When Studying Ecology Means Celebrating Its Gifts
Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants, was first published nearly a decade ago—but in 2020, the book made the New York Times best-seller lists, propelled mainly by word of mouth. The book explores the lessons and gifts that the natural world, especially plants, have to offer to people. Kimmerer writes that improving our relationship with nature requires the acknowledgment and celebration of a reciprocal relationship with the rest of the living world. “I think we can care better for one another, for the land, and in fact we can do better science when we consider all of these streams of evidence, and assumptions, about the living world,” says Kimmerer.
Kimmerer is a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, and the founder and director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry. In this SciFri Book Club discussion, recorded before a live Zoom audience, she discusses the book, the role of ceremony in our lives, and the challenge of addressing ecological issues such as exotic species within a reciprocal framework.
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Robin Wall Kimmerer is a mother, scientist, decorated professor, and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. She is the author of Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teaching of Plants, which has earned Kimmerer wide acclaim. Kimmerer lives in Syracuse, New York, where she is a SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor of Environmental Biology, and the founder and director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment.
KATHLEEN DAVIS: This is Science Friday. I’m Kathleen Davis. I think about the natural world a lot, that it’s full of wonder and beauty, but also that it is in crisis. And I think about this when I read the latest scientific paper about the impacts of climate change, but also when I’m on a walk. And I see a weed-like Mugwort that’s resilient against all odds. Robin Wall Kimmerer has thought deeply about the reciprocity between humans and plants, by drawing on both her scientific expertise and Indigenous wisdom.
Dr. Kimmerer is a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. And she is the author of Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teaching of Plants. She is also the Founder and Director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry based in Syracuse, New York. And last but not least, she recently received the MacArthur Genius Award. That is quite a resume, Dr. Kimmerer. Welcome to Science Friday. And congratulations on such a high honor
ROBIN WALL KIMMERER: Thank you. I’m delighted to be with you. As a regular listener of Science Friday, I’m really excited.
KATHLEEN DAVIS: We are so excited to have you as well. And just a note: this conversation was recorded in front of a live Zoom audience. For more information about future live recordings of the show, you can go to sciencefriday.com/livestream. So to begin, Dr. Kimmerer, I want to ask a little bit about the title of your book, which is Braiding Sweetgrass. Tell me a little bit about the significance of this plant, and why you decided to use it to really weave together the essays in your book.
ROBIN WALL KIMMERER: Well, sweetgrass, who is known as wiingashk in our Potawatomi language, is a sacred plant for people. And it has so much to teach us about relationship with the living world. And I happen to have here on my desk a braid of sweetgrass. And it has such a wonderful vanilla fragrance. It really does smell very sweet. And Linnaeus gave this plant the name, Hierochloe odorata. And when you translate that botanical Latin, it means, the sacred fragrant holy grass. So he got it right.
And for me, it’s the dominant metaphor of the book because one of the reasons we braid sweetgrass is as a tangible sign of our care for Mother Earth because in our creation stories, wiingashk is the hair of Mother Earth. And so when we make a sweetgrass braid, we’re making a statement about our caring relationship with the Earth. And the three strands that make up that braid and make up the braid of the stories that are in Braiding Sweetgrass are a strand of Western science.
I am a trained plant ecologist in the Western tradition. But I’m also a [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH], an Indigenous woman. And so another strand of this is traditional ecological or Indigenous knowledge. But importantly, both of those ways of knowing are human ways of knowing. And so the third strand in that metaphorical braid is the knowledge that the plants themselves hold. So my way of thinking is, how do we best care for Mother Earth, is by using all of those knowledges, not just one.
KATHLEEN DAVIS: So going off of that directly, a central theme in your book is reciprocity with nature. So can you explain a little bit about what that means, and how you came to understand your relationship with nature as reciprocal?
ROBIN WALL KIMMERER: Well, if we just look at the way that ecosystems function, we know that the so-called balance of nature, the structure and function of ecosystems, is mediated by reciprocity, by give and take that we might call negative feedback loops in ecosystem sciences, right? So this idea that we cannot just take without replenishment, that everything that we do has a reciprocal consequence that we need to consider, is well-established in ecological sciences. What I like to think about is extending that to our role as human people in the ecosystems.
In Western science, in the Western worldview, really, we think about human people as outside of nature, and that if we have a relationship with the living world, it’s altogether too often characterized as nothing more than consuming, and in fact, is a detrimental relationship. But the kind of reciprocity that I really try to invite readers into is the remembering that human people can be good for the land, that the ways that we interact with the land can, in fact, be very positive. So that in return for everything that we are given by the land, or everything that we take, we can give back.
KATHLEEN DAVIS: Scientists sometimes have a very narrow way of seeking to explain the natural world. They can use the scientific method. But there are so many ways, as you explore in your book, that we can think about nature, and we can think about our relationship with nature. How do you think about the relationship between scientific inquiry and other ways of understanding plants, like Indigenous knowledge?
ROBIN WALL KIMMERER: Well really for too long, I think, after what, let’s be honest about, was deliberate erasure of Indigenous ways of knowing by the boarding schools, by the assimilationist history, that we’re now to a place where we’re recognizing that Western science, an incredibly powerful way of knowing, has limitations. And some of the things that we most need to consider and understand lie outside the realm of the scientific method and the ways that we generate knowledge in that pretty, reductionist, materialist way.
And so we are coming into a time, I think, of real intellectual pluralism. Instead of having an intellectual monoculture dominated only by Western science and Western worldview, we’re on the cusp of embracing intellectual pluralism and multiple ways of knowing. And as a result, I think we can care better for one another, for the land. And in fact, we can do better science when we consider all of these streams of evidence and assumptions about the living world.
KATHLEEN DAVIS: I want to talk a little bit about the language that we use to talk about nature. In the book, you write about how in English, we use “it” pronouns to talk about plants. So I would say, oh, that pumpkin over there, it’s looking extra orange. Whereas I would never say that about a person, right? I would never use “it” pronouns for a person. But you argue that using “it” is really limiting our appreciation and understanding of plants. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
ROBIN WALL KIMMERER: Yeah, thank you for surfacing that because it’s such an interesting pattern in the English language that forces us to speak of members of the living community as if they were objects. It is inherent in the language, and is a component of much of scientific thinking, as well, the objectification of the living world. And when I began studying Potawatomi language, particularly Potawatomi verbs, and realized that, in my native language, it was impossible to say “it” about a bird or a butterfly or a maple tree.
We use the same grammar of respect and relationship for our plant and animal relatives as we do one another, members of our own family, and species. And so I think that is a powerful example of the cultural assumptions about the living world that live in these two different worldviews. And I have to think we would live in a really different world if we spoke of the beings around us as beings, as relatives, and not as natural resources. We would have very different ethical implications of all of our actions if we thought of nature as subject, and not as object.
KATHLEEN DAVIS: We have a really excellent question from Christine, who has a question about the role of ceremony in our lives.
AUDIENCE: Hello, hi. Robin Wall Kimmerer, I can’t believe I’m talking to you. I live in [INAUDIBLE], also known as Northern Norway. And the question I have is, so I’m a child of immigrants from Asia. And I’m culturally hybrid, like a lot of people. And I feel the deep need for what you wrote, the elders call the invitation to remember to remember, which is ceremony.
And how might ceremony be available to people like me who are culturally hybrid? I have experienced very awkward moments of things that feel more like appropriation. So I’m curious as to just some guidance of on how that might be done in a more respectful way.
ROBIN WALL KIMMERER: I really appreciate this question because it speaks to the longing that we have for right relationship with land, and the way that ceremony can help reinforce that, or in fact, in some cases, create it. But I’m grateful to you for raising the question of cultural appropriation because altogether too often, in the absence of, let’s say, inherited heritage ceremonies, there is a tendency to want to borrow them, to take them from other cultures, i.e. engage in cultural appropriation.
And this is to be avoided at all costs for so many reasons. But the one I want to focus on in the moment is this longing to use ceremony as a way to connect with land. The way that that connection happens is through what I think of as authentic ceremony, ceremony that is true to the roots of what ceremony means, which is to create intentional space, to bring one’s whole being through artistic spiritual, emotional, mental, physical relationship with the land, or with whatever entities you are engaging in.
So to me, the most important ceremonies are the ones that are genuine, that come from your heart, from your relationship with place. Being grateful for a clean drink of water, or grateful for birdsong in the morning, is uniquely human. It is not culturally specific. The best way, I think, to engage in ceremonial relationship with place and not to appropriate it is to let it develop organically out of an intimate relationship with place.
KATHLEEN DAVIS: This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. If you’re just joining us, I’m speaking with Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teaching of Plants. So your book, Braiding Sweetgrass, came out nearly a decade ago, which shocked me, to be honest, when I read the book because it feels very timeless, but also very urgently modern in some ways.
Since it was published, it has become truly beloved by readers. And it has gained a lot of word of mouth popularity. In 2020, it made the New York Times bestseller list. What is it do you think about this current moment that your book is resonating so much with people?
ROBIN WALL KIMMERER: It’s such an interesting question, isn’t it? Because by and large, we don’t think about the public as either reading about plant science or reading about Indigenous knowledge systems. And yet, Braiding Sweetgrass is really connecting with people. I think about it in a way as a reflection of what I hear from readers every single day, as a kind of a longing to reconnect to the living world.
And in a time of, on the cusp of climate catastrophe, in the age of the sixth extinction, I think we are really reconsidering, what does it mean? What are our responsibilities to the land? How can we make this happen? Why are we complicit in the destruction of this beautiful planet?
And Braiding Sweetgrass is a kind of reminder. It’s a kind of an invitation to remember a different way of being in connection with the living world, and thinking about how do each of us contribute to a restoration of right relationship to land? So my thinking about that is that it really reflects a longing from human people to support the more than human people.
KATHLEEN DAVIS: We have time for one more question. I want to take it to Titus, who has a question about invasive species. Go ahead, Titus, whenever you’re ready.
AUDIENCE: All right, thanks. Great to talk to you, Dr. Kimmerer. My question is kind of back to language again. So much of the language around invasive species control and management can be very militaristic or aggressive, even invasive species itself. But these species aren’t here on their own. We brought them here. So how can Western scientists build relationships with Indigenous peoples to address these hard problems like invasive species?
ROBIN WALL KIMMERER: Thanks for that question, Titus, because I think this is a really excellent example and opportunity for a symbiosis of knowledges. As a member of the plant conservation community, there’s no denying the harm that can be done to native plant communities from overpopulation by exotic species, for sure. But there’s often a knee jerk reaction in the conservation community. They say, well, if it’s not native, if it’s exotic, it’s necessarily bad, as if colonizers somehow are inherently bad, which I think has very interesting political overtones, and social overtones as well.
What if we took seriously, the idea of the intelligence of plants, of the personhood of plants, before we brand them as beings who need to be eradicated? Shouldn’t we first ask the question, well, why are they here? What are they doing here? What are the gifts and responsibilities that those plants are bringing here? And think about the ways in which plants from other places can become integrated into, or naturalized into, our ecosystems.
So my approach is one, to respect those plants, to get to know them rather than the first response being to eradicate them. Our job as human people, I think, is to create balance. And that’s really what we would strive for with these plants that have come to our shores, is to create a balance with them so that everyone can thrive.
KATHLEEN DAVIS: What a wonderful way to end this conversation. That is all the time that we have. Robin Wall Kimmerer, the author of Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. She is also the Founder and Director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry based in Syracuse, New York. Thank you so much, Dr. Kimmerer. What a wonderful conversation. We really appreciate your time.
ROBIN WALL KIMMERER: Thank you. It’s really been a pleasure.
KATHLEEN DAVIS: If you want to see the full recording of that live Zoom conversation, you can head to our website at sciencefriday.com/sweetgrass.