Nina Munteanu Talks About “A Diary in the Age of Water” with Sustainably Geeky

Jackson Creek swells in early winter, ON (photo and dry brush rendition by Nina Munteanu)

I appeared recently on the Sustainably Geeky Podcast Episode 34 “We’re in Hot Water” to talk with host Jennifer Hetzel about my latest eco-novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” published by Inanna Publications

Here is their blurb about the episode:

“In this bonus episode, we continue our conversation with limnologist and cli-fi author Nina Munteanu. We discuss her book A Diary in the Age of Water and what led her to write this dystopian tale of a future that revolves around water scarcity. Nina’s background as a limnologist gives her a unique perspective on the challenges that await us if we do not address climate change.”

Click below to listen:

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto.  Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

When Nature Destroys … and Creates

Cedar roots dusted in winter snow, Jackson Creek Park, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

It’s late December in the old-growth riparian forest of Jackson Creek, Peterborough. A light snow is falling on the cedars. When I walk by the creek through this deep forest, my senses reach out like tendrils, touching the mysteries of Nature’s complexity. To my right, the river’s multi-timbral chorus gurgles and chortles in chaotic symphony. Occasionally, I hear the percussion of ice cracking and booming like a designer rearranging furniture. The cedar pine forest sloping up to my left hisses and giggles as the snow falls and melts. My footfalls crunch over a frozen sponge of litter and loam. Nature’s sounds and aromas coarse through me like sweet nectar and my soul rejoices. I quiet my mind and become one with all of it. Serene in discovery. In sensing. Feeling. Embedding. I’m awestruck with the simple beauty of complex form, pattern and purpose: from the tiniest moss covering a boulder erratic to the largest cedar trees creaking and swaying above me in the whisper of a brisk winter wind. 

Today is different. 

I see something unexpected. A skull.

Red fox skull embedded in frozen shore of Jackson Creek, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I’ve been following the icing of Jackson Creek. Huge ice “islands” have formed over boulders, creating new channels for the freezing water to coarse around. I stop near a small tributary of the river to study the formation of ice “pearls” on either side of an ice-formed channel. I venture out onto an ice shelf and set up my small tripod to take slow shots of water magic. The sun paints the water a brilliant turquoise hue.

Jackson Creek with ice formation on shore, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Breathing hard from my efforts and satisfied with the shots I’ve taken, I stand up and step back from the shore. It’s then, as I look down to where I’ve placed my feet, that I see it. A small white “rock”—No! A skull! Embedded in the frozen leaf litter and ground, not more than several centimetres from the frozen shore of the river, lies an animal skull the size of my hand with a long snout. How have I managed not to step on it and crush it with all my tramping there? I must have stepped past it several times to get to my photo op. I bend low to get a better look. What is it doing there? Who—or what—had brought it there, depositing it on the creek shore?

I returned the next day, eager to show my discovery to friend and naturalist Merridy; she suggested it was a red fox. Excited, I returned the following day with a ruler to measure it and a trowel and some hot water to help me extricate it for better examination. A light snow had fallen the night before but the top of the skull was still visible. I removed the snow and the skull came out of the ground rather easily, revealing several back teeth still embedded in it. While the skull was mostly intact, the lower jaw was missing and a loose tooth lay on the ground below it. I removed my prize and brought it home. After cleaning it with some bleach, I examined it further.

Red fox skull, left to right: front, back, ventral aspects (photos by Nina Munteanu)

The skull showed no signs of trauma or injuries to the head. I guessed that while this fox was an adult, it was young; the teeth that were there were in excellent condition. The skull measured 133 mm from end of snout to external occipital protuberance (inion). The average skull length of an adult male measures 129 to 167 mm and vixens 128-159 mm. Steve Harris in BBC’s Discover Wildlife tells us that dog foxes also tend to have broader and more domed skulls than vixens; my skull was rather sleek, I thought. From this I guessed that the skull belonged to a young adult female, a vixen. Statistics for fox deaths also favoured a young fox (see below). 

MeasurementValue
Skull LengthInion to prosthion133 mm
Skull widthWidest interzygomatic distance70 mm
Facial lengthNasion to prosthion63 mm
Facial widthWidest interzygomatic distance45 mm
Cranial lengthInion to nasion79 mm
Cranial widthWidest interparietal distance47 mm
Cranial heightMiddle of external acoustic meatus to bregma43 mm
Red fox skull, lateral aspect (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I couldn’t help wondering about this fox which had appeared as if by magic at my feet. What was Vera Vixen’s story? (Somewhere between bringing her home and cleaning her, I decided to name her). How did Vera meet her demise and where was the rest of her? Had the skull recently washed onshore or was it recently brought to the shore by a scavenging racoon, badger(they’re more common in this area than most people think) or another fox? Or had the skull been there longer and the winter ice and water just washed away the litter to reveal the embedded skull? Was it a death of misadventure? Had Vixen drowned when Jackson Creek flooded? Or was she hit by a car at the edge of the park, torn up by scavengers and her skull brought here to eat? Jake McGown-Lowe of BBC’s The One Showshares that “Fox bones are hard to find.” He had found his specimens at the edge of a wood. “In the countryside the main predator of foxes are farmers and gamekeepers, especially around lambing time, and the gamekeepers usually take the bodies away to dispose of… Be careful with the canine teeth because they easily fall out.” Jackson Creek is an urban park. Thirty percent of its perimeter is surrounded by urban and suburban streets of Peterborough; sixty percent of the park is surrounded by farmland and some marsh at its upstream end. A Bristol University study on cub survival determined that major sources of mortality included hypothermia, attack by domestic dogs, attack by badgers, and death of the mother. 

Red fox skull, dorsal side (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Various hunters have indicated that in a temperate climate it takes several weeks to several years for decomposers (insects, fungi and bacteria) to clean a skull left in the elements of nature. Temperature, humidity, presence of insects and water play key roles in the process of skeletonization. The skull at my feet could have died as recently as the fall of 2020 and as long ago as spring of 2019 during lambing season. Had Vera been shot or poisoned (including indirectly through scavenging) as she hunted for her kits? 

Bristol University estimated that two thirds of the fox population die each year by predators (including humans), disease and vehicles with the single largest cause of fox mortality being through road collisions.An Oxford study corroborated this with observations that 60% of the fox population were run-over by vehicles. Apparently most of the fox deaths are the young.In their 2004 review of the red fox, David Macdonald and Jonathan Reynolds at Oxford noted that “roughly 75% of the fox population die in their first year.” Studies in Europe have also shown that three to seven-month old foxes are most susceptible to traffic collisions—associated with the cub’s increase in ranging behaviour around the den and their lack of experience—and larger propensity for misadventure.

BBC Wildlife Magazine tells us that “spring is a good time to look for mammal skulls. The end of winter is a peak period of mortality for many species, and skulls can be found virtually anywhere.”

Red fox pups in refuge park in Delaware (photo by Jennifer Cross, USFWS)

The red fox (Vulpes vulpes) is one of Canada’s most widespread mammals, living in a wide range of habitats including forests, grasslands, meadows and farmland. Known for their ability to adapt quickly to new environments, foxes have adapted well to urban settings and ecotones between city and wilderness; in fact, they prefer mixed vegetation communities such as edge habitats and mixed scrub and woodland. They are highly athletic, agile and incredibly fast (they can run up to 30 mph); foxes are known for pouncing on mice and other small rodents, burrowing in the snow using the earth’s magnetic field to help them hunt. Foxes have good visual acuity, capable of seeing small movements from far away and for navigating dense forests as they sprint after prey; but their most useful sense is their ultrasonic hearing. Treehugger reported on a 2014 study by the University of Duisburg-Essen and Czech University of Life Sciences who discovered that “red foxes have the best known maximal absolute hearing sensitivity of any mammal. They can hear a mouse squeak from 100 feet away.”This along with their ability to move swiftly and quietly through most terrain makes them effective crepuscular (dawn and dusk) predators in open country and nocturnal hunters in areas of concentrated human habitation. Foxes generally live an average of 3-7 years in the wild.

Foxes are monogamous. They live in family units in which both parents take equal part in raising their young. Older siblings also care for the young pups. The young kits remain with their parents at least until the fall of the year they were born in and sometimes longer, especially females. Pups are typically born from February-April. They are born blind, deaf and toothless, with dark brown fluffy fur. Mom fox stays close to guard the kits and nurse them for several weeks and the father or barren vixens feed the mothers. The kits leave the den a month after and are fully weaned by 8-10 weeks. The mother and her pups remain together until the autumn after the birth. After the pups are weaned and begin to play about the den’s entrance, Dad fox helps watch them while Mom fox gets in some hunting. If the mother dies, the father takes over caring for the pups. Kits reach adult form by seven months and some vixens reach sexual maturity by ten months—enabling them to bear their first litter at one year of age. 

Red foxes help balance ecosystems by controlling population of prey animals such as rodents and rabbits. They also disperse seeds by eating fruit. Steve Hall of Adirondack Almanack reminds us that red foxes play an important ecological role: 

“Now and then, vulnerable farm animals such as chickens, ducks and lamb will be taken. While farmers used to routinely trap foxes, many now realize that the fox brings far more benefit in its constant predation on crop-destroying rodents and insects, than the harm they cause in taking the occasional barnyard animal; secure enclosures for hens and [use of] guard dogs to keep the fox in the field but out of the barnyard, are the key to discouraging unwanted fox predation.”

James Fair of BBC Discover Wildlife noted that a single fox during its lifetime may be worth £150-190 to a farmer through rabbit predation. Most farmers in Wiltshire consider the fox a helpmate in reducing the pest of rabbits. Hall adds that while, “Deer are significant carriers of the tick, Lyme disease starts with rodents… [the red fox] eats huge quantities of rodents. If for no other reason, fox hunting and trapping should be banned.”

Cedar-pine-hemlock forest after first snow, Jackson Creek Park, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Foxes take shelter in thickets and heavy bushes in the autumn until March of the next year. They are omnivores with a varied diet of small mammals such as voles, mice, squirrels and rabbits, and a variety of plants, berries, other fruit and nuts. Foxes have good eyesight but very keen hearing and sense of smell; this along with their ability to move swiftly and quietly through most terrain makes them effective crepuscular (dawn and dusk) predators in open country and nocturnal hunters in areas of concentrated human habitation. Foxes generally live an average of 3-7 years in the wild. 

The red fox communicates through a wide range of body language and vocalizations. Foxes use scent glands and urination to communicate their individuality through their skunk-like smell. They use scent to mark territory and show status. The smell increases during mating season. The fox vocal range spans across five octaves with at least 28 different sounds that include those for “contact” and those for “interaction.” Individual voices can be distinguished. One contact sound between two foxes approaching one another resembles the territorial call of a tawny owl. When foxes draw close together, they use a greeting warble similar to the clucking of chickens. Adults greet their kits with gruff huffing sounds.

Red foxes feature prominently in the folklore and mythology of human cultures with which they are sympatric. In Greek mythology, the Teumessian fox or Cadmean vixen, was a gigantic fox that was destined never to be caught. The fox was one of the children of Echidna. In Japanese mythology,the kitsune are fox-like spirits that possess magical abilities which increase with age and wisdom. This includes the ability to assume human form. Some folktales suggest that kitsune use this ability to trick others; others portray them as faithful guardians, friends and love. In the Cotswolds, witches were thought to take the shape of foxes to steal butter from their neighbours. In later European folklore, Reynard the Fox symbolizes trickery and deceit. In the actual world, this translates to resourcefulness, a quick study, and swift and decisive action. And perhaps that is the true meaning of Vixen.

Image of fox and crow from Aesop’s Fables 

Fox teaches us that gender equality helps to create a strong family, says Chris Lüttichau, author of Animal Spirit Guides. Fox’s medicine is family, survival and voice. Fox embodies resourcefulness and daring in her quest to feed herself and her young. “Fox survives and flourishes because she is clever and adaptable; she is now found living in cities. Fox teaches us to be flexible rather than to resist change.” According to Lüttichau, Fox’s medicine is “swiftness, surefootedness and a quick mind that always knows what to do.” Foxes have a wide vocal capacity and range, from screams and calls to low barks—something for each case as the fox calls and listens and calls back. We can learn from Fox’s varied voice to transcend traditions and prejudices through healing council and stories.

With thoughts returning to my Vera Vixen, I think that perhaps she is not a young unlucky fox who met with misadventure after all; rather, she’s a smart old vixen who’s birthed and nurtured several litters of four to six kits each spring. Her natural death after four to seven years of a rich life in the old growth forest and marsh of Jackson Creek would have led her to a quiet place to lay herself to rest; there her corpse was ultimately found by a badger, racoon or other fox and parts of her scattered throughout the forest to decompose and feed the ecosystem. Ever the mother, Vera now feeds the forest that nurtured her and her family’s existence. 

Jackson Creek during first heavy snow, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The Story of Fleet, the Fox of Surrey: In January 2014 it was reported that “Fleet”, a relatively tame urban red fox tracked as part of a wider study by the University of Brighton in partnership with the BBC’s TV series Winterwatch, had unexpectedly traveled 195 miles in 21 days from his neighbourhood in Hove, at the western edge of East Sussex, across rural countryside as far as Rye, at the eastern edge of the county. He was still continuing his journey when the GPS collar stopped transmitting due to suspected water damage. Along with setting a record for the longest journey undertaken by a tracked red fox in the United Kingdom, his travels have highlighted the fluidity of movement between rural and urban red fox populations.

Fox Prayer for 2021:

I call on Fox.
Shapeshifter and trickster.
Edge-walker and messenger.
Help me blend with my surroundings and adapt to the changing landscapes.
Show me the hidden paths between the worlds.
Teach me the ways of invisibility and camouflage.
Gift me your keen senses that i might see more of what is around me and use it to accomplish my goals.
I call on you, Fox, to bring magic and discernment into my life.
Lead me at your steady gait to those places where I might do the greatest good.
Let us walk the borders between day and night and follow the scent of divine mischief.
Fox, I call on you.

TRAVIS BOWMAN
Jackson Creek ices up in December, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The Tale of the Prayer and the Little Fox

Map of Jackson Creek Park and surrounding area, ON

Jackson Creek Old-Growth Forest:

Jackson Creek Old-Growth Forest (OGF) is a 4.5 hectare urban forest located on a glacial spillway slope littered with granite erratic boulders. The OGF lieswithin the Jackson Creek Riparian Forest, a 92-ha valleyland forest which extends into a major wetland of importance. Dominant conifers in the OGF include white cedar (Thuja occidentalis), white pine (Pinus strobus), and eastern hemlock (Tsuga Canadensis). Sugar maple, American beech, yellow birch, white ash and white oak contribute to the mixed riparian forest. Trees are commonly over 150 years old with some reaching over 250 years. Largest trees—which tend to be the pines and cedars—reach diameters of 97 cm dbh and heights of 35 metres. 

Cedar-pine-hemlock forest in Jackson Creek Park, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The Jackson Creek valley was formed by the torrent of glacial meltwater that flowed from the ancient Lakes Algonquin and Jackson through the overlying till to create a glacial spillway some 12,000 years ago (Adams and Taylor 2009); the outflow of glacial Lake Algonquin was channeled to the former glacial Lake Iroquois—a body of water larger than the current Lake Ontario but in the same general area (Ecclestone and Cogley 2009).

The Jackson Creek OGF is a good example of a mature White Cedar—White Pine—Eastern Hemlock stand on a glacial spillway slope in Ecodistrict 6E-8. This eco-district extends in a band from south of Lake Simcoe eastward to the Bay of Quinte, north of the Oak Ridges Moraine, and is characterized by rolling till plains with drumlins, eskers, and intervening wide river valleys (Hanna 1984). 

Red fox skull found embedded on iced shore of Jackson Creek, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

References:

Adams, P. and C. Taylor. 2009. Peterborough and the Kawarthas (Third Edition). Geography Department, Trent University, Peterborough, Ontario. 252 pp. 

BBC. 2014. “BBC Two – Winterwatch, Urban Fox Diary: Part 2”. 23 January 2014

BBC. 2014. “Fleet the Sussex fox breaks British walking record”. 22 January 2014

Ecclestone, M. and G. Cogley. 2009. “The Physical Landscape of Peterborough and the Kawarthas.” In: Peterborough and the Kawarthas, Third Edition, ed. by P. Adams and C. Taylor, pp. 19-40. Geography Department, Trent University, Peterborough, Ontario. 

Hanna, R. 1984. “Life Science Areas of Natural and Scientific Interest in Site District 6-8.” Parks and Recreational Areas Section, Central Region, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, Richmond Hill, Ontario. 71 pp. & map. 

Henry, Michael, Peter Quinby and Michael McMurtry. 2016. “The Jackson Creek Old-Growth Forest” Research Report No. 33. Ancient Forest Exploration & Research. Online: http://www.ancientforest.org/wp-content/uploads/RR33-Jackson-Creek-OGF.pdf

Lüttichau, Chris. 2013. “Animal Spirit Guides.” Cico Books, London, UK. 160pp.

MacDonald, D. and J. Reynolds. 2005. “Red fox (Vulpes vulpes)” IUCN Canid Specialist Group. Online

Malkemper, E. Pascal, Vaclav Topinka, and Hynek Burda. 2015. “A behavioral audiogram of the red fox (Vulpes vulpes). Hearing Research Vol. 320: 30-37: Online

Monaghan, Patricia. 2004. “The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore”. Infobase Publishing. pp. 199–200. ISBN 978-0-8160-4524-2.

The Nature Conservancy: Nature.org. “Wetlands Mammals: Red Fox.” PDF Online

“Relatives are the worst friends, said the fox as the dogs took after him.” – Danish

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

What Ecology Can Teach Us: “Rogue Harvest” by Danita Maslan

Farmer’s field, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Sometime in the future, Earth is recovering from a devastating 50-year plague that has destroyed most of its natural forests and grasslands and killed two out of every three people. Environmental technocrats now run the world under strict rule: while virgin ecosystems are re-created from original templates through genetic engineering, no human is permitted to set foot in these sanctuaries. As sanctuaries grow ever larger, humanity is pressed into over-crowded cities where boredom and strife dominate. The Emerald Coalition hires reclamation company EcoTech to “recreate the world their great, great grandparents lost.” But their ecosystems are morphing into “aberrations” (new species with surprising properties), which would shock the applied Ecology community—except EcoTech is keeping it a secret. So begins Danita Maslan’s eco-thriller Rogue Harvest by Red Deer Press. Published in 2005, this powerful environmental story is as relevant today as it was fifteen years ago. Perhaps more so.

In his Foreword to Maslan’s book, Hugo-winning author Robert J. Sawyer, shared a story from a 2004 presentation he gave at Mount Royal College in Calgary. In his presentation, Sawyer lamented that science fiction seemed to pull in opposite directions to such an extent that any message was cancelled by its opposition. The example he gave in the Foreword came from two bestselling authors: Kim Stanley Robinson whose Forty Signs of Rainwarned of rising temperatures due to climate change; and Michael Crichton, who denied global warming as fearmongering in State of Fear. According to Sawyer, Rogue Harvest provided a fresh story grounded in the balance of a third perspective—not a neutral middle-ground, but “one that shears away at right angles from the current polarized debate, taking our thinking in new directions by predicting both environmental collapse andenvironmental salvation.” 

Told through the unruly character of Jasmine, Rogue Harvest explores a post-plague world in recovery. After radical environmentalists from Green Splinter assassinate her father, Jasmine enlists a street-smart mercenary to help her vindicate her father’s call to open the forbidden preservesto the public. This leads Jasmine into the depths of the genetically re-created South American rainforest, where political intrigue, corporate greed and violence collide in a combustible mix. This is where it gets messy—which biology certainly is. But it gets messy for other reasons. Human-reasons. Reasons of power-mongering and lack of compassion. The very reasons why the environmental technocrats established their hands-off edict in the first place. This is explored through great irony in Rogue Harvest. An irony that L.E. Modesitt, Jr. astutely notes, “[the environmental technocrats] prove that, given power, they’re just like everyone else.” Just as there remain uncompassionate exploiters and pillagers in the likes of harvester Gunther Vint, who heedlessly pollutes the rainforest as he harvests it.

buttressed strangler fig in Costa Maya jungle (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The South American rainforest provides some of the most vivid, colourful and memorable scenes in the book. Maslan traveled to the tropics and ensured accurate science of this incredibly rich ecosystem through Mark W. Moffett’s The High Frontierand Donald Perry’s Life Above the Jungle Floor, as well as Tropical Nature: Life and Death in the Rain Forests of Central and South America by Adrian Forsyth and Ken Miyata. It is in the South American recreated jungle that the key elements—and posed questions—of the story play out. 

In his testimonial to Rogue Harvest, Hugo Award Finalist James Alan Gardner poses: “We see both sides of an ecological conundrum that resonates with the present day: how can we live in harmony with our environment, neither vandalizing it nor walling it off as too precious to touch?”

This is the tantamount question. Can our species achieve this balance? Rogue Harvest answers this clarion call with mixed optimism. While showcasing the propensity for greed and careless exploitation, the book also reveals a more altruistic and kinder side of humanity. One that promises hope and light to our darker side. But, is this realistic, given our current dominant worldview? 

On page 149 in Rogue Harvest, Jasmine’s politician father Owen Lamberin defends his position of wishing to open up the protected Nature preserves to regular folk by proclaiming, “Do they want to keep us out forever? Then who are we reseeding the globe for if not for us?” This is later echoed by Jasmine to justify flouting the preservationist edicts of the Emerald Coalition. When I first read this passage, part of me rankled. Does not the natural world have an intrinsic value and right to simply be? Must we justify all things by our own presence and direct use of them? Surely functional ecosystems provide ecosystem services for planetary wellness that benefit ALL life, not just humans, and not all directly. For example, our terrestrial and marine forests provide necessary oxygen and climate balance (by removing excess carbon dioxide) that benefits all life on the planet. Ecologists—particularly Canadians—recognize the benefit of ‘preservation’ (wilderness that is not accessed by humans) over ‘conservation’ (areas where humans extract resources with some environmental risk) and the need for both to exist for the planet’s overall well-being. This is based on the simple fact that not all humans behave as they should. Those of us who follow a utilitarian neo-liberal worldview of consumption and “othering nature” are not acting as efficient partners in the natural world. Many see themselves as apart from Nature, above Her, even, and will act less than kindly. Current deforestation of the Amazon and the old-growth forests of British Columbia, are just two examples that reflect this destructive “Nature othering” force. 

Ancient red cedar tree in Lighthouse Park, BC (photo by Nina Munteanu)

In contrast, indigenous peoples on the planet incorporate Nature in their beliefs, philosophies and way of life. They conduct themselves with humility and the utmost respect for the natural world of which they are a part. Knowing that they are part of Nature, they act accordingly, with respect. They are efficient partners, taking only what they need, thanking Nature for her gifts, and giving back in return in a process of reciprocal altruism and mutualism.

Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of “Gathering Moss” and “Braiding Sweetgrass” writes:

“In indigenous ways of knowing, it is understood that each living being has a particular role to play. Every being is endowed with certain gifts, its own intelligence, its own spirit, its own story. Our stories tell us that the Creator gave these to us, as original instructions. The foundation of education is to discover that gift within us and learn to use it well. 

These gifts are also responsibilities, a way of caring for each other. Wood Thrush received the gift of song; it’s his responsibility to say the evening prayer. Maple received the gift of sweet sap and the coupled responsibility to share that gift in feeding the people at a hungry time of year. This is the web of reciprocity that the elders speak of, that which connects us all. I find no discord between this story of creation and my scientific training. This reciprocity is what I see all the time in studies of ecological communities. Sage has its duties, to draw up water to its leaves for the rabbits, to shelter the baby quail. Part of its responsibility is also to the people. Sage helps us clear our minds of ill thoughts, to carry our good thoughts upward. The roles of mosses are to clothe the rocks, purify the water, and soften the nests of birds … Traditional knowledge is rooted in intimacy with a local landscape where the land itself is the teacher.”

Robin wall kimmerer

  

Wall-Kimmerer is talking about a way of life through willing participation and an attitude of great respect and humility. But many non-indigenous people do not ascribe to this philosophy and way of life—with dire consequence to our environment and our own welfare. In Rogue Harvest Maslan rightfully demonstrated the continued presence of this destructive force in humanity even as a respectful and thankful attitude was shown by Jasmine and her harvesting team. The question is: How many does it take to spoil this balance?

It would be close to fifteen years after Rogue Harvest was published that I would finally read Maslan’s book—this year, in 2020, during an ongoing planetary-wide plague. Ironically, only two years after Danita’s debut novel, my own debut eco-thriller Darwin’s Paradox was released by Starfire in 2007. And the theme was eerily similar: struggling with the devastation of an environmental plague (Darwin Disease), the Gaians—environmental technocrats who run the world—have isolated humanity from Earth’s treasured natural environment. One main difference between Rogue Harvest and Darwin’s Paradox is that in the latter book the technocrats have kept the public ignorant of how the environment has recovered, ensuring its safety from destructive human hands—except for the ‘enlightened’ Gaians, who secretly live out in the beauty of a recovered natural world and commute to the indoor world. However, as the environment recovers, humanity deteriorates in its cloistered indoor world. Darwin’s Disease—related to indoor living—sweeps across humanity with debilitating genetic deterioration, violent death and the promise of extinction.  This is something the self-professed deep ecology Gaians—akin to Maslan’s Emerald Coalition—are content to see in—if it means preserving the natural world.

Both the Gaians and Maslan’s Emerald Coalition demonstrate a lack of faith in humanity and an unrealistic need to restore environments to their pristine pre-human levels; something that is highly unrealistic—and doomed to fail. “Aberrations” (as Maslan’s characters called them) are part of the natural process of adaptation and change inherent in the natural world. As a practicing ecological consultant, I was constantly running against an idealised and unrealizable notion to put everything back to what it used to be. For several decades ecologists were tasked to restore habitats to their pristine condition—when the notion of “pristine” was impossible to achieve, let along discern. It would have been like turning back the clock of history to prevent John F. Kennedy from being shot. Ecologists finally realized that in lieu of “restoration” and looking back, we needed to “rehabilitate” by looking forward. This is what Nature has always done. Nature adapts. So must we. Our management programs must incorporate Nature’s ever-changing processes of resilience and look forward—not backward—to achieve a sacred balance. 

If there is a deeper message in Maslan’s book, it is this: that our salvation—and the salvation of the world—lies in not obsessing on returning to a past pristine state (with attempts at over-protection), but in looking forward to healing and nurturing a world in which we have a place. This would involve reimagining our niche (our job) as efficient partners in an ever-evolving and changing natural world, by casting off the parasitoid1role we’ve all too often assumed and replacing with a role of mutualism2. But … and there is a huge BUT here. This will only work if we pursue this approach with integrity. With our eyes and hearts open to Gaia’s sacred plan of which we are a part. Robin Wall Kimmerer shows us the way through Traditional Ecological Knowledge:

“If each plant has a particular role and is interconnected with the lives of humans, how do we come to know what that role is? How do we use the plant in accordance to its gifts? The legacy of traditional ecological knowledge, the intellectual twin to science, has been handed down in the oral tradition for countless generations. It passes from grandmother to granddaughter gathering together in the meadow, from uncle to nephew fishing on the riverbank … How did they know which plant to use in childbirth, which plant to conceal the scent of a hunter? Like scientific information, traditional knowledge arises from careful systematic observation of nature, from the results of innumerable lived experiments. Traditional knowledge is rooted in intimacy with a local landscape where the land itself is the teacher. Plant knowledge comes from watching what the animals eat, how Bear harvests lilies and how Squirrel taps maple trees. Plant knowledge also comes from the plants themselves. To the attentive observer, plants reveal their gifts.”

Robin Wall Kimmerer, Gathering Moss

But is this possible? To return to Sawyer’s remark and Gardner’s question, can we achieve this sacred balance and harmony? For many of us, I think, yes. But for many more, I’m not sure. And that is what worries me. It is my firm belief that until our worldview embraces humility in partnership with the natural world—until we cast off our parasitoid archetype of self-serving, neo-liberal, capitalist ideologies—we will remain hampered in our journey forward towards a sacred balance. And time is running out for us. Time to rewrite our story.

In Maslan’s book, humanity is given a second chance to prove itself worthy of inclusion. Her book is a call to action. Can we do this before it’s too late for us? Time to listen and learn from our indigenous peoples. Time to learn about Traditional Ecological Knowledge. Time to slow down, set aside our egos, and use all our senses to learn from Birch, Bear, and Beaver…

Cedar pine forest in early winter, Jackson Creek Park, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

1.parasitoidis a term that describes a parasite that grows on the body of another organism from which they get nutrients and shelter. Unlike typical parasites, a parasitoid usually kills its host (Munteanu, 2019).

2.mutualismdescribes an ecological interaction between two or more species that increases fitness in both, through direct interaction and co-adaptation. Two examples include vascular plants and mycorrhizae, their fungal partners, and flowering plants and their pollinating insects. Even predators act in some form of mutualism when their role of culling weaker individuals from the prey gene pool is considered (Munteanu, 2019). 

References:

  • Kimmerer, Robin Wall. 2003. “Gathering Moss.” Oregon State University Press, Corvalis. 168pp.
  • Munteanu, Nina. 2019. “The Ecology of Story: World as Character.” Pixl Press, Vancouver. 198pp.
White cedar tree and stump in early winter, Jackson Creek Park, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

Nina Munteanu Talks about more than Water on the Douglas Coleman Show

Nina Munteanu was recently on The Douglas Coleman Show where she and Douglas talked about writing, being scared of water, the sub-genre of eco-fiction and what Canada might have been like if the white settlers hadn’t come.

Here’s the show:

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

Embracing the Paradox of Creative Destruction

Beech tree in snow-covered cedar forest, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

I understand something of paradox. As an ecologist, I deal with it all the time. Destruction in creation and creation in destruction lies ingrained in the life-cycles of everything on this planet. A forest fire can destroy life but in so doing creates a more vibrant, healthier forest. Nature reveals many such examples from its circular patterns and fractal self-organization to its infinite spirals.

The Ouroboros is an ancient symbol depicting a serpent or dragon swallowing its own tail to form a circle. It represents self-reflexivity or cyclicality, especially of something constantly re-creating itself. As the serpent devouring its own tail, the Ouroboros symbolizes the cyclic Nature of the Universe: creation out of destruction, Life out of Death. The ouroboros eats its own tail to sustain its life, in an eternal cycle of renewal. In Gnosticism, the ouroboros symbolizes eternity and the soul of the world.

Ecologist C.S. Holling recognized ecosystems as non-linearself-organizing and continually adapting through cycles of change from expansion and prosperity to creative destruction and reorganization. In his classic paper, entitled: “Simplifying the complex: the paradigms of ecological function and structure” (1987), Holling suggested that the experience of instability maintains the structure and general patterns of ecosystem behaviour; that Nature ‘learns’ and accommodates with time. 

In the final analysis, it is a matter of scale.

We can’t expect the natural world around us to run smoothly and safely for our benefit. New diseases, pollution, species extinction, and climate change are all results of unexpected impacts, whether human-caused or not. Though incredibly elegant, Nature is not simple. Scale is something you can’t see or easily measure and assess if you are in it. Scale is like hindsight.

The systems of Gaia are complex from the tiniest cell to the complex planet itself. Weather, for instance, is a “chaotic system” that displays a fractal structure and a range of chaotic behaviour on many scales. Temperature, air pressure, wind speed and humidity are all sensitive to initial conditions and interrelated in multi-scales.

Says Brian Arthur, professor at Stanford University: 

The complex approach is total Taoist. In Taoism there is no inherent order. “The world starts with one, and the one become two and the two become many, and the many lead to myriad things.” The universe in Taoism is perceived as vast, amorphous, and ever changing. You can never nail it down. The elements always stay the same, yet they are always arranging themselves. So, it’s like a kaleidoscope: the world is a matter of patterns that change, that partly repeat, but never quite repeat, that are always new and different.

BRIAN ARTHUR

Western scientists are just beginning to appreciate this through the application of complexity theory and chaos theory. This is something the eastern world has “known” since ancient times: humility before nature; respect for richness and diversity of life; generation of complexity from simplicity; the need to understand the whole to understand the part.

I wish you a safe and wealthy 2021: a year’s wealth of unexpected wonder, of genuine love, of unguarded honor, and dazzling bravery. There is no wonder without tolerance; no love without humility; no honor without sacrifice; and no bravery without fear. I wish you the gift of unbridled compassion. 

As Dante Sarpé (in my story, Arc of Time) said: Without compassion to fill it, knowledge is an empty house, casting its shadow on our courage to embrace the paradoxes in our lives: to feel love in the face of adversity; grace when confronted with betrayal.

Happy New Year!

Recommended Reading:

Holling, C.S. 1987. Simplifying the complex: the paradigms of ecological function and structure. Eur. J. Oper. Rel. 30: 139-146.

Holling, C.S. 1973. Resilience and stability of ecological systems. Annual Rev. Ecol. Syst. 4: 1-23.

Holling, C.S. 1977. Myths of ecology and energy. In: Proceedings Symposium on Future Strategies for Energy Development, Oak Ridge, Tenn., 20-21 October, 1976. Oxford University Press, New York, N.Y.

Beech tree in leaf amid cedars and moss-covered boulders in Jackson Creek Park, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

Twelve Books on Climate and Environment for the Holidays

Gift guide: 12 books on climate can environment for the holidays

“For this year’s holiday gift guide,” writes Dr. Michael Svoboda, “Yale Climate Connections has gathered celebrated anthologies, deep-dives into climate-related science and solutions, inspiring books from or about spiritual leaders, and visionary works of climate fiction.”

All were recently published, some within the month, writes Svoboda. These twelve books address decades of writing on climate change, reassess the challenges, offer hope and guidance for action, and envision very different climate-changed futures.

There is, for instance, the anthology The Fragile Earth: Writing from the New Yorker on Climate Change (Harper Collins),which includes Bill McKibben’s seminal essay “The End of Nature.” The anthology All We Can Save(Penguin Random House) edited by Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine K. Wilkinson is a collection of works dedicated to leadership “more characteristically feminine and more faithfully feminist, rooted in compassion, connection, creativity, and collaboration.”

Hope, guide to action and challenges are provided by Future Sea (University of Chicago Press) by Deborah Rowan Wright, The New Map (Penguin Random House) by Daniel Yergin, Solved:How the World’s Great Cities are Fixing the Climate Crisis (University of Toronto Press) by David Miller, Let Us Dream (Simon & Schuster) by Pope Francis. Tales of Two Planets (Penguin Random House) edited by John Freeman explores inequality and the impact of climate change.

Stand Up! Speak Up! (Penguin Random House) by Andrew Joyner celebrates the inspiration of youth in taking up action through hope, activism and community. Our Only Home: A Climate Appeal to the World (Hanover Square) by the Dalai Lama and Franz Alt is a manifesto that will empower us to take action and save the environment. 

The novel The 2084 Report (Simon & Schuster) by James Lawrence Powell provides an “oral history” through interviews of the devastating effects of the Great Warming, which are both fascinating and frightening. My own novel A Diary in the Age of Water (Inanna Publications) chronicles the journeys of four generations of women, each carrying a unique relationship with water over a time of catastrophic change. Told in the form of a diary by a limnologist, the story explores a Canada mined for its water by United States, which, in turn, is owned by China. The Ministry for the Future (Hachette Book Group—Orbit) a novel by Kim Stanley Robinson uses fictional eyewitness accounts to tell the story of how climate change will affect us all.

Yale Climate Connections:

Edited by veteran journalist and journalism educator Bud Ward, Yale Climate Connections provides content developed by a network of experienced independent freelance science journalists, researchers, and educators across the country.Yale Climate Connections is an initiative of the Yale Center for Environmental Communication (YCEC), directed by Dr. Anthony Leiserowitz of the Yale School of the Environment, Yale University.

Dr. Michael Svoboda, an expert on climate change, is a professor at George Washington University and frequent contributor to Yale Climate Connections.

Jackson Creek in early winter, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

How the Bdelloid Rotifer Lived for Millennia — Without Sex

As a child, I always wanted a microscope.

I would have collected slimy waters from the scum ponds and murky puddles near my house. I would have brought them home and exposed them to the light of my microscope. I would then have peered deep into a secret world, where shady characters and alien forms lurked and traded.

It would be many years, when I was in college, before I finally witnessed this world—so alien, it might have inspired the science fiction books I wrote later as an adult. As it turned out, I was led to pursue a Masters of Science degree, studying periphyton (microscopic aquatic communities attached and associated with surfaces like rocks and plants) in local streams in the Eastern Townships of Quebec.

Filamentous algae collected in Lake Ontario, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

While my work focused on how diatoms (glass-walled algae) colonized surfaces, micro-invertebrates kept vying for my attention. Water fleas (cladocerans), copepods, rotifers, seed shrimps (ostracods) and water bears sang across my field of vision. They flitted, lumbered, wheeled and meandered their way like tourists lost in Paris. But this wasn’t Paris; I’d taken the blue pill and entered the rabbit hole into another world…

Sketch of common zooplankton and phytoplankton (illustration by Nina Munteanu)

The Secret—and Dangerous—World of Micro-Organisms

Small Freshwater habitats are home to a highly productive and diverse collection of micro-invertebrates—multicellular animals that can barely be seen with the naked eye. Many average from 0.5 to 1 mm in size and resemble little white blobs; however, a scholar can distinguish each invertebrate by its unique movement. For instance, when presented with a jar of pond water, I can usually distinguish among the wheel-like wandering of a gastrotrich, dirigible-like gliding of an ostracod (seed shrimp), the vertical goldfinch-style “hopping” of the cladoceran (water flea) as it beats its antennae, or the halting-jerking movements of copepods (oar-feet) as their antennae drive them along like a dingy propelled by an amateur oarsman.

Alas, puddles, ephemeral ponds and vernal pools pose sketchy habitats, given their tendency to appear and disappear in a wink. And like the thief in the night, they pose a harsh and uncertain home to many small organisms. These environments are ever-changing, unstable, chaotic and unpredictable. Yet, anyone who has studied these variable ecosystems understands that they team with life. 

When a puddle or ephemeral pond dries up then reappears with rain, how can these communities thrive? Or do they all die off and then somehow recruit when the pond reappears? Many of these invertebrates have evolved creative ways to survive in very unstable environments. Some form a resting stage—a spore, resting egg or ‘tun’—that goes dormant and rides out the bad weather.

Philodina, a bdelloid rotifer (microscope photo by Bob Blaylock)

Animalcules & the Bdelloid Rotifer

In 1701, Antonie van Leeuwenhoek observed that “animalcules” (likely the bdelloid rotifer Philodina roseaola) survived desiccation and were “resurrected” when water was added to them. He’d discovered a highly resistant dormant state of an aquatic invertebrate to desiccation.

Dormancy is a common strategy of organisms that live in harsh and unstable environments and has been documented in crustaceans, rotifers, tardigrades, phytoplankton and ciliates. “Dormant forms of some planktonic invertebrates are among the most highly resistant … stages in the whole animal kingdom,” writes Jacek Radzikowski in a 2013 review in the Journal of Plankton Research. Radzikowski describes two states of dormancy: diapause and quiescence. (on right: sketch of bdelloid rotifer by Nina Munteanu

Bdelloid rotifers can go into quiescent dormancy at practically any stage in their life cycle in response to unfavorable conditions. Early research noted that dormant animals could withstand freezing and thawing from −40°C to 100°C and storage under vacuum. They also tolerated high doses of UV and X radiation. Later work reported that some rotifers could survive extreme abiotic conditions, such as exposure to liquid nitrogen (−196°C) for several weeks or liquid helium (−269°C) for several hours. Desiccated adult bdelloid rotifers apparently survived minus 80°C conditions for more than 6 years. The dormant eggs of cladocerans and ostracods also survived below freezing temperatures for years.

Rotifers are cosmopolitan detrivores (they eat detritus) and contribute to the decomposition of organic matter. Rotifers create a vortex with ciliated tufts on their heads that resemble spinning wheels, sweeping food into their mouths. They often anchor to larger debris while they feed or inch, worm-like, along substrates. Some are sessile, living inside tubes or gelatinous holdfasts and may even be colonial. Rotifers reproduce by parthenogenesis (in the absence of mates), producing clones (like cladocerans). Resting eggs (sometimes called zygotes) survive when a pond dries up. Bdelloid rotifers don’t produce resting eggs; they survive desiccation through a process called anhydrobiosis, contracting into an inert form and losing most of their body water. Embryos, juveniles and adults can undergo this process. The bdelloid withdraws its head and food and contracts its body into a compact shape called a tun; a generally unprotected dormant state that remains permeable to gases and liquids. Like Tardigrades (see below), Bdelloid rotifers can resist ionizing radiation because they can repair DNA double-strand breaks.

The long-term survival and evolutionary success of bdelloid rotifers in the absence of sex arises from horizontal gene transfer via DNA repair.

In my eco-novel A Diary in the Age of Water the limnologist Lynna visits her technician Daniel as he peers through a microscope and makes the observation of why the bdelloid rotifer is well-suited to climate change:

I bent to peer through the eyepiece at what turned out to be a pond sample in a Petri dish. Attached to a pile of detritus shivering in the current, several microscopic metazoans—rotifers—swung like trees in a gale; they were feeding. Their ciliated disk-like mouths twirled madly, capturing plankton to eat. Watching them reminded me of my early research days as an honours undergrad at Concordia University in Montreal. Probably Philodina, I thought; I had seen many during my stream research in Quebec.

“They’re the future,” Daniel said, looking up at me with a smirk as I straightened.

I raised my eyebrows, inviting him to elaborate, which he cheerfully did.

“They’re the future because of their incredible evolutionary success and their ecological attraction to environmental disaster.” He knew he’d piqued my interest. “These little creatures have existed for over forty million years, Lynna. Without sex! And they’re everywhere. In temporary ponds, moss, even tree bark. Bdelloid mothers that go through desiccation produce daughters with increased fitness and longevity. In fact, if desiccation doesn’t occur over several generations, the rotifers lose their fitness. They need the unpredictable environment to keep robust.” They incorporate genes from their environment: they acquire DNA transposons—mobile DNA—through HGT.”

—A DIARY IN THE AGE OF WATER

The bdelloid all-female populations have thrived for millions of years by maintaining a robust and diverse population through epigenetics and DNA repair during dormancy…The dormancy of all-female bdelloids is an elegant technique to ride out harsh conditions. The bdelloids can go dormant quickly in any stage of their life cycle, and they’re capable of remaining dormant for decades. They can recover from their dormancy state within hours when the right conditions return and go on reproducing without the need to find a mate.

Highly variable environments tend to support rare species: organisms that are uniquely equipped for change. These are the explorers, misfits, and revolutionaries who do their work to usher in a new paradigm. They carry change inside them, through phenotypic plasticity, physiological stress response mechanisms, or life history adaptations. Like bdelloid rotifers going dormant through anhydrobiosis. Or blue-green algae forming dormant akinete spores. In tune with the vacillations of Nature, epigenetics-induced adaptation is the only option for keeping up with rapid and catastrophic environmental change, not to mention something as gigantic as climate change. That’s why the bdelloid rotifers survived for millennia and will continue for many more. They adapt by counting on change.

Maple swamp forest in Trent Nature Sanctuary, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

References:

Munteanu, Nina. 2020. “A Diary in the Age of Water.” Inanna Publications, Toronto. 300pp.

Munteanu, Nina. 2016. “Water Is…The Meaning of Water.” Pixl Press, Vancouver. 586pp.

O’Leary, Denise. 2015. “Horizontal gene transfer: Sorry, Darwin, it’s not your evolution anymore.” Evolution News, August 13, 2015. Online: https://www.evolutionnews.org/201508/horizontal_gene/

Ricci, C. And D. Fontaneto. 2017. “The importance of being a bdelloid: Ecological and evolutionary consequences of dormancy.” Italian Journal ofZoology, 76:3, 240-249.

Robinson, Kelly and Julie Dunning. 2016. “Bacteria and humans have been swapping DNA for millennia”. The Scientist Magazine, October 1, 2016. Online: https://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/47125/title/Bacteria-and-Humans-Have-Been-Swapping-DNA-for-Millennia/

Weinhold, Bob. 2006. “Epigenetics: the science of change.” Environmental Health Perspectives, 114(3): A160-A167.

Williams, Sarah. 2015. “Humans may harbour more than 100 genes from other organisms”. Science, March 12, 2015. Online: http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2015/03/humans-may-harbor-more-100-genes-other-organisms

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press (Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

Darwin’s Paradox Revisited: Compassion and Evolution

In 2007, when I started my first blog, The Alien Next Door, I wrote an article that explored the term “Darwin’s Paradox”—it’s not just the title of my science fiction thriller Darwin’s Paradox released that year by Dragon Moon Press—but  a term coined by scientists to describe the paradoxical phenomenon exhibited by coral reefs.

Defying The Laws of Thermodynamics

Darwin described coral reefs as oases in the desert of the ocean. Coral reefs comprise one of the richest ecosystems on Earth, in apparent violation of the laws of thermodynamics (high productivity in a low-productivity environment). Productivity ranges from 50 to 250 times more than the surrounding ocean. How do they thrive in crystal-clear water, largely devoid of nutrients? Part of the answer lies in the coral’s efficiency in recycling nutrients like nitrate and phosphate.

First, the rough coral surface amplifies water turbulence at a microscopic level, disrupting the boundary layer that usually settles on objects under water and lets the coral “hoover” up the sparse nutrients. I stumbled upon a similar phenomenon during my grad work on temperate streams and published my serendipitous discovery in the journal Hydrobiologia. I was researching how periphyton (attached “algae”) colonized submerged glass slides and observed that the community preferred the edges of the slides because the micro-turbulence there provided more opportunity for attachment and nutrition.

Second, lots of corals also function symbiotically with specialized algae (called zooxanthelae), which provide the coral with food (through photosynthesis) and, in turn, get food from the wastes created by the coral.  

Can the science of symbiosis teach us something about another Darwin’s Paradox?

The Evolution of Compassion

In a September 2013 article in the Jewish World Review, Boston Globe reporter Jeff Jacobywrote:

“Charles Darwin struggled with a paradox: If evolution is a struggle for survival, how could generosity, compassion, and other altruistic virtues have spread through natural selection? Darwin could see the clear evolutionary benefit to groups that inculcated ethical values in their members. Imagine two competing primitive tribes, equally matched — except that ‘one tribe included a great number of courageous, sympathetic, and faithful members, who were always ready to warn each other of danger, [and] to aid and defend each other.’ (Darwin, “The Descent of Man”). There was little doubt that tribes highly endowed with such virtues ‘would spread and be victorious over other tribes.’”

“How did any tribe evolve such ethical qualities in the first place?” asks Jacoby. Brave individuals who risked their lives for others “would on average perish in larger numbers than other men.” It hardly seemed possible, Darwin conceded, that, “such virtues … could be increased through natural selection, that is, by the survival of the fittest.” So, how did it and why?

Jacoby quotes Sir Jonathan Sacks, Britain’s Orthodox chief rabbi, who pointed to “the central drama of civilization: Biological evolution favors individuals,” says Sacks. “But cultural evolution favors groups.… Selfishness benefits individuals [only in the short-term and only in a limited way—my comment], but it is [ultimately] disastrous to groups, and it is only as members of a group that individuals can survive at all.”

Jacoby describes the vast literature in evolutionary psychology and sociobiology that have demonstrated humanity’s hard-wired moral capacity. “We are born with an aptitude for empathy and fairness,” said Jacoby, citing recent neurological experiments that have demonstrated that an act of generosity triggers a pleasurable response in the brain.

Abraham Lincoln summarized it in seven words: “When I do good, I feel good.”  Psychologists call it the “helper’s high”. Neuroscientists and behavioral scientists are demonstrating unequivocally the benefits of altruism to our health and happiness. Scientists have designed experiments that actually trace altruism—and the pleasure we gain from it—to specific regions and systems in the brain. Key studies now provide striking evidence that our brains are wired for altruism. 

The Social Brain and the Seat of Compassion  

In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Moll et al, 2006), a team of neuroscientists lead by Dr. Jordan Grafman, reported that, “when people made the decision to donate to what they felt was a worthy organization, parts of the midbrain lit up—the same region that controls cravings for food and sex.” The brain experiences a pleasurable response when we engage in good deeds that benefit others. 

Dr. Grafman found that the subgenual area in the frontal lobe near the midpoint of the brain was also strongly active when his study subjects made the decision to give to charity. The area houses many receptors for oxytocin, a hormone that promotes social bonding. “The finding suggests that altruism and social relationships are intimately connected—in part, it may be our reliance on the benefits of strong interpersonal connections that motivates us to behave unselfishly,” reports Elizabeth Svoboda in the WallStreet Journal. The team also found that the nucleus accumbens, which contains neurons that release the pleasure chemical dopamine, was triggered when a person chose to help another.

A 2007 study headed by neuroscientist Scott Huettel and reported in Nature Neuroscience(Tankersley, et al., 2007) connects altruism to the posterior superior temporal cortex (pSTC), an area in the upper rear of the brain that lets us perceive goal-directed actions by someone or something else. Results suggest that altruism depends on, and may have evolved from, the brain’s ability to perform the low-level perceptual task of attributing meaning and motive in the actions of others.

“Our findings are consistent with a theory that some aspects of altruism arose out of a system for perceiving the intentions and goals of others,” said Dr. Huettel. “To be altruistic, you need to see that the people you’re helping have goals, and that your actions will have consequences for them.” 

Research led by Michael Platt reported in Nature Neurosciencein 2012, showed that the anterior cingulate gyrus(ACCg) is an important nexus for the computation of shared experience and social reward. That same year researchers at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York published research in the journal Brainthat suggested that the anterior insular cortexis the activity centre of human empathy.

I find it both interesting and exciting that these studies link different brain regions to altruistic and compassionate behavior. “There are certain to be multiple mechanism that contribute to altruism, both in individuals and over evolutionary time,” added Huettel. This is the nature of the brain, whether we look at intelligence, motivation or physical characteristics. And I am convinced that we will someday find that many other areas—if not the entire area—of the brain are involved. Moreover, researchers have shown that engaging—or even witnessing—generous acts can reduce stress, increase immunity (e.g., increased antibody levels), and longevity.

Emiliana Simon-Thomas, science director for the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, explains the chemical activity that happens in our heads when we commit acts of altruism. “There are multiple reward systems that have been tied to pleasurable feelings when people help others or contribute to the well being of the people around them,” she notes. These reward systems are comprised of three main chemicals that are released when we commit an act of kindness and feel pleasure: Dopamine, Oxytocin and Serotonin. According to Simon-Thomas, Dopamine is most closely related to hedonic pleasure — or pleasure derived from self; oxytocin is tied to more social pleasure — especially with regard to physical contact; and serotonin is implicated in a more broad mood state. “All three of these, again, are sort of intersecting and interacting, and depending on the context that you’re in, represent feelings of pleasure in different context,” she explains. “All these systems are activating and parallel, and sort of influencing one another as you go through life.” So when I do a good deed, I am rewarding myself with a cocktail of wonder drugs that please me and make me smile.

So, what I’ve known since I was a child is now proven: doing good deeds is mutually beneficial to the giver and the receiver.

Path through winter forest in the fog, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Altruism in All Beings

The notion that all aspects of life on this planet—not just humanity—have the capacity to act altruistically remains controversial—even among professional scientists and researchers. We are not unique in experiencing or practicing altruism, in acting altruistically and benefiting from our own altruistic acts. It is however a matter of perspective, bias and open-mindedness. Many examples of altruistic behavior and empathy exist in the rest of the living world on our planet.

Nature’s Heroes

Scientists have been demonstrating for years that cooperation among organisms and communities and the act of pure altruism (not reciprocal altruism or kin/group selection) is, in fact, more common in Nature than most of us realize. Valid examples of true altruism in the wild in many species exist. The key here is “in the wild”—not in captivity, where inherent behavior is often modified (see my Alien Next Door article “The SamaritanParadox Revisited: The Karma Ran Over the Dogma”).

Despite the overwhelming evidence for altruism in every aspect of our world, some researchers continue to design experiments and then draw sweeping conclusions based on animals in captivity to suggest that only humanity possesses the ability to behave altruistically—and then again only by social-instruction (aka “the Selfish Gene” of Richard Dawkins vs. the “Social Gene” of Lynn Margulis).

Examples of altruism abound and range among mammals, birds, invertebrates and even Protista. Some examples include: dogs, cats, ducks, squirrels, wolves, mongooses, Meer cats, baboons, chimpanzees, vampire bats, dolphins, walruses, lemurs, African buffalo—to name a few.

de Waal explained that “evolution favors animals that assist each other if by doing so they achieve long-term benefits of greater value than the benefits derived from going it alone and competing with others” (de Waal 2006). The prevalent phenomenon of altruism is Nature’s answer to the Prisoner’s Dilemma. “Empathy evolved in animals as the main … mechanism for [individually] directed altruism,” said deWaal. And it is empathy—not self-interest—that “causes altruism to be dispensed in accordance with predictions from kin selection and reciprocal altruism theory.” deWaal further proposed that the scientific community has become polarized between evolutionary biologists on the one side, and, on the other, a discrete group of economists and anthropologists that “has invested heavily in the idea of strong reciprocity,” which demands discontinuity between humans and all other animals.

“One of the most striking consequences of the study of animal behavior,” says anthropologist Robert Sapolsky, “is the rethinking … of what it is to be human.” He notes that, “a number of realms, traditionally thought to define our humanity, have now been shown to be shared, at least partially, with nonhuman species.” (Sapolsky 2006). This makes some of us uncomfortable. To some, it threatens to make us less special. The corollary is that this demonstrates that we possess intrinsic virtue, not something “painted” on through cultural teaching or diligent personal effort. Of course, it also means that all other beings possess intrinsic value too. In the final analysis, what we generally “know” is colored by what we believe and want to continue believing.

First big snow in Thompson Creek marsh, ON (photo and dry brush rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Universal Altruism and Gaia

What does all this mean? Does the very existence of altruism demonstrate the connectivity of all life on Earth? Let’s not stop there. Does the grace of altruism reflect a fractal cosmos imbued with meaning and intent? Was it the grace of altruism that allowed it all to happen in the first place? Don’t we all come from grace?

Despite struggles with acceptance for some of us, we are emerging enlightened to the fractal existence of grace and altruism embedded in the very nature and intentions of our universe.

I come full circle to my book Darwin’s Paradox, a tale of fractal intelligence and universal cooperation. A tale of emerging awareness of Self and Other as One…Evolution through cooperation… Creative DNA…Manifestation through thought and intent…Self-organization and synchronicity…A hero’s journey…and coming Home…

In this season of gratitude, we celebrate altruism in giving and in receiving graciously.

Merry Christmas!

First snow over Thompson Creek outlet, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Links / Books of Interest:

Altruhelp.com. 2011. “Altruism: the Helper’s High”. Altruhelp.com. http://blog.altruhelp.com/2011/04/01/altruism-the-new-high/

Atwood, Margaret. 2009. “Dept: Not Just A Four Letter Word”. Zoomer. March, 2009 (www.zoomermag.com)

Centre for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, Stanford School of Medicine: http://ccare.stanford.edu

Jacoby, Jeff. 2013. “Darwin’s conundrum: Where does compassion come from?” http://www.jeffjacoby.com/13700/darwin-conundrum-where-does-compassion-come-from

Ridley, Matt. 1998. The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation. Penguin Books, 304pp.

Svoboda, Elizabeth. August 31, 2013. “Hard-Wired for Giving” in The Wall Street Journal;http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424127887324009304579041231971683854

Svoboda, Elizabeth. 2013. “What Makes a Hero? The Surprising Science of Selflessness” Current. 240 pp.

Munteanu, Nina. Aug, 2010. “The Samaritan Paradox Revisited: The Karma Ran Over the Dogma” in The Alien Next Door; http://sfgirl-thealiennextdoor.blogspot.ca/2010/08/samaritan-paradox-revisited-karma-is.html

Munteanu, Nina. June, 2010. “What Altruism in Animals can Teach Us About Ourselves” in The Alien Next Door; http://sfgirl-thealiennextdoor.blogspot.ca/2010/06/what-altruism-in-animals-can-teach-us.html 

Munteanu, Nina. March, 2010. “Gaia versus Medea: A Case for Altruism” in The Alien Next Door; http://sfgirl-thealiennextdoor.blogspot.ca/2010/03/gaia-versus-medea-case-for-altruism.html

Munteanu, Nina. Feb, 2009. “Margaret Atwood’s Wise Words About Dept & Altruism…A Portrait of the Artist as a Real Hero” in The Alien Next Door; http://sfgirl-thealiennextdoor.blogspot.ca/2009/02/margaret-atwoods-wise-words-about-debt.html

Munteanu, Nina. August, 2007. “Is James Bond an Altruist?—Part 2” in The Alien Next Door; http://sfgirl-thealiennextdoor.blogspot.ca/2007/08/is-james-bond-altruist-part-2.html

Nina Munteanu. August, 2007. “Co-evolution: Cooperation & Agressive Symbiosis” in The Alien Next Door; http://sfgirl-thealiennextdoor.blogspot.ca/2007/08/co-evolution-cooperation-agressive.html

Nina Munteanu. July, 2007. “Altruism at the Heart of True Happiness” in The Alien Next Door; http://sfgirl-thealiennextdoor.blogspot.ca/2007/07/altruism-at-heart-of-true-happiness.html

Ridley, Matt. 1998. “The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation.” Penguin Books. 304 pp. http://www.amazon.com/Origins-Virtue-Instincts-Evolution-Cooperation/dp/0140264450

References for Altruism in All Animals:

Bradley, Brenda. 1999. “Levels of Selection, Altruism, and Primate Behavior.” The Quarterly Review of Biology, 74(2):171-194.

De Waal, Frans, with Robert Wright, Christine Korsgaard, Philip Kitcher, and Peter Singer. 2006. “Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved”. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Goodall, Jane. 1990 Through A Window: My Thirty Years with the Chimpanzees of Gombe. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Moll, Jorge, Frank Krueger, Roland Zahn, Matteo Pardini, Ricardo de Oliveira-Souza, and Jordan Grafman. 2006. “Human fronto-mesolimbic networks guide decisions about charitable donation.” In: Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci., USA, 103(42): 15623-15628. http://www.pnas.org/content/103/42/15623.full

Sapolsky, Robert M. 2006. “Social Cultures Among Nonhuman Primates.” Current Anthropology, 47(4):641-656.

Svoboda, Elizabeth. 2013. “What Makes a Hero? The Surprising Science of Selfishness.” Current.

Tankersley D et al.  2007. “Altruism is Associated with an Increased Response to Agency.”  Nature Neuroscience, February 2007, Vol. 10(2), pp. 150-151.

Warneken, F. & Tomasello, M. 2006. “Altruistic Helping In Human Infants and Young Chimpanzees.” Science, 311, 1301–1303.

Warneken, F., Hare, B., Melis, A. P., Hanus, D. & Tomasello, M. 2007. “Spontaneous Altruism By Chimpanzees and Young Children.” PloS Biology, 5(7), e184.

de Waal, F. B. M. 2008. “Putting the Altruism Back Into Altruism: The Evolution of Empathy.” Annu. Rev. Psychol., 59, 279–300.

de Waal, F. B. M., Leimgruber, K. & Greenberg, A. R. 2008. “Giving Is Self-rewarding for Monkeys.” Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci., USA, 105, 13685–13689.

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

W.O.W Interviews Nina Munteanu on “A Diary in the Age of Water”

Thompson Creek outlet, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

I recently chatted with Darshaun McWay on W.O.W. Podcast about my recent novel A Diary in the Age of Water.

We talked about the story, its main characters–including water as a character–and why I write about water. We also covered why the book is written partly as a diary. Margaret Atwood’s name came up a few times…

Here is the W.O.W description of the interview:

Nina Munteanu chats with Darshaun McAway of W.O.W. Podcast about her new clifi novel “A Diary in the Age of Water”: a novel about the journeys of four generations of women and their unique relationship with water during a time of great environmental change. Darshaun and Nina talk about her use of water as a character, her choice of heroines and her use of a diary format to tell the story.  Nina shares that the book–set in the near future as a limnologist’s diary and the far future with an evolved human–explores the premise of a water-scarce Canada whose water now belongs to the USA, who, in turn, is owned by China. The events about which the diarist writes are based on real historic events and people. Nina brings her considerable scientific, limnological and research skills to bear in describing a future Canada both dystopic and harrowing–yet very familiar. One real event taken as premise in the book that Nina shared with Darshaun is the American NAWAPA plan of the 1960s that went to congress and was (and still is) seriously discussed for years following: the plan was to divert massive amounts of fresh water from Canada and store by inundating the Rocky Mountain Trench and piped south to hydrate dwindling aquifers in the USA.

W.O.W Interview with Nina Munteanu and Darshaun McAway

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

Smell the Earth and Breathe in the Beauty of this Day

Willows on shore of Otonabee River, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

If COVID-19 has taught us anything I hope it is to live with less and rejoice in it. To be grateful for what we have. To take joy in acts of kindness to others. To live with less is to give more and live lightly and sustainably for this dear planet of ours. Our sustenance. Our friend.

NINA MUNTEANU

Why is it, then, that we have ceased to converse with Her? We no longer communicate with Nature and Gaia. We’ve isolated ourselves with hubris and greed and the pursuit of wealth and power.  And what are these? Do they make us happy? Do they bring joy?

Poplars on a country road in fall, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

We’ve become unruly self-centred bullies who think somehow that Homo sapiens alone was ordained by God to rule this planet. But there is no ruling Her. Why do we still cling to the ancient human-centred philosophies that have created “the other”? Descartes expounded that no other life or being other than “man” had a soul. Or feelings, for that matter. This preposterous notion has carried on for over six hundred years into today’s abhorrent racism, the creation of homo sacer, creation of property, subjugation of women by men, patriarchy, androcracy, cruelty to animals, deforestation and so much more that ails us and the world. 

Moss on log in Cedar swamp forest, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

All indigenous peoples on the planet incorporate Nature in their beliefs, philosophies and way of life. They conduct themselves with humility and the utmost respect for the natural world they are part of. They do not separate themselves from the sacredness of creation and the evolving world of matter and energy. All matter is living and has a soul, connected to the “oneness”. European settlers dismissed their wisdom as primitive and simple. How wrong the settlers were. How simple the settlers were. This is the wisdom of quantum physics. Have we—their descendants—changed?

White / red pine forest, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

COVID-19 is but one iteration of a conversation Nature is trying to have with us. She is talking to us in words of climate change, storms, disease and pandemic. She is telling us something and we aren’t listening. Her message is clear: live in partnership. Live in humility and joy. Live the galanic life of cooperation, respect, and kindness to ALL THINGS in a world with no “others.” If we don’t start listening, we will find ourselves more than alone…

Poplar forest in northern Ontario in the fall (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

All in Nature is a gift.

In her book “Gathering Moss” Robin Wall Kimmerer shares this wisdom:

“In indigenous ways of knowing…every being is endowed with certain gifts, its own intelligence, its own spirit, its own story. Our stories tell us that the Creator gave us these stories as original instructions. The foundation of education is to discover that gift within us and learn to use it well.”

ROBIN WALL KIMMERER

Kimmerer shares that the sage “draws its up water to its leaves for the rabbits, to shelter the baby quail…Mosses clothe the rocks, purify the water, and soften the nests of birds.” The tree provides a whole ecosystem that shelters, feeds and nurtures so many organisms and its environment. Every part of a tree is involved; trunk, bark and leaf to cambium, xylem and phloem. And this from when a squirrel first embeds into the ground the nut poised to germinate to a fallen tree in full decay and returning to the soil.

Moss-covered Eastern cedar tree grows on decaying prone cedar in swamp forest (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

What is our gift?

Go out into Nature. Touch a tree. Tell it that it is beautiful. Thank it for its shade. Feel its corky bark. Feel the miracle of creation sing through you. Touch a leaf, feel its supple texture and filigree of intricate markings. Imagine the chloroplasts swimming inside, capturing the gift of energy from the sun in the dance of quantum life. Imagine that energy surging through tissue, cell, interstitial water. Then in a deep sigh hear it release its Great Breath of Life in the most beautiful song. Its gift to the world. 

Smell the earth and breathe in the beauty of this day.

Ancient red cedar in Lighthouse Park, West Vancouver (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)
Maple swamp in Trent Nature Sanctuary, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)
Marsh stream off a country road in fall, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)
Swamp forest, Trent Nature Sanctuary, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)
Decaying beech and ash leaves, Little Rouge River, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)
Thompson Creek marsh, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)
Willows at mouth of Thompson Creek, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Reference:

Kimmerer, Robin Wall. 2003. “Gathering Moss.” Oregon State University Press, Corvalis. 168pp.

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press (Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.