Robin Wall Kimmerer’s presence is magnetic. Stepping out to the podium at the 2014 Bioneers Conference – an annual forum for topics like climate change and human rights – her silver hair hangs loosely, framing a pair of leather earrings decorated with small pink flowers. She greets the crowd with a large smile, and when she speaks, the room falls silent and the audience listens closely:
“Let us begin today with gratitude … of food to eat, of sweet air to breathe this morning, the preciousness of water, the companionship of clouds, and geese, and sugar maples. Gratitude for each other, for the privilege of our work together, and for the original peoples in whose homeland we meet, and for the more-than-human beings with whom we share the earth.”
Such poetic and tender, prayer-like words come as a surprise for some when they realize that these are the words of a scientist and professor.
Robin Wall Kimmerer is not your average environmental biologist. She’s not simply a scientist and professor at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, she’s also a member of the Citizen of Potawatomi Nation, a federally recognized tribe in Oklahoma. It’s her Indigenous knowledge that makes Kimmerer such a breath of fresh air in the scientific world. In her book, Braiding Sweetgrass, Kimmerer blends these two parts of herself, inviting the reader into a world where Indigenous knowledge and plant science cohabitate.
Kimmerer’s love and respect for her “oldest teachers,” the plants, is palpable. She was raised in the countryside of Upstate New York, and it was here that she initially formed a strong connection and deep reverence for the natural world. This connection was further strengthened when her parents started to reconnect to their Potawatomi heritage. Kimmerer remembers how every morning on their camping trips her father would make an offering of coffee to Tahawas, the highest peak in the Adirondack Mountains. She recalls how much of an impact this ritual had on her: “When we call a place by name, it is transformed from wilderness to homeland.” This practice of interacting intimately with the natural world is one that she continued to cultivate and eventually brought with her to SUNY.
At the university, Kimmerer’s unique way of looking at the natural world was not completely accepted by her professor, and she was often told that her interests were “not science.” Although she soon adopted scientific ways of thinking, she nevertheless realized that only by teaching the “mechanics of botany” she “was teaching the names and ignoring the songs.” One thing Kimmerer has always communicated to her students is how humans can have a positive impact on plants and the Earth as a whole. Taking them out of the university setting and into the field, Kimmerer teaches the students field biology techniques. She also teaches them how to build shelter, respectfully harvest plants, and give back to the land.
Kimmerer’s passion and care for the world of plants goes hand in hand with her belief in the importance of reciprocity between nature and the human world. In an interview with Professor Paul Peppis (University of Oregon,) Kimmerer tells the creation story of Skywoman who fell through a hole in the sky world down into the water world below. As she fell, a flock of geese caught her and helped her land safely. She considers this first interaction between human and animal “one of care and protection.” Once in the water, turtle offered Skywoman its back to rest on, and many other animals came to her aid in the task of creating a piece of land. In the end, the muskrat dove down and got enough mud for Skywoman who then placed it on the turtle’s back to create the first piece of land. To give thanks to all of the animals and the gifts they gave her, Skywoman danced, and her dance of gratitude increased the piece of land beneath her feet until it was transformed into the Earth.
Kimmerer explains how this story reminds us that the earth was made “not only by the gifts and contributions of all of the animal beings that were here before us, but in combination with human gratitude.” It is this gratitude that we must remember and give back to the plants and animals that sustain us. Kimmerer’s teachings of gratitude and reciprocity come at a time when it’s impossible to ignore the harmful impact human activity has on the planet. In this context, her words are both a warning and a call to change.
From oil extraction to industrial agriculture, we seem to be more focused on what we can get from the planet than what we can give to it. We’ve moved away from the teachings of the honorable harvest and are now facing a daunting and scary future, one in which the health and balance of the Earth is at stake. Even sustainability is more often about “finding the formula so we can keep on taking” than actually treating the earth with care. In other words, we concentrate on finding a solution so we can continue exploiting the earth for resources.
In her talk at the Bioneers Conference, Kimmerer describes the crossroads in regards to climate change. One of the paths is green and inviting while the other is burnt and destroyed. She explains that “in order to choose that green path, we first have to turn back along the path that our ancestors left for us and pick up the teachings that they gave us.” It’s not the land “which is broken, it’s our relationship to the land.” As a scientist she believes in developing methods to restore ecosystems; she equally believes in changing the ways in which we interact with the land. The honorable harvest, reciprocity, and remembering the teachings of our ancestors are all important pieces of this puzzle. These tools are the key to a bright future for our planet, a future in which humans and the natural world live together in harmony.
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