Knowledge and Engineered Ecosystems

Because people of Western culture are separated from the Land, they are necessarily oblivious to the powerful body of Knowledge that comes from this source. In complex systems, whether ecosystems or brains, communication is a significant means of relationship. So the Land can and does communicate its condition, needs, and wants to those who haven’t separated themselves from it epistemically — which is to say: to animals, plants, Indigenous people, and everything that’s not behind the fortress wall Western culture has erected around itself. The reciprocal multi-way relationships between land, soil, water, winds, microorganisms, plants, animals, and other seen and unseen elements of any given Place are woven by a deeply rich web of communication that people of Western culture have walled themselves off from. The reciprocal relationships that emerge within the powerful currents of such communication manifest the ethical system of the natural world itself. The higher-order phenomena that emerge from these relationships constitute the Whole that is “ecosystem.”

Nickell et al (2018) documented some of the beneficial outcomes of Buffalo’s relationship with the physical and biotic elements of their environments. Their goal was to document the importance of Buffalo* to conservationists’ efforts to restore the health of North American prairies. They write that “physical changes caused by bison behavior are important for maintaining arthropod diversity of tallgrass prairies, and bison may therefore be valuable conservation tools. Bison have been proposed as important candidates for rewilding portions of North America, and our results suggest they could indeed be valuable toward this end” (Nickell et al. 2018:1). These scholars refer to the wallowing actions in which Buffalo engages to uphold its relational accountability with the arthropods (in particular) in its community as “ecosystem engineering.” Then they cite a number of authors to explain why and how they are seeing Buffalo within this framework:

“Ecosystem engineers are those organisms that, through their behaviors, physically alter their environment and in the process affect other organisms and ecosystem function (Jones et al. 1994, 1997). Many taxa have representatives that perform ecosystem engineering functions, including reptiles (Gibbs et al. 2010, Froyd et al. 2014), mammals (Naiman 1988, Naiman et al. 1988, Reichman and Seabloom 2002), arthropods (Meyer et al. 2011), cnidarians (Lenihan 1999), plants (Tanner 2001, Gilad et al. 2007), and algae (Coleman and Williams 2002). As many studies have shown, ecosystem engineering activities affect the abundance, distribution, and behavior of individual species, as well as produce community-wide effects on species richness and food web dynamics (Jones et al. 1997, Cuddington et al. 2011). One prominent example is the beaver (Castor spp.), which drastically affects distribution of orgnanisms and spatial habitat heterogeneity (Klotz 1998, Wright et al. 2002)” (Nickell et al. 2018:1-2).

Flood-control systems of levees and gates, tidal deltaic system development through construction of polders, coastal armoring such as seawalls to mitigate rising sea levels and tsunamis, and wildfire suppression through a variety of different means have all been referred to as “ecosystem engineering” as well.

Questions to facilitate your conceptual weaving process:

Ishtiaque et al. (2017) define “robustness” as it relates to ecosystem engineering. By this definition, can the actions of Buffalo make the ecosystem in which they live more robust?

Do you think system fragility is ever likely to emerge in a prairie ecosystem that’s Whole and fully functional with Buffalo in it? Does this issue change how you think about the robustness question above? Why or why not?

How might the footnote on this page (below) about the term “Buffalo” impact your perception of these (or any) animals being “ecosystem engineers” in the same sense that humans who build dams or engage in fire suppression are ecosystem engineers?

What kind of knowledge produces the actions of Buffalo or Beaver in its native habitat? Where does that knowledge come from? What ethical values do their actions manifest? Where does that value system come from?

What kind of knowledge produces the actions of a government agency that builds levees to mitigate floods? Where does that knowledge come from? What ethical values do their actions manifest? Where does that value system come from?

A great many authors have been applying the term “ecosystem engineering” to plants and animals living in their native habitats. What potential problems does this create?

Why do you think it’s hard for the Indigenous understanding of Buffalo described in the footnote to be expressed in the English language?

Click here to return to the list of pages at Weaving the Basket.
Click here for list of References.


* I have capitalized Buffalo here for a reason that’s different from the reason the word Bison is capitalized. Bison bison is, of course, the actual species name for this animal in the binomial nomenclature system of taxonomy. The first, genus, name is always capitalized but the second, species, designation is not. Both genus and species designations are italicized. If you write either “bison” or “buffalo” in lower case, you are simply referring to the animal in a casual (vernacular) way. To me, “bison” is no more proper in vernacular usage than is “buffalo” because both are “johnny-come-lately” terms applied by new-comers to an animal we’ve known for a very long time by other terms in our own languages. And you and I both know if I am talking about a big animal that lives on the Great Plains rather than Old World water buffalo or Cape buffalo. I only spell out this part of the name issue because I’ve learned that sometimes people who get bent out of shape when I use the word buffalo instead of bison are hung up on binomial nomenclature without really knowing how those rules work. So the name used frequently gets entangled in knots no matter which direction one takes it. Now that this knot is untied, let’s look at the word Buffalo as I use it here. In their paper, Nickell et al address the role of Buffalo as an essential and foundational anchoring being in the prairie ecosystem whose importance or significance to the larger Whole is highly significant. In doing this, the authors — whether consciously or subconsciously — have recognized and addressed the deeper essence of this being and its role on the Great Plains. That “deeper” presence, which is at the very same time the dark furry horned and hoofed animal that binomial nomenclature refers to as Bison bison, is (all together as one being) Buffalo. This name, used in this way, is capitalized to expresses Indigenous understanding that our own languages carry but that English — which is commonly used for pan-tribal communication — is largely unable to express.