Ecological intelligence and the human-animal

Within the first few pages of Ian McCallum’s Ecological Intelligence, Rediscovering Ourselves in Nature, I remember thinking that this is going to change things: I was barely able to read it, so excited was I at finding something that resonated so profoundly. A quote in the book by an unknown poet summed up my feeling reaction beautifully, ‘Nothing has changed except my attitude, so everything has changed.’

McCallum, a medical doctor, psychiatrist, wilderness guide, author, poet and former rugby Springbok, had me from the moment he elaborated on the meaning of the book’s title: ‘Intelligence,’ he writes, ‘is the capacity to learn from experience, to think in abstract or symbolic terms and to deal effectively with one’s environment’. My own definition of intelligence had until this point been based on academic results, believing that those with a mathematical or scientific brain were intelligent. As a typical B, with a lot of work, and a C grade arts student, any prizes awarded at school were for cookery, languages and being a general all-rounder. Thanks to McCallum, I now understand how that viewpoint devalued the benefit of life experiences, a strong intuition and accumulated air miles. So it was with this newfound intelligence that I read Ian’s thought-provoking scientific research, perfectly blended with his on-the-ground knowledge from a life filled with enriching experiences.

For a start, McCallum believes that ‘we have to stop speaking about the Earth being in need of healing. The earth,’ he says, ‘doesn’t need healing, we do. Utterly indifferent to human existence, the earth will thrive when we are gone. We are the ones who need to redefine our relationship with it. We are the ones who need to do the reaching out, not to save the earth, but to rediscover ourselves in it’. He speaks of poetry as the language of ecological intelligence, ‘at once factual, at once poetic’, as a place of guidance, and a language of hope. Poetry goes straight for the heart, it speaks to the soul. How amazing: science taught via poetry.

From here, he writes about the evolution of our species, from homo erectus to homo sapiens, referencing the increase in the size of our brains, and that we continue to evolve. He speaks of how the environmental pressures of our time could be the very pressures behind a new evolutionary leap, not necessarily an expansion of the brain-size, but of a consciousness, an intelligence that can redefine our sense of nature and our sense of co-existence. He asks us to rediscover ourselves in nature, to remove our domesticated social masks, and to see the world as a mirror. That everything is connected, the outer world being a reflection of our inner world. To consider ourselves as Human-Animals, existing on a level-playing field. To respect wildlife, to observe animals closely. There’s much, he says, that we can learn not only about them, but from them.

There’s so much more covered, from the highly debated topic of hunting, to the power of intention, the importance of soul places, and what we can learn from observing the ancient rituals of tribesman. This book fell into my lap at exactly the right time, when busy researching and writing up a project about wellbeing – another lovely example, as McCallum would say, of synchronicity playing out perfectly.


NASA/Apollo 17 crew; taken by either Harrison Schmitt or Ron Evans – (image link); see also

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