‘Stronger together’ is a core tenet of Charlotte Grange

Naming this monthly column from Charlotte Grange “Stronger Together” was intentional. Not only is “stronger together” a core tenet of Grange as a community organization, the principle of cooperation and mutual support implied in the phrase is the core driving force of the living world. Ecologically and evolutionarily we not only benefit from the cooperation and mutual support all around us, we literally depend on it.

I recently read the 2022 book “Sweet in Tooth and Claw” by Kristin Ohlson. It is a follow-up to her pioneering 2014 book “The Soil Will Save Us: How Scientists, Farmers and Foodies Are Healing the Soil to Save the Planet.” Both are easy to read and fascinating science-based explorations of functional connections among living organisms.

The earlier book focused on who lives in or on soil, how they interact with each other and with physical and chemical components of soil. Readers see clear evidence that it’s not just “dirt” and it’s certainly not inert.

Healthy soil is teaming with life, literally. “Teams” of micro- and macro-organisms, fungi, bacteria, plants and animals are interacting in mutually beneficial ways which support and promote essential life processes. Ohlson focuses on the ability of healthy soil to sequester atmospheric carbon and make this element available to plants, making it possible for them to grow. She gives examples of farming and ranching practices adapted to maximize this process and speed up carbon sequestration and slow global warming. In 2014, this was cutting-edge, pragmatic thinking, and still is.

The subtitle of “Sweet in Tooth and Claw” is “Stories of Generosity and Cooperation in the Natural World.” By the end, Ohlson has relegated to history Charles Darwin’s theory that the living world is essentially a constant and fiercely competitive bloody battle for survival. Widely read English poet Alfred Lord Tennyson helped popularize Darwin’s generalization when, in the mid-1800s, he wrote movingly that “nature is a world of strife and conflict and violence, red in tooth and claw.”

That’s quite a chilling concept. Nevertheless, survival of the fittest became the world view of western culture. It fit in conveniently with American pride in rugged individualism and the sense that it was manifest destiny, for those who could, to dominate and use fellow humans and all of the natural world for personal gain.

This became an accepted cultural norm in the U.S., persisting for a regrettably long time, with disastrous consequences. In addition to horrific human abuses, for more than a century it allowed disregard for Nature and large-scale destruction without compunction. Only after human rights advocacy and the environmental protection movement grew strong enough in the mid-1900s, did that theory begin to lose its grip on the American psyche.

Since then, our perception and understanding of Nature has deepened radically in Western culture. With careful study of ecological systems and more sophisticated tools for that study, the aggressive survival-of-the-fittest theory has mostly been debunked. Of course, there is routine competition for food, space and reproductive opportunities in the natural world. But as Ohlson documents, we now know there is vastly more cooperation and what we would call generosity going on, and those are in fact the driving forces in the natural world. It’s really about survival of life because of those who are prepared, fit and able to be of benefit to their ecological communities. And I personally believe it’s no accident that is also a key characteristic of thriving and resilient human communities.

Many ancient and Indigenous people have understood this from the beginning of their societies. Americans are only just opening their eyes to it, and to some the view is less than welcome because it calls for changing to a less selfish relationship with Nature.

Ohlson invites us to explore with her the fascinating cooperative world of trees, mushrooms, beavers, bees, bacteria, flowers and more, learning from a wide variety of ecosystems and people around the globe. The stories are all the more amazing because they are real. And they deepen our understanding of the natural world we are a part of and how essential robust biodiversity is to the survival of life. It’s not all about competition. Indeed, life persists and can only thrive through cooperation and mutual support.

(Linda Hamilton is a member of Charlotte Grange, honoring our agrarian roots and helping build a resilient future for all.)