The All

"All About The All" - can use a little expansion and discussion.  But we mean "All".  Both Alls.

I am first an ecologist.  Enough of one that when I was a sophomore in high school, my biology teacher went far out of his way and went to bat for me; and got me into a National Science Foundation Summer Science Training Camp - in Ecology; which was barely a word in 1963.  Even though I was a year too young for their entry requirements.

"Evolutionary ecologist" is a tag I grabbed as soon as it existed.  I call myself many other things too, these days (other folks call me lots of other things, also...) but they are all subsets of Ecology; which is, per se, about "whole systems".  How all the pieces go together in the Great Jigsaw Puzzle Of Life is fascinating, and a study that has no endpoint.  That's an attractive aspect to me; why would you want to be "done"?

The concept of "species" is one biologists have been discussing since Aristotle, at least; and has been a focus for many scientists.  Focus is powerful.  But focus can also lead to a failure, or inability, or refusal - to see things outside the focus.  The struggle to truly define what a species "is", has led many to the unstated assumption that a species is something that can be (and should be) "pure."  Whatever that means. Species are in fact never static. They are always changing; adapting, merging, moving, splitting— and always interacting with the other species in their environment.  Always.  And our species more than others.

Recently I've started saying "Homo sapiens is not a species of primate." in my talks, when they get around to the All part.  It's a good attention-getter; and I'm quite sincere about it.  The general concept of "species" deals with one life form, in isolation from all others.  To attempt to describe or understand Homo in such a way is a mistake.

It's hardly a novel observation that our species has multiple companion species; Jared Diamond pointed it out recently and lucidly in his book "Guns, Germs, And Steel".  The knowledge and understanding that our existence depends on our companion species goes back as far into history as we can see - which is likely the cave paintings in Europe and stone pictographs everywhere.  Our ancestors drew animals because they were crucial, for our own lives.

It's not just that we need other species - H. sapiens cannot exist without them.  And as you dig through the life-web connections, it eventually is clear that we have to include creatures that are not on anyone's first list of "companions"; rats and mice (responsible for technologies to keep them out of stored food; and more) bacteria, in fact microbes of all sorts - think yeast for beer (the first source of the population explosion, I seriously contend) and fermenters for cheese, cabbage, breadfruit...

We exist - as one member of a very large, diverse, interdependent congregation of species.  (I think I like that word.)  Are we the most important member of the congregation? By what yardstick?

It's almost certain that by weight, every year there is more "Zea mays" in existence than Homo.  Unquestionably, corn and soybeans both outnumber us as individuals.  Krill have now become more a member of our congregation— where they used to be important only when converted into whale oil and meat, you can now buy krill oil in any drugstore.  They outnumber and outmass us, always.

Are we the preacher for our congregation?  Do we steer it?  I will just state flatly no, we aren't and we do not.  Explaining and discussing that point results in libraries full of books - with no resolution.  Objective evidence clearly backs the "no"; we make no rational decisions, take no rational actions - as a species.  That's why we're in danger of wrecking the entire congregation.

We do differ from other species in that quite a few of the members of our congregation were actually created by us; to serve the purposes of Homo.  Maize; dogs, sheep, cattle, horses - our domestic plants and animals are often so very different from their wild ancestors that any visiting taxonomist from another planet would immediately classify them as distinct species.  As to who is running things; who owns whom- first read Michael Pollan's first book, The Botany Of Desire, then read Thoreau.  Pollan points out, compellingly, that whether humans own corn; or corn owns humans; is a completely valid philosophical and scientific question (ecologists have long discussed this; but not so anyone outside could comprehend it; that needed Pollan.)  Thoreau raised exactly the same points, regarding whether the farmer owns the cows; or the cows own the farmer; he was far more serious about that than most of his readers understand.

The members of our congregation which we domesticated; we created — returned the favor, and created "Modern Man" - the urbanized, technological species we now are.

We would not be here - without the dogs, sheep, oxen, horses; rice, maize - and on and on.  There would be no cities - without the crops.  European civilization would not exist - without sheep's wool for clothing, cheese to feed us through winter, oxen to pull timber, plough land, haul stone for temples...

We owe our existence to our congregation members.  We changed them fundamentally - and they have changed us - fundamentally.  We need them - and very, very rarely understand how much.

They are still part of our congregation.  Members like the Icelandic sheep are particularly close.  They are not wild.  They give us wool and milk in ways no wild sheep can.  And the relationship is mutual; they need us to survive.

There is no polite way to say this.  I find it philosophically, morally repugnant to contend that we have now "advanced" so much as a species we no longer have any need - for the congregation members we created, and who created us, as we are today.  Discard our companion species now that we don't "need" them?  Inexcusable.  Indefensible.  We worked together for millennia to get here.

They need us, now, and I also contend that our need for them extends far beyond the practical.  The biological drive for us to love our partner species is very deep.  Just look at the attachments between urban humans and their enormously displaced pets.  The dogs, cats, and koi are there because the humans need them.

We all need our congregation members; deeply.  Here on the farm we're re-learning how the sheep can contribute to our All.  Humans have largely forgotten; the "lawns" we now expend incredible resources on – used to be sheep pasture, grazed down tight, illustrating the homeowners' wealth - in sheep.  We gave their mowing chores to machines- which now own our weekends.

The details of "how" we fit together are crucial; as we continue to learn.  We're learning.

I sing to our sheep, when we are moving them free.

They like it.  So do I.

Our congregation is growing again.


  1. Beloved went to Greenland and Iceland while you were away, and she spent a couple of hours in a barn full of Icelandic ewes who were all loaded with twins.

  2. Hi, Risa! Nifty. I'm still trying to figure out the differences between Iceland and Minnesota. I know they need barns for winter there (no surprise) but I thought lambing in barns was unusual. We have a lot of twins, and a couple ewes to throw triplets. So far feeding triplets seems hard on the moms, though.