Ecology of Fear: Invoking the Primal Foundations

Prairie Falcon - predator - ecology of fear 

Some of you may know that I am a "birder" (naturalist) and have been seriously (off and on) for 50 years. My deep connection to the land and ecological relationships of all things, more or less, began when I was a small child barely able to walk. I loved being outdoors in Nature, and my most important character-shaping years from 2-8 years old were at an old house we lived in on the escarpment of the Bow River valley. I literally walked 30 meters from my back door into the "wilderness" of the escarpment community of plants and animals--that is, the "prairie" biome, as it is called by ecologists. The escarpment is an 'extreme landscape' so steep and erodes and can landslide easily, so cities cannot build on these places, and they thus tend to become "natural areas" carrying the diversity of plants and animals that are not possible in the rest of the urban landscape/city today. This area and my interactions with the environment of the "prairie" shape my life--I have an 'escarpment personality.' Btw, Just two days ago, I was "slow birding" on a hill and spotted a "Prairie Falcon" which I studied for several hours up close as it was hunting ground squirrels along a major highway going through the city (of Calgary). I'll return later in this blogpost to why I practice "birding," still to this day, in order to become a better fearologist. I recommend "birding" (i.e., "naturalizing")[1] to everyone, but especially to budding fearologists.

Me With Spotting Scope - Campbell Hill, N.E. Calgary                -photo by Barbara Bickel 2017

If you have followed my research on "fear" (and 'fear') at all, you'll have picked-up my ongoing interest in developing a very important primal foundation for the basis of fearological work. Fearology itself as an inter-/trans-disciplinary study has to be able to engage all sorts of discourses and disciplines and traditions that have something to say about fear management/education. Fearologists of the future have to have some regard and competencies (as much as possible) to 'speak' to researchers, practitioners and others who come at the topic of fear from many directions and perspectives, for e.g., the physiologist-biologist, the evolutionary behaviorist, the psychologist, sociologist, philosopher, artist, architect, political scientist, cultural studies scholar and so on. Having an extensive vocabulary and basic knowledge of these fields of study and their approach to fear takes a lot of years to develop. For e.g., as well as there being new scholarship available recently on "ecology of fear," one can find similarly on the "sociology of fear," "geography of fear" and on and on... My goal has been to be able to have some confidence to speak to them all and at least show them I respect their views from their particular biases, and yet, as an integral-based fearologist it is my aim to not be overly-dominated by any of these views and their inevitable biases--and, that is because they are not holistic-integral perspectives in and of themselves. Rare is it to find someone who has a holistic-integral perspective. Now, to the question and focus of this blog:

What has the ecology of fear discourse to offer to the field of fear management/education, at least from the point of view of the integral fearologist (i.e., my point of view)? 

FYI, my first love of learning in high school was in grade 10 when I became very curious with biology, the living science, as it helped to explain so many things I had experienced in my body and in Nature for many years prior. I pursued two post-secondary degrees thereafter, one in Biological Sciences (Ecology Option) and one in Environmental Biology (specialized in zoology and ecology) between 1972-1978. So, it is quite natural in the later years of my life, after several other career tracks, to return to this bio-ecological science background I have because it is my most profound ongoing experiential base of real-life empirical "practices" and "knowing" that I will argue is most primal (natural). To understand "fear" well, in all its holistic dynamics, the fearologist has to be in-touch (in some ways) with the primal-instinctual and Natural domain of reality, and to do so without that domain being totally submerged and conflated with the Cultural and Spiritual domains of reality. I became fascinated with psychology, culture and spirituality much later in life.

The integral fearologist keeps a 'balance' (integration) of the three domains of knowing and reality (NCS), and does not privilege any one of them over the others but rather respects their differences and similarities in an evolutionary sense-- whereby (arguably) the Natural is the oldest and wisest in terms of how to "survive" well and sustainably on this planet that depends on ecological healthy relations/systems. The Cultural is next oldest (and not very old at all) and Spiritual follows as the youngest and advancement and corrective on the problems that the Cultural realm creates--that's a more complex evolutionary theory I utilize and will not go into here.

A lot of the contextual influence regarding my interest recently in an ecology of fear has come from tracking experts (i.e., bird language study by the teacher Jon Young [2]) and "Indigenous" philosophy/worldview and "primal awareness" practices through my 10-year study of the 71 year old teacher Four Arrows' and his scholarship and practices (as I am currently writing an intellectual biography on his life and work) [3]. Oh, and for those of you wishing to see other things I have published on this topic of ecology of fear see the resources in Notes [4]. There are many topics one could cover, and I'll have to focus on only one here--the ecology of fear and/or the "ecology of predator-prey relations." 

So, there is a long evolutionary discourse (both W. science and Indigenous prior) that have articulated the importance value of pre-human species and their ecological relationships--because they are in a sense our "ancestors" and some of them have lived for many tens if not hundreds of millions of years. The principle point of this research and knowing is to say that any wise human ought to listen well, and learn well, from its "ancestors" and what they learned about fear and its management on this planet since the beginning of life--and thus, in some way, arguably, the beginning of fear. Life in fact makes that "life" vulnerable to extinction (i.e., death). So, the complex, evolutionary, and ecological relationship of fear to survival (i.e., our instincts and motivations to live)--are primal foundational curriculum material for any fearologist. 

The particular study (dubbed in the last 30 years) "ecology of fear" (or "ecology of predator-prey relations") is one I find particularly useful to study. It has many implications for the human world as well. Ecologists are starting to address just how important the ecological systems (i.e., living and non-living things and processes) are impacted greatly by predator-prey relations (i.e., in simple language, the "fact" that all living things are susceptible to being eaten and thus at the same time are putting other creatures at risk because they also eat to live). The entire dynamic of Life on this planet is turning out to be that everything is eating everything, and thus, everything can be prey and/or predator at the same time. And behind that empirical truth, then there is the sound foundational evolutionary principle that: "nothing really wants to be eaten" (i.e., die) (i.e., fear of death). So, thus begins this complex ecology of "fear of dying" (including injury) in one form or another, which become more complex the higher up the evolutionary chain and with advanced consciousness capacities--right up to "self-reflective" species (brains). A whole other dialectical principle is that the "spirit of fearlessness" is right there helping the organism both survive, but also thrive and heal if injured.  

I won't go on and on, in order to keep this blog short. The thing I find interesting to remember is that the human being is a "top predator" ecologically. And, we best not forget that empirical truth, within the frame of evolutionary theory at least. Being a top predator means, more or less, we are making all other species "afraid" more or less. That's where "birding" comes in. It teaches me the lessons of evolution and Nature every time I go out there and walk with my binoculars and spotting scope. When you learn bird (animal) language, you realize they are continually giving alarm signals (more or less intense) as you walk into their territories, be it in the city or in natural areas. You are a threat. Now, apply that to all predators (which is, all living creatures)--and, the outcome logically is that everything is making everything, more or less, afraid of it (because, everything is eating and/or preying upon everything else). Of course, you could come up with arguments that cooperation is also going on and that not all creatures are "preying" upon others actively, e.g., some are scavengers of already dead organisms. My generalization is really intended to act as a baseline reference for human beings--that is, "top predator" in the food chain. Because, that is whom the fearologist is addressing in their work. Human beings and how they make themselves and everything living around them afraid, more or less. It is really hard for the "humanist" ideology to take this reality in--and, that's why I offer this counter narrative of an ecology of fear to the more humanist sentiments that see humans as more benign (certainly, not as a predator). 

The predator-prey behavior and evolutionary strategies that are ancient, are critical to understand in our theorizing about risk, threat, security today.The ecology of fear plays a critical role in all these areas that are getting a lot of attention--especially, in a so-called society that is driven/motivated by what many critics are calling the "culture of fear" dynamic --which is, another form of the more primal predator-prey ecology and/or ecology of fear. I would recommend studying this connection between risk, safety, threat and violence and fear in the work of Gavin De Becker, a well-known respected security expert today [5]. I have followed De Becker's work and corresponded with him for near 20 years. Much of what he writes about (like Jon Young) is all about the ecology of fear, as far as I am concerned, though neither of them use that language or research and discourse (including, Four Arrows). So, fearologist can improve this whole field of risk management/education, and fear management/education and safety and security domains by a primal study of the foundations of fear in the Natural world. That's my basic point. As Four Arrows (and the Indigenous worldview) suggested, that in order for us to become "connoisseurs of Fear" we ought to start asking where is it best to "know Fear"?--and, his response: 

"To survive and thrive, wild animals must be experts in Fear. Humans who wish to express their positive potentiality must also be connoisseurs of this great motivator." [6] Basically, Four Arrows, like myself, suggest strongly that if you want to "know Fear" then study Nature, be in/with the Natural domain as you observe, experiment, inquire, record and study the topic Fear--and, that means, study it as part of an "ecology of fear" (of predator-prey relations). Btw. researchers using this term "ecology of fear" are also including plants as "teachers" of how this all works. And, sure, we always have to be cautious not to try to directly apply everything from these ecological studies to "humans" (and Cultural and Spiritual) and the complexity of our lives, but some of it does apply, and will give us creative and fresh views into the nature and role of Fear on this planet. 

Oh, and why do I go "birding"? To continue to develop my primal brain! I am always learning to trust it's instincts and intuitions--and, you never know when you may need them handy to help out. And the basic corrective, healing principle I am particularly developing in the birding world is "slow birding" (I've coined the name)--to enact a counter to a world where everyone (even birders) are spinning out there way too fast, too many pictures, too many this and that... so, I return to the Indigenous-based wisdom in regard to Nature (the Natural domain), and cite Four Arrows (relating the lessons from Mexican shamans), who  wrote, "Nature cautions us to go slowly." [6] 


1. One could just as easily use the term "Indigenizing" here, as my colleague Four Arrows (aka Dr. Don Trent Jacobs) would do so. 

2. Young, J. (2013). What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World. Boston, MA: Mariner Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

2. The book is to come out in 2018 with Peter Lang publishers, entitled at this moment: Fearless Engagement of Four Arrows: The True Story of an Indigenous-based Social Transformer. 

3.. FM Blogs: see "Rhetorical Ecology of Fear: Scholarship" (Oct. 7/16); "Bird Watching/Listening: Teachers of the Ecology of Fear" (Oct. 14/16); and Technical Papers see "Further Steps to an Ecology of Fear" (Technical Paper No. 52, 2015) and "Steps to an Ecology of Fear: Advanced Curriculum of Fearlessness" (Technical Paper No. 38, 2012). 

4. De Becker has published several books now, but his classic text is "Gift of Fear" (1997). See a good talk De Becker with Sam Harris on the "wild brain" as De Becker calls it and "true fear" (intuition) that predicts violence ( ; and just to be clear, I do not necessarily embrace all of what these guys are saying in the video--rather, I'm quite critical.

5. Jacobs, D. T. (1998) [aka Four Arrows]. A True Story of Survival, Transformation, and Awakening with the Raramuri Shamans of Mexico. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions.

6. Ibid., p. 226.

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  • Hello Michael—I’m glad to read you’re getting a kick-out of moving into your 60’s and re-discovering your homeland.   

    …...….and what a hoot to read you name and claim  your ‘escarpment’  personality.   It reminded me how blown away I was years ago hearing of the variety of creative ways you survived---dumpster-diving included. How you thrive on the relentless pursuit of all things fearful, fearless and everything between.   

     Reading your blog reprised memories of a couple of major birding roomies I lived with for several years. In this home, talk of all things feathered seemed to supersede opportunities for meaningful human exchange. Out of this experience I came to realize that the study of birds—or anything for that matter,  can also be a way of avoiding landing in the primal and intuitive lands you speak of.  -MKJ

  • "Thanks, so much, Michael.  I enjoyed reading your blog this Sunday morning.  I appreciated thinking about the predator-prey relationship in nature--not something I had connected in relation to fear. And, I appreciated your comments about the prairies and birding--as I am having some trouble adjusting to this environment." -S. W.
  • I love this and want to offer an additional corollary of sorts. First I think Humans walk in the world and in environments as top of the food chain only in environments they control to a degree. Certainly not in jungles, forests, or the oceans or inside a tiger's cage, and not even in the dessert where ants might be feasting on the human who can't find water. But even in such environments, I'm not sure all the creatures shake in fear of us at all. In fact, I'll be Michael's consciousness is such when he is bird-watching that if anything, the birds feel his unthreatening vibrations and fearlessness.  Fearlessness encourages fearlessness so I believe the birds will not come around for a number of reasons but fear of Michael won't really be one of them. I've had wild horses come up to me when I am in a place of fearlessness, love and trust in the universe. Michael's bird-watching is indeed an opportunity to learn about all of this. Observing when the birds are frightened, when they are not, when subtle fears in ourselves, like "I hope I did not lock the keys in the car" can create energy vibrations that make the birds afraid also.  Indeed I'm sure bird-watching has contributed to making Michael a connoisseur of fear.

  • Oh, for sure, there is a strong tradition of studies in wildlife management and ecology that show the powerful (typically negative) impacts of "fences" (human made) on ecological systems... I would call such "fences" part of the spread of 'fear' via architectural and geographic division-making that humans seem to have been obsessed to continue making very long ago in our histories... the big question remains, who is inside and who is outside the (prison) fence?

  • As I spend 6 weeks in the mountains at an artist residency that includes intense cultural activities set on the side of "Sleeping Buffalo Mountain"alongside my excursions into the "wilderness" that is more and more marked and destroyed by humans - I resonate with this ecology of fear post today. Most marked is the cordoning off with electrical fences of a good chunk of Sulphur Mountain from humans to protect the animal travel through the town of Banff and a ecologically at risk snail due to human contamination. As the global tourist economy looks for more and more places of intact pristine natural beauty we are at risk of destroying it. We may not directly eat other species but we destroy them in our quest for solace from ourselves.

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