🌿Wild Ones #43: Environmental Communication Digest

Environmental Keyword: Umwelt + Ecomedia Literacy + Honeyland documentary + Sanctuaries of Silence + More!

nēnē or the Hawaiian goose, a species of bird endemic to the Hawaiian Islands and the official bird of the state of Hawaiʻi. In Aves Hawaiienses, by R.H. Porter,1890-1899. From the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Hi everyone, welcome back to Wild Ones, a weekly digest by me, Gavin Lamb, about news, ideas, research, and tips in environmental communication. If you’re new, welcome! You can read more about why I started Wild Ones here. Sign up here to get these digests in your inbox:


🌱Environmental Keyword

“Umwelt”: The world as it is experienced by a particular species through its unique sensory capacities, and how this world becomes entangled with the worlds (Umwelten) of others.

Jakob von Uexküll (1864 -1944) was an Estonian-born ecophilosopher and ecologist. He introduced the concept of ‘umwelt’ in 1909 to describe how different species inhabiting the same ecosystem experience their environments in unique ways according to their particular senses. He explores the concept in depth in his accessible, lively, and poetic book, A Foray into the Worlds of Animals and Humans, first published in 1934.

Umwelt is a German word literally meaning ‘environment’ or ‘surrounding,’ but researchers drawing on Uexküll’s work have also translated it as a being’s ‘self-centered world,’ or ‘worldview.’

A major reason Uexküll introduces the notion of umwelt was to push back against the dominant theories at the time that treated animals as unfeeling, unthinking machines: “Whoever wants to hold on to the conviction that all living things are only machines should abandon all hope of glimpsing their environments,” he writes in the intro.

And if we want to glimpse the environments of living things beyond humans, he continues, we don’t need to found a whole new science. We just need to be open to “a walk into unknown worlds. These worlds are not only unknown; they are also invisible. Furthermore, the justification for their existence is denied by many zoologists and physiologists.”

Uexküll’s most famous example is probably his description of a tick’s umwelt. Imagine a tick on a branch, he says, that’s waiting for the right moment to fall onto a passing host in the creature’s lifelong search for blood: “The blind and deaf bandit becomes aware of the approach of its prey through the sense of smell. The odor of butyric acid, which is given off by the skin glands of all mammals, gives the tick the signal to leave its watch post and leap off.” According to Uexküll, a tick’s world, or umwelt, is attuned to four basic sensory experiences: up and down, the presence of butyric acid, warmth, and the absence of hair (e.g. a patch of skin). Everything else is outside of the tick’s umwelt, or to use Uexküll’s metaphor, the tick’s ‘soap bubble.’

Many environmental writers have picked up on the bubble metaphor to describe the worlds of other living beings. Anna Tsing, for example, draws on this idea to imagine a pinewood nematode’s umwelt:

“‘Call me Bursaphelenchus xylophilus. I’m a tiny, wormlike creature, a nematode, and I spend most of my time crunching the insides of pine trees. But my kin are as well-traveled as any whaler sailing the seven seas. Stick with me, and I’ll tell you about some curious voyages.’

But wait: who would want to hear about the world from a worm? That was, in effect, the question addressed by Jakob von Uexküll in 1934, when he described the world experienced by a tick.”

Moving to another critter, dog cognition scientist, Alexandra Horowitz writes:

“An animal’s Umwelt, or worldview, defined by her sensory and cognitive capacities as well as the environmental niche she fills, differs from that of humans…A dog’s appearing to stare blankly into space, for instance, may be characterized as “doing nothing” – or that dog, who can detect high-frequency sounds, may be hearing something and being “vigilant” or smelling the odor of another dog drifting toward him on the breeze.”

Or take tigers for example. In a new David Attenborough documentary, Life in Color, he asks, why are tigers orange? It would seem that being orange would make them stick out like a sore thumb against the backdrop of green grass and forest. The answer, he suggests, lies in the umwelt of the tiger’s prey: chital deer. Attenborough explains: “Chital have only two types of color receptors in their eyes compared to our three, which means they are effectively blind to red and orange. So, to the deer, the tiger isn’t orange at all.” The tiger looks green!

“The interesting part [about the umwelt],” writes Stanford neuroscientist David M. Eagleman, “is that each organism presumably assumes its umwelt to be the entire objective reality “out there.” Why would any of us stop to think that there is more beyond what we can sense?”

Now think of all the other sensory experiences plants and animals are attuned to that produce a diversity of umwelts: Echolocation. Magnetic homing. Electrical fields. Ultraviolet light. Mycorrhizal networks. Each species is suspended in a distinct web of sensory signals. And these signals guide what they pay attention to, and what they don’t.

Or as Uexküll puts it: “Every subject spins out, like the spider’s threads, its relations to certain qualities of things and weaves them into a solid web, which carries its existence” (von Uexküll 2010: 53).

The soap bubble metaphor, to describe the experiential bubbles living beings inhabit, has become the most common way for writers to imagine the notion of umwelt. In fact, the bubble metaphor has also been the basis for a number of critiques of Uexküll for failing to account for how living creatures are interconnected with the ecosystem beyond their bubble, or umwelt.

But as Sara Asu Schroer points out in a recent article, Uexküll used another metaphor that was just as important to his notion of Umwelt, but which has been mostly ignored: Life as musical score.

Schroer writes, “While the soap bubble may delineate certain limits of the subject in its world, the music analogy points to the creative and interconnected position of each organism as part of the overall musical harmony of nature. For instance, Uexküll speaks of the harmony of organisms: ‘We see here [in pairs] the first comprehensive musical laws of nature. All living beings have their origin in a duet’ (von Uexküll 2001: 118).”

“…Uexküll’s is principally attempting to show that the human Umwelt is only one amongst many and, as such, does not carry an exceptional quality or privileged place.” – Sara Asu Schroer


📚 What I’m reading

Ecomedia Literacy: Integrating Ecology into Media Education, by Antonio López. Here’s an excerpt from the preface that stuck with me:

“For now, we still live in a world in which one who cares about environmental issues is considered an ‘environmentalist’ as opposed to a regular being. By requiring clean air, water, and food—and hence an “environment”—to survive, we are of and in the environment. Humans are environmental beings by default. As studies about the bacterial composition of our bodies demonstrate, we all have microbiomes that make each of us a walking and talking ecosystem. Likewise, in a more integrated world, ecomedia would be interchangeable with the term media, in the same way environmentalist should be interchangeable with the word “human. The idea that humans (and hence our communication tools) are independent of living systems and the material reality of Earth is one of the most dangerous core beliefs of our civilization. In my tiny corner of the world, this book is one small effort to shift the world system to a paradigm of ecological consciousness.”

– Antonio López, in Ecomedia Literacy: Integrating Ecology into Media Education. Routledge, 2021, (p. xix).


👀 What I’m watching

I wanted to watch Honeyland for a while now but finally got around to it this past week. I thought it would be a documentary exploring traditional bee-keeping practices, but it turns out to be something much deeper: an allegory for exploitative human relationships with nonhuman nature fueled by profit-driven greed.

It follows the story of Hatidze, a beekeeper of wild bees who lives in the rural mountains of Macedonia, and the tension-filled events that ensue when new neighbors show up. Conflict follows as these new neighbors capitalize on Hatidze’s traditional beekeeping knowledge to make a quick profit.

David Sims in The Atlantic wrote an interesting review of the film, describing it as “both a personal tale about a lonely beekeeper in Macedonia and an epic with the aloof grandeur of Planet Earth.” Here’s a short excerpt from his review:

“Honeyland is the story of an ecosystem. In its initial moments, Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov’s documentary about a rural beekeeper in the mountains of Macedonia seems like a singular, focused tale: a portrait of a woman performing a near-forgotten art. Indeed, the work that the protagonist, Hatidze, does, following ancient honey-harvesting traditions largely unknown to modern audiences, is fascinating enough. But this is the kind of nonfiction film that gets at much bigger truths about the tragic ways in which any environment, no matter how remote, can be thrown off balance by greed.”


🎧 What I’m listening to

Sanctuaries of Silence: An immersive listening journey: “Silence just might be on the verge of extinction, and acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton believes that even the most remote corners of the globe are impacted by noise pollution.”


📰 News and Events


📚 Research

  • Ecolinguistics Research in Brazil (in Portuguese): Ecolinguística: Revista brasileira de ecologia e linguagem (ECO-REBEL)

  • Animals in Person: Cultural Perspectives on Human-Animal Intimacies. A collection of chapters exploring different human-animal relationships edited by John Knight.

  • The soundscape as the transformatrice in some Dene songs and stories. By Jasmine Spencer in Semiotica. Here’s the abstract:

    In this article, I theorize the soundscape of Dene ‘myth’—stories and songs that are both philosophically and literally true—by defining an interpretive template for listening actively to these ecologically and spiritually powerful expressions. I offer two central and interlinked concepts for figuring the soundscape: (1) narrative revitalization and (2) animal grammar. Together these concepts describe the power of animal stories to live: and to enable life. As a key premise of my analysis, I accept Dene ‘myth’ as true.”

  • The Probiotic Planet: Using Life to Manage Life. (2020). By Jamie Lorimer, a geographer at the University of Oxford. Here’s a blurb from MIT ocean anthropologist Stephan Helmreich:

    "This brilliant book delivers an incisive reading of probiotic cultural practices today—taking in everything from home fermentation to permaculture to rewilding. Jamie Lorimer expertly shows us that social and scientific projects that aim at re-calibrating microbial, bodily, and ecological worlds are experiments in the politics of symbiosis. In our days of viral peril, The Probiotic Planet is a vital reminder of the multiple futures biology may yet prepare."

  • Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency, by Olivia Liang, a collection of essays on art and activism exploring the lives of artists from Basquiat to Bowie. “Is art resistance? Can you plant a garden to stop a war? It depends how you think about time. It depends what you think a seed does, if it’s tossed into fertile soil. But it seems to me that whatever else you do, it’s worth tending to paradise, however you define it and wherever it arises.”


💡 Ideas


💬 Quotes I’m thinking about

  • “I think it would be useful if the concept of the umwelt were embedded in the public lexicon. It neatly captures the idea of limited knowledge, of unobtainable information, and of unimagined possibilities. Consider the criticisms of policy, the assertions of dogma, the declarations of fact that you hear every day — and just imagine if all of these could be infused with the proper intellectual humility that comes from appreciating the amount unseen.”

    – David Eagleman, in The Umwelt.

  • “All living beings have their origin in a duet.”

    – Jakob von Uexküll, in The new concept of Umwelt: A link between science and the humanities


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