For All those who Care, today:

For all those who care, today —

Amidst news of mourning Orca mothers, raging wildfires, and growing mumblings of “hot house” Earth, the burdens of empathy and crisis of caring can become so heavy as a Conservation Scientist – and as a human…

But – the world is still buzzing with impossible beauty. The salt of the ocean still beckons. Murrelets and gulls still dance under gold-flaked sunsets as they chase forage fish. Salmon dive under unsuspecting zodiacs, highlighted by bioluminescence that makes the whole ocean seem like, certainly, some magical mysterious kingdom. Little golden grizzly cubs munch mussels between peaceful sleeps.

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There is still time. You still have agency and energy and passion.

There is so much left to be saved and loved and seen. Wake up. Go.

Making the Unseen Seen: The True Cost of Oil Spills

This post was originally featured on the National Geographic Explorer’s Blog. It was co-written by Megan Humchitt, and photo credit lies with Megan and April Bencze. 

In the dark, early hours of October 13th, 2016, the Nathan E. Stewart tugboat and articulated barge surged south through the vast, turbulent waters modernly known as Seaforth Channel in the heart of Canada’s Great Bear Rainforest, in Heiltsuk First Nation territories. The American-based tug (also referred to as the “NES”) was returning to Vancouver Harbor after delivering nearly 8 million liters of jet fuel and gasoline to Ketchikan, Alaska.

Dawn on October 13th revealed the NES run aground on the reefs of Athlone Island, its crew being rescued off the sinking ship by the Canadian Coast Guard. Its hull was hemorrhaging diesel fuel and synthetic lubricants that would eventually result in the devastating spill of over 110,000 liters of contaminants into the Pacific ecosystem. On November 14th, 32 days after its grounding, the disfigured remains of the NES were finally lifted from the seafloor.

THE GROUNDED NATHAN E STEWART TUG SINKS BENEATH THE WAVES IN HEILTSUK TERRITORY. PHOTO BY APRIL BENCZE.

Athlone Island, where the tug and its barge ran aground, is a millennia-old harvesting site stewarded and managed by the Heiltsuk First Nation of Bella Bella, British Columbia, whose unceded territory witnessed the disastrous end of the NES that dark morning in October. The Heiltsuk Nation has fostered complex and sustainable relationships with their traditional lands and waters for at least a documented 14,000 years, and likely longer. The NES spill site, known locally as Gale Pass (at and around the ancient village of Q’vúqvai), was and remains a focal and biodiverse community harvesting ground. The impacts of the diesel spill on the Heiltsuk cannot be overstated; not only do the fishing grounds represent an abundance of protein that supports physical subsistence, but also the area provides a powerful environment to practice traditional harvesting, knowledge transmission, and support Heiltsuk cultural revitalization efforts despite more than two centuries of oppressive colonization.

GALE PASS. PHOTO BY APRIL BENCZE.

Twenty months after the diesel spill, the Heiltsuk Nation is still grappling with the profound impacts of the social, cultural, and environmental havoc wrought those stormy early morning hours in October 2016. As a Conservation Scientist working at the interface of ecological and social sciences, and a partner to the Heiltsuk Nation in their work to uphold Indigenous management strategies in their traditional territories, I seek to understand these intersectional impacts of such catastrophes. While the environmental impacts of oil spills, in Canada and globally, can be measured by instruments of science, the profound personal, cultural, and communal impacts of the NES spill defy measurements by such instruments. Understanding these impacts, infusing their consequences into modern dialogues regarding the expansion of tanker traffic in Pacific waters, and working towards real reparation, requires sharing of the Heiltsuk lived experience, which only members of the Heiltsuk Nation can do. In poignant and eloquent words, Megan Humchitt, a member of the Heiltsuk Nation, shares her perspective below.

THE CANADIAN COAST GUARD AND HEILTSUK FIRST RESPONDERS ATTEMPT TO DIMINISH THE IMPACTS OF THE NATHAN E STEWART SPILL. PHOTO BY APRIL BENCZE.

 

A Lived Perspective

By: Megan Humchitt

I knew something was wrong when I heard the VHF radio blaring in our kitchen upstairs in the early hours of October 13th. My father worked for the Coast Guard auxiliary for most of his life, and whenever someone was missing or overdue out on the water he would go out looking for them. He saved lives and helped many people from Bella Bella and the surrounding areas. He was able to engage in rescue efforts in any type of weather, day or night, because he knows our territory like the back of his hand. The loud voices on the VHF that night reminded me of those days past when my family and I would sit in the dark, worrying and listening for word from him on the radio. I went upstairs after I heard him leave in the early morning hours of October 13th, where I found a note that read, “oil tanker aground, Gale Rocks”. Fear gripped me. In that moment I knew that I had to go out there – I had to try to help protect our territory. I had to see for myself what was going on.

Gale Pass is a sacred place for us as Heiltsuk; it is a spiritual place, a place that has sustained us through generations. A place of history and culture. A place of present-day Heiltsuk. A place we go to harvest clams, rockfish, lingcod, halibut, herring eggs, and salmon. A place we go to practice ceremony. All these thoughts were running through my mind as we raced towards the location the NES had run aground.

AN ORCA (ORCINUS ORCA) PASSES THROUGH THE HEILTSUK WATERS NEAR GALE PASS. PHOTO BY APRIL BENCZE.

The Ocean is a part of us as Heiltsuk people; we are intrinsically connected to it throughout generations. For as long as I can remember I have been out on the Ocean with my family; it is where I feel most alive. Our health depends on the Ocean. The mood on the herring skiff with my Uncles, Cousin and Husband that early, dark morning as we raced towards the NES was heavy, all of us unsure of what we would see when we arrived at the incident site.

HEILTSUK FIRST RESPONDERS APPROACH THE SPILL SITE. PHOTO BY APRIL BENCZE.

Chaos. What we witnessed was chaos and confusion. When we arrived at the site of the spill alongside other Heiltsuk boats, our Heiltsuk Guardian Watchmen were already at the site with the Bartlett Coast Guard Vessel. The weather conditions that day were moderate. The tide was falling. The NES tug was grinding on the reef and its connected barge swinging back and forth in the surf. What could we do?! We watched in abject disbelief waiting for the worst to happen. Heiltsuk Mariners tried hailing the Coast Guard on the radio to offer advice on how the tug could be pulled off the rocks, to no avail.

AERIAL VIEW OF THE NATHAN E STEWART AFTER SINKING. CONTAMINANT BOOMS ARE DEPLOYED IN AN ATTEMPT TO CONTAIN THE DIESEL SPILL. PHOTO BY APRIL BENCZE.

As the tide fell, the tug began to smash more heavily against the reef, and the chatter on the radio between the Coast Guard and crew was ominous. The pumps on the NES were failing, the hull was breached, it was time for the crew to evacuate the tug. The tug sank in moments. As soon as it was beneath the surface the smell of diesel fumes washed over us, and the water became milky around us. It was the single most helpless feeling that I’ve ever experienced. We think of our territory as part of ourselves – and this crushing new presence felt like a physical assault. The sea conditions were now building, and the tide was turning. The diesel was now flowing into the clam-rich beaches of Gale Pass. We went ashore and walked the beach while we waited for the booms to arrive. The oil washed across the sand and rocks, slick under my boots. My head was dizzy with the fumes.

OIL FILLS THE SPACES BETWEEN ROCKS ON THE BEACHES OF GALE PASS. PHOTO BY APRIL BENCZE.

As the day progressed we did what we could. We placed booms across the mouth of Gale Pass and around the tug. But the damage was done. Our world was changed. The ride back to Bella Bella was beautiful, the sun golden on the mountains and a humpback whale spouted in the distance. Tears streamed down my face and I grieved.    

 

Making the Unseen Seen

As scientists and scholars, community members and environmental advocates, Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, authors, readers, and humans – how do we talk about the impacts of the NES oil spill? Certainly, to quantify the oil that seeped from the doomed vessel that day – to count the clams who filtered diesel through their soft bodies, or to enumerate the gulls, or wolves, or bears who consumed contaminated oceanic protein on that foul-smelling beach in October – would not capture the whole narrative.

MARINE DIVERSITY OVERLOOKS THE SUNKEN REMAINS OF THE NATHAN E STEWART TUGBOAT. PHOTO BY APRIL BENCZE.

“Certainly, to quantify the oil that seeped from the doomed vessel that day – to count the clams who filtered diesel through their soft bodies, or to enumerate the gulls, or wolves, or bears who consumed contaminated oceanic protein on that foul-smelling beach in October – would not capture the whole narrative.”Tweet this

Along Heiltsuk shores, part of the temperate rainforest iconically known to the world and National Geographic as the “Great Bear Rainforest”, the irreparability of such spills defy calculation. For the Heiltsuk people, the impacts of the spill still ripple ceaselessly through their lives, nearly two years after the incident. While the oil slicks have disappeared from Gale Pass beaches, Heiltsuk people wonder if local black bears harbor toxins, if ancient cedar trees and their bark that is so culturally important are forever changed. How do we understand the magnitude of spill impacts for a culture that views the Ocean as home, and whose cultural, personal, and physical sustenance is supported by the abundance of species it houses? Perhaps we do so through poetry, through ecologically-embedded social sciences, or through improved cross-cultural communications. More importantly, perhaps we do so by restoring the Heiltsuk’s – and other First Nations’- rights to respond to environmental destruction in their own territories, and by recognizing their rights to dictate who, and what, navigate through their Oceans (and lands).
 

As British Columbia faces ever-increasing pressure to allow tanker traffic and pipeline expansions through traditional Indigenous territories, understanding these impacts in real and meaningful ways has never been more crucial. On an objective scale, the calamity caused by the NES was small relative to the consequences that would have resulted had the tanker and articulated barge not delivered their payload before meeting an untimely end. Threats of catastrophic tanker spills in Heiltsuk territory persist – near misses occurring far too frequently. Proposals to increase tanker traffic across provincial coastlines only increase the chances of a spill that would result in irreparable cultural and ecological consequences; changes to protect the entire coast from the threat of oil spills must occur –  before the unthinkable does.

Broadening and Enriching the Conservation Conversation

This post originally appeared on the ACS lab web page 

 

As a graduate student, and perhaps particularly as a Ph.D. student, I am frequently reminded of the value of narrowing my focus. The advice is fitting; in the field of Applied Conservation Science, our scholarship is necessarily concentrated. Our diverse ecosystems, and the myriad ways humans understand and interact with them, are so complex as to require specific focus for deeper understanding.  And for our scholarly work to contribute to change in the real world requires a long-term concentration on these geographic, ecological, and social complexities.

I pose with my cohort of National Geographic Early Career Leaders: 15 of us, hailing from 11 different countries, speaking 25 languages and with unique disciplinary focuses.

But in the last several months, I’ve received unique opportunities to broaden my horizon of knowledge and conversations – and I’ve been fundamentally changed by the process. I’ve learned that my research questions, which seek to interweave Indigenous knowledge and ecological science towards improved conservation and upholding of Indigenous rights, are echoed across the globe and throughout many disciplines. The nuances, guidance, and new ideas that bubble to the surface through conversations with conservation scientists and social innovators working in Tibet, Bhutan, Arizona, or Tanzania have enriched my work in ways I couldn’t have imagined. For example, I have learned about community-driven work which aims to heal the relationship between Lions and herders in Kenya; about new virtual reality technologies which are allowing immersive experiences towards respecting and protecting disappearing languages; and about how long-standing local knowledge of the land is fueling a reversal of desertification of grasslands in Tibet.

It’s a mutually beneficial process; to travel is to recognize and draw upon the sources of your knowledge and experience, and the unique way you look at the world. To bring the practice of territorial acknowledgment to stages on the East Coast of the U.S., where they are rarely witnessed in the last decades, for example, was an important opportunity to share this process with a broader international audience.

Through interacting with scholars working all over the world, and particularly through formal mentorship programs afforded to me through the National Geographic Society, I now recognize impossibly important and oft-overlooked perspectives. The kaleidoscope of color these cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural conversations have painted over my understanding of our world and my research, the passion of the individuals I’ve met, and the collaboration opportunities that abound, give me hope that we together might achieve our conservation goals. I’m honoured and humbled to bring this wellspring of hope and new conversations back to our work on the Central Coast.

Acknowledgements

Earlier this year, National Geographic Magazine posted an article that granted me an opportunity for profound reflection.

I’ve been planning on writing about this article for some time, but its taken me months to figure out how to explain the emergent hope that this article awoke in this moment of deep political turmoil and social divisions in North America. I feel I still may fail to do this moment in history justice.

The article was aptly and appropriately titled, “For Decades, Our Coverage was Racist. To Rise Above our Past, we Must Acknowledge It.

In her February Race Issue article, Editor-In-Chief Susan Goldberg approaches National Geographic Magazine’s histories of cultural appropriation, abject racism, and colonization. She also grapples with questions of race and identity, reporting on recent work supported by National Geographic which definitively evidences that there is no biological basis for the race construct (though the cultural construct of race has and continues to have profound biological impacts). In her article, Goldberg seeks to confront the “shameful use of racism as a political strategy and prove we [society at large and the National Geographic Society] are better than this.”

When I was first awarded a National Geographic Young Explorer’s Grant in 2015 for my work in partnership with Central Coast First Nations (the Kitasoo/Xai’xais, Wuikinuxv, Nuxalk, and Heiltsuk Nations) I felt an inherent tension living somewhere beneath my excitement. As a white Settler of European descent, I increasingly recognize the ways in which colonization and imagined racial constructs have, directly and indirectly, benefitted me at the cost of Indigenous peoples and diverse cultures worldwide. In articles from its far and recent history, the Society perched on colonial haunches, other-ing Indigenous peoples or portraying them as exotic caricatures. This history of colonialism is by no means unique to the National Geographic Society; it is a systemic and foundational underpinning of many of the systems so many of us live, interact, and work within (the discipline of Geography, the infrastructure of the academy, etc.). But through my interactions with the Society, and articles like this one, I have felt this tension ease and be replaced by a growing urgency to speak for decolonizing methodologies and lifestyles in support of Indigenous rights and Indigenous-led research, and hope for a future of multi-cultural and multi-species flourishing.

In order to begin to shed the old, ugly colonial and imperial skins which shroud our institutions and our lives still, we must begin with the uncomfortable process of acknowledging our racist and colonial histories, by being radically honest about where both systems of inequality exist in our lives and institutions, and by standing resolute in an unwavering commitment to learn more, strive for better, and fight for justice for Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples of all races.

“Sometimes these stories, like parts of our own history, are not easy to read. But as Michele Norris writes in this issue, ‘It’s hard for an individual—or a country—to evolve past discomfort if the source of the anxiety is only discussed in hushed tones.'”

As National Geographic works to expand the field, push the boundaries of our knowledge, and conserve the places and things that matter most, I am deeply glad that they are also reflecting on their own history. It is a brave, bold, and fundamentally necessary exercise towards reconciliation, equality, and a better world. We have so, so much more work to do. But I feel strengthened to engage in that work through the support of the Society, mentors, and my incredible and tireless Indigenous partners.

Plastic or Planet?

Today I pledged to reduce the single-use plastic in my life.

That means cloth shopping bags, homemade hummus, iced coffee in hipster mason jars, and skipping that convenient to-go sushi.

That also means continuing to pressure policy-makers for common-sense bans on superfluous plastics threatening ecological and social health.

Join me and choose our planet! #PlanetOrPlastic

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/plasticpledge/?beta=true

 

On the ACS Lab: Kid Conservationists and the Value of Outreach

This blog post first appeared on the Applied Conservation Science lab’s web page. Please find the original here.

 

A flourish of waving hands darts across my computer screen as I close my video chat window. The waves goodbye signal the end of my first virtual hangout with Ms. Michael’s fourth grade class. Based near Chicago, IL, the class is as diverse as they are enthusiastic. I smile with a mix of relief and newfound inspiration as I log out.

As applied conservation scientists, we’re increasingly called to share our research with a broad audience. Whether through blog posts, carefully curated social media feeds, or opinion editorial pieces, we seek to strengthen our communication skills and public awareness of our research. Despite my experiences in public outreach, however, I was totally intimidated to video-in to Ms. Michael’s class as part of my work with the National Geographic Leadership and Development Program.

As a scientist at the interface of Indigenous knowledge and ecological science, the concepts that inform and strengthen my research often seem complex. I hoped to give the 9- and 10-year-olds in the classroom a window into my world – of research in the Great Bear Rainforest, partnership with First Nations reasserting their traditional management rights, and the value of exploring many types of knowledge to inform conservation science.

The kids far exceeded my expectations, quickly calmed my nerves, and humbled me in the process. Through the lens of the charismatic Spirit Bear (Ursus americanus kermodei), we explored habitat loss, pollution, Indigenous knowledge, cultural values, and our own solutions. The class took on complex topics such as invasive species and European colonization, and together we discussed opportunities to observe our own environments and practice developing our own “local ecological knowledge.” Perhaps most impactful was the consistent conservation ethic I witnessed beneath our conversation – the entire classroom understood the reality of resource limitations and the inherent importance of conserving the Spirit Bear, its home, and diverse human cultures.

The experience has solidified the incredible value of scientific outreach across populations and ages, and I am thrilled to continue the inspiring work. I have much more to learn from Ms. Michael’s class!

Knowing What We Don’t Know: Accepting a diversity of knowledge for a sustainable future

This blog post first appeared on the National Geographic Explorer’s Blog on December 19th, 2017. See the original here

If you ever wish to contemplate modern human inadequacy, I challenge you to spend time trundling through the remaining fragments of the Mata Atlântica Rainforest of Brazil. Don’t get me wrong; the dense canopy of green within a rainforest more ancient than the Amazon is stunning even in its heavily modified form. In the remaining parcels of the forest, gowns of green cascade from the dense overgrowth, while capuchin monkeys watch bipedal passersby with charismatic sneers. The montane terrain, dense and ever-wet, is steep, and the forest constantly fighting to reclaim human-made trails.

BIOLOGISTS AND LOCAL GUIDES MAKE THEIR WAY THROUGH THE UNDERSTORY OF THE MATA ATLÂNTICA FOREST IN SEARCH OF NORTHERN MURIQUI MONKEYS. PHOTO BY LAUREN ECKERT.

A budding ecologist stumbling through this rainforest in search of one species of Critically Endangered monkey may, faced with kilometers of steep hikes, pouring sweat, and fruitless searches, begin to question the utility of ecological inquiry. But this story is neither about this grand, montane rainforest of Brazil, which has suffered more deforestation than any other tropical rainforest on Earth  – nor does it truly begin there.

A MOUNTAIN-TOP VIEW OF THE FOREST, COVERED IN EARLY MORNING FOG. BY MID-DAY, THE LOW-LYING CLOUDS ARE REPLACED BY SCORCHING HEAT AT THIS ELEVATION. PHOTO BY LAUREN ECKERT.

This story is about knowledge. Particularly, it’s about my slow realization that, in a world of rapidly expanding human pressure, we must mobilize and recognize many types of knowledge, should we seek to understand, and thus conserve, what matters most.

We must mobilize and recognize many types of knowledge, should we seek to understand, and thus conserve, what matters most. Tweet this

I found myself in the Mata Atlântica rainforest during the summer of 2013. I was an overly keen research technician pursuing a career in conservation ecology. My interests and lifelong love of wild places and species had afforded me field experiences across North America – studying kit fox (Vulpes macrotis) demographics in the deserts of Colorado, deer mice (Peromyscus maniculatus) in northern forests of Michigan and Wisconsin, and whatever other wonders I could find in my backyard in the U.S. Midwest.


THOUGH HEAVILY IMPACTED BY DEFORESTATION AND HUMAN-SETTLEMENT, THIS REGION OF THE MATA ATLÂNTICA STILL REMAINS DISTANT FROM MOST SOURCES OF LIGHT POLLUTION. THE MILKY WAY DAZZLES THROUGH AN OPENING IN THE CANOPY. PHOTO BY LAUREN ECKERT.

In the rainforest, I was newly interned with a team of Brazilian scientists studying northern Muriqui monkeys (Brachyteles hypoxanthus). The primates are Americas’ largest New World monkeys. They are captivating as well as Critically Endangered; their social structure is egalitarian and, notably, they frequently utilize (admittedly adorable) hugs as communication and stress-relief tactics. Our team was tasked with continuing a Muriqui demography study – we were to track and photograph individuals, and contribute to understanding the behavioral patterns of the monkeys to benefit local conservation goals.

But many days into my time in the rainforest, we hadn’t caught sight of the monkeys. It’s hard to keep your spirits up during long hikes after many days of futility, and even harder to study a population of Endangered monkeys you can’t find. This sort of challenge isn’t inconsistent with the realities of ecology field work – but at the time it was certainly new to me.

It’s hard to keep your spirits up during long hikes after many days of futility, and even harder to study a population of Endangered monkeys you can’t find.Tweet this

UNLIKE ITS HUMAN COUNTERPARTS, THIS BLACK CAPUCHIN (SAPAJUS NIGRITUS) MONKEY NAVIGATES THE DENSE RAINFOREST WITH EASE. PHOTO BY LAUREN ECKERT.

One typical we-probably-won’t-find-the-monkeys-today morning, gearing up for our hike to a lookout above the trees, I was greeted by a cheerful new friend and local station employee, São Pedro (name changed for the purposes of this article.) He arrived with a fresh bag of home-grown coffee beans, and a burly confidence that he could assist us in finding the Muriquis. Although both the coffee and finding the monkeys were sorely needed, I was skeptical that we would be successful with the latter.

TWO AVOCADOS SIT PRECARIOUSLY BY A PAIR OF WORN WORK BOOTS; A SNAP SHOT OF HUMAN HABITAT IN THE MATA ATLÂNTICA. PHOTO BY LAUREN ECKERT.

Pedro’s ecological training was radically different from my own – he had grown up in the rapidly changing fragments of the Mata Atlântica, and his wealth of knowledge stemmed not from rigorous scientific proficiencies nor university degrees, but prolonged and continuous experiences in one geographic location. My training in academia – a time when I was largely dismissive of non-academic knowledge forms – left me ignorantly wary of such knowledge, as I bounded to keep up with Pedro’s quick steps through the forest. Within mere hours of trekking through dense underbrush, over countless streams, and up tortuous hill after tortuous hill, we sighted the elusive Muriquis. Pedro had a hardy, knowing chuckle at my simultaneous elation and disbelief.

Our first vista of the Muriquis was of them atop a particularly steep hill. In that first of many exposures to the monkeys, I watched them bound through the treetops and shouted my astonishment at every particularly daring leap between branches. I learned a central lesson during that first sighting. It had been slowly emerging, interweaving and condensing consistently as I explored new ecosystems, continents, and species as a research technician and budding ecologist.

A NORTHERN MURIQUI MONKEY TAKES A BREAK FROM SUN-BATHING TO WATCH A GROUP OF HUMAN PASSERS-BY. PHOTO BY LAUREN ECKERT.

My realization was this: scientific data are often limited in scope; some of the most diverse systems (tropical rainforests, for example) lack historical scientific data and are a challenge to study for even the most experienced scientists. Local and Indigenous peoples, however, are ancient keepers of complex knowledge systems, in which consistent, long-term observations and oral history create, maintain, and transmit a profound understanding of scientifically “data-poor” ecosystems.

Local and Indigenous peoples are ancient keepers of complex knowledge systems, in which consistent, long-term observations and oral history create, maintain, and transmit a profound understanding of scientifically “data-poor” ecosystems. Tweet this.

This realization is a simplified revelation of complex theory in the world of “socio-ecological systems” — in which Indigenous knowledge and the exercise of traditional rights are key. My continued recognition and increased understanding of local and Indigenous knowledge marked a fundamental shift in my career path and, eventually, in the way I think and talk about ecosystems and conservation.

Science isn’t a panacea. It is a critical tool used by humans to understand our world and our ever-changing role in it. Western science is a culturally embedded, systematic undertaking that rests on the haunches of objectivity, rigor, and repeatability. A scientific pillar is a crucial structural component when answering questions in the conservation sciences. But my experiences in ecological field work in Brazil (and beyond) showed me that scientific knowledge should not function as a stand-alone pillar in the framework of conservation sciences and conservation action.

Indigenous and local ecological knowledge are increasingly accepted and invoked not only as valid and complementary to scientific data, but as additional and equally important components of ecosystem understanding. While scientific knowledge can provide us with accurate snapshots of data in a limited window of time, local knowledge is accumulated over decades, and Indigenous knowledge often over millennia. Local and Indigenous knowledge is often held by individuals, communities or nations, who rely on local ecosystems for physical and cultural sustenance; thus, continual observations of ecosystem changes result in complex stewardship and management strategies with valuable lessons for scientists and ecosystem managers.

AN OOLICHAN POLE STANDS PICTURESQUELY AT THE BANKS OF THE BELLA COOLA RIVER IN BELLA COOLA, BRITISH COLUMBIA — HOME OF THE NUXALK FIRST NATION. PHOTO BY LAUREN ECKERT.

My experiences in Brazil, and the revelations that followed, catapulted me to work in a much more temperate rainforest with many new lessons in store. Now, I spend my field days in The Great Bear Rainforest of Western Canada. With its stunning ocean vistas, red-cedar forests crashing into rugged coastlines, and ghostly white “Spirit Bears,” this partially protected temperate rainforest has been heralded by National Geographic as “The Wildest Place in North America.”

But to Coastal First Nations (as many Indigenous peoples of Canada are called), who have inhabited their traditional territories and actively stewarded local ecosystems in this rugged rainforest for millennia, the place is anything but wild – it is home. While these Nations’ ancient and continuing stories are not mine to relate, they deserve wider scientific and global recognition.

A YOUNG KERMODE BEAR (URSUS AMERICANUS KERMODEI) WADES THROUGH A SALMON-BEARING STREAM NEAR KLEMTU, BRITISH COLUMBIA. ALSO KNOWN AS THE SPIRIT BEAR, THE SPECIES IS WIDELY APPRECIATED AND AT THE HEART OF THE KITASOO/XAI’XAIS FIRST NATION’S ECOTOURISM VENTURES, AS WELL AS EMBEDDED IN FIRST NATION CULTURES. PHOTO BY LAUREN ECKERT.

Through partnering with the Kitasoo/Xai’xais, Heiltsuk, Wuikinuxv, and Nuxalk Nations in the region, I continue to learn critical lessons. I’ve learned just how powerful Indigenous fishers’ knowledge can be to shed light on historical changes to a long-lived and at-risk fish species. I’ve learned about the power of story and human observation to encode complex stewardship responsibilities that allow humans, and ecosystems they rely on, to flourish for millennia. I’ve also learned that Indigenous knowledge isn’t simply “complementary” or “useful” to scientific knowledge. Rather, Indigenous knowledge represents a continuously adapting body of knowledge that culturally encoded successful environmental management practices long before western science conceived of the need for conservation or ecosystem management. Perhaps most importantly, I’ve been humbled by all that I don’t know: about Indigenous knowledge and the reassertion of Indigenous rights, about complex ecosystems, and about true environmental stewardship.

I LEARN ABOUT CHANGES TO LOCAL ROCKFISH POPULATIONS WITH WUIKINUXV NATION FISHER AND ELDER TED WALKUS. PHOTO BY NATALIE BAN.

This story is not about the Mata Atlântica rainforest, nor, I guess, is it really about my journey to accepting new and diverse knowledge types. This story is, perhaps more accurately, an attempt to scrape the surface of human understanding about our complex natural world; a modern natural world so multifaceted, that it invokes many forms of human knowledge to properly understand and steward.

THE HEILTSUK NATION GUARDIAN WATCHMEN BOAT RESTS IN SCENIC WATERS DURING A ROUTINE SURVEY NEAR BELLA BELLA, BRITISH COLUMBIA. PHOTO BY LAUREN ECKERT