Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Braiding Sweetgrass


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.

4 comments:

Riversong said...

"The Windigo is...a selfish spirit that is obsessed with its own survival, by any means necessary."

Some are now commemorating the 90th anniversary of the birth of Malcolm X, whose infamous 1964 speech referred to the first law of nature as self-preservation and to our natural right to secure it "by any means necessary".

What Malcolm Little (his birth name) and those who emulate his strategy don't understand is that he was internalizing a very European notion of the self vs. nature - rather than the indigenous (and African) notion of the self in reciprocal harmony with nature.

What Is Sustainable said...

I used to spend a lot of time swimming and hiking at Asylum Lake in Kalamazoo. The lake is on the site of the former Kalamazoo State Hospital. Malcolm Little’s mother was an inmate there for 26 years. Malcolm was raised and educated in a white society that was hostile to black folks. I have some sympathy for him being defensive.

The other day I read Hansel and Gretel. Their father objected to his wife’s scheme. “How could I bring myself to abandon my own children alone in the woods? Wild animals would soon come and tear them to pieces.” It was a different world when man-eating predators were a normal fact of existence — in Germany!

Africa was a very different scene from Malcolm’s Michigan. Michael Bright’s book, Man-Eaters, helps us remember when humans were prey animals.

[65] In Tanzania, a pride of 17 lions in a game preserve killed 1,000 to 1,500 people over 15 years. They were the “Njombe Man-eaters.”

[149] Back when it was a wilderness, the lakes and rivers of Africa must have been swarming with crocodiles. In those days, an estimated 20,000 Africans were killed by crocs each year. One croc in the Kihange River of Central Africa killed 400.

“Colonel Patterson witnessed this matter-of-fact attitude to crocodile attacks. He was walking alongside the Tsavo River with a group of Wa Kamba people when one of them went to the water's edge to fill his calabash. A crocodile rose up, grabbed the man and dragged him under. After the shouting had died down, the man's companions simply took up his bow and quiver of poisoned arrows and his stock of meat lying on the river bank and walked on as if nothing had happened.”

Venkataraman Amarnath said...

Jim Corbett lived his whole life among man-eating tigers and leopards. His accounts based on real experiences (not the fake ones of Kipling) are in books My India, Man-eaters of Kumaon etc. His opinion is that normally man is not a natural diet of these predators. But recently when their natural prey is gone coupled with increased human movements they resort to attacking men. In My India, there is a beatiful story called the Law of the Jungle. A three year old girl and his small brother just walked into the adjacent forest. The seach was set up to find the lost children. When they were discovered after almost two days, there was not even a scratch on them. Jim Corbett concluded the story with the following that I still remember after years. In the Jungle the law is the same for the strong as well as for the weak.

What Is Sustainable said...

I’ve heard about Corbett, but haven’t read him. I’ve read varying opinions on how common it was for humans to be prey. Intuition tells me that many of us were eaten over the millennia. I have a feeling that city lights are visible from orbiting satellites largely because of a deep timeless fear of night attacks by predators.

I read Sy Montgomery’s book, Spell of the Tiger. She believed that the tigers of the Sundarbans preserved the forest from destruction, because they liked having visitors for lunch. The locals didn’t hate the tigers, they worshipped them.

I also read Wolf-Children and Feral Man. Two girls in India were raised by wolves. That was a fascinating book.

Lately, I’ve been reading The Eye of the Crocodile, by Val Plumwood (free downloads online). She was an Australian professor, a radical eco-philosopher, and a neo-animist who detested anthropocentric thinking and human exceptionalism. One day, in 1985, she was grabbed and nearly killed by a huge crocodile. The experience really messed with her mind, because she assumed the “normal” belief that humans were not meat, while knowing otherwise.