Robin Wall Kimmerer and intimacy with nature

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I like to imagine what it would be like if the Honorable Harvest were the law of the land today, as it was in our past. Imagine if a developer, eyeing open land for a shopping mall, had to ask the golden rod, the meadowlarks, and the monarch butterflies for permission to take their homeland. What if he had to abide by the answer?   Robin Wall Kimmerer

I have read many books in my life, a plethora of novels as well as treatises on psychology, religion, culture, and our relationship with nature. I love to explore various worldviews and ways of living. But there is one author whose work stands out to me in its beauty and in its revelatory power: a woman deeply acquainted with ways of living aligned with nature, a mother, scientist, university professor and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. Robin Wall Kimmerer. A talented writer as well as thinker, she brings alive the science of botany, the ways of her people, and the art of teaching the young while simultaneously educating her readers in a manner that reaches mind, heart, and body.

Kimmerer believes that plants and animals are our oldest teachers and that we live with them in a reciprocal relationship. She is skilled at illustrating nature’s teachings and in helping us understand the generosity of the earth and how to give our own gifts in return. Her book Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants revealed to me a dimension of life I had little knowledge of, and it brought that dimension alive in a way that stirred my heart and at times made me weep.

Braiding Sweetgrass tells stories of the basketmakers and the sweetgrass they tend and harvest, of the history of the Potawatomi people, the Thanksgiving Address of the Onondaga, of her adventures studying botany in college, raising her girls and taking her students out into the woods and instructing them in biology as well as intimacy with nature.   Within this rich tapestry, I found the chapter “The Honorable Harvest” to remain with me most palpably, perhaps because I am so keenly aware at the moment of all-out assaults on our natural areas by corporations and their government enablers. At the same time I am wondering about how I live and what role I play in this culture of material profit and plunder.

I bow to Kimmerer as a truly wise teacher. She tells us that there is an “indigenous canon of principles and practices that govern the exchange of life for life” which is known as the “Honorable Harvest.” “They are rules of sorts that govern our taking, shape our relationships with the natural world, and rein in our tendency to consume—that the world might be as rich for the seventh generation as it is for our own.”

Inspired botanist and professor as well as inheritor of Potawatomi tradition, Kimmerer has immersed herself in observing the interaction of people and plants, and she uses examples of basketmakers to show us a relationship and way of living long forgotten by most. Basketmakers gathering sweetgrass ask permission of the plant, take only what they need. They return a gift to the earth and tend to the well-being of the sweetgrass.   Kimmerer tells us that the old stories say that of all the plants, sweetgrass was the first to grow on the earth, and the Potawatomi use sweetgrass as a ceremonial plant as well as material with which to make beautiful baskets.

“Both medicine and a relative,” notes Kimmerer “its value is both material and spiritual.”  In fact, all of nature is material and spiritual, and humans once knew how to honor that truth. Braiding Sweetgrass, in its illustrations of living, celebrating, honoring, and giving, is a radical treatise. I find the message of the honorable harvest to be central if not the theme of every other chapter introduced and brought to life in this beautiful literary work. And its message of what it means to be human on the earth is crucial: “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.”

This is a book that will turn you inside out and upside down. It will stimulate your brain and change your perceptions. Read it only if you are prepared to have your heart broken and nourished in mysterious and startling ways.

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