Human impacts on planet Earth have rivaled those of ice ages, volcanic eruptions and even meteors. We’ve leveled ancient forests, altered the flow of rivers, wiped out hundreds of species and introduced hundreds more to areas they never evolved in — all of it cloaked in an atmosphere we’ve been quickly warming for hundreds of years. In a world where virtually no ecosystem lives unaffected by the actions of humans, do we now have more of a responsibility to help the non-human animals we share the planet with?
That question, as it turns out, is a lot more philosophical than it appears — and it’s what local author and journalist Emma Marris grapples with in her new book Wild Souls: Freedom and Flourishing in the Non-Human World. Marris recounts her travels to some of the world’s most remote places, from the Peruvian Amazon to the Australian Outback, where she’s witnessed the lengths to which humans will go to protect declining species.
Marris describes California condor puppets used by zookeepers in their captive breeding program for the birds, state-of-the-art rat traps in the Galapagos Islands and mercenary dingoes released to kill invasive goats in Australia, all while using philosophy as a tool to figure out what humans ought to do regarding these “wild” animals.
From Japanese crows using moving cars to crack walnuts, to nuisance termites put on trial for consuming a Brazilian monastery, to the entire populace of New Zealand waging all-out, Machiavellian biowarfare on introduced rodents, Marris peppers the book with peculiar tidbits about the ever-blurring relationship between humans and “the wild.” She builds off the concept of people being part of (not above) their ecosystems, which was the focus of her 2013 book Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World.
Originally from Seattle, Marris has lived in Klamath Falls for more than eight years and saw no shortage of conservation activities (and their ramifications) in her own backyard. The Herald and News sat down with Marris to talk about the book, her writing process and how the Klamath Basin inspired her work.
H&N: Where’d the idea for this book come from?
Marris: The idea for this book really did come from Klamath County, because when I moved here in 2013, it was right in the middle of when OR7 was in the headlines. And as an environmental journalist, I was like, “Here’s a story for me.” So the more I got into wolf reporting, the more I started seeing interesting questions that were more philosophical than scientific: What is a wild animal, if it’s something that’s so heavily managed? And we’re asking a lot of these individual animals — is that okay? We’re asking them to figure out what animals they can eat and what animals they can’t eat. And if they get it wrong, we shoot them. We signed them up for this very complicated life when we brought them down from Canada. And then I started finding that there were so many other stories about animals and animal ethics and wild animals and how we relate to them that were so fascinating to tell. So I just had to open it up and widen it out to all animals.
H&N: Would you consider Wild Souls a sequel to Rambunctious Garden?
Marris: I think it’s definitely related. If you read the first one, you’ll like the second one, but you don’t have to read the first one. There’s a chapter where I talk about wildness and how it’s kind of an incoherent concept, and a lot of that stuff was sort of the main theme of the previous book.
H&N: What got you interested in the philosophy of conservation as a general topic?
Marris: I’ve been covering conservation as my beat for a long time, so the interest in this particular question of how we treat wild animals kind of emerged from doing that reporting. And my husband is a philosopher at Oregon Tech, so that gives me a perspective at the dinner table that’s a little more philosophical. What’s interesting about conservationists is that they’re oftentimes so passionate about getting the work done and saving stuff that they actually don’t stop and think about the underlying value propositions. Like, why are they doing this work? Why is it good to save species? It seems like an obvious thing, but what are we actually saving? How can a species be valuable when it’s a category and not a thing? These are complicated questions, so I just found them interesting.
H&N: When did you decide to pursue this book in particular?
Marris: Right around the time that I was pitching this book, in 2017, there had been a bunch of books about how smart animals are and how emotionally complex they are. There’s that octopus book, there was a book about elephants grieving, there was a really fascinating book about fish. And so there had been kind of a trend for animal consciousness or animal intelligence books, but I was like, “Okay, well, fine, so they’re smart. What does that mean about the how we treat them and what we do with them?” So it seemed like the next step to me.
H&N: The book has a pretty lengthy bibliography. What was it like handling all those sources and making sure you had all your facts straight?
Marris: I did all of this because I want scientists to take this book seriously. And I also want people who are interested in in what I’m talking about to be able to find out more about what I’m talking about. But it was really tough. And the fact-checking took months. But I think it’s worth it because I can say, “Ok, this book’s been professionally fact-checked. It’s all cited.” Like, this is the real deal. You can assign this to your students. You can take this to the bank. If you disagree with something I’m saying, we can fight over the interpretation and the analysis and the ethics, but the facts are solid.
H&N: How much of the book did you derive from previous reporting experiences? Did the stories change when you translated them to this medium?
Marris: I couldn’t give you an exact number. The background chapters about philosophy and stuff are all just for the book. Basically, it isn’t until you get to Chapter 10 that you start getting into the reporting, really. I don’t know how much is actually verbatim in here, but this did give me the opportunity to go back and rescue sentences that got cut during editing, which is a very delicious feeling. You just have more room to stretch out in a book, and you can tell more of the story.
H&N: Besides the existing features, how much of the rest of the book had you written before Covid hit?
Marris: I had little bits and pieces, but I basically wrote it during the most locked-down part of the pandemic. I couldn’t do anything else, so it worked out really well. It’s honestly a blur — I don’t really remember it.
H&N: What kind of person should read this book?
Marris: This book is for people who see themselves as nature lovers and people who see themselves as animal lovers. It’s especially for people who view themselves as both nature lovers and animal lovers, because it’s about how to be both of those things at the same time, which isn’t always easy. Sometimes they seem to conflict. This is about how complicated it is to be good to the nonhuman world. So yeah, that’s a lot of people.
H&N: How did living in the Klamath Basin influence you when writing or even conceptualizing the book?
Marris: Being aware of the tribes’ fight to keep their fish has been influential on me, even though I’d never written a full feature about it. I didn’t have the reporting to put it in the story, and I felt like it belonged in a different place than in this book. Maybe I still need to do it for something or for somebody, but I do think that it influenced me. I’m realizing that I’m sometimes reticent to write about the case studies that are right in my backyard, and part of it is just because I’m so involved with the people.
H&N: Even just thinking about the basin as a whole, when you talk about humans altering an environment and dealing with the fallout, we’re sort of a textbook example of that.
Marris: Yeah, it’s like a little microcosm. I started the book in Kauai, and I use Kauai as kind of a microcosm for the whole earth, but the Klamath Basin could’ve worked as well. I’ve talked about the way that you would fix the Klamath Basin, and it’s not to turn it back to the way it looked in 1850 — but to turn it into something else that can also support a huge abundance of wildlife. And that philosophy, that you can have a landscape where humans and wildlife coexist, where humans and nonhumans coexist, is something that I also am very much a believer in when it comes to the Klamath Basin. I think that we can have potatoes and ducks and fish. I know, it’s very optimistic, but I do think we can.
H&N: On that note, you recently penned an essay in The Atlantic that refreshingly focused on solutions to the basin’s water crisis. What do you think stakeholders here could learn from looking at conservation through the lens you’ve presented in Wild Souls?
Marris: I think that we humans can create good relationships with the nonhumans around us. I think that’s absolutely possible, and in fact, I think that’s the only way forward. I think the idea of withdrawing, somehow hovering above the ecosystem and not touching it, is implausible. It’s just not going to work. The way to a good environmental future is not withdrawal — it’s constructive engagement.
Wild Souls: Freedom and Flourishing in the Non-Human World, is out June 29. Signed copies can be purchased from Canvasback Books in downtown Klamath Falls.