This week I thought I would post some of my writing on the concept of the importance of nurturing ecological intelligence through creative expression and direct nature experience.  This is not about Howard Gardner’s naturalist intelligence, that is  future post to look forward to! This piece was a response to the book Ecological Intelligence: Rediscovering Ourselves in Nature by Ian McCallum. He is a South African psychologist turned naturalist poet. It wonderfully balances science and sentiment toward the human relationship with the natural world as well as exploring the modern human’s relationship with “the wild.” If this writing piques your interest, or you already have an interest in nature poetry, I highly recommend reading the book! Enjoy!

Ecological Intelligence

Ecological Intelligence

April, 2011

“Have we forgotten/ that wilderness is not a place,/but a pattern of soul/ where every tree, every bird and beast/ is a soul maker?” (XI).  Ian McCallum is the author of the poem, Wilderness, from which this stanza is taken, but is also a psychologist, novelist, medical doctor, and author of the book Ecological Intelligence: Rediscovering Ourselves in Nature.  In his text he urges the readers to reconnect to the wilderness within and without, not wildness as in “savagery” (McCallum 2) he is quick to clarify, but the genetic part of the human animal that houses our “ecological intelligence”.  The author specifically defines ecological intelligence as being “…an act of weaving and unweaving our reflections of ourselves on Earth…” (20) and states that it is “…a way of understanding and articulating our evolutionary links with all living things…and the contribution of wild things to the evolution of human consciousness” (212).  By comparing this natural reconnection to poetry (as an action) throughout the text, McCallum says that like poetry the human connection to nature “comes alive between yes and no, between what is and what is not, between science and non-science” (20).  The fact that our world is in a “Human-Nature split” (4) is part of our current environmental predicament, but he encourages the reader that through the act of thinking about science like a poet, we can heal the “split” within human culture, thereby healing the damage humans have inflicted onto the Earth and all its species.  In order for this healing to happen, we “civilized” humans must not be afraid to embrace our wildness and what is left of the wilderness.

“The earth doesn’t need healing, we do” (2).  This bold statement sums up this book.  McCallum’s work as a South African doctor and psychologist and his naturalist lifestyle has resulted in this conclusion.  He is committed to the belief that “with few exceptions we have become the victims of our intellectual success” (211).  Our technological developments have yet to be seen in “an evolutionary light-how is it being used, where is it taking us and at what cost to our relationship with wild nature” (117) and as a result human culture has become “ecologically unintelligent” (1) and is stuck in a “lethal environmental lethargy” (69).  McCallum looks at the degradation not only from the eyes of a doctor but, from the eyes of a poet with hope and wonder.  He believes that if individual humans can remember how to “look at a green leaf differently, to see the science and poetry in it, to be aware that you and the leaf are linked,” (141) that then we can re-evolve human culture in ways that allow for all animals (humans included) to live in a mutually beneficial, ecologically intelligent manner.

From living in the wilds of South Africa, McCallum had the fortune of experiencing tribal life and wilderness from a young age.  He learned to see.  Throughout this work he references the similarities between how human brain patterns mirroring wild animal behavior.  This became apparent to him after many hours of quietly seeing wild nature.  McCallum attributes this mirroring to the genetics of neurological development and evolution in mammals (105) and that by embracing our innate animal wisdom, we as human animals can reverse the current path of extinction we are following. 

“Have we forgotten/ that wilderness is not a place/ but a moving feast of stars,/ footprints, scales and beginnings?” (XI).  THroughout the entire book McCallum seamlessly intertwines poetry, medical science, Nguni tribal wisdom, Jungian psychology, and his own experience of nature awareness into a work of fact and theory, of history and recommendation for the future.  I understood that he wants the reader to feel the present necessity of implementing a lifestyle of holistic action that benefits all life.  He wants humans to “…have a sense of being in conversation with the invisible aspects of our existence” (142) and once that happens a person becomes ecological intelligence.  

Once a person is ecologically intelligent, their actions will reflect their conscious connection with all life.  It is a revamping of the human lifestyle.  McCallum makes it clear that humans no longer have the luxury of believing “that ecological decisions are best left in the hands of the ‘experts’” (162).  That thinking has yet to serve us and is what has gotten human society into a “Human-Nature split” (2).  We must balance our logical minds and our desires to produce and consume with our species’ evolutionary desire to survive.  We must question every part of human culture and develop discipline regarding our wants and needs.  “The environmental pressures of our time could be the very pressure behind a new evolutionary leap…a consciousness and an intelligence that can redefine our sense of history, our sense of Nature, and out sense of coexistence” (148).

“To begin/ to know wilderness, something in me had to come alive-/ my wild side,…/(7).  McCallum’s work gained my respect for two reasons: he surprised me and he was genuine.  I expected this book to be dry and scientific, but he surprises the reader from the start when he begins with his poem Wilderness and follows throughout the book with his original poetry.  I was also surprised that I liked the use of poetic metaphor because I usually am not a huge fan of poetry.  This is where his genuine ideas emerge.  He was honest with the reader.  He urges the reader to approach our environmental issues with the eyes of a poet and then let us see with his eyes through his poetry.  This created a convincing argument because he was already doing what he was suggesting, his conviction proved it was working for him, and then he backed each idea up with science.  Being an artist, I understood his way of seeing immediately and related to his technique easily, so I am a biased audience.  I did not need the scientific back up to be convinced, but I do find evolutionary neuroscience quite fascinating and useful for convincing those who may not be seeing yet.  Like McCallum, I believe that we can “rediscover ourselves in nature” (118) and that it can happen by changing the way in which we see the world.  I find his observational links between human brain patterning and animal behavior encouraging and proof that by attuning to this we can save our species, and furthermore the Earth, from our path towards extinction.  While, like McCallum, I am not convinced that the majority of human population is ready to renounce their immediate wants for the greater species needs, I do believe many people are looking for resolution, in spiritual and scientific arenas, to the question of the environment and humanity’s fate.  I agree that to find resolution we must look to science with spiritual eyes, therefore re-attuning our “ecological intelligence.”

The sect population that may be a challenge for McCallum to convince would be the strict Christians.  This book is a champion of evolution and of humans as animals.  While he does state that, “If a sense of the sacred is included in the definition of religion then…ecological intelligence is religious, for it looks for the sacred in things” (160).  The sacred may not be enough for some to overlook the author’s Darwinian allegiance.  I tested out this suspicion on a neighbor of mine.  He is a forty-six year old outdoorsy bachelor, raised Catholic, who has recently been in a mid-life crisis of faith.  I thought his response to the book might be interesting, so I engaged in a light conversation about the book regarding the theme of “ecological intelligence” and how humans can learn form animal behavior.  He was in agreement with the idea that some animals have “intelligence.”  I then showed him the book’s animals/ human fetus evolution chart (53) which shows four stages of fetus development of a cow, pig, rabbit, and human and how they are nearly identical in the early stages.  This neighbor’s response was, “Yeah, but we don’t end up the same,” and he walked away, ending the conversation.  I know he has respect for nature, but he could not yet feel comfortable seeing it as part of himself, thereby rendering him “ecologically unintelligent” according to McCallum’s standards.  The “Human-Nature split” was in living color.  While this example does not quite portray Darwin’s theories as expressed in the text, it did illustrate to me how many people are uncomfortable admitting that we are as biologically close to animals as science proves.  This is the gap that I believe we must continue to bridge, we must find various ways to reach all populations and inspire their “ecological intelligence.”  This book may not completely fulfill that job, but it is an excellent spiritual and scientific reference for those without aversion to evolutionary theory.

The author suspects that resistance to “ecological intelligence” is derived from the idea that “it is subjective, anthropomorphic, and therefore unscientific” (149).  I believe McCallum debunks this suspicion himself with the amount of scientific fact he balances with myth.  He is very clear in the writing that he is aware of when he is becomes “romantic” (20) or poetic regarding the human and nature relationship and clearly is not presenting an abandoning of the modern lifestyle, just a restructuring of priorities.  While he provides science to back his “romantic” notions, seeing and thinking about environmental problems with the heart, as a poet would, is always validated as equally as the scientific fact. 

This consistent validation of the feeling, of the perspective of the artist and poet is what I found to be the strength of this book.  McCallum gives a valuable voice to those who feel the joy of nature connection or the pain of the “split.”  He provides a sense of authority to our evolutionary predisposition to want to be connected to nature and why we feel a mysterious loss when we become disconnected from nature’s cycles.  The idea that others are working hard to help humans see inspires me to continue to work to inspire others to reconnect.  Ecological Intelligence encourages me to think about my actions with the consideration of how all life may be impacted by my decisions and to embrace that within me that is wild.  “Have we forgotten/ that wilderness is not a place,/ but a season/ and that we are in its final hour?” (XI).           


 Works Cited

McCallum, Ian. Ecological Intelligence: Rediscovering Ourselves in Nature. Golden, CO: Fulcrum, 2008. Print.


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