The authors, fresh back from a road trip across the Western United States, spoke with us about their forthcoming book and the philosophy that shapes it.

How is Full Ecology, the set of ideas from which your book takes its name, different from other approaches to addressing climate change and climate anxiety?

Full Ecology sparked when the two of us brought together our respective disciplines—Mary as a social scientist, and Gary as a conservation science writer. When we first started holding perspectives of the human world and nature side by side, we saw pretty quickly how the focus only on pathology—on what’s wrong— is the most common and least effective place to start. Many books on climate breakdown center heavily on doom. And to be sure, there are warnings and realities that are vital to moving forward. But our book, Full Ecology, makes a point of looking also to how so much is working. One immediate test of this is to consider the fact that you’re reading these words right now. That means, from your birth to this minute, A LOT has been working. Same with the planet and with what we call nature. 

Full Ecology looks specifically to the natural world and calls us to a paradoxical first step: to stop. Full stop. And not just once: to stop and drop every notion of what’s wrong and right and, from that pause, to look around. To realize that we humans are nature, too. Which means that what allows nature to work so well can help us work well, too. When you stop to let the reality of how life unfolds show itself, you realize how habits of mind and culture have kept our truest human nature from expressing itself. Separate thinking—something we’re all quite addicted tois the least sustainable, most unreal worldview our species could hold.

2. You recently went on a road trip together in your van named Pearl. Can you give some examples of Full Ecology in action that you saw while on the road?

We began the adventure with Pearl by revisiting the Scablands of central Washington. We describe this place in the book, and from our first time there have found the name a bit uncomplimentary, even unfair. On first blush, one might agree, “Oh yeah. Scablands for sure.” But with a deeper look it turns out these are beautifully complex and lively wildlands, a weave of prairie-style grasslands and rocky pockets that hide all manner of lakes and ponds. It’s a place busy with beaver, fox, coyote, trout, bass, frogs, pelicans, eagles, ducks, and osprey. And with ponderosa pine and, in spring, wild iris and perfect bitterroot blooms. Like all of nature, the Scablands are first and foremost a vibrant community. The lives in that landscape each express themselves individually, generation after generation, but they’re able to do so only because of their deep connections. It’s this connection of everything with everything that supports the dynamism, the vitality of the place. When people made the choice to preserve this area as public land, that was itself a connected choice.

In Pearl the van, heading through Wyoming

Later, as Pearl carried us into Portland, we could see loads of evidence of Full Ecology in the choices humans are making in that place. The careful tending of waterways to bring them back to ecological integrity. The care given to public spaces like Forest Park, which is the largest in-city park in the contiguous US. We saw in that city, too, the efforts that so many are making to heal social injustice, thereby giving fresh breath to that critical mainstay of life on this planet, which is vibrant diversity.

Finally, at Lake Tahoe, we spent time with the talented filmmakers Jared and Julia Drake, who were filming a segment for our virtual book launch of the two of us in the wilds of the Sierras. On one level, we were interacting with nature by simply drawing attention to its wonders. But at the same time, it’s worth noting that not a single piece of their equipment—the cameras, the mics —could have been built without the connection between raw materials and human creativity. And if you want to take it further still, consider that none of us would’ve pulled off any part of that project were it not for the microbes that came to live in our gut after we were born, which ever since have been breaking down nutrients to allow our brains and muscles to function. In turn, every brain and muscle is made up entirely of materials gleaned from earth and air.  

3.  Do you have a daily practice that helps you keep Full Ecology at the center of how you engage with the world, or that helps you keep a Full Ecology mindset?

There are many things during the day that call us back to the integrity of Full Ecology. It takes lots of putting down unnecessary thoughts and resistance to be fully connected with truest human nature—so, less doing than seeing, and letting go habits that are enormous wastes of energy. And as nature shows us, wasting energy just isn’t conducive to healthy life. One giveaway is to catch ourselves in “What about me?” thoughts. It’s a big wake up call to see how often those are in play. One thing we do is remember that there has never, in the history of our planet, been such a thing as a rugged individual. Just that thought can shift our focus from separation to connection.

Sometimes, if the circumstances are especially dark, and the “What about me?” story is proving hard to shake, we remember what Mary’s mentor told her over forty years ago: “Look to the tops of trees.” As it turns out, modern neuroscience has confirmed the worth of that suggestion, showing that small, uplifting neurochemical dumps happen when we simply lift our eyes up. Finally, one last question routinely serves us in the manner of a wonderful sort of koan: Do you really end where your skin ends? That’s a question that reliably opens up the fullness of ecology.

4. How do you find balance between appreciating nature as it is in the here-and-now and mourning what’s been destroyed? 

This is such a vital question for all of us humans going forward. Especially in the US, and most especially among people born into the dominant group, there has been an unfortunate orientation toward essentially measuring our success—our sense of being exceptional—by using the natural world as a source for individual wealth. That orientation shows up even in our language, when we use terms like “natural resources,” or “wildland management,” or “wildlife harvesting.” Those terms are good evidence of our tendency to think and act separate from nature.

As it happens, one additional consequence of deep separate thinking is our limited skill with grief. To repair our relationship with the natural world, we really must grieve. In fact, going through this grief is a big part of what helps us reclaim and reactivate our connections. We grieve, after all, because we love. We care. We may always mourn what’s been lost due to human behavior. But that mourning can put us on the road to living now, as best we can, from the undeniable connections that sustain life on Earth. As we move into and through the feelings we have about the mess we’ve made, we welcome back the depth with which we love being in life. In nature, as nature. Living from that connection is our best bet for health and well-being right now and into the future.

Explore the book

Join us for an Earth Day celebration with Mary and Gary, introduced by Sister Helen Prejean!