fulfillments—being rewarded with what we cannot have, or for what we are not prepared (for social and for other reasons) in our waking reality. Sometimes, for the sake of what is expedient, our dream world is precisely where the dream should remain. Nevertheless, ignoring them, said Jung, is like refusing to open a letter that has been addressed to you. What follows is an example of how important a dream can be. It was brought to me by one of my patients at a time when he had to make a choice about a change of career.

Thoroughly bored with his life and with his work, he dreamt that he was relaxing in a dry riverbed, somewhere in the African bush. Suddenly an antelope, chased by a predator, leapt into the sand not far from him. Then came the predator. It was a lion, a huge and powerful specimen, kicking up columns of gravel as it chased the antelope toward the opposite bank. “I knew that if the lion saw me, then it was all over,” he said. That is exactly what happened. “Turning its attention to me, it advanced in a low, crouching gait. In a state of fear, I raised my right arm to protect myself but it was soon upon me.” Instead of mauling him, the lion gently closed its jaws around his arm and the dreamer knew that if he resisted, it would kill him. It then pulled him out of the riverbed and let him go. Leaving him unharmed, he watched the great animal saunter away until it had disappeared into the surrounding forest. The man awakened, his heart racing. The dream image stayed with him for days. What was it trying to tell him? This is what we concluded: the dream was an accurate reflection of what had become of him in his work. It was as if he was in a dry riverbed; there was no flow to his work and to his creativity. He needed to get out of his situation. He needed to change.

But what role did the lion play in his dream? What wild, archetypal image of Nature was this? In other words, what did the lion represent in him? And why did it let him go? Reading up on lion behavior, my patient came to understand the lion as an aspect of himself—a representation of what is wild, strong, instinctive, and territorial in him—something that he had neglected. The lion was there to help him to get back on track with his vocation and, for the sake of his psychological health, he dare not resist. Animated by the dream image, he made the change. Accepting a post as a university lecturer brought for him a newfound sense of creativity and fulfillment. My patient did not choose the dream. Primed by his psychic situation, it is as if the dream, as a guiding image, chose him.

Do dream images have the same meaning for everyone? The answer is no. While there may be certain shared cross-cultural interpretations of dream images, strictly speaking, dreams are not interpreted—they are analyzed. A lion or a snake in a dream could represent different things to different people, but that is only a part of the analysis. The most important part of a dream concerns the context, the timing, and the meaning of the dream for the one who dreams it. In other words, why did that person have that particular dream at that particular time, and what did it mean to him or her? The word analysis is made up of the prefix ana, meaning “up,” “out,” “back,” “throughout,” and the suffix -lysis, which means “to loosen.” In the analysis, then, the dream is thoroughly loosened. It is then remembered, which is to say, it is put together again in a way that is both understandable and meaningful to that individual.

Another important aspect of dream analysis is that the analyst be aware of what is happening in his or her own life when a patient brings a dream into a session. In other words, is the patient’s dream intended for me also…is this a dream that I could have had? Absurd? Why should it be? Are we not a social species? And if we acknowledge that we live in a field of influence or that the unconscious dynamics of the human psyche are historical and shared, would it not make sense that the dreams of those closest to us in our lives and in our work could have something to say about all of us? If this sounds plausible, then what about the dreams of field-workers, game rangers, trackers, politicians, and policy makers? If dreams are the language of the unconscious, or a language of survival, should we not at least have some interest in what our collective psyches may be telling us?

The difficulty in promoting the language of dreams will be the same as that of promoting poetry as a way of rediscovering our-selves in Nature. The engaged parties, says Seamus Heaney,

are not going to be grateful for a mere image—no matter how inventive or original—of the field of force of which they are a part. They will want poetry [or dreams] to be an exercise of leverage on behalf of their point of view; they will require the entire weight of the redress to come down heavily on their side of the scales. Their general desire will be for simplification.

This is understandable, of course, but poetry and dreams are not intended to simplify. Instead, they should be seen as assisting us to unravel the complex reality that surrounds us and out of which our dreams and poems are generated.

Can you imagine a management meeting that commences, not with a prayer but with the remembering of a dream…or both?


“And how shall we find the kingdom of heaven?”
the disciples asked.

“Follow the birds and the beasts,” came the reply.

“They will show you the way.”

Saint Thomas, The Apocryphal Gospels