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

“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