young people help bridge the environmental knowledge gap

Dear Uma: Remember I told you about the young fellow I met last summer who was doing a small mammal study? I’d gone with him as a volunteer…

Dear Uma:

Remember I told you about the young fellow I met last summer who was doing a small mammal study?

I’d gone with him as a volunteer on a couple of his day-long field trips.

Last week, when I was in Whitehorse, I met him in the lobby of the hotel; he was there to attend a meeting of First Nation elders and government scientists who were meeting to discuss studies being conducted by the scientists.

When I displayed interest, he invited me to go with him.

What a rare and lovely opportunity to observe how aboriginal and non-aboriginal people are working together to conserve the elements that give the territory its unique wilderness, thought I, accepting instantly, even though it was a long meeting and I’d planned on heading back to Watson Lake right after breakfast.

Duane assured me there would be pastries and tea available at the meeting and we went directly to the conference room.

Indeed, there was a satisfying display of goodies to eat and drink, and we happily loaded up and took our seats at one of the long tables.

Introductions were made; no one seemingly surprised or curious as to my presence, probably due to Duane’s casual mention of my participation in his field of work.

The meeting was a while getting started, largely due to the fact that there were no First Nation people in attendance for the first two hours, giving me lots of time to chat with the scientists and discover their specialties.

There were two fish biologists, one whitefish guy, and a pike guy. There was a moose biologist, a hydrologist, Duane, and myself.

It turned out Duane and the moose man, like me, were there out of interest. Their’s more professional than mine, of course, and neither of them was making a presentation.

The elders arrived, got their breakfasts and got seated and things got underway.

It soon became clear their impression of the meeting was not the same as that of the scientists.

The government fellows were there for a one-day, one-way presentation; the elders were considering this an opportunity to tell government of things that could be done on their behalf and if it took days, so be it.

The fish guys were concerned about the decline of pike in recent years and wanted to study their migration patterns.

The pike biologist had brought along a small radio transmitter, which he passed around as he described how the device was inserted into the pike.

“Oh yeah,” said one of the elders, holding the gadget, “we see these all the time. You ruin the fish with them.”

The biologist objected: “No, we’re careful. We put them in the gut sac so we don’t spoil the meat of the fish.”

“That’s the problem.” the elder responded. “The gut sac is the best part. The meat is full of bones.”

The pike man chose to ignore this comment, continuing his presentation with a lengthy and thorough explanation of radio signals and satellites, which we all made it through, with help from sugar and caffeine.

The hydrologist’s presentation addressed the sedimentation from mining activity coming down the river and covering the spawning beds of various species of fish in the area.

He demonstrated a piece of equipment that would suck up samples of water several times a day, do a sediment analysis, and enter the results on a chart.

At the end of the summer, he told us with modest excitement, there would be a graph of the levels of sediment in the water.

Again, an elder spoke up:  “What are you going to do about the burn policy? You guys are letting the forest burn up.”

Nonplussed, the scientists explained that was an entirely different arm of government and nothing to do with them.

At this point, the eldest of the elders stood up.

“Come ask me where the pike spend the winter. I can tell you. I can tell you exactly where to find the biggest pike, but I don’t want to tell the snowmobilers who go ice fishing.”

He went on to say that the fish and game folks’ statistics went back only 30 years.

“Our records go back 300 years. We know how many pike were around then, how many it took to feed our families and our dogs.”

Then he got around to the hydrologist, whereupon he explained the recent burn policy of letting the forest fires go unless they threatened manmade structures. He also spoke about the impact of beaver habitat.

The beaver were moving upriver into the sloughs and building dams that were filling the sloughs with sedimentation from the mining, destroying the spawning beds of the pike.

The day limped on, while the feeling grew that this coming together was not providing anyone with much satisfaction or hope of resolution.

Duane, the moose man (Mike), and I made an early escape, heading to a pub downtown where Mike was to meet his girlfriend. There, we had a beer and talked about the meeting.

Mike’s girlfriend, Chantel, is a native of Teslin, and though educated Outside, is a devout student of the old ways of her people.

Mike and Duane, it turns out, are two of the many scientists ascribing to the Gaia notion of our Earth as a living entity, whereby everything on Earth is intimately connected to everything else, just like organs in a body — a view long held by aboriginal people.

“White folks want to control nature,” Mike led off our round-table talk. “It’s a mindset that leads to detachment from a sense of connectedness. They’re invested in harvesting cost-effectively and efficiently.” 

He stopped to swallow some beer.

“The focus is primarily on individually oriented considerations and goals,” he continued.

“Nature is viewed as a repository of resources for human exploitation.”

“And their scientific studies are not of a piece,” Duane told me. “It’s rare for a seal specialist to confer with a climatologist, or even a krill specialist, for example, all leading to knowledge that doesn’t present a whole picture.”

“Aboriginal peoples’ sense of self is grounded in the world, its sustenance is spiritual; its love, a sense of belonging to something greater than oneself,” Chantel told us.

I noted neither of the young men looked uncomfortable at the mention of ‘love’ in this sense; rather, they nodded in agreement. 

What a difference a couple of generations can make, I thought to myself, imagining Pete’s reaction to this discussion.

He’d be entirely up for it until love was mentioned in this context.

“The native peoples understand interdependence, the need for co-operation and harmony,” said Chantel.

“All relationships in nature must be maintained in a way that doesn’t upset the balance. It’s all about knowing every living thing is connected: people, animals, trees, plants, fish, insects — the sloughs waters, the sky, and even the soil.”

Chantel paused to smile at my attentive face.

“Now, that our species’ survival may be at issue, we’re all beginning to see this connectedness.”

We parted, but only after another hour of beer, and optimism.

These folks felt there was evidence of a coming together of the conflicting views I’d witnessed today, but it was slow, and time was running out as the elders died off, taking so much of their knowledge with them.

These young people, scientists all, talked with excitement about the advances in the technologies of the study of nature.

Many of the old ways were proving to have been based on a more thorough understanding than they’d been given credit for; Western science had a lot of catching up to do.

They’d talked about telekinesis as a valid scientific definition.

For instance, the breath I just exhaled has already spread far and wide.

The carbon dioxide from a breath exhaled last week may now be feeding a plant on another continent, or plankton in a frozen sea.

How’s that for connectivity?

My only previous knowledge of telekinesis had something to do with bending spoons….

I drove home, my brain buzzing with what I’d learned. I knew staying in the hotel another night would be a waste of time and money.

No, Uma, I’d only had one beer, and that in the space of nearly two hours.

Only an idiot would drive the Alaska Highway on anything less than full alert.

The drive home was magical; feeling my being a part of the wilderness — stretching to a seeming infinity for all those many miles — was potent and powerful.

I thought of how our every action, even our every breath, affects the earth and all living things.

By the time I pulled into our driveway, all I could do was get out of the truck, stretch my arms to the sky and yell “Oh, wow!”



Heather Bennett is a writer who lives in Watson Lake.

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