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Woman in white dress on back of a reindeer in forest.

New Totems: Animals and Power Plants for a World in Ruins


To be a radical evolutionist is to admire the conflict between “real” nature and our attempts to keep it at bay.

When I try to take a stroll through the neighborhood amid cyclists, skaters and ecological cars, sometimes I am lucky enough to bump into a rare urban spectacle, and which will become more and more common in the future: a pack of dogs, 10 or 15 of them, all with thick coats reminiscent of their Arctic ancestors, surrounding a woman in her fifties who appears to act as their guide. When the weakest dog is left behind they all wait a while for it to regain its strength. Competition here is futile, unthinkable, but which does not mean there are no hierarchies or laws. But all in the group are subordinate to the survival of the group itself, and not just the strongest of the group. And I think to myself, why do humans not act in this sense, a little more like animals? One might think I exaggerate, but I don’t think I am the only one. Ted Heistman, a shamanist (who in his past life was a wildlife official and a biological conservationist), has noted with increasing attention that the idea of nature that we currently have is similar to the idea of a domesticated version, aseptic to what “real” nature is. During his work in the conservation of plants and animals in danger in the national parks of Canada he was able to observe how the species we call “harmful” or “invasive” are that which are the best at resisting the elements.

Coyote sitting on city bus.

“The Chernobyl exclusion zone becomes a refuge for wolves and wild horses. Raccoons and coyotes take up residence in cities. Invasive species are on the rise,” he writes.

Nature reserves that need multi-million-dollar budgets to be protected, and which are devastated by forest fires, ravaged by drought or disputed by large logging forms are not “nature reserves” but rather excessively expensive gardens. Following Heistman’s line of thought, fauna that is “harmful” to our scheme of civil, urban and even bourgeois life, are those animals that are most apt for the challenges that survival present: they survive insecticides, rat poison, highways, underpasses, environmental pollution, chemical waste, feeding on what we have learned – really only in recent history – to call “trash.”

Some African fish that have begun to invade North America do so like undocumented immigrants, in any kind of water available: they destroy local fish (that look good in postcards of lakes) and reproduce; they do not differentiate between salt and fresh water, and they are incredibly resistant to the local illnesses and predators and which have become their prey.

The new totems, in this sense, are the animals that teach us to live in an apparently hostile environment that is condemned by both environmentalists and politicians. They can be the hordes of wild pigs that infest the plains of northern Mexico where the buffalo once roamed, or the urban raccoons that feed on what you or I would give to our “pets.”

Woman in dress holding a raccoon.

The same thing happens with power plants and all that we consume in one way or another, either as “consumers” – a protected species of humans that spends its time extracting natural resources and converting them into a market of consumption and information – or as part of a living chain, and not just a food chain, that includes all living and inert things, and which participates in everything that escapes from the human needs of the moment. If global warming, the melting of the polar ice caps or the deterioration of the ozone layer make our urban, hyper-technological and, in a word, neoliberal scheme of living impractical, then we need to find a way to survive. And humans’ best-kept secret is that our function on earth is to transport other species to where we are going: the small step on the moon is the immense step for a microbe that nested in an astronaut’s footprint, and without which it would never have dreamed of reaching the stars.

Humans also behave like harmful fauna for the rest of life on earth. We can learn to domesticate ourselves or to resist.


By Sebastián Gómez-Matus


Image credits: Katerina Plotnikova

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