In the long months we’ve all been confined to our homes, many people have become reacquainted with the vibrant life just outside their doors, finding unexpected joy, companionship, and hope through partaking in the cycles of love and loss that happen in the skies and yards around us. It is this wonder to be found in the natural world, from observing the habits of the nesting chipmunk family under her house, to watching a monarch butterfly break out of its chrysalis, that our guest, Margaret Renkl, captures so evocatively through her writing. In her book, Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss, and in her weekly opinion columns for The New York Times, Renkl introduces readers to the profound joys and sorrows unfolding in the world around us. In stories about growing up in the South, the heartbreak of losing her parents, finding the perfect squirrel-proof finch feeder, and hearing the chattering of birds in her yard as they warn of a lurking snake, she grounds the extraordinary and uplifts the everyday. In this episode, we talk with Renkl about how loving nature and mourning it go hand in hand, how backyard nature can provide comfort during times of grief, the impetuousness of squirrels, and how she turned her Nashville backyard into a wildlife sanctuary.
Are plants intelligent? Can they think? Can they hear, see, feel, smell and taste? Throughout history, most Western philosophers and scientists answered those questions with a resounding “no.” Plants have long been treated as passive, inanimate objects that form the backdrop to our active lives, rather than highly sensitive organisms with intelligence and agency of their own. But on the cutting edge of modern science, this orthodoxy is being questioned by a group of daring and imaginative scientists — including our guest, Monica Gagliano — who think that plants are radically more sophisticated and sensitive than we’ve been giving them credit for. Gagliano pioneered the field of “plant bioacoustics,” the study of sounds produced by and affecting plants. The results of her groundbreaking experiments suggest that plants may perceive, solve problems, remember, and learn via mechanisms that differ from our own. In this episode, we speak with Gagliano about the profound implications of her discoveries and how listening to plants changed her understanding of the world.
In 2013, a sperm whale washed up dead on Spain’s southern coast. In its ruptured digestive tract, scientists found an entire flattened greenhouse that once grew wintertime tomatoes, complete with plastic tarps, hoses, two flower pots, and a spray canister. The whale also contained an ice cream tub, mattress parts, a carafe, and a coat hanger. And that was just the obvious human refuse. Our toxic chemicals build up in whale blubber over years such that the concentration of pollutants in some whale bodies now far exceeds that of the water surrounding them. In whales’ vastness, the reach of humanity’s destruction is magnified — but so too is the potential of our compassion. In her genius debut book, Fathoms: The World in the Whale, writer Rebecca Giggs asks: Who are we to whales? What does it mean to pollute not just places, but animals? What can understanding our ecological crises through the perspectives of other creatures teach us about ourselves? In this episode, we speak with Giggs about the astonishing ways in which whales and humans live in each other’s wakes and the enormous power of the world’s largest mammals to expand our own moral capacity.
As Dr. Joseph Drew Lanham writes in his beautiful and deeply moving memoir, The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature, from his earliest days growing up in the piedmont forests and fields of Edgefield, South Carolina, he dreamed of flight. This fascination with the aerial journeys of the blue jays that stole his grandmother’s pecans and the crows that invaded his father’s cornfield sparked Dr. Lanham’s lifelong dedication to studying birds and to exploring what it means to be a “rare bird” himself: a Black man in a field that is overwhelmingly white and an ecologist finding freedom through wildness on land where his ancestors were enslaved. In addition to advancing scientific understanding of wild animals, Dr. Lanham has written extensively about the deep and often overlooked connections between how we treat nature and how we treat our fellow humans. In this episode, we speak with Dr. Lanham about how bird lives and Black lives intertwine in the story of the Carolina Parakeet, the language-defying joy of watching swallow-tailed kites, and why Emily Dickinson was right in declaring that “hope is the thing with feathers.”
The repercussions of the international wildlife trade, which is a primary driver of our planet’s biodiversity crisis, have recently hit close to home. With the society-altering impacts of Covid-19, which scientists think originated in wild animals, and the cultural storm around the Netflix hit “Tiger King,” the true cost of the wildlife trade and the U.S.’s role in driving it have become topics of national concern. In this episode, we speak with Natural Resources Defense Council Senior Attorney Zak Smith, who has fought for years to protect at-risk wildlife from exploitation. Smith discusses his work leveraging international, federal, and state and local mechanisms to safeguard some of our planet’s most iconic species — such as vaquitas, giraffes, and elephants — and his vision for a more sustainable, equitable world.
Roughly two-thirds of emerging infectious diseases — including COVID-19 and almost all recent epidemics — originate in the bodies of animals. Microbes have spilled over from animals to humans for time immemorial, but, as our species dominates the biosphere and transforms the frequency and nature of human-animal interactions, the rate at which microbes are jumping the species barrier is rapidly accelerating. In this episode, we speak with investigative journalist Sonia Shah, author of “Pandemic: Tracking Contagions from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond,” about the history of viral infections and how our treatment of animals and the planet — via the burning of fossil fuels, biodiversity loss, deforestation, factory farming, the wildlife trade, and more — is fueling the eruption and spread of infectious diseases.
In an age where almost everything we eat is produced outside of public view, whistleblowers are critical to maintaining the integrity of our food systems. These principled insiders are often the first people to warn the public — often at grave personal cost — when food is unsafe, when workers face inhumane conditions, when food labels mislead consumers, and when animals and the environment are being abused. But who defends these front-line defenders?
Our guest, attorney Amanda Hitt, has been a champion and visionary for protecting and empowering food system whistleblowers for over a decade. As the founder and director of the Government Accountability Project’s Food Integrity Campaign, Hitt’s clients have included USDA food safety inspectors in ultra-high-speed slaughterhouses, contract poultry farmers faced with exploitative contracts and company retaliation, and animal researchers privy to taxpayer-funded waste and cruelty. In addition to litigating whistleblowers’ cases, Hitt and her team work to draw public attention to these whistleblowers’ stories and to turn their revelations into systemic legal reforms. In this episode, Hitt takes us inside the world of animal agriculture industry whistleblowers. We speak with Hitt about her clients’ stories and motivations, the patchwork of laws that provide protections and redress for whistleblowers, the reality behind her video game “Bacon Defender,” and why food animal welfare, public health, and worker rights are inextricably intertwined.
In her acclaimed first book, “Floating Coast,” historian Bathsheba Demuth explores how capitalism, communism and ecology have clashed for over 150 years in the remote region of Beringia, the Arctic lands and waters stretching between Russia and Canada. Demuth trekked through the landscape and historical archives in search of answers to questions such as: How did whales become known through the labor of their killing? What happened when human ideas of “progress” were subject to the pressures of arctic life? Why did the superpowers’ grand attempts to cultivate a reindeer farming industry fail? In this episode, we speak with Demuth about these questions and about how creatures like bowheads whales were understood, imagined, and treated vastly differently by three distinct groups of hunters over the past two centuries — indigenous Yupik and Inupiaq whalers, capitalist whalers, and communist whalers — and the fundamental role animals themselves played in how its history unfolded.
Nonhuman beings, and the passionate people who study them, animate Ed Yong’s vast, award-winning and kaleidoscopically varied body of journalism. His vivid stories explore the lives of scientists, the origins of life, social policy, whale hearts, the sixth extinction, the individuals we lose when a species vanishes or populations shrink, and the communities of tiny microbial beings that make us ourselves. To be at all, Yong demonstrates, is to be in partnership with other animals. In this episode, we speak with Yong about the wonders and burdens of telling stories about the animal world.
Over 40 percent of the Earth’s surface is open ocean that is over 200 miles from the nearest shore. These waters exist outside national jurisdiction and are almost entirely beyond the reach of law. Our guest, investigative journalist Ian Urbina, spent five years risking his life in these anarchic places to chronicle the lives he witnessed there. He met shackled slaves on fishing boats, joined high-speed chases by vigilante conservationists, rode out violent storms, and observed near mutinies. He lived on a Thai vessel where Cambodian boys worked 20-hour days processing fish on a slippery deck, shadowed a Tanzanian stowaway who was cast overboard and left to die by an angry crew, and met men who had been drugged, kidnapped and forced to cast nets for catch that would become pet food and livestock feed. We speak with Ian about the sprawling and dystopian world he chronicles in his acclaimed book, The Outlaw Ocean.