Science is a painfully tight pair of shoes. It perceives the family of life to be little more than a complex biochemical machine. It has created powerful tools for ravaging the planet’s ecosystems, creating a hard path for our descendants. It gives us knowing, but not caring. It’s not about wisdom. It’s about pursuing the wants and needs of humans, with less concern for the more-than-human world.
Robin Kimmerer is a biology professor. After being trained in the rigid beliefs of science, she heard a Navajo woman talk about the realm of plants from the perspective of indigenous knowledge. For that woman, plants were not subjects, but teachers. In a flash, Kimmerer realized the shallowness of her scientific training. It only provides a pinhole view of reality. Science is not enough.
Her grandfather was Potawatomi. When he was a boy, the government sent him away to the Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where he was trained to become an English-speaking wageworker. He forgot his language and culture and drifted away from his people. He never felt at home in either world.
Kimmerer has worked hard to reconnect with her Native American roots, because traditional indigenous cultures are blessed with a far more holistic relationship with the family of life. All people on Earth have tribal ancestors who once lived close to the land, but so much has been lost with the passage of centuries. Her book, Braiding Sweetgrass, is a collection of stories that focus on living with respect and reverence for the land.
She once asked a city lad where his sense of place felt strongest. He immediately responded, “My car.” Her book is especially important for the impoverished millions, who have grown up indoors, in a ghoulish netherworld of glowing screens. She has a strong and respectful relationship with the land, and she describes it beautifully. It’s a perspective that is almost absent in our culture, and without it, a long-term future for humans is impossible. We must remember.
While explaining the culture of sharing, respect, and gratitude, she does not conceal her scientist badge. So, readers are less tempted to automatically dismiss her stories as daffy rainbows of New Age woo-woo. Science is not worthless. In the centuries of restoration that lie ahead, it can offer some useful ideas, if we keep it on a short leash. Nature will play a primary role in healing the land as much as possible — it knows what to do. The far bigger challenge is dealing with the monsters that inhabit the goop between our ears.
In the native world, when a patch of ripe strawberries is discovered, the plants are warmly greeted. The people ask permission to take some berries. If the response is yes, they take only what they need, never more than half of the fruit. The plants are thanked for their gift, and the pickers leave an offering of tobacco.
Gifts and responsibilities are two sides of the same coin. The berry pickers now have an obligation to promote the wellbeing of the strawberry people, by depositing their seeds in good locations (not a toilet). This is a relationship of reciprocity between berries and people. The berry eaters need the plants, and the plants need the berry eaters.
On the other hand, the relationship between mainstream people and nonrenewable resources is not reciprocal. The oil, coal, iron, and other minerals do not need the miners, nor is their wellbeing improved by the mining. The planet’s atmosphere does not appreciate our toxic offerings of carbon emissions. The ecosystem does not enjoy being treated like an open pit mine.
Cultures that enjoy a direct and intimate relationship with their ecosystem have far more respect for it than those that forage at malls and supermarkets. Consumer culture receives enormous gifts from the land, but gives almost none in return. Kimmerer’s students clearly understand that the relationship between consumers and nature is abusive. It’s difficult for them to imagine what a healthy relationship would look like.
Kimmerer lives in the Onondaga Nation. At the school, the Haudenosaunee flag blows in the breeze, not the stars and stripes. There is no pledge of allegiance to a political system that claims to provide “liberty and justice for all.” Instead, each day begins with the Thanksgiving Address, in which the students express gratitude for all of creation. It helps them remember that, “everything needed to sustain life is already here.” We are wealthy.
I had one issue with the book. Natives from corn-growing cultures see corn as sacred. Corn was a recent arrival to the region of the eastern U.S. Its expansion spurred population growth and conflict. We know that hunter-gatherers could succeed in achieving genuine sustainability when they lived with the wisdom of voluntary self-restraint. But environmental history has not documented a culture achieving sustainability via intensive agriculture.
Potawatomi legends describe a dangerous spirit called the Windigo. It wanders across the land in the lean months of winter. It is always hungry, and never stops hunting. It’s a selfish spirit that is obsessed with its own survival, by any means necessary. The Windigo is notorious for having an insatiable hunger. The moral of the story is to share, to take care of one another. Don’t be a greedy butthead.
Much to the horror of the natives, the colonists imported a diabolical spirit of incredible self-destructive overindulgence — Super Windigo. In white society, mastering the madness of insatiable consumption was seen as an admirable mark of success! Kimmerer winces. “We spend our beautiful, utterly singular lives on making more money, to buy more things that feed but never satisfy. It is the Windigo way that tricks us into believing that belongings will fill our hunger, when it is belonging that we crave.”
After a lifetime of shopping and discarding, we don’t return our bodies to nature. The dead are placed in heavy caskets and buried deep in the ground, where nature will struggle for centuries to retrieve the nutrients. I’ve always hoped that my corpse would be eaten by mountain lions in a wild location, an offering to an ecosystem upon which I have lived far too hard.
From other books, I have learned about cultures that did something like this. Carl Jung noted that the Maasai tribe did not bury their dead. Corpses were left outdoors for the hyenas to eat. John Gunther wrote that the Bakutu people of the Congo recycled corpses by laying them on a termite hill. In sky burial, corpses are fed to the vultures. This is done in Tibet, and in Zoroastrian communities in India. Evan Pritchard noted that the Western Algonquin people also practiced it.
Over the years, Kimmerer has heard the Thanksgiving Address recited countless times. It is so inspiring to listen to people express gratitude for all of creation. She longs for the day “when we can hear the land give thanks for the people in return.” So do I.
Kimmerer, Robin Wall, Braiding Sweetgrass, Milkweed Editions, Minneapolis, 2013.
Questions for a Resilient Future is a 17-minute talk given by Kimmerer.
Returning the Gift is a brief essay.