My name is Jackson, I’m a current student of the Conservation Across Boundaries course, and I’m here to share some of the things I’ve learned, along with a few observations I’ve made. The very first concept we studied on this course also happened to be one I was unfamiliar with. It’s the idea of Traditional Ecological Knowledge. TEK is the culmination of thousands of years of observations about the natural world. It is beliefs, it is the acknowledgment of sacred places, it is the web of relationships that connect all living things. It is awareness of one’s surroundings, as well as one’s self.

***

Night does not fall. Night soars… then settles on the world like a soft blanket. Night is lifted by the falling sun like lovers dancing in secret to their song. Night washes… like a wave across sand it gradually smooths the rough edges of the world. Night does not fall. The shift into night is not a descent, or any physical change at all. Instead, night is a voice, a call… night is a song.

***

While I’d been lucky enough to encounter TEK before, although unknowingly, I never knew the depth, complexity, or history behind it. This is sadly common for non-Indigenous Americans, as our education system doesn’t incorporate it as a curriculum. There are some exceptions, mainly in higher level education. However, it is generally discredited as an illegitimate—or at least non-scientific—source of knowledge, and is belittled in academia and Western science as insignificant.

***

When night sings… the trees soften their branches until they mold together as one. When night sings the birds and insects answer with rhythmic hums. When night sings the moon coats all it greets with silver smiles. When night sings the rivers murmur, stretching past their shyness for those who may be listening. When night sings… humans close their eyes, and grow weary to its lullaby. However, for those willing to rebel against their circadian identity and listen, the night sings more than just lullabies.

***

Western science has long ignored TEK, to our own detriment, because it violates many Western scientific codes of conduct. While the Western observer seeks to separate themselves from the subject of study as much as possible, the Indigenous observer includes their own connection to the system around them. Western science uses peer review and publishes their works, usually without firm conclusions, to a scientific audience. TEK is shared through stories, culture, and generational knowledge. While Western science isolates variables to learn about their relationships, TEK is created by looking at something and asking – What is your role in the greater system? What relationships do you have? How do you fit in? It’s not – What can I learn about you? It’s – What can you teach me?

***

One night during our course, I sat in a field just a few yards from our tents in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. The green and yellow grass had turned silver, and the air a ghostly blue. The cluster of trees that surrounded the clearing, once a tangle of individuals, had become a single black mass. A crescent moon hung just above the hills, illuminating the passing smoke of wildfires, and transforming the scene into a faded painting. Behind me, a river hushed the world as it coursed over the polished stones. When by all sense of logic, I should’ve been in my tent, sleeping off my weariness from the day’s hike, I instead chose to stay seated in that field… listening to night’s song.

***

The accomplishments of Western science cannot be denied, and our goal should not be to switch completely to TEK as a better option, not only because TEK also has limitations, but also because it would also be cultural appropriation and intellectual theft to do so. However, TEK offers lessons that Western science could benefit from. From the ‘big picture’ systems-thinking approach, to incorporating values of reciprocity and giving back to nature, to the much longer history of observational studies, TEK can provide key insights for problem solving in the natural world. If proof is needed, one need not look further than the current crisis of wildfires in the West. There are two main human causes for the increase in frequency and intensity of the fires: climate change, and the practice of fire suppression.

***

Night’s song is not just a lullaby, it’s also an alarm, a wake-up call. As I sat in that field, I remembered something I knew, but often forgot; the world doesn’t sleep when I do. As night sang, I heard an owl call out into the dark, I saw bats cut through the smoky air, and in my mind, I saw many creatures slipping through the trees beyond. There are whole and intricate systems at work that cannot be understood through one or two variables, and many of them bloom only while we slumber. I knew then that I could sit in that very spot for a thousand nights and still have more to learn from it.

***

Fires are a natural part of certain ecosystems. They increase biodiversity through disturbance and succession. When we put fires out immediately, ‘fuel’ continues to build until the next fire is far more intense than normal. Despite TEK understanding the healthy role of fires, we have only just begun to adopt ‘let it burn’ policies, and we are still suffering the consequences of a decades-long history of Western fire suppression. Our refusal to take advice from Indigenous knowledge holders can be tied all the way back to our country’s roots and our continued belief in the superiority of white, Eurocentric thinking. It goes back to settler colonialism, Manifest Destiny, and savages. When the temptation comes to scoff at traditional knowledge in the light of Western science, be it because of its methods or presentation, I encourage you all to keep in mind the vast history and deep connection to the land that TEK represents, and remember…

Night does not fall.

Jackson Sidford is a student at St. Lawrence University in Canton, NY.

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