From nature as a resource to a giver of gifts
To describe Robin Wall Kimmerer as a scientist tells only part of the story. She has a Ph.D in botany, teaches courses in ethnobotany and the ecology of mosses at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in New York, and has published dozens of scientific articles. She is also an indigenous woman whose writing draws on her culture to bring science to life and to advocate restoring the relationship between people and the land.
Her influence reaches well beyond science. Her first book, Gathering Moss, inspired Elizabeth Gilbert’s novel, The Signature of All Things. Next came Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants, a sort of bible for the green generation, a beautiful collection of essays through which she shares sacred teachings with readers as though confiding in trusted friends.
Plants have been her teachers since she was a child, so it seemed natural that she would become a botanist. After memorizing thousands of Latin names for plants, she found that those names did not tell the whole story of the living world. “Science is a language of distance which reduces a being to its working parts, the language of objects,” she writes.
And then, reading a book by an indigenous ethnobotanist, she discovered a native word—puhpowee: the force which causes mushrooms to push up from the earth overnight. “The makers of this word understood a world of being, full of unseen energies that animate everything,” she writes. “As a biologist, I was stunned that such a word existed. “I longed for the people who gave a name to the life force of mushrooms.”
This word, with no equivalent in science or the English language, catalyzed a shift. She began studying Potawatomi and native culture to push past the boundaries of science.
Learning Potawatomi expanded her perspective. “Scientific language describes the boundaries of our knowing,” she writes. But something was missing—“the same something that swells around you and in you when you listen to the world.”
That missing something was more than nouns. It was an entirely different way of seeing and addressing the world.
Some languages, notably native languages, recognize the animacy, or beingness of nonhumans. Animacy is a structure that conveys the life within the nouns or pronouns we speak. Acknowledging the life and sentience of a plant, rock, body of water or even a force of nature subtly changes our relationship to it.
English is a language dominated by nouns, which makes sense for a culture so obsessed with things, Kimmerer says. In English, we use pronouns—he, she or they—when addressing or talking about other humans. Anything other than human, however, is an it. This conceit makes it easier for us to think of trees as lumber, rather than living beings. It makes it easier for us to use them as we see fit, rather than consider them sovereign beings, older than humans, who give us oxygen to breathe, who we can learn from.
Author Robert Macfarlane writes of the power of language to shape the way we see and interact with the world. “The real underland of language is not the roots of single words, but rather the soil of grammar and syntax, where habits of speech and therefore also habits of thought settle and interact over long periods of time. Grammar and syntax exert powerful influence on the proceedings of language and its users.”
Kimmerer has a radical proposal for healing the world—to restore human relationship with the land by adopting what she calls the “pronouns of the revolution.”
Adopting the grammar of animacy is subtle, but revolutionary. Animacy dethrones humans as the supreme rulers of his world. Recognizing plants, trees, animals and other members of the natural world as sovereign beings brings us into relationship with them. We see them as givers of gifts, not as resources. And then we naturally want to give back.
The pronoun “it” objectifies the world and basically gives us permission to exploit it. “But when we say she or he, we have to stop and think about the personhood of that being,” Kimmerer says.
Rather than it, she suggests words inspired by the Potawatomi language: ki as the singular form, or for plural, kin. “Not property, not stuff, but our kinfolk,” she says.
Kimmerer spent almost a week in Utah in October, where she spoke at a fundraiser for the Permaculture Collective, at the Salt Lake Public library,to the University of Utah’s Environmental Humanities department, and at the Utah Humanities Book Festival at Utah State University in Logan.
No two speeches by Kimmerer are exactly alike. She has a wealth of work to draw from, and whether the topic is the grammar of animacy, studying the native language of her ancestors, explaining the honorable harvest, or a requiem for the prairie, she always begins by greeting her audience and introducing herself in Potawatomi, breathing life into the endangered language. Each speech becomes an act of reclamation. She teaches respect by acknowledging and expressing gratitude for the land and people who have come before—at USU, she called it a privilege to be standing in the original territories of the Ute and the Shoshone people, and thanked them for the land, their history and language, and for their wisdom.
Her writing is an act of reclamation, full of longing, for species going extinct, for native culture the U.S. government nearly destroyed, for photosynthesis (“sometimes I wish I could photosynthesize so that just by being, just by shimmering at the meadow’s edge or floating lazily on a pond, I could be doing the work of the land while standing silently in the sun.”)
But humans can’t photosynthesize, and we can’t live without taking life.
The honorable harvest is a practice that instills gratitude and respect with reciprocity at its heart. It changes our concept of harvesting from taking everything to taking only what we need and giving something in return—a simple act that works to heal the land and its people. In essence, it involves introducing yourself and asking permission before taking, and giving something back. “Never take the first. Never take the last. Take only what you need. Take only that which is given….Never waste what you have taken. Share.”
I had the good fortune of studying with Kimmerer for a weekend last spring at the Looking Glass Rock Writers’ Conference. Having the luxury of more time with those who came to learn from her, she expanded what she’d shared about native culture. Her way of beginning by giving thanks swelled into a version of the Haudenosaunee thanksgiving address—“the words that come before all else.” It’s a practice of greetings and thanks to the natural world that begins by acknowledging the ground we are standing on, and spreads to the waters, fish, plants, animals, trees, birds, the elements, the sun, moon and stars. People are only mentioned once, because, as she says, “it’s not all about us.”
The thanksgiving address puts things in perspective, and shifts us from observers, or dominators, into participants in relationship with the world. “I have a fantasy that Congress would open with this,” she told us, her eyes sparkling.
When you see the world her way, no one is an outsider. We are all kin.
Jodi Mardesich Smith is a writer and worshipper of nature and maker of Haven Terrariums (@haventerrariums).