Why is the world so beautiful? An Indigenous botanist on the spirit of life in everything
'Western science is a powerful way of knowing, but it isn't the only one,' says Robin Wall Kimmerer.
Originally published on Nov. 27, 2020.
"What would moss do?"
Robin Wall Kimmerer posed the question to her forest biology students at the State University of New York, in their final class in March 2020, before the pandemic sent everyone home.
The answer was at least as useful as anything to be found in the glut of 'how to survive COVID' stories that would follow over the next nine months:
Give more than you take;
Be patient when resources are scarce;
Find creative ways to use what you have.
"Mosses have this ability, rather than demanding a lot from the world, they're very creative in using what they have, rather than reaching for what they don't have," Kimmerer told Tapestry.
"When there are limits, the mosses say, 'Let's be quiet for a while. Abundance, openness, water, will return. We'll wait this out.'"
Kimmerer is a plant ecologist, writer, and distinguished teaching professor at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, NY and a member of the Potawatomi First Nation.
Her 2013 book, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants, became a surprise bestseller. Readers around the world warmed to Kimmerer's view of the world, and to the way she blends the study of botany with Indigenous lore. The book made it to the New York Times bestseller list in February.
"As a scientist, I have been trained to refer to our relatives, the plants and the animals … the water and the Earth herself as 'it,'" she explained, contrasting what she learned studying the Potawatomi language.
"What I came to understand was that in Potawatomi languages, we characterise the world into those who are alive and the things which are not. So we speak a grammar of animacy," said Kimmerer. "And that's because in the beautiful verb-based language, a language based on being and changing and agency … the whole world is alive."
Kimmerer said she was driven to study botany because of the central question in her heart: "Why is the world so beautiful?"
To her earliest academic advisors, this was decidedly not a welcome line of research.
"Well, it took a long time to pick myself back up," Kimmerer recalled. "I became very quiet. I felt like, 'Oh, I had made a tremendous error.'"
Kimmerer noted that she wasn't the first one in her family to have traditional forms of knowledge ridiculed and dismissed.
"[It] was not unlike my grandfather's first day of higher education, because he was one of the children who was taken from his family as a little boy and brought to our residential school… And so my adaptation responses as a young student was to get very good at what they said was science."
Kimmerer often says that, although she is a plant biologist, she cannot hear the phrase "natural resources" without feeling profoundly uneasy. And she has an idea for a potential replacement: Earthly Gifts.
As an example, Tapestry asked Kimmerer how she would go about cutting flowers to bring into her home.
"I would greet those flowers and say how beautiful they are. I'm so grateful that you're growing here. And, you know, my mom's coming over and I want to cheer her up. May I cut some flowers to bring your beauty to her in our house?" explains Kimmerer.
"If the answer is yes ... I would cut them and give a gift in return and bring them in."
Music of Braiding Sweetgrass
Sarah Fraker worked with Robin Wall Kimmerer and composer Asha Srinivasan to create a new piece of music based on the book Braiding Sweetgrass.
"I just had this idea that the voice of the oboe could be combined with natural sounds and also electronic sounds to create this really evocative, rich soundscape," says Fraker.
Manuel Obregon is a former Minister of Culture and Youth in his homeland of Costa Rica. He is also a jazz pianist and a composer.
As someone who loves nature, he decided to merge his music with the sounds of the natural world for a new kind of musical experience.
Obregon took a piano into the Costa Rican rainforest and recorded the sounds he was hearing all around him - including frogs, howler monkeys and songbirds.
Obregon believes there is a correlation between music and the forest between the arts and the trees. He says that it's been known since ancient times and that trees serve to connect heaven with earth.
We played music from Manuel Obregon's album Simbiosis on our show.
Written by Mary Hynes. Produced by Arman Aghbali and Rosie Fernandez.