Here is my experience with the remarkable book, Braiding Sweetgrass, which successfully immersed me in the indigenous awareness of the living world as “all my relations”. The implications are staggering – and superbly communicated by the author, Robin Wall Kimmerer, equally grounded in indigenous Potawatomi and Onondaga wisdom and Western science.
I have lately been reading – and reflecting on – a number of powerful books relevant to how we might proceed with collective wisdom – that is, how we might take into account what truly needs to be taken into account for longterm broad benefit.
Some of those books are dire in their implications, laying bare uncomfortable dynamics that we urgently need to understand and consider – “or else”. Others, while critical, have a strong positive invitation that is also deeply challenging.
Among the latter, I am being most strongly moved by Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. Grounded equally in her indigenous traditions and her scientific expertise (she’s a professor of environmental biology), she bridges and integrates both worlds with indigenous integrity, intellectual elegance and compelling beauty.
Reading Kimmerer, the Native American phrase “all my relations” takes on a more vast, intimate and urgent meaning than I’d earlier considered. (It also calls up Nora Bateson’s phrase “symmathesy”, which means “mutual learning in context”.) Through Kimmerer’s eyes, I see the world as a vast enterprise of mutuality – a sharing of gifts and knowledge and valuing among all beings and entities. I see intimacy, attention, and caring called for in every realm and moment, at all scales. Kimmerer grounds me in words like reciprocity, gratitude, respect, humility. Every one of her many amazing stories implicitly asks permission to enter my consciousness and wake me up; I welcome it (it is, after all, so beautiful!), and then it gives me its gift of urgent awareness.
Coming as I do from a philosophical, intellectual, socio-political frame of mind, I find her worldstory stimulating. (“Worldstory” is the closest I can think of to communicate what she’s inviting me into.) I feel called to make shifts in my own consciousness AND I find myself intensely curious about the newly sensed overlaps between her perspective and mine.
The most promising overlap may be our shared sense of the fundamental reality and importance of interconnectivity, interrelationship, and interdependence. I’ve looked at these from perspectives like systems thinking, complexity science, ecology, Buddhist “interbeing”, and the co-responsive dynamics of evolution (co-evolution), intelligence (co-intelligence), and conversation. All these invite us to rise above linear thinking, from nailing down single causes to blaming the bad guys.
Kimmerer acknowledges all that, but that doesn’t cover the fullness of where she’s coming from. Her view of that realm of interconnection is more imminent and intimate. She’s coming from a worldview in which humans, plants, animals, land and landscape features, and even forces of nature are “people” – living beings with their own intelligence and spirit. There are human people and non-human people. All are alive and engaged with each other and us, giving and receiving abundant unique gifts – from oxygen and berries to gratitude and care – in great global, local and interpersonal cycles of reciprocity.
“All my relations” is not just an idea or a moral code, but a lived experience, with deep implications for who and how we are in the midst of the dynamic mutual – I should perhaps say “familial” – relatedness of the world. Kimmerer calls us into conscious “right relationship” to and with a world that is everywhere alive and generous – a world that offers abundance in exchange for grateful responsibility.
Reading Braiding Sweetgrass, it didn’t take long to see how much I was unwittingly bought into the idea of human exceptionalism, separateness, and superiority. We are anthropocentrically lost the minute we look at “nature” and see “wilderness” or “natural resources” or “ecosystem services”. I am starting to sense how my human-centric perspective – even with its “ecological awareness” – limits my sense of what “wisdom” entails. I find myself called to add new patterns to my wise democracy pattern language, even as its second version is solidified into cards. I think of patterns like “Grateful Gifted Reciprocity” and “Non-Human People”. I want to expand some of the existing patterns – like “Feeling Heard”, “Whole System in the Conversation” and “Restorative Justice” – to embrace the world of non-human Peoples as well as the more familiar versions of “we the people”.
One of the many intriguing principles shared by Kimmerer is the “Honorable Harvest”, which governs all the necessary taking of life to support our own lives. The Honorable Harvest involves respecting and getting permission from the animal or plant we are considering taking. (Her stories about this are truly fascinating.) It involves taking only enough (and never the first or the last), using it all, and offering gifts and gratitude to reciprocate for their gifts. And it includes real care for the wellbeing of this Person’s fellows (species) and their larger living community (ecosystem). As Kimmerer puts it, “Killing a WHO demands something different than killing an IT.”
This changes everything. In this way of life we don’t find clearcutting, industrial agriculture, strip mining, toxic dumping, killing for sport. We would never do such things to our families and friends, to the people embraced by “all our relations”. We are in mutually supportive relationships with all of life, filled with gratitude and profoundly conscious of our interdependence, with all its blessings and responsibilities.
In a significant passage Kimmerer tells of Carol Crowe, an Algonquin ecologist, who requested funding from her tribal council to attend a conference on indigenous models of sustainability. “They asked her ‘What is this all about, this notion of sustainability? What are they talking about?’ She gave them a summary of the standard definition of sustainable development, including ‘the management of natural resources and social institutions in such a manner as to ensure the attainment and continued satisfaction of human needs for present and future generations.’ They were quiet for a while considering. Finally one elder said, ‘This sustainable development sounds to me like they just want to be able to keep on taking.’…. The Honorable Harvest asks us to give back, in reciprocity, for what we have been given.”
It probably goes without saying that I recommend Kimmerer’s book highly and deeply. It is an easy, clear, beautiful, compelling read. I’m really impressed with it. And I’m still exploring how it is changing my awareness, my ideas, and my work.
Only when we take care of the land, air and water, are they able to take care of us.
– Marian Naranjo, “To enter right relationship with each other on this land”
(something to consider as we contemplate the climate emergency, among others)
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