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Know the West

Avocados, ants, aardvarks and us

In his new book, Douglas Chadwick shows how the interconnectedness of all life is the key to inspiring change.


The unprecedented heat and the early and relentless wildfires of the summer of 2021 are a grim reminder that, no matter where we call home, the climate crisis and a warming planet know no political, geographical or cultural boundaries. For humans to have any hope of turning around our time on this beautiful planet, we have to focus on all the ways in which we are similar, rather than on our tiny differences — similarities that, according to writer and wildlife biologist Douglas Chadwick, go well beyond our human family.

Chadwick has tracked wolverines through the remote Many Glacier Valley in Glacier National Park and confronted grizzly bears along the southern coast of British Columbia. With a career that spans nearly five decades, the prolific environmental writer and longtime contributor to National Geographic knows a thing or two about how ecosystems are connected. In his latest book, a collection of essays called Four Fifths a Grizzly: A New Perspective that Just Might Save Us All, Chadwick reminds us that every single living organism — from strawberry, to rhinoceros dung beetle, to grizzly bear — is connected at the genetic level. Until we humans realize our interspecies commonalities, the world will continue to burn.

Armando Veve / High Country News

Chadwick, who holds a bachelor’s degree in zoology and a master’s in wildlife biology, opens with a story from a boyhood spent peering through the lens of an old Bausch & Lomb microscope. Countless hours employed marveling at a hidden world made visible led Chadwick “to focus on nature and stay amazed.” Chadwick’s lifelong commitment to nature and his decades of gritty fieldwork helped shape the resulting collection. He arrives at a simple but profound conclusion: All life belongs to a connected natural system, and nature is never outside of us. It is these connections, he says, that lead us “into the making of our greater selves.”

Four Fifths doesn’t read as an outdoor adventure story, unlike Chadwick’s previous books, such as The Wolverine Way and Tracking Gobi Grizzlies: Surviving Beyond the Back of Beyond. Four Fifths a Grizzly is part introduction to biology and genetics — featuring chapters like “The Living Planet Quick Guide” — with a hopeful prescription for how to keep the planet’s diverse and often invisible lifeforms from hurtling into oblivion. From examining life at the microscopic level to recalling an intense confrontation with “Teen Grizz,” a 5-year-old male grizzly, Chadwick covers an impressive range of biology in just 13 chapters, each accompanied by stunning photographs from a who’s-who of accomplished photographers.

Four Fifths highlights the myriad ways that conservation efforts can temper the flames of devastation on a planet smothered by 7.8 billion Homo sapiens. One particularly meaningful and ambitious example is the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative (Y2Y), which was launched in 1993 to create a connected, sustained and flourishing ecoregion from Wyoming’s Wind River Range to the headwaters of the Peel River in Canada’s Yukon Territory.

Chadwick’s own home — Whitefish, Montana — is in Y2Y’s ecoregion. This is territory defined by an impressive diversity of wildlife and plants. Chadwick acknowledges his personal bias toward the area, yet the project’s scope and magnitude is a perfect and necessary example of the kind of border-spanning effort needed to blunt the force of the Anthropocene. For the Y2Y coalition and other projects with similar goals to thrive, Chadwick says we have to “keep nature truly protected, keep nature connected. Do the same to enrich the quality of human life.”

Until we humans realize our interspecies commonalities, the world will continue to burn.

Chadwick is not out to diminish, or judge, humans. Rather, he reminds us that “being more closely related to avocados, ants, and aardvarks than most people suspect doesn’t dilute our stature as humans but instead increases it manyfold. It renders us more than human.” The more we know about these connections, he says, the more it shapes our perspective on how we see ourselves and shows us how we can improve life for all during this precarious epoch.

Chadwick offers grounded compassion toward his fellow Homo sapiens, an emotion often absent from the conversation on climate change and the environment. “In fact,” he writes, “I think we environmental writers might want to reconsider our habit of shaming humans for having acted like humans. I could just as truly write that our species has a special gift for dreaming about what’s over the edge of the known world, trying out new things, successfully adapting to different circumstances, and going on from there.” Ultimately, he says, the best way to inspire hope and change is through encouraging fascination and interconnectedness to nature.

To that end, Chadwick presents a simple but revolutionary adaptation of the golden rule: “Do unto ecosystems as you would have them do unto you.”

Maggie Doherty grew up in northern Michigan, spent her summers on a remote island on Lake Huron’s northern shore and now lives in northwest Montana. She writes a twice-monthly column for the Flathead Beacon, titled Facing Main and has published articles, essay, and short stories in various journals and publications including New West and The Whitefish Review

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