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Recent discussions about revitalizing natural history have crossed into fertile ground at the margins where normal science meets literature and anthropology. On the one hand is nature writing, which has enjoyed an extraordinary renaissance over the past three decades, and on the other is traditional ecological knowledge (TEK), which has been proven increasingly useful to designers of environmental research, education, and policy.

Contemporary nature writing has adapted the subject matter and methods of natural history to pressing ethical, moral, and even religious issues. TEK has deepened or qualified the results of conventional scientific inquiry. At a recent symposium convened by the Natural History Network, participants wondered how, apart from a congruence of results, TEK and Western natural history could be linked. This paper offers “story” as a basis for thinking about such a connection.

“Traditional ecological knowledge” has emerged as an umbrella term for the comprehensive, wholistic, local understandings and practices that indigenous people develop about the landscapes in which they live and work (Pierotti and Wildcat 1998, Rinkevich et al. 2011). Despite manifest differences in geography and culture, such knowledge systems all rely on direct experience with the world to provide, test, and refine information: they are grounded in particular places at local scales; they consider humans as members of a larger community that includes both the material and the spiritual worlds; and they include moral, ethical, and religious considerations (Barnhardt and Kawagley 2005).

TEK has much in common with Western ecological science, including direct field observation, testing, systems of classification, and, often, corresponding results, but it differs in its wholistic world view, local focus, and inclusion of spiritual and moral concerns that Western science normally eschews in favor of the arts or humanities. Most significantly, however, both kinds of system rely on stories. This is particularly evident in TEK, which is transmitted through personal narrative as well as myth, that is, through both individual and communal stories.

But story is deeply at work in Western science as well. The very term “natural history” embodies the notion of story. A history is a record of what happened; it presupposes characters, setting, themes, and a sense of unity or significance, as well as a historian, that is, a storyteller. The qualifier “natural” further sets a marker between the subject at hand (“nature”) and other kinds of history, such as sacred history or human history, which can be further subdivided into categories such as religious, political, cultural, military, intellectual, and so forth.

Natural history is commonly understood as the practice of observing wild creatures in their native habitats, classifying them, and studying their origins, behavior, and interrelationships. This sort of activity has been practiced by humans for ages. As Lévi-Strauss (1966) observes, following Durkheim and Mauss (1963), all cultures develop elaborate and sophisticated systems for classifying natural phenomena. Likewise, story appears to be a universal activity. Its processes, features, and dynamics, like those of language itself (grammar, syntax, vocabulary), transcend cultural differences.

Indeed, story is the oldest and most enduring technology that humans have devised for constructing, preserving, and transmitting knowledge. It is still the primary way that humans make sense of the world. What can account for its universality and persistence? Lopez (1989) says that a story reveals truth as a pattern rather than a proposition. He relates these patterns to ecological relationships in the landscape and accounts for the salubrious and healing effects of story in terms of connecting these facts to the “inner landscape” of the listener. Sometimes, Lopez (1990) writes, a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. The Inuit word for storyteller, isumataq, means “a person who can create the atmosphere in which wisdom shows itself” (Lopez 1986). With respect to landscape, Lopez further observes (following Yi-fu Tuan) that “it is precisely what is invisible in the land that makes what is merely empty space to one person a place to another” (Lopez 1986). He is referring here to memories, both individual and social, that link people to the landscape. Both these and the ecological relations that give the landscape its coherence are invisible, manifested only through their effects.

Registered article
John Tallmadge | Natural History Network