Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Howl if You Love Gaia: Cristina Eisenberg's The Wolf's Tooth

I thought of titling this post “Howl if You Love Jesus,” although Cristina’s Eisenberg’s in depth survey of the effect of keystone predators on a wide variety of ecosystems, makes no mention of Jesus or of any religion. The Wolf’s Tooth: Keystone Predators, Trophic Cascades, and Biodiversity is all about food webs. And I found myself thinking of Jesus saying to his disciples: Take, eat this is my body. If you think of the earth as the body of Christ, then all its members are important: the predator, the prey, the trees, the grasses, the birds, insects, fish, the forests, the rivers, the seas, and all their myriad forms of life.

A scientist with a poet’s command of language, Cristina Eisenberg writes with precision and passion. Her own ongoing research focuses on wolves as keystone predators, what happens to various landscapes when wolves return in sufficient numbers to drive a trophic cascade. Wolves affect herbivores, for example elk, not only by limiting their numbers but also by causing them to be vigilant, thus changing their browsing patterns. When herbivores no longer over-browse, young trees can grow to maturity. When the forest and other plants are renewed, songbirds, butterflies, reptiles and amphibians return. Forested river banks hold their soil, preventing erosion and contributing to the health of rivers. The herbivore population also benefits, having a more reliable and renewable food source. Wolves are called keystone predators, because their presence or absence has a radical effect on a whole complex eco-system. When a system is healthy, biodiversity flourishes.

In Part One: Web of Life, Eisenberg takes her reader on a breathtaking, sometimes heartbreaking tour of the planet from the Gulf of Maine to the Amazonian rain forests, the tropical coral reefs to old growth forests of the Northwest as well as rivers, lakes, and wetlands. At each stop she introduces us to the work of fellow scientists who are studying these ecosystems and the effects of disrupted food webs. As someone with no science background at all, I found the wealth of information not only accessible but riveting.

Part Two: Mending the Web surveys public policies and projects, both private and public, where keystone predators have returned or are being reintroduced. In this section Eisenberg also ponders the place of the human being, how to balance human uses of land and resources with the need to preserve wildness for our own health and the health of the whole planet. When too many species become extinct or compromised our own survival as a species is at stake, as we are being sharply reminded with the oil spill now threatening life in the marshes of Louisiana.

In order to survive in the wild where she works, Eisenberg herself has had to find her place, and learn to understand the language of wolves, grizzlies, and cougars and to defer to them when appropriate. As a species, we seem to have taken umbrage at the very idea of other predators who threaten us and our livelihoods. We have demonized them and many of us still seek to destroy them. In doing so, we have, perhaps unknowingly, perhaps with the best of intentions, caused harm to this sacred, beloved body of which we are all members.

Eisenberg quotes pioneer ecologist Aldo Leopold:
“One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to the layman.”

Eisenberg’s powerful, beautifully written book, already in its second printing, has the potential to open many people’s eyes, minds, and hearts.


  1. Maeve commenting:

    WWMD? WWJD? Run with the wolves!

  2. So interesting how nature achieves its own balance when we leave it be. Makes me look at wolves (and anything else we demonize) in a whole new way! Thank you for this beautiful and informative post. Thank you for raising awareness. Maybe we should start writing stories for children about the big good wolf.

  3. Your review makes clear the central message of ecology: all the parts have an impact. If you take out one part, like wolves, then the rest is changed, usually not for the better. In our part of the world, we have no keystone predator, so deer are way overpopulated, and hunting does not keep down their numbers. In other words, humans are lousy as a keystone predator.

    I've said for years that we need wolves, here in mid-state NY. Maybe, someday, they'll come back. But people have a long, deeply ingrained prejudice against competitive predators. It sounds like Eisenberg's book, and the research behind it are at least a start to undoing that prejudice.

  4. Another wonderful, readable blog--thank you for posting this! You always bring such a rare combination of sanity, passion, good will, and fine writing to everything you post here. Now I want to read the book.

  5. Hmm, I want to read the book now too! :o)
    This reminds me of the Butterfly Effect. Many might have seen the popular movie but speaking to people who've seen it, they are left with only a casual glimpse of what it means for us as humans globally. Everything we do has an impact far greater than it seems in the moment. Every creature we displace, every green being we remove, every animal we "farm" and eat, every moment we triumph in what we call progress and growth... is all having an impact far greater than we can imagine. I feel we are unruly predators. But I'd be interested to read where Ms Eisenberg's research has led her. She sounds worthy of following.
    Thank you again, Elizabeth.

  6. that web of interconnectedness makes one aware of the aching beauty and the fragility of everything - that makes people uncomfortable largely because they have to be responsible for their actions...

  7. I've seen this keystone predator phenomenon in micro. We used to have two large dogs, one was part coyote. The didn't even have the full run of our property but while they were alive, the overly abundant deer population of our community skirted our entire property and our gardens flourished. Both dogs aged and passed on and now we have two chihuhuas with lots of bark but very little poundage and clearly the deer do not consider them keystone anything as we now deal with constantly deer grazed and trimmed landscaping.
    I agree, this is a rather silly comparison, but on a more serious note, I've seen the impact of changing predator populations on a macro scale in our northern California mountains over the last two decades.