Sweet in Tooth and ClawStories of Generosity and Cooperation in the Natural World

People in modern societies often have a harsh view of nature, believing that competition reigns supreme and that the flourishing of one individual or group must necessarily come at the expense of others. In Sweet in Tooth and Claw, Kristin Ohlson argues (gently!) that nature is instead shaped and knitted together by mutually beneficial relationships, many of which humans unwittingly disrupt as we build our homes, expand our cities, divert water, and grow food.

But when we change our guiding metaphor and view nature as predominantly cooperative --and ourselves as cooperators instead of disruptors--we can repair the damage we’ve done to the natural world and plant the seeds for mutual thriving.

Through interviews with biologists, ecologists, ranchers, farmers in the field, urban visionaries, and others, Ohlson’s deeply researched case studies and observations show example after example of how nature is mostly sweet, not ravenous. 

The title Sweet in Tooth and Claw plays on Tennyson’s poem “In Memoriam A.H.H.,” in which he describes nature as “red in tooth and claw.” The book extends the concept of cooperation in nature from The Soil Will Save Us to the life-affirming connections among microbes, plants, fungi, insects, birds, and animals—including humans—in ecosystems around the globe. Ohlson tells stories of trees and mushrooms, beavers and cows, coffee and ants, bird poop and coral reefs. There are chapters on a wide variety of ecosystems and portraits of the people who learn from them: forests (the work of Suzanne Simard); scientists who study the interaction of bees and flowers in the Rocky Mountains; ranchers and biologists restoring wetlands in desertified northeastern Nevada; architects designing urban wetlands to protect major rivers, and more. Ohlson also recognizes older cultures that understood the necessary balance between nature's and human needs, and to which we must turn at this time of climate and environmental crisis.

“I’m convinced that if we can learn to respect, not ravage, the rest of nature, we’ll also become more generous and nurturing with each other,” she writes.

Sweet in Tooth and Claw is a rich and fascinating book full of amazing stories, complemented by full-color photography, and is sure to challenge the reader’s perspective on the natural world.

Patagonia, (384p) ISBN-10: 1952338093; ISBN-13: 978-1952338090

Reviews and Praise

Kristin Ohlson opens her latest book, “Sweet in Tooth and Claw,” by recounting a personal experience at an art gallery in Cleveland’s Little Italy neighborhood. Read review

—Annie Nickoloff, cleveland.com

The idea that evolution is driven by the survival of the fittest is so entrenched in the study of biology that research has largely focused on competition between species rather than co-operation. But, as Kristin Ohlson shows in this inspiring field-trip of a book, nature is full of ecosystems that thrive on harmony and balance rather than division and conflict. Read review

The Sydney Morning Herald

In the title of her latest work, Ohlson (The Soil Will Save Us, 2014) challenges Darwin’s theory of survival of the fittest along with Tennyson’s observation that nature is “red in tooth and claw” as it battles for existence. She posits that perhaps we are missing the generosity and connections that exist in the natural world. Through a wealth of examples, she asserts that nature is far more cooperative than previously thought. She travels from British Colombia to Costa Rica to explore examples of cooperation in nature. From the myriad connections that support forest growth to cattle ranchers altering their practices and subsequently turning deserts into wetlands, the stories are captivating and sometimes surprising. Firsthand accounts of her time spent with researchers and practitioners are fascinating. Woven throughout are her thoughtful observations along with an abundance of striking, full-page color photographs. Whether discussing individuals gardening with native plants or cities planning greener and more connected watersheds and ecosystems, Ohlson makes a compelling argument for working together and taking a lesson from the many instances of cooperation in nature.

—Maren Ostergard for Booklist

Journalist Ohlson (The Soil Will Save Us) pushes back against the Darwinian notion that “competition rules” in this vivid survey. Despite the popular notion that nature is a “vicious and never-ending battle of survival for meager resources,” Ohlson makes a solid case that the opposite is often true. She starts with the revolutionary findings of forest ecologist Suzanne Simard, which showed cooperation among trees that share nutrients via underground fungal networks. Ohlson then moves on to discoveries among other organisms—including symbiotic cyanobacteria, which “live side by side in floating communities”; Azya orbigera beetles, which “love to be with ants” per one ecologist; and beavers, which “reengineer” landscapes to feature “vibrant wetlands” where there was once “dust and gravel”—as well as the development of regenerative farming practices that are used to “protect soils from erosion and... add biodiversity.” Alongside the fascinating case studies, Ohlson reflects on her own connection to nature in oft-lyrical prose: “The wild grasses dried into tiny lacerating spears; if I stepped into them, my mother would be at my feet with tweezers and a needle, its tip still hot and black from being held to a flame.” This is as charming as it is enlightening.  Read review

Publishers Weekly

"The book’s astounding revelations of how trees communicate through chemical “sentences” or emit chemical “screams” that prompt other plants to produce substances that deter attacking pests only scratch the surface of what there is to learn about nature. Without understanding such intricate, delicate systems, intervening humans often disrupt and destroy ecosystems that, with patience, would renew themselves.

A rich and fascinating book, Sweet in Tooth and Claw is stunning in its vision of how, by embracing nature’s cooperative, generous spirit, human beings might do part of the great work of helping the planet and its inhabitants to thrive." Read review

Kristine Morris for Forward Reviews

“Deftly weaving together science, social thought, and a remarkable cast of characters, Ohlson’s book uncovers the marvelous partnerships that make life possible, showing that cooperation, not competition, is the key to survival.”

Liz Carlisle, author of Healing Grounds: Climate, Justice, and the Deep Roots of Regenerative Farming

“Ohlson looks at nature through the lens of cooperation, from the intricate workings of one-celled creatures all the way to entire forests and cities (above and below ground). This deeply-reported and stunning book holds up a mirror to us humans, showing how we thrive when we embrace nature’s generous spirit.”

Judith Schwartz, author of The Reindeer Chronicles and Other Inspiring Stories of Working with Nature to Heal the Earth

“Charles Darwin’s theory of "survival of the fittest" introduced a competitive mindset about nature—the strongest survive at the expense of the weak. In Sweet in Tooth and Claw: Nature Is More Cooperative Than We Think, author Kristin Ohlson offers a different model, one of mutual support. Those plants and animals that are allowed to live in a spirit of mutualism—you help me, I’ll help you—are the ones who thrive. And it’s not just one species that ends up the victor; it’s all of us.” Read review

Patricia Prijatel for Psychology Today