The fossil record acts as both a memorial to life’s spectacular possibilities and as a warning to humanity about how fast dominance can become forgotten history, according to our guest, Scottish paleobiologist Dr. Thomas Halliday. Halliday’s research investigates long-term patterns in the fossil record, particularly in mammals. In his magnificent and daring new book “Otherlands: A Journey through Earth’s Extinct Worlds,” Halliday translates cutting-edge science into vivid portraits of sixteen fossil sites and their inhabitants extending back 550 million years. We speak with Halliday about his travel guide to the history of multicellular life on Earth, how an animal fossil can be read as a character description, how entire extinct worlds are reconstructed from remnants in the Earth’s crust, and the importance of realizing that our lives and the worlds we know were preceded by hundreds of millions of years of other life and other worlds, “simultaneously fabulous yet familiar.”
In “Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction,” science journalist Michelle Nijhuis chronicles the history of the wildlife conservation movement through the stories of the extraordinary people — both legendary experts and passionate amateurs — who shaped its evolution and expanding ambitions. Nijhuis introduces us to the Swedish scientists who devised the system of naming and grouping species that endures today, the rebel taxidermist who led the fight to save the American bison from extinction, the New York City socialite who demanded that the Audubon Society stop ignoring the gunning down of game birds by sportsmen, and more. These inspiring, dogged, and often flawed characters transformed both the ecological communities and ideas that we inherited. In this episode, we speak with Nijhuis about what we can learn from the stories of conservationists and their efforts to protect the wild animals that they loved, and the possibilities within a more equitable, inclusive fight to defend life.
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.
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.”
As wildlife across Canada face unprecedented pressures from climate change and industrial development, Indigenous Peoples, who have relied upon and managed these animals for millennia, are leading the way on ensuring their protection. From Newfoundland and Labrador to the Yukon Territory, groundbreaking Indigenous-led protection initiatives are ensuring Canada’s treasured species like the boreal caribou and globally important landscapes are safeguarded for future generations. In this episode, we speak with Indigenous Leadership Initiative (ILI) founder and director Valérie Courtois, an Innu forester who is a leading advocate for Indigenous-run guardianship and land protection across Canada. Courtois discusses the remarkable efforts of seven First Nations to pull caribou in the Ungava Peninsula back from the brink and her work empowering Indigenous peoples to manage and protect their ancestral lands.
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.
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.
“Books, like landscapes, leave their marks in us,” Robert Macfarlane once wrote. “Certain books, though, like certain landscapes, stay with us even when we left them, changing not just our weathers but our climates.” Macfarlane’s writing has done this for us and for millions of readers. It has shifted our climates for the better, deepened our sympathies, expanded our understanding of and attention to our moral and physical landscapes, and reminded us of the stakes of being alive. In this episode, Macfarlane joins us to speak about his new book, Underland: A Deep Time Journey. In the book, Macfarlane explores how we humans shape value across expanses of “deep time” — geological time in which the units of measurement are eons and epochs, not days or years — and asks: Are we being good ancestors? “When viewed in deep time, things come alive that seemed inert,” he writes. “New responsibilities declare themselves. A conviviality of being leaps to mind and eye. The world becomes eerily various and vibrant again. Ice breathes. Rock has tides. Mountains ebb and flow. Stone pulses. We live on a restless earth.”