Importance of Natural Resources

Teresa Ryan | Bioneers 2017


BROCK: Woo hoo. I missed you
guys since the last time I saw you. I couldn’t help myself.
Here I am again. Well you all know my name,
Brock, and I’m at Occidental Arts & Ecology Center,
where I direct the Water Institute with Kate Lundquist,
who’s out in the audience, and talk to Kate about
our beaver campaign. And then we also have our Permaculture
Resilient Community Design program with Kendall Dunnigan,
and then I run a Tending of the Wild
program at OAEC. And when Kenny was asking
how long people have been here, I get to raise my
hand on 24 years. My first Bioneers was in 1994,
when it was at the Palace of Fine Arts
in San Francisco. So it feels like with so many of you all,
this has just been a quarter century of a family reunion coming together,
and really building into what we’ve been really calling regenerative
thrivalism. Right? The thrivalists are the ones
whose buns are dancing in the midst of survivalist.
And it’s regenerative. And with respect to
the next speaker, I want to offer up basically
a sense of gratitude for connection and gratitude,
for community and conviviality. And on those themes,
I just want us to take one big breath in, and one big breath out, and thank all that oxygen
that you get to breathe, that the trees and
plants gave to us, and feel the CO2 you’re
exhaling that the trees are going to be taking in
as we begin to think about that tidal pulse, that
inhalation and exhalation, of that reverential reciprocity
with all these other life forms that are sharing basically one of the great
trade deals out there, if you will. Right? This O2CO2 global trade agreement,
which is a trade agreement I can get on board with.
[LAUGHTER] I mean, imagine the miracle
of photosynthesis where there’s a communion with chlorophyll,
and where water and CO2 join, bathed by a solar shower of sunlight
spinning the wheel and crafting simple carbohydrates and
putting out oxygen, which we are so grateful
for as animals and fungi. And at some point when the
photosynthetic critters figured this out, they got this evolutionary work-
around on the food thing here, it was basically they could
leverage that edge and offer up their capacity to make
sugar onto the trade blanket of life. And pretty quickly the trees
basically were like, Great, we got the hookup with the nuke
plant 93 million miles away to make sugar, so we’ll be your sugar mama. And then basically the
mushrooms are like, Well, that’s cool, but I’m your
mineral daddy because I’m going to basically get in and break down
complex minerals and salt, and we’re going to swing a deal. And this mycorrhizal root
relationship between trees and plants and fungus is one of
the great, great unseen miracles. As far as I can tell, basically
there’s a sense that each of these life forms,
expressions of life, get to offer their innate intelligence
and their unique talents to convert either sunlight into sugar
or break down minerals, and then trade them in a
living liquid carbon network, decentralized microbial mycorrhizal,
moisture-maintained midden of marvelousness. Right?
[APPLAUSE] And the beauty of it is is all this,
for the most part, was playing out underground beneath our feet,
out of sight, out of mind, as above so below.
And yet for so long folks weren’t really able to track this and
weren’t really connecting with it, and it really wasn’t until some
decades ago that a series of intrepid scientists and specifically
a couple of women, in respect, actually, from up in British Columbia,
basically while many folks couldn’t literally see the forest for the trees,
because most of the action was below their knees,
some of these folks got down on their hands and their knees
and got into this, and got some dirt under the nails and really helped
elucidate this amazing story. And so this morning to help us with this
unpacking of our subterranean soliloquy of our myco-mystery our speaker
today is Dr. Teresa Ryan. And she’s an aboriginal Tsimshian woman
and also a PhD from the University of British Columbia. And Dr. Ryan works directly
with professor Suzanne Simard, who unfortunately can’t be with us
this morning because of plane flight issues and canceled
flights out of Portland. And so I was cramming last night
late to work this out, and I must admit, in reading
Dr. Ryan’s biography and background, I’m convinced we’re in for a real treat of
comparable camaraderie and content. Dr. Ryan grew up in the rich rainforests
of British Columbia where she, in her relations with her
aboriginal Tsimshian heritage, being with her grandfather who
guided her in so many ways and especially directed her to a focus
in the world of fisheries and Salmon Nation there, and their shared wonder about place,
it appears the elegance of that mentorship, of liberating his granddaughter
for a life of wonder and wandering, and questioning and testing theories
against the conventional scientific wisdom and against the legacy of colonial dis-
possession of aboriginal lands in their region, it appears to me that Dr. Ryan
has lived a life where she has followed a path that’s been led by her
direct experience with her lineage in her aboriginal relationship, and a
training in Western scientific observation, which appears to have yielded
a form of hybrid vigor, if you will, in insight into the relationships between
tree roots and mycorrhizal fungi and marine-derived nitrogen that
came from the bodies of spawned-out salmon that were defecated
out by bears and eagles and otters, and even some people who eat that
flesh of the fish in the forest, and fertilize the Firs of the system
to create and ingrain the webs of life below her deep green Pacific
Northwest temperate rainforest. So Dr. Ryan will share with us some
compelling stories of co-evolution, of sunshine and Sylvan soils and
salmon streams and mushroom memes with reverential reciprocity themes,
and humble narratives of balancing both stories of humus and
stories of human. With all the shared work being performed
at the University of British Columbia it is clear that her unrelenting creativity
and smart scientific sleuthing shines so many rays of hope on the subtle
subterranean synthesis of sunlight to sugar to soil in a seaside Sylvan
salmonid symphony of symbiosis for societal salvation. So all the way down
from British Columbia, please give a warm Bioneers
welcome for Dr. Theresa Ryan. Thank you, people.
[APPLAUSE] THERESA: Thank you. Sm’hayetsk da wyuu. Na walps Xpe
Hanaax da wil tsogu. Gitlan, Tsm’syen
da wil waagtku. Ganahda dp teexu. [NATIVE WORDS]
Bil’hamneex waas noyu. [NATIVE WORDS] N’doyaxn lax yuupm
Coastal Miwok. Ama gaan slaask. Good morning. Good
afternoon. Hello. My name is Sm’hayetsk. I’m from the Gitlaan tribe
of the Tsimshian nation. Sm’hayetsk means real copper. I belong to the
House of Xpe Hanaax and to the Raven Clan. I am deeply honored to
speak with you today. Thank you, Nina and Kenny,
for your vision and open hearts for bringing us Bioneers. Thank you, Brock, for
the lovely introduction. [LAUGHTER] In preparing for this talk,
we note that our themes resonate with many
speakers of the past whether they are from an environmental,
economic or social science backgrounds. The universality indicates that
we’re on the right track. What I’m going to tell you about
are some discoveries of connection, communication and relationships
in the forests. We, as creatures of this Earth,
already know this in our subconscious. My work simply raises
it to our consciousness. It’s my hope that we can use this
knowledge for guiding actions to help deal with this existential crisis
we face with climate change, loss of biodiversity, and the
breakdown of our ecosystems. The First Peoples of America
have long articulated knowledge that I’m going to be
sharing with you. In the ancient Halkomelem
language of the Coast Salish, who have existed for
over 10,000 years, they say nə́c̓aʔmat ct,
we are one. The Nuu-chah-nulth say
Hishuk ish tsawalk, everything is one. And in Sm’algyax,
my language, we say Sagayt K’uulum Goot,
of one heart. In Indigenous worldviews
humans are an intimate part of nature. Our bodies, our minds,
our hearts, and our spirits are connected to the four elements—
earth, water, air and fire. Our relationships with these elements
ripple through our web of connections to affect global ecosystems. This concept of oneness is
universal in Indigenous cultures. There’s a few examples
of how this works. Last summer, Suzanne had the
pleasure of meeting Ken Workman, the great, great, great great-grandson
of Chief Sealth or Seattle of the Duwamish tribe. He described where he grew up and he –
in the forest of the Duwamish River, a place we now know as Seattle, he talked of the intimate connection
of Duwamish people to the trees, and how they lived and
worked and played and even buried their
ancestors in the trees. The ones in the trees in time
return to the soil and then become
part of the trees. And so the generations of people
live on in the trees and in the longhouses and canoes
and totems made from those trees. Thus many generations are all
around the people, connecting those here in the
present with the past and the future and
with the natural world. Subiyay, the late Bruce Miller of the
Skokomish, the Salmon Nation, who lived just north
of the Duwamish, also spoke of the ancient
story of the tree people. Quoting from a climate action
document of the Swinomish tribe, this ancient story tells how the trees
have much to teach us in their diversity and symbiotic nature. Subiyay said, “Trees were to develop
the most powerful method of teaching and the teaching
doesn’t utilize language or words because it’s teaching by example,
which is the strongest form of teaching that can be established.” Animals teach their young
ones by example. Trees were placed on Earth as an
example of what true harmony and contribution is
to the world. Their example was that
they existed side by side from the very beginning of time
with no criticism of one another. Suzanne calls these tree people
the gentle giants who, like the Coast Salish,
are patiently waiting, like we all are, for the
Western world to learn. The ancient story of the tree people
told by Subiyay goes on. “Under the forest floor there is
an intricate and vast system of roots and fungi that
keeps the forest strong.” I will come back to this. Robin Kimmerer of the
Potawatomi Nation, in her book
Braiding Sweetgrass, also talks about so eloquently of
“Indigenous ways of thinking of plants, that they are recognized
as people. Strawberries are berry people
and trees are tree people who are persons of nonhuman species
with their own intrinsic roles in the democracy of species. The plants and trees
are sovereign beings with their own intelligence,
their own wisdom and their own responsibilities.” Robin describes how the Potawatomi
honor the plant people as the gifts of the Earth through
the honorable harvest. When you harvest,
don’t take everything, or even the first one. Second, ask permission.
Explain why you need to harvest. Third, listen for the answer
and then if it’s no, then walk away. Fourth, take only
what you need. Fifth, use everything
that you take. Sixth, when you harvest,
minimize harm. Seven, be grateful
for the harvest. Eight, share with
your neighbors. And lastly and importantly,
meet your responsibility to the Earth by reciprocating with a
gift of your own, such as through spreading
of the seed, by defending the
plants fiercely. Thank you, Robin, for
sharing your teachings. This last point of meeting responsibility
by reciprocating the gift using the honorable harvest is also
advocated by me in my work. I am a fishery
scientist by training. The First Peoples of the salmon
forests in the Pacific Northwest, including the Tsimshian,
my tribe, the Heiltsuk, the Haida, Tlingit, many others
harvested salmon, clams, abalone,
and many other resources for our livelihoods. We met our responsibility for these gifts
by reciprocating with gifts of our own. For the clams,
we made beds so they could reproduce in
abundance along the beaches. For the salmon
we built rock walls along the shore lines called stone traps
so they could passably trap the salmon, harvesting only the smaller fish
when we needed them but on the ebb tide, while letting
the large ones escape, and the females. This way populations were kept large,
strong and genetically diverse. I’ll come back to this later. The Swinomish go on to say, “It is vital that such teachings
are not lost or forgotten.” These teachings are
Indigenous science and are crucial to the
survival of future generations, to offer guidance and instruction
in how one should live and thrive in what has become a
very complex world, to avoid a
life out of balance. The colonizers of First Peoples
have had and still do a very different worldview. Instead of taking only what
is given from the Earth, modern society has
taken indiscriminately. This exploitive worldview permeates
through our hierarchical social and institutional structures,
our capitalist economy, and of course treatment
of the environment. In fact, we belittled aboriginal ancestors
for their faith in nə́c̓aʔmat ct. People are connected in mind, body,
heart and spirit to rivers, salmon, bears. We ignored their
cries as a society. When Canada was colonized it was
the Canadian government policy to take the Indian out of the child
using the residential school system, for all intents and purposes
amounting to genocide. Suzanne lived across the river from
one of these residential schools. She didn’t notice what was going
on behind the brick walls, and this causes her to feel
shame of the history. She told me in her own words,
after we got to know each other and started working together, she said,
“You have changed my worldview.” That’s profound. So I know that these exchanges
have relevance in many ways. Our forests are subject to their
own kind of exploitation policies. This is a clearcut of Meares Island
in Clayoquot Sound about the early 1990s when the war of the woods started,
with the Nuu-chah-nulth nation leading the way on
West Coast Vancouver Island. I fit into this forest ecology paradigm
with Suzanne because I noticed that there were some observations in
some of our Chinook abundance in the Fraser River that
we didn’t anticipate, through a technical working group. In the pine beetle forests
in the Fraser River system, which is BC’s longest river,
there were a couple of Chinook stocks that actually increased abundance.
And that was surprising. So we realized that the government
programs didn’t have the capacity or the resources to answer
that type of a question. So I took it upon myself to enter
into a forestry program so that I could
address habitat issues, because for many years aboriginal people
have been advocating to look at the habitat, to treat the fish differently,
to treat the habitat, make sure we were
providing the stewardship. And that’s how I met
Professor Suzanne Simard, and we have such a like mind,
and we travel often together to many events. And ironically, Suzanne’s first job was,
actually, out of forestry school, to lay out old-growth
forests for clearcutting. This had an interesting,
devastating impact on her, how she felt about forests,
having grown up in them. The plan was to replant these
clearcuts with monocultures of pines and firs and weed
out the taller birches and aspens because these were unwanted
weeds, it was thought, competing and interfering
with corporate profits. Suzanne started noticing, though,
that the trees in these shiny new plantations were stressed. Why was disease spreading through
roots of the planted trees? Why was weeding birch making
these plantations so sick? She was also worried about
the rate of clearcutting. In Canada, most of the working forest
is marked for cutting on 50 to 120-year rotation, depending on where you are. There are no plans for letting
these forests grow to old age again. This is our backyard today. Like everyone’s backyard
in the Pacific Northwest. We find few signs of
honorable harvest here. Stressed plantations coalesce
into a stressed landscape that are at risk of
even more disturbance, more disease, more
drought, and more fire. Suzanne says I knew our relationship
with the forest was broken, and she wanted to help heal it.
She wanted to heal the forest. So she returned to graduate work
where she became fascinated by a UK study in 1982
when scientists discovered in the lab that mycorrhizal fungi
colonizing the roots of seedlings served as pipelines for transmission
of carbon from one seedling to the other. Mycorrhizes are literally
fungus roots. This is a universal symbiotic relationship
where the fungus trades nutrients it gathers from the soil for
photosynthetic carbon from the tree. Both benefit. Let’s take a moment here. This UK study was
published in Nature, a pillar of credibility
in Western science, yet Subiyay’s ancient teachings of the tree
people and their symbiotic fungal networks, considered “crucial to the
survival of future generations” has been completely ignored. It is considered non-scientific
and discredited. But make no mistake,
this Indigenous knowledge is deeply scientific, gained through
thousands of years of observation, trial and error. We have
ignored it as a society. The mycorrhizal fungi, to form
mushrooms like these Amanita mascarias we commonly see in the forest, these mushrooms are the
tip of the iceberg. The mycelia, the fine, white
threads emanating from the stem, run hundreds of kilometers
beneath a single footstep. When she read Read’s study, she
thought about those sick fir forests. Could mycorrhizal fungi colonizing
the birch somehow link with and protect the firs? Could killing the birch
kill the symbiotic mycelia, and thus kill the fir? Could these mycorrhizal networks
occur in real forests, not just in a lab in the UK? It turns out they do. Using DNA microsatellites
to distinguish all of the trees, mushrooms, and mycorrhizal
root tips in this forest, we were able to map the underground
network in the Douglas fir forest. The green circles in this map
represent Douglas fir, where the darkest, largest nodes
are the big old trees, and the lighter, smaller nodes
are seedlings in the understory. The lines are the interlinking
mycorrhizal fungal highways. We call the big, most
highly connected trees, or hubs, or mother trees,
because we found in later experiments that they actually nurture
the young ones. This is a map of only two of about
100 fungal species in this forest. Imagine if we had
mapped all 100 species. What’s moving through
these connections? Well, the very resources that
trees need to survive— carbon, nitrogen, water.
These were transmitting back and forth like messages
through the Internet. When one tree was in need,
when it was shaded or small or thirsty, its neighbor would send more
energy through the network. The resources were traveling
along a gradient from a robust source to a tree in needful sync,
from birch to fir, and reciprocally from
fir to birch. But what does it
matter to the forest? Where source trees were shaded,
sync trees sent up to 10% of their carbon. This is a lot. It’s enough carbon to
support seed production. Now, get this.
The direction of net transfer between birch and fir
changed over the year, depending on which species was
replete and which was in need. In the spring when fir was growing
and birch was still breaking bud, fir sent more carbon to birch. In summer, when birch
was shading fir, birch sent more to fir. This reversed again in the fall
when fir was still photosynthesizing, while birch was senescing. We have found that this is linked
to increased survival and growth. Well, she still wondered how fir was
protected from infection by pathogens when grown together with birch,
but not when it was alone. Well, when fir is injured or sick,
it turns out, it sends warning signals to its neighbors through
mycorrhizal networks. The neighbors responded by
making defense enzymes to fend off disease. When the neighbor is a birch,
the fir is also protected by antibiotic-producing bacteria that
are shared among the root systems like a public
immunization program. Not only defense signals,
we also found evidence that trees could
recognize their relatives. Mother trees sent more carbon
to neighboring kin seedling than to strangers, supporting
even larger mycorrhizal networks. When a mother tree was injured,
she transmitted even more carbon to her kin, as though she was
leaving her energy, her legacy, to
the next generation. Let’s take a moment to think
about the ancient story of the tree people
told by Subiyay. He said under the forest floor
there is an intricate and vast system of roots and fungi that
keeps the forest strong. The Swinomish say the story
of the tree people captures an important teaching
for building alliances, communal strength, diversity
and roles each member has in the web of the
whole community. Together we are stronger —
nə́c̓aʔmat ct. In our current work we’ve become
interested not only in the linkages between the trees but
between the trees, the salmon, the bears,
and their people. Remember, we’re using
ancient fish traps. The aboriginal people depended upon
and took care of the salmon. While spawning in rivers in the fall,
the bears and wolves also fish for salmon. The bears carry the fish
up the stream banks, then feed on them under the
sheltering crowns of mother trees. We think the leftover salmon bodies
decay and the trees soak up the salmon nitrogen through their
mycorrhizal networks. Traces of salmon nitrogen have
been found in tree rings stored there for centuries. In one old spruce tree, scientist
Tom Ranken estimated that 80% of its total nitrogen was
derived from salmon. This summer we’re looking at how
these trees might send this nitrogen to neighboring trees,
from tree to tree to tree, deep in the forest. We think this boosts the
health of the forest, cycles back to the rivers,
the oceans, and the people, in addition to providing
healthy habitat for salmon. This is a demonstration of how
things are all connected. The integrity of this circle of life depends
on what the aboriginal people call reciprocity, the trade
of mutual respect. This is an example of how people
are embedded in complex, adaptive systems in nature. So we see that these species are
represented by nodes and relationships. In our Western culture, though,
we think of them as separate, but they’re all connected. The way that we have been
managing our forests have led us to what’s known
as wicked stable states. We have been practicing forestry that
is not consistent with these cycles and we’re ending up with
forests that are dead. Then they become vulnerable
to catastrophic events, as you’ve witnessed, as
everyone in this room is aware. So it’s important for us
to understand that we have to nurture those connections
in the forest so that we can prevent these types of activities
from occurring in the future. We are the balance,
the seven generations. We take our knowledge from
the seven generations before us and we apply it so that the
seven generations in the future have the same benefits of
what we call home, Earth. Thank you.
[APPLAUSE] Going to make me cry.
Thank you so much. Thank you. [APPLAUSE]


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