If you’ve not yet read Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, you have a wonderful experience in store. It was given to me by an RN friend soon after it was published in 2013, and I cherished it, little knowing that it would sell over a million copies and counting. Robin Wall Kimmerer is both a scientist and a lucid spokeswoman for the planetary matrix. A comprehensive collection of her quotes is here. I’ll first lift up some that celebrate scientific inquiry, since these speak to my own grounding as well as the grounding of RN. I’ll then offer some of her eloquent evocations of the ecomorality that permeates Native American understandings.
I dream of a world guided by a lens of stories rooted in the revelations of science and framed with an indigenous worldview—stories in which matter and spirit are both given voice.
Science can be a way of forming intimacy and respect with other species that is rivaled only by the observations of traditional knowledge holders. It can be a path to kinship.
Doing science with awe and humility is a powerful act of reciprocity with the more-than-human world.
Science is the process of revealing the world through rational inquiry. The practice of doing real science brings the questioner into an unparalleled intimacy with nature fraught with wonder and creativity as we try to comprehend the mysteries of the more-than-human world. Trying to understand the life of another being or another system so unlike our own is often humbling and, for many scientists, is a deeply spiritual pursuit.
Strawberries first shaped my view of a world full of gifts simply scattered at your feet. A gift comes to you through no action of your own, free, having moved toward you without your beckoning. It is not a reward; you cannot earn it, or call it to you, or even deserve it. And yet it appears. Your only role is to be open-eyed and present. … How, in our modern world, can we find our way to understand the earth as a gift again, to make our relations with the world sacred again? … It is understood that these gifts have a dual nature, though: a gift is also a responsibility.
In a garden, food arises from partnership. If I don’t pick rocks and pull weeds, I’m not fulfilling my end of the bargain. I can do these thing with my handy opposable thumb and capacity to use tools, to shovel manure. But I can no more create a tomato or embroider a trellis in beans than I can turn lead into gold. That is the plants’ responsibility and their gift: animating the inanimate. Now there is a gift.”
Old-growth cultures, like old-growth forests, have not been exterminated. The land holds their memory and the possibility of regeneration. They are not only a matter of ethnicity or history, but of relationships born out of reciprocity between land and people. … If we are looking for models of self-sustaining communities, we need look no further than an old-growth forest. Or the old-growth cultures they raised in symbiosis with them.
I think we are called to go beyond cultures of gratitude, to once again become cultures of reciprocity. … The Honorable Harvest asks us to give back, in reciprocity, for what we have been given. Reciprocity helps resolve the moral tension of taking a life by giving in return something of value that sustains the ones who sustain us. One of our responsibilities as human people is to find ways to enter into reciprocity with the more-than-human world. We can do it through gratitude, through ceremony, through land stewardship, science, art, and in everyday acts of practical reverence.
The moral covenant of reciprocity calls us to honor our responsibilities for all we have been given, for all that we have taken. It’s our turn now, long overdue. Let us hold a giveaway for Mother Earth, spread our blankets out for her and pile them high with gifts of our own making. Imagine the books, the paintings, the poems, the clever machines, the compassionate acts, the transcendent ideas, the perfect tools. The fierce defense of all that has been given. Gifts of mind, hands, heart, voice, and vision all offered up on behalf of the earth. Whatever our gift, we are called to give it and to dance for the renewal of the world. In return for the privilege of breath.
Despair is paralysis. It robs us of agency. It blinds us to our own power and the power of the earth. Environmental despair is a poison every bit as destructive as the methylated mercury in the bottom of Onondaga Lake. But how can we submit to despair while the land is saying “Help”? Restoration is a powerful antidote to despair. Restoration offers concrete means by which humans can once again enter into positive, creative relationship with the more-than-human world, meeting responsibilities that are simultaneously material and spiritual. It’s not enough to grieve. It’s not enough to just stop doing bad things.
It is the Windigo way [a malevolent spirit] that tricks us into believing that belongings will fill our hunger, when it is belonging that we crave.
It has been said that people of the modern world suffer a great sadness, a “species loneliness”—estrangement from the rest of Creation. We have built this isolation with our fear, with our arrogance, and with our homes brightly lit against the night.
The language of animacy teeters on extinction—not just for Native peoples, but for everyone. Our toddlers speak of plants and animals as if they were people, extending to them self and intention and compassion—until we teach them not to. We quickly retrain them and make them forget. When we tell them that the tree is not a who, but an it, we make that maple an object; we put a barrier between us, absolving ourselves of moral responsibility and opening the door to exploitation. Saying it makes a living land into “natural resources.”
To be native to a place we must learn to speak its language. … The land is the real teacher. All we need as students is mindfulness.
In the Western tradition there is a recognized hierarchy of beings, with, of course, the human being on top—the pinnacle of evolution, the darling of Creation—and the plants at the bottom. But in Native ways of knowing, human people are often referred to as “the younger brothers of Creation.” We say that humans have the least experience with how to live and thus the most to learn—we must look to our teachers among the other species for guidance. Their wisdom is apparent in the way that they live. They teach us by example. They’ve been on the earth far longer than we have been, and have had time to figure things out.
I came to know that it wasn’t naming the source of wonder that mattered, it was wonder itself.