Interpreter goes global to explore nature as language

HAINES JUNCTION Talking to Brent Liddle, one quickly gets the impression both the left and right hemispheres of his brain are constantly in…


Talking to Brent Liddle, one quickly gets the impression both the left and right hemispheres of his brain are constantly in overdrive, all pistons firing simultaneously.

Liddle is an artistic scientist, interpreter and entrepreneur living in Haines Junction.

Oh, and he often exhibits a Dave Barry sense of humour.

Liddle can be boisterous, yet exudes a shy (but sociable) calmness, a reflective, laid-back personality.

He has always been curious about nature and the connections between living and non-living things.

This curiosity led him from his boyhood backyard in Winnipeg, Manitoba, to a 30-year career as naturalist for Kluane National Park Reserve.

He retired in 2002, but continues to share his observations and skill in an artistic, adventurous way.

Recently Liddle has taken his interpretive skills into the global arena. The witty artist, entomologist, and eco-tour operator has wrapped up his talents in interpretive training packages.

He adapts them and delivers to such peoples as Tibetan Buddhists and Mexican Mayans.

Lessons are custom made and hands-on.

Through translators in Chiapas, Mexico, Tibet, Nepal, and Japan, Liddle assists in developing ecotourism plans, establishes interpretive programs and trains local interpreters.

He frequently uses drawing and humour to walk his students through their training. (Some cannot read or write.)

How does Liddle’s humour fit in? Are there cultural barriers?

“No, y’are what y’are,” he says. “Camaraderie is universal. I draw caricature a lot — do crazy activities. The magic ingredient is fun.”

Liddle is jubilant about his adventures: three times to Nepal and Tibet, and twice to Mexico, for one and two months at a time.

“The highlight is living with the locals in their grass huts or adobe homes and eating Tibetan tsampa (boiled barley broth) and Yak butter tea, or taco meals with the Mayan families,” he says.

“Being one of them surpasses the work that I do.

“Also unequalled, was my first sight of Everest and hearing the Buddhists chanting ‘To the enlightenment of mankind’ (in Tibetan language).”

Closer to home, Liddle has worked with the Inuit in Pond Inlet, Cape Dorset, Inuvik and Nunavut.

In his interpretive work (much of it volunteer) Liddle stresses investigation and the broad concept of communication.

“Our definition of communication is often narrow, looking mainly at the verbal aspect or maybe body language, but I believe it is more than that.”

Liddle says: “From the Tibetan and Mayan traditional beliefs I began to realize that all living things communicate and that non-living things communicate with living things.”

He offers an example — the honeybee and the sun.

“The bees detect the sun,” he says. “They recognize its position in the sky. If they detect a food source, they can tell other bees exactly where it is by doing a figure-of-eight dance.

“The angle of the dance and the number of jiggles or gyrations in the dance tell the other bees the location and distance of the food source.

“The faster the jiggles, the farther away the food source is, and so on. It’s fascinating.”

He continues with other examples of colouration, adaptation, and nature’s sign systems.

Does Liddle employ these concepts in his training sessions?

“I do, and most people find it a refreshing eye-opener from just talking verbal and non-verbal. We often don’t recognize nature’s activities as communication.”

As well as his international adventures, Liddle instructs an interpretive course for Yukon College.

He contemplates adding a new module about communication between different species and between the plant and animal worlds.

He explains how he approaches this concept with questions in his international work and with the clients of his Kluane Ecotourism business at Kathleen Lake. He stresses the why of things.

“For example, why (for what purpose) is a strawberry red?”

Answer: An animal sees it contrasted (as a signal) against the green plant, eats it, digests it, passes it through. The plant re-seeds itself in a new location, has a better chance of survival.

“There’s a reason for, and a connection between everything once we peel away the layers,” Liddle says.

And that’s what he provokes his students and clients to keep doing.

“I don’t tell them,” he says. “I let them look and question and discover.

“Without being demeaning, I like to think of my clients as children going through the forest for the first time.

“Child-like curiosity and observation are key to revealing the interconnectedness, the communication.”

Liddle suggests that some of his Mayan and Tibetan students demonstrate a more receptive, maybe more curious mind about this connectedness than some of their North American counterparts.

“Some don’t have all the hang-ups of western culture of thinking in the box.

“Maybe it’s because most of them can’t read or write, or because, in the case of the Mayans I worked with, they have been in contact with the outside world for only 50 years.”

“Forget the schoolbook as a teaching element. We have to go back to grassroots,” he says.

Liddle’s students live close to nature.

He has them tell their stories of how they interpret the land, how they read the clouds on the horizon and what that might mean to them.

“Or they choose a common object such as a stone, plant, or animal in their area, study it, and figure out how it is related in form and function to other things in the natural world, how it communicates.”

Liddle continually explores the nature-as-language metaphor, acknowledging that this is not a new concept.

“However, I prefer to discover communication in action rather than read the theories and theses that have been around for a few hundred years,” he says.

“And I challenge the people I’m training to do the same.”

Have these global adventures changed Liddle’s outlook about the world?

“Yes. I‘m more appreciative of people’s struggles in just living, and I feel the world is a bit under threat culturally, being sucked into a melting pot.

“I see my work as partly a keeper of culture as well as of nature.”

And what’s next for Liddle?

“Ecuador and Peru.”

(That is, if he gets all his jiggles and gyrations lined up right.)