Robin Wall Kimmerer
The Intelligence of Plants
Robin Wall Kimmerer is the State University of New York Distinguished Teaching Professor at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse. She is founding director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment. Her books include Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses and Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants.
Krista Tippett, host: “Why is the world so beautiful?” This is a question Robin Wall Kimmerer pursues as a botanist and also a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. She’s the author of the beloved book Braiding Sweetgrass. She’s written, “Science polishes the gift of seeing, indigenous traditions work with gifts of listening and language.” An expert in moss — a bryologist — she describes mosses as the “coral reefs of the forest.” She opens a sense of wonder and humility for the intelligence in all kinds of life we are used to naming and imagining as inanimate.
Robin Wall Kimmerer: I can’t think of a single scientific study in the last few decades that has demonstrated that plants or animals are dumber than we think. It’s always the opposite, right? What we’re revealing is the fact that they have a capacity to learn, to have memory, and we’re at the edge of a wonderful revolution in really understanding the sentience of other beings.
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoe Keating]
Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.
Tippett: Robin Wall Kimmerer is a professor of environmental biology at the State University of New York and the founding director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment. She works with tribal nations on environmental problem-solving and sustainability. And part of that work is about recovering lineages of knowledge that were made illegal in the policies of tribal assimilation which did not fully end in the U.S. until the 1970s. Robin Wall Kimmerer’s grandfather attended one of the now infamous boarding schools designed to “civilize” Indian youth; and she only began to learn the Anishinaabe language of her people as an adult. We spoke in 2015.
Tippett: I’m just so intrigued when I look at the way you introduce yourself. It will often include that you from the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, from the bear clan, adopted into the eagles. I’d love for you to just take us a little bit into that world you’re describing that you came from, and ask, also, the question I always ask: what was the spiritual and religious background of that world you grew up in of your childhood?
Kimmerer: I’d like to start with the second part of that question. I was lucky enough to grow up in the fields and the woods of upstate New York. I was lucky in that regard, but disappointed also, in that I grew up away from the Potawatomi people, away from all of our people by virtue of history, the history of removal and the taking of children to the Indian boarding schools. And so, in a sense, the questions that I had about who I was in the world, what the world was like, those are questions that I really wished I’d had a cultural elder to ask, but I didn’t, but I had the woods to ask. And there’s a way in which just growing up in the woods and the fields, they really became my doorway into culture. In the absence of human elders, I had plant elders instead.
Tippett: And it sounds like you did not grow up speaking the language of the Potawatomi nation, which is Anishinaabe, is that right?
Kimmerer: That’s right. Yeah, the language is called Anishinaabemowin. And the Potawatomi language is very close to that.
Tippett: I was intrigued to see that mention somewhere in your writing that you take part in a Potawatomi language lunchtime class that actually happens in Oklahoma, and you’re there via the internet, because I grew up, actually, in Potawatomi County in Oklahoma. And having told you that, I never knew or learned anything about what that word meant, much less the people and the culture it described.
Kimmerer: That is so interesting to live in a place that is named that. This is the ways in which cultures become invisible and the language becomes invisible. And through history and the reclaiming of that, the making culture visible again, to speak the language in even the tiniest amount so that it’s almost as if it feels like the air is waiting to hear this language that had been lost for so long. So it delights me that I can be learning an ancient language by completely modern technologies. Sitting at my office, eating lunch, learning Potawatomi grammar.
Tippett: So when you said a minute ago that you spent your childhood, and actually the searching questions of your childhood somehow found expression, and the closest that you came to answers, in the woods. And it seems to me that that’s such a wonderful way to fill out something else you’ve said before, which is that you were born a botanist, which is a way to say this, which was the language you got as you entered college at forestry school at State University of New York.
Kimmerer: Yes. There was no question but that I’d study botany in college. It was my passion. Still is, of course. But the botany that I encountered there was so different than the way that I understood plants. Plants were reduced to object. What was supposedly important about them was the mechanism by which they worked, not what their gifts were, not what their capacities were. They were really thought of as objects, whereas I thought of them as subjects. And that shift in worldview was a big hurdle for me in entering the field of science.
Tippett: One way you’ve said it is that that science was asking different questions, and you had other questions, other language, and other protocol that came from indigenous culture. There’s one place in your writing where you’re talking about beauty. You’re talking about a question you would have, which is why two flowers are beautiful together. And that that question, for example, would violate the division that is necessary for objectivity. But then, you do this wonderful thing where you actually give a scientific analysis of the statement that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, which would be one of the critiques of a question like that, that it’s not really asking a question that is rational or scientific. Do you know what I’m talking about?
Kimmerer: I do. I do exactly.
Tippett: Flesh that out, because that’s such an interesting juxtaposition of how you actually started to both experience the dissonance between those kinds of questionings and also start to weave them together.
Kimmerer: Yes, it goes back to the story of when I very proudly entered the forestry school as an 18-year-old and telling them that the reason that I wanted to study botany was because I wanted to know why asters and goldenrod looked so beautiful together. These are these amazing displays of this bright, chrome yellow and deep purple of New England aster, and they look stunning together. And the two plants so often intermingle rather than living apart from one another, and I wanted to know why that was. I thought that surely in the order and the harmony of the universe, there would be an explanation for why they looked so beautiful together. And I was told that that was not science, that if I was interested in beauty, I should go to art school.
Which was really demoralizing as a freshman, but I came to understand that question wasn’t going to be answered by science, that science, as a way of knowing, explicitly sets aside our emotions, our aesthetic reactions to things. We have to analyze them as if they were just pure material, and not matter and spirit together. And, yes, as it turns out, there’s a very good biophysical explanation for why those plants grow together, so it’s a matter of aesthetics and it’s a matter of ecology. Those complimentary colors of purple and gold together, being opposites on the color wheel, they’re so vivid, they actually attract far more pollinators than if those two grew apart from one another.
So each of those plants benefits by combining its beauty with the beauty of the other. And that’s a question that science can address, certainly, as well as artists. And I just think that “Why is the world so beautiful?” is a question that we all ought to be embracing.
Tippett: Now, you did work, for a time, at Bausch & Lomb after college. You went into a more traditional scientific endeavor. I wonder, was there a turning point, a day or a moment where you felt compelled to bring these things together in the way you could, these different ways of knowing and seeing and studying the world?
Kimmerer: Yes. I think the place that it became most important to me to start to bring these ways of knowing back together again is when, as a young Ph.D. botanist, I was invited to a gathering of traditional plant knowledge holders. And I was just there to listen, and it was such an amazing experience. Four days of listening to people whose knowledge of the plant world was so much deeper than my own.
Tippett: And were these elders? Were these indigenous teachers?
Kimmerer: They were. Their education was on the land and with the plants and through the oral tradition. But I just sat there and soaked in this wonderful conversation, which interwove mythic knowledge and scientific knowledge into this beautiful cultural, natural history. And, for me, it was absolutely a watershed moment, because it made me remember those things that starting to walk the science path had made me forget, or attempted to make me forget. And I just saw that their knowledge was so much more whole and rich and nurturing that I wanted to do everything that I could to bring those ways of knowing back into harmony.
Tippett: You said at one point that you had gotten to the point where — you were talking about the names of plants. “I was teaching the names and ignoring the songs.” What do you mean by that?
Kimmerer: One of the difficulties of moving in the scientific world is that when we name something, often with a scientific name, this name becomes almost an end to inquiry. We sort of say, well, we know it now. We’re able to systematize it and put a Latin binomial on it, so it’s ours. We know what we need to know. But that is only in looking, of course, at the morphology of the organism, at the way that it looks. It ignores all of its relationships. It’s such a mechanical, wooden representation of what a plant really is. And we reduce them tremendously if we just think about them as physical elements of the ecosystem.
[music: “All Things Transient” by Maybeshewill]
Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today I’m with botanist and nature writer Robin Wall Kimmerer. She writes books that join new scientific and ancient indigenous knowledge, including Gathering Moss and Braiding Sweetgrass.
Tippett: So this notion of the earth’s animacy, of the animacy of the natural world and everything in it, including plants, is very pivotal to your thinking, and to the way you explore the natural world, even scientifically, and draw conclusions, also, about our relationship to the natural world. So I really want to delve into that some more. You said that there’s a grammar of animacy. Talk about that a little bit.
Kimmerer: Yes. This comes back to what I think of as the innocent or childlike way of knowing. Actually, that’s a terrible thing to call it. We say it’s an innocent way of knowing, and, in fact, it’s a very worldly and wise way of knowing. That kind of deep attention that we pay as children is something that I cherish, that I think we all can cherish and reclaim, because attention is that doorway to gratitude, the doorway to wonder, the doorway to reciprocity. And it worries me greatly that today’s children can recognize 100 corporate logos and fewer than ten plants. That means they’re not paying attention.
In the English language, if we want to speak of that sugar maple or that salamander, the only grammar that we have to do so is to call those beings an “it.” And if I called my grandmother or the person sitting across the room from me an “it,” that would be so rude, right? And we wouldn’t tolerate that for members of our own species, but we not only tolerate it, but it’s the only way we have in the English language to speak of other beings, is as “it.” In Potawatomi, the cases that we have are animate and inanimate, and it is impossible in our language to speak of other living beings as “it”s.
Tippett: So living beings would all be animate, all living beings, anything that was alive in the Potawatomi language.
Kimmerer: Yes. Absolutely.
Tippett: And inanimate would be, what, materials or…?
Kimmerer: You raise a very good question, because the way that, again, Western science would give the criteria for what does it mean to be alive is a little different than what you might find in traditional culture, where we think of water as alive, as rocks as alive. Alive in different ways, but certainly not inanimate. Generally, the inanimate grammar is reserved for those things which humans have created.
Tippett: OK. Like the table, something like that?
Kimmerer: Yes, exactly. Right, yes.
Tippett: And I have to say — I’m sure you know this, because I’m sure you get this reaction a lot, especially in scientific circles — it’s unfamiliar and slightly uncomfortable in Western ears to hear someone refer to plants as persons. It’s unfamiliar. Does that happen a lot? Is that kind of a common reaction?
Kimmerer: Sure, sure. Scientists are very eager to say that we oughtn’t to personify elements in nature for fear of anthropomorphizing. And what I mean when I talk about the personhood of all beings, plants included, is not that I am attributing human characteristics to them, not at all. I’m attributing plant characteristics to plants. Just as it would be disrespectful to try and put plants in the same category through the lens of anthropomorphism, I think it’s also deeply disrespectful to say that they have no consciousness, no awareness, no being-ness at all. And this denial of personhood to all other beings is increasingly being refuted by science itself.
Tippett: That’s interesting.
Kimmerer: Yeah. I can’t think of a single scientific study in the last few decades that has demonstrated that plants or animals are dumber than we think. It’s always the opposite, right? What we’re revealing is the fact that they have extraordinary capacities, which are so unlike our own, but we dismiss them because, well, if they don’t do it like animals do it, then they must not be doing anything, when, in fact, they’re sensing their environment, responding to their environment in incredibly sophisticated ways. The science which is showing that plants have capacity to learn, to have memory, we’re at the edge of a wonderful revolution in really understanding the sentience of other beings.
Tippett: Yeah. Here’s something beautiful that you wrote in your book Gathering Moss, just as an example. “The rocks are beyond slow, beyond strong, and yet, yielding to a soft, green breath as powerful as a glacier, the mosses wearing away their surfaces grain by grain, bringing them slowly back to sand. There is an ancient conversation going on between mosses and rocks, poetry to be sure. About light and shadow and the drift of continents.” That’s so beautiful and so amazing to think about, to just read those sentences and think about that conversation, as you say.
Kimmerer: Yes. And it’s a conversation that takes place at a pace that we humans, especially we contemporary humans who are rushing about, we can’t even grasp the pace at which that conversation takes place. So thinking about plants as persons, indeed, thinking about rocks as persons, forces us to shed our idea of the only pace that we live in is the human pace. It’s, I think, very, very exciting to think about these ways of being which happen on completely different scales, and so exciting to think about what we might learn from them.
Tippett: You make such an interesting observation that the way you walk through the world and immerse yourself in moss and plant life — you’ve said you become aware that we have some deficits compared to our companion species. I sense that photosynthesis, that we can’t even photosynthesize, that this is a quality you covet in our botanical brothers and sisters. [laughs]
Kimmerer: [laughs] It’s true.
Tippett: Take me inside that, because I want to understand that.
Kimmerer: I do. I have photosynthesis envy. The ability to take these non-living elements of the world, air and light and water, and turn them into food that can then be shared with the whole rest of the world — to turn them into medicine that is medicine for people and for trees and for soil, and we cannot even approach the kind of creativity that they have.
Tippett: One thing you say that I’d like to understand better is, “Science polishes the gift of seeing, indigenous traditions work with gifts of listening and language.” So I’d love an example of something — what are the gifts of seeing that science offers, and then the gifts of listening and language, and how all of that gives you this rounded understanding of something?
Kimmerer: What I mean when I say that “science polishes the gift of seeing” brings us to an intense kind of attention that science allows us to bring to the natural world, and that kind of attention also includes ways of seeing, quite literally, through other lenses — that we might have the hand lens, the magnifying glass in our hands that allows us to look at that moss with an acuity that the human eye doesn’t have so we see more. The microscope that lets us see the gorgeous architecture by which it’s put together, the scientific instrumentation in the laboratory that would allow us to look at the miraculous way that water interacts with cellulose, let’s say. That’s what I mean by “science polishes our ability to see” — it extends our eyes into other realms. But we’re, in many cases, looking at the surface. And by the surface, I mean the material being alone.
But in indigenous ways of knowing, we say that we know a thing when we know it not only with our physical senses, with our intellect, but also when we engage our intuitive ways of knowing, of emotional knowledge and spiritual knowledge. And that’s really what I mean by listening. By seeing that traditional knowledge engages us in listening. And what is the story that that being might share with us if we know how to listen as well as we know how to see?
[music: “Causeway” by Ryan Teague]
Tippett: After a short break, more with Robin Wall Kimmerer. You can always listen again, and hear the unedited version of every show we do on the On Being podcast feed — wherever podcasts are found.
[music: “Causeway” by Ryan Teague]
I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today I’m with botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer. She’s a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, and she joins scientific and indigenous ways of seeing in her research and in her writing for a broad audience. We’re exploring her sense of the intelligence in life we are used to seeing as inanimate. She says that as our knowledge of plant life unfolds, human vocabulary and imaginations must adapt.
Tippett: Let’s talk some more about mosses, because you did write this beautiful book about it, and you are a bryologist. And so that’s a specialty, even within plant biology.
Kimmerer: Within botany.
Tippett: And also I learned that your work with moss inspired Elizabeth Gilbert’s novel The Signature Of All Things, which is about a botanist. I learned so many things from that book. It’s also that I had never thought very deeply about moss, but that moss inhabits nearly every ecosystem on earth, over 22,000 species, that mosses have the ability to clone themselves from broken off leaves or torn fragments, that they’re integral to the functioning of a forest. I mean, just describe some of the things you’ve heard and understood from moss.
Kimmerer: Thank you for asking that question, because it really gets to this idea of how science asks us to learn about organisms. Traditional knowledge asks us to learn from them. And when I think about mosses, in particular, as the most ancient of land plants, they have been here for a very long time. They’ve figured out a lot about how to live well on the earth, and, for me, I think they’re really good storytellers in the way that they live. An example of what I mean by this is in their simplicity, in the power of being small; mosses become so successful all over the world because they live in these tiny little layers on rocks, on logs, and on trees. They work with the natural forces that lie over every little surface of the world, and to me, they are exemplars of not only surviving, but flourishing by working with natural processes. Mosses are superb teachers about living within your means.
Tippett: And you say they take possession of spaces that are too small — other plants are excluded from those spaces, but they thrive there.
Kimmerer: That’s right. Mosses have, in the ecological sense, very low competitive ability, because they’re small, because they don’t grab resources very efficiently, and so this means that they have to live in the interstices. They have to live in places where the dominant competitive plants can’t live. But the way that they do this really brings into question the whole premise that competition is what really structures biological evolution and biological success. Because mosses are not good competitors at all, and yet they are the oldest plants on the planet. They have persisted here for 350 million years. They ought to be doing something right here. And one of those somethings, I think, has to do with their ability to cooperate with one another, to share the limited resources that they have, to really give more than they take. Mosses build soil, they purify water, they are like the coral reefs of the forest, they make homes for this myriad of all these very cool little invertebrates who live in there. They are just engines of biodiversity. They do all of these things, and yet, they’re only a centimeter tall.
Tippett: [laughs] Right. Another point that is implied in how you talk about us acknowledging the animacy of plants is that whenever we use the language of “it,” whatever we’re talking about — well, let’s say this. We don’t call anything we love and want to protect and would work to protect “it.” That language distances us.
Kimmerer: It certainly does. And the language of “it,” which distances, disrespects, and objectifies, I can’t help but think is at the root of a worldview that allows us to exploit nature. And by exploit, I mean in a way that really seriously degrades the land and the waters, because, in fact, we have to consume. We have to take. We are animals, right? But that, to me, is different than really rampant exploitation. But this is why I’ve been thinking a lot about: Are there ways to bring this notion of animacy into the English language? Because so many of us that I’ve talked to about this feel really deeply uncomfortable calling the living world “it,” and yet, we don’t have an alternative, other than “he” or “she.” And I’ve been thinking about the inspiration that the Anishinaabe language offers in this way and contemplating new pronouns.
Tippett: You’ve been playing with one or two, haven’t you?
Kimmerer: I have. I’ve been thinking about the word “aki” in our language, which refers to land. And there’s a beautiful word — “bimaadiziaki,” which one of my elders kindly shared with me. It means “a living being of the earth.” But could we be inspired by that little sound at the end of that word, the “ki”? And use “ki” as a pronoun, a respectful pronoun inspired by this language as an alternative to “he,” “she,” or “it,” so that when I’m tapping my maples in the springtime, I can say, “We’re going to go hang the bucket on ki. Ki is giving us maple syrup this springtime.” This, then, of course, acknowledges the being-ness of that tree, and we don’t reduce it to an object. It feels so wrong to say that.
And I have some reservations about using a word inspired from the Anishinaabe language, because I don’t, in any way, want to engage in cultural appropriation. But this word, this sound, “ki,” is, of course, also the word for “who” in Spanish and in French. It turns out that, of course, it’s an alternate pronunciation for “chi,” for life force, for life energy. I’m finding lots of examples that people are bringing to me where this word also means a living being of the earth.
Tippett: That’s really interesting.
Kimmerer: The plural pronoun that I think is perhaps even more powerful is not one that we need to be inspired by another language, because we already have it in English, and that is the word “kin.”
Tippett: That’s the plural of “ki”?
Kimmerer: Yes, “kin” is the plural of “ki.” So that when the geese fly overhead, we can say, “Kin are flying south for the winter. Come back soon.” So that every time we speak of the living world, we can embody our relatedness to them.
Tippett: Sustainability is some language we use about the world we’re living into or need to live into. And I sense from your writing and especially from your indigenous tradition that sustainability really is not big enough, and that it might even be a cop-out. You didn’t use that language, but you’re actually talking about a much more generous and expansive vision of relatedness between humans and the natural worlds and what we want to create.
Kimmerer: I am. I agree with you that the language of sustainability is pretty limited. If something is going to be sustainable, its ability to provide for us will not be compromised into the future. And that’s all a good thing. But at its heart, sustainability, the way we think about it, is embedded in this worldview that we, as human beings, have some ownership over these, what we call, resources, and that we want the world to be able to continue to keep — that human beings can keep taking and keep consuming.
The notion of reciprocity is really different from that. It’s an expansion from that, because what it says is that our role as human people is not just to take from the earth, and the role of the earth is not just to provide for our single species. So reciprocity actually kind of broadens this notion to say that not only does the earth sustain us, but that we have the capacity and the responsibility to sustain her in return. So it broadens the notion of what it is to be a human person, not just a consumer. And there’s such joy in being able to do that, to have it be a mutual flourishing instead of the more narrow definition of sustainability so that we can just keep on taking.
Tippett: I keep thinking, as I’m reading you and now as I’m listening to you — a conversation I’ve had across the years with Christians who are going back to the Bible and seeing how certain translations and readings and interpretations, especially of that language of Genesis about human beings being blessed to have dominion — what is it — “to have dominion and subdue the earth,” was read in a certain way and a certain period of time by human beings, by industrialists and colonizers and even missionaries, so there is language, and there’s a mentality about taking that actually seemed to have kind of a religious blessing on it. And now people are reading those same texts differently. Do you ever have those conversations with people? Because the tradition you come from would never, ever have read the text that way. So culturally, we are incrementally moving more towards the worldview that you come from.
Kimmerer: I think that that’s true, and I think that that longing and the materiality of the need for redefining our relationship with place is being taught to us by the land, isn’t it? We’ve seen that, in a way, we’ve been captured by a worldview of dominion that does not serve our species well in the long term, and, moreover, it doesn’t serve all the other beings in creation well at all.
So we are attempting a mid-course correction here. And I think that it’s really important to recognize, that for most of human history, I think the evidence suggests that we have lived well and in balance with the living world. And it’s, to my way of thinking, almost an eyeblink of time in human history that we have had a truly adversarial relationship with nature.
Tippett: It seems to me that this view that you have of the natural world and our place in it, it’s a way to think about biodiversity and us as part of that, but reciprocity, again, takes that a step farther, right?
Kimmerer: Yes. The idea of reciprocity, of recognizing that we humans do have gifts that we can give in return for all that has been given to us is, I think, a really generative and creative way to be a human in the world. Some of our oldest teachings are saying, what does it mean to be an educated person? It means that you know what your gift is and how to give it on behalf of the land and of the people, just like every single species has its own gift. And if one of those species and the gifts that it carries is missing in biodiversity, the ecosystem is depauperate, the ecosystem is too simple. It doesn’t work as well when that gift is missing.
Tippett: Here’s something you wrote. You talked about goldenrods and asters a minute ago, and you said, “When I am in their presence, their beauty asks me for reciprocity, to be the complementary color, to make something beautiful in response.”
Kimmerer: Yes. And I think of my writing very tangibly as my way of entering into reciprocity with the living world. It’s that which I can give and it comes from my years as a scientist, of deep paying attention to the living world, and not only to their names, but to their songs. And having heard those songs, I feel a deep responsibility to share them, and to see if, in some way, stories could help people fall in love with the world again.
[music: “Bowen” by Goldmund]
Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today I’m with botanist and nature writer Robin Wall Kimmerer.
Tippett: You remain a professor of environmental biology at SUNY, and you have also created the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment. So that’s also a gift you’re bringing. You’re bringing these disciplines into conversation with each other. I wonder, what is happening in that conversation? How is that working, and are there things happening that surprise you?
Kimmerer: Yes. What we’re trying to do at the Center For Native Peoples and the Environment is to bring together the tools of Western science, but to employ them, or maybe deploy them, in the context of some of the indigenous philosophy and ethical frameworks about our relationship to the earth. One of the things that I would especially like to highlight about that is I really think of our work as, in a sense, trying to indigenize science education within the academy. Because as a young person, as a student entering into that world, and understanding that the indigenous ways of knowing, these organic ways of knowing, are really absent from academia, I think that we can train better scientists, train better environmental professionals when there’s a plurality of these ways of knowing, when indigenous knowledge is present in the discussion.
We have created a new minor in indigenous peoples and the environment, so that when our students leave and when our students graduate, they have an awareness of other ways of knowing, they have this glimpse into a worldview which is really different from the scientific worldview. I think of them as just being stronger and have this ability for what has been called “two-eyed seeing,” seeing the world through both of these lenses, and in that way, have a bigger toolset for environmental problem-solving.
So much of what we do as environmental scientists — if we take a strictly scientific approach, we have to exclude values and ethics, right? Because those are not part of the scientific method. There’s good reason for that, and much of the power of the scientific method comes from the rationality and the objectivity. But a lot of the problems that we face in terms of sustainability and environment lie at the juncture of nature and culture. So we can’t just rely on a single way of knowing that explicitly excludes values and ethics. That’s not going to move us forward.
Tippett: I know this is a fairly new program, but I wonder, are you seeing results that are interesting about how people are applying this, or where they are taking it?
Kimmerer: Well, it’s too early to see it, I think, in those scientific and professional metrics, if you will. But what I see is that the students who have become acquainted with these ways of knowing are the natural disseminators of these ideas. They tell me that when they are taking their other classes in conservation biology or wildlife ecology or fisheries, they now feel like they have the vocabulary and the perspective to speak up and say, well, when we’re designing this salmon management plan, what is the input of native peoples? How will their traditional knowledge help us do better fisheries management? The invisible knowledge of traditional knowledge has become visible and has become part of the discourse.
Tippett: In your book Braiding Sweetgrass, there’s this line: “It came to me while picking beans, the secret of happiness.” [laughs] And you talk about gardening, which is actually something that many people do, and I think more people are doing. So that’s a very concrete way of illustrating this.
Kimmerer: It is. In talking with my environment students, they wholeheartedly agree that they love the earth. But when I ask them the question of “Does the earth love you back?” there’s a great deal of hesitation and reluctance and eyes cast down, like, oh, gosh, I don’t know. Are we even allowed to talk about that? That would mean that the earth had agency and that I was not an anonymous little blip on the landscape, that I was known by my home place.
So it’s a very challenging notion, but I bring it to the garden and think about the way that when we, as human people, demonstrate our love for one another, it is in ways that I find very much analogous to the way that the earth takes care of us, is when we love somebody, we put their wellbeing at the top of a list and we want to feed them well. We want to nurture them. We want to teach them. We want to bring beauty into their lives. We want to make them comfortable and safe and healthy. That’s how I demonstrate love, in part, to my family, and that’s just what I feel in the garden [laughs], as the earth loves us back in beans and corn and strawberries. Food could taste bad. It could be bland and boring, but it isn’t. There are these wonderful gifts that the plant beings, to my mind, have shared with us. And it’s a really liberating idea to think that the earth could love us back, but it also opens the notion of reciprocity that with that love and regard from the earth comes a real deep responsibility.
Tippett: Yeah. What is it you say? “The large framework of that is the renewal of the world for the privilege of breath.” I think that’s right on the edge.
Tippett: I’m thinking of how, for all the public debates we have about our relationship with the natural world, and whether it’s climate change or not, or man-made, there’s also the reality that very few people living anywhere don’t have some experience of the natural world changing in ways that they often don’t recognize. And in all kinds of places with all kinds of political cultures, where I see people just getting together and doing the work that needs to be done, and becoming stewards, however they justify that or wherever they fit into the public debates or not, a kind of common denominator is that they have discovered a love for the place they come from. That that they share. And they may have these same kinds of political differences that are out there, but there’s this love of place, and that creates a different world of action. Are there communities you think of when you think of this kind of communal love of place where you see new models happening?
Kimmerer: There are many, many examples. I think so many of them are rooted in the food movement. I think that’s really exciting because there is a place where reciprocity between people and the land is expressed in food, and who doesn’t want that? It’s good for people. It’s good for land. So I think movements from tree planting to community gardens, farm-to-school, local, organic — all of these things are just at the right scale, because the benefits come directly into you and to your family, and the benefits of your relationships to land are manifest right in your community, right in your patch of soil and what you’re putting on your plate. Just as the land shares food with us, we share food with each other and then contribute to the flourishing of that place that feeds us.
Tippett: I want to read something from Braiding Sweetgrass. You wrote, “We are all bound by a covenant of reciprocity. Plant breath for animal breath, winter and summer, predator and prey, grass and fire, night and day, living and dying. Our elders say that ceremony is the way we can remember to remember. In the dance of the giveaway, remember that the earth is a gift we must pass on just as it came to us. When we forget, the dances we’ll need will be for mourning, for the passing of polar bears, the silence of cranes, for the death of rivers, and the memory of snow.”
That’s one of the hard places this world you straddle brings you to. But, again, all these things you live with and learn, how do they start to shift the way you think about what it means to be human?
Kimmerer: The passage that you just read, and all of the experience, I suppose, that flows into that has, as I’ve gotten older, brought me to a really acute sense, not only of the beauty of the world, but the grief that we feel for it, for her, for ki. That we can’t have an awareness of the beauty of the world without also a tremendous awareness of the wounds. That we see the old growth forest and we also see the clear cut. We see the beautiful mountain and we see it torn open for mountaintop removal. So one of the things that I continue to learn about and need to learn more about is the transformation of love to grief to even stronger love and the interplay of love and grief that we feel for the world. And how to harness the power of those related impulses is something that I have had to learn.
[music: “If I’d Have Known It Was the Last (Second Position)” by Codes in the Clouds]
Tippett: Robin Wall Kimmerer is the State University of New York Distinguished Teaching Professor at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse. And she’s founding director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment. Her books include Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses and Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants.
[music: “If I’d Have Known It Was the Last (Second Position)” by Codes in the Clouds]
The On Being Project is Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Laurén Dørdal, Erin Colasacco, Kristin Lin, Eddie Gonzalez, Lilian Vo, Lucas Johnson, Suzette Burley, Zack Rose, Serri Graslie, Colleen Scheck, Christiane Wartell, Julie Siple, Gretchen Honnold, and Jhaleh Akhavan.
The On Being Project is located on Dakota land. Our lovely theme music is provided and composed by Zoë Keating. And the last voice that you hear singing at the end of our show is Cameron Kinghorn.
On Being is an independent nonprofit production of The On Being Project. It is distributed to public radio stations by WNYC Studios. I created this show at American Public Media.
Our funding partners include:
The Fetzer Institute, helping to build the spiritual foundation for a loving world. Find them at fetzer.org.
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Humanity United, advancing human dignity at home and around the world. Find out more at humanityunited.org, part of the Omidyar Group.
The Osprey Foundation — a catalyst for empowered, healthy, and fulfilled lives.
And the Lilly Endowment, an Indianapolis-based, private family foundation dedicated to its founders’ interests in religion, community development, and education.>>