Traditional Knowledge

I am an Anglo-American, descendant of immigrants: 50% Swedish and 50% northern European (Irish, Scotch, German, French). Blue eyes and blond hair, now silver; I was educated in public schools and state universities where western scientific knowledge provided the framework for my thinking. I appreciate this knowledge and I believe these times require me to continue to question and expand the worldview I was handed.

Books as Bridges to Traditional Knowledge

The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben and Tim Flannery; The Songs of Trees: Stories from Nature’s Great Connectors by David Haskell; Mozart’s Starling by Lyanda Lynn Haupt: and A Rain of Night Birds by Deena Metzger have helped me on my search to reach through the veil of western scientific thinking into traditional knowledge. (See below for definition.)

This first book is written by a German forester, who after 30 years, began to realize how much more trees were than just lumber. He helps us understand how trees quite literally communicate with one another.

The second also focuses on trees. Written by a University of Tennessee professor, this very in-depth book leads us by the hand into forests all over the world helping us to perceive the music and poetry available there.

The third book, written by Seattle friend and colleague, Lyanda Lynn Haupt, is an exquisite example of a writer immersing herself in her nature topic. She and her family lived with a wild starling so she could better understand the role a starling played in the Mozart household, and the influence of birdsong on the great composer’s life.

A novel written by radical social ecologist, Deena Metzger, took me to the bridge between scientific thinking and traditional knowledge. Her book chronicles the love affair between an Anglo climatologist and a Native climatologist that leads them to the very edge of wild nature and across the shamanic barrier to traditional knowledge.

Traditional knowledge is long term environmental understanding held by people who remain immersed in and dependent on the natural world for subsistence and for social and spiritual lineage.

The commitment of the above authors to explore Nature beyond western educational frames and training enabled them to build a bridge to authentic traditional knowledge for all of us. In a specific example of how traditional knowledge can sometimes be wiser than scientific thinking, Dennis Martinez (“The Value of Indigenous Ways of Knowing to Western Science and Environmental Sustainability” (May 9, 2010) explains how Canadian regulations on musk ox hunting nearly destroyed the population until Inuit hunters’ wisdom was acknowledged.

Musk ox—Elelur photos

“Western scientists can be unbelievably ignorant of animal behavior. Some years ago the Canadian government allowed the sport hunting of Arctic musk ox that had passed reproductive age. Inuit hunters objected. They knew that herd elders were critical to the survival of the herd when it was under stress, e.g., keeping the younger musk ox calm during sieges by wolves. They also knew that the larger, heavier older musk ox, like bison, are able to break through thick ice-encrusted snow, allowing smaller, younger animals to access the browse beneath the snow. It wasn’t until the herds began to crash some years later that scientists recommended stopping the shooting of “over the hill” musk ox. This mechanistic approach of scientists to animal management prevented them from recognizing the social ecology of animals.”

Experience as Bridge to Traditional Knowledge

Just over a year ago I made a pilgrimage to Standing Rock—the spontaneous camp on the banks of the Little Cannonball River to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline being drilled under the Missouri River.

Ann at Standing Rock, December 2016 photo by Anne Hayden

Thousands of Anglo allies came to support the Standing Rock Sioux. And people from 300 Native Nations joined the nearly yearlong encampment. I came to be of service to these people in their valiant stand and to humbly expose myself to their wisdom about keeping the protest peaceful and spiritually focused.

It was a remarkable learning experience. The arrival of a fierce North Dakota blizzard necessitated quick, shifting of energies—adaptability is a primary teaching of traditional knowledge. Instead of experiencing whole camp ceremonies, I learned instead from the privilege of some important conversations with individual Native peoples. (See blog:

Extended time outdoors in wild nature, in the garden, with our little dog—these are my ongoing sources of experiential learning along the continuum between scientific thought and traditional knowledge. I cherish the richness of the learning journey ahead of me. I invite you to join that journey. These are perilous times that require all the wisdom our species can bring forth. We cannot remain siloed and separated in any way.






6 replies
  1. Judy Todd
    Judy Todd says:

    I appreciate your post. I am in my own learning curve as to the ‘line’ between authentic appreciation and simply learned cultural appropriation. I am struck by this description from The tao of Raven, by Ernestine Hayes, current Writer Laureate of Alaska:
    “Non-– Indigenous professors, artists, writers, scholars, storytellers, seamstresses, designers, speakers, and all those others who happen along and present themselves as authorities on anything to do with the colonized people – whether art, stories, or perspectives on literature – or engaged in appropriation and are normalizing colonial behavior.

    Retelling stories, producing artworks, and claiming Native identity are the most common methods by which non-Native people profit from the passive – aggressive routine of allowing others to believe that they are authorities on Indigenous subjects, or that they are themselves Native people. In spite of their protestations of respect, their citations of personal relationships, their exhaustive studies, all such practices are colonial acts.”

    It seems a deeply for me.

  2. Patricia Houston
    Patricia Houston says:

    Thank you Ann for the reading suggestions and the reminder that we sometimes lose sight of wisdom in our search for knowledge.
    One other reading recommendation I would offer is
    BIRDS ART ART by Kyo Maclear.
    Beautiful little book.
    Merry Christmas to you both.

    • Patricia Houston
      Patricia Houston says:

      I made a mistake in the name of the recommended book. It is “BIRDS ART LIFE” by Kyo Maclear
      Great book. Sorry for the error.

  3. Jeanne Petrick
    Jeanne Petrick says:

    Thanks, Ann, for voicing this all important thought of traditional in conjunction with scientific and the importance of including both in your process. AND for the book reviews! I really want to read Mozart’s Starling – I would never have known of this book were it not for your mention – so thanks for that as well dear tree lady!


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