Poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s exuberant book of essays, World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, & Other Astonishments, has unlocked protective passion for nature among readers since its release in 2020. In the book’s thirty dazzling essays, Nezhukumatathil weaves love stories about being a daughter, a partner, a mother, and a teacher with reverence for a delightful catalogue of wild animals and plants and what they give us: their ability to expand our imaginations, to connect us with others, to unearth memories, to break habits of thinking, to teach us lessons, and to simply leave us awed that we co-exist with such wildly magical creatures as frogs and fireflies. In this episode, Nezhukumatathil reads from her collection, tells us about animals who have shaped her experiences and understanding of the world, and discusses the power of wonder and astonishment to expand our empathy.
In 1968, Dr. Bernie Krause was leading a booming music career. A prodigiously talented musician and early master of the electronic synthesizer, Krause was busy working with artists like the Doors and the Beach Boys and performing iconic effects for blockbuster films. Then Warner Brothers commissioned him to create an album incorporating the sounds of wild habitats, so he headed into Muir Woods with his recording equipment. What he heard changed his life and triggered a fifty-year odyssey.
Then and there, Krause decided that he wanted spend the rest of his life recording and archiving the music of wild animals and wild places. He quit Hollywood and began traveling the world. The soundscapes he recorded were full of epiphanies about the origin of our own culture and music, about the profound connectedness of creatures, and about the unseen tolls of human activity. Previous wildlife recordings isolated the calls of individual creatures, but Krause recorded habitats as a whole. He soon proposed a new theory of ecosystem functioning: that each species produces unique acoustic signatures, partitioning and occupying sonic niches such that the singing of all of the creatures in a healthy ecosystem can be heard, organized like players in an orchestra.
Today, Krause’s astonishing archive contains sounds made by more than 15,000 species. It is, as The New Yorker aptly put it, “an auditory Library of Alexandria for everything non-human.” Fifty percent of the recorded habitats no longer exist due to habitat destruction, climate change, and human din. We spoke with Krause about the beauty of and perils facing wild music, the extraordinary science of soundscape ecology, and how sound impacts the welfare of animals. The music in this episode is from Wild Sanctuary (www.wildsanctuary.com).
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 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.
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.
Professors Doug Kysar and Jonathan Lovvorn are the Faculty Co-Directors of the Law, Ethics & Animals Program (LEAP) at Yale Law School. Launched in fall 2019, LEAP is a multidisciplinary “think-and-do” tank dedicated to empowering Yale scholars and students to produce positive legal and political change for animals, people and the environment upon which they depend.
Kysar is Deputy Dean and Joseph M. Field ’55 Professor of Law at Yale Law School, and a leading scholar in the fields of environmental law, torts, climate change, products liability, and risk regulation. In addition to his roles at Yale Law School, Lovvorn is Chief Counsel and Senior Vice President for Animal Protection Litigation at the Humane Society of the United States, where he built and manages the nation’s largest animal protection litigation program.
In this episode, Kysar and Lovvorn speak about how animal law, industrialized cruelty, and climate change are inextricably entwined; why advocates and academics must focus on “animal destruction” laws in addition to “animal protection” laws; the deep questions animals raise about our country’s larger legal structure; and the profundity of the Monsters of Folk song, “The Right Place.”
Philosopher and musician David Rothenberg has spent decades collecting and studying the calls of birds and whales. In the early 2000s, he began playing along with them, taking his clarinet and saxophone to some of the furthest corners of the planet. The result is a new form of music that invites us to question where art ends and science begins. We speak with David about his unorthodox project, Darwin’s theory of sexual selection, and what it’s like to accompany the sounds and songs of beings who may vanish from the earth.
In the 1970s, scientists proposed what has become known as the Gaia Hypothesis: the idea that earth is best understood not as a passive substrate or background to life but as a life form in its own right. Our guest, journalist Ferris Jabr, believes the time has come to revive that idea. To understand how sentient creatures have evolved on this planet, he suggests, is not only to grasp that animals—human and otherwise—are offshoots of an evolutionary tree; it’s to see the tree itself as one element of a dynamic, interrelated organism. We speak with Jabr about the art of science reporting, the limits of life, and what the white cliffs of Dover are made of.
In 2007, our guest, Fabrice Schnoller, was sailing off the coast of Mauritius when he had an encounter that would change his life and open a new frontier in marine biology. As his boat neared land, huge pillars of steam burst out of the water. When Schnöller jumped in to investigate, he was overwhelmed by a crashing, creaking sound. It was the echolocation clicks of sperm whales, the bearers of the largest brains ever known to have existed on Earth. In addition to helping whales navigate, some evidence suggests that these clicks also function as a language. To investigate this possibility, Schnöller founded DAREWIN, the first initiative devoted to studying whale click communication and exposing it to the wider public. In the nine years since the project launched, Schnoller and his team have amassed the largest database of sperm whale vocalizations in history — all collected non-invasively, through free-diving. We speak with Schnöller about DAREWIN’s work, its pioneering methodology, and what it’s like to be X-rayed by a whale.