- The Good: Celebrates our reciprocal relationship with the rest of the living world
- The Bad: Lacking in connection between science and indigenous wisdom
- The Literary: Fluid approach to storytelling, with chapters that weave personal accounts and nature into lessons for humanity
Potawatomi citizen and PhD botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer looks at the world around her both as a scientist, with rigorous curiosity, and as a citizen of the Earth. She follows teaching of her elders, connects origin stories to modern myths, and finds gifts and lessons from the asters, strawberries, algae, and sweetgrass. With personal stories that have a hint of biology, and a lot of musing on the relationship between humans and nature, Kimmerer argues that the living world and what we take from it are gifts of the Earth’s generosity, and we should give our own gifts in return.
For myself as a PhD chemist and Cherokee Nation citizen, I have an immediate kinship with Kimmerer. I learned the language of science and how to conduct experiments to learn about the world around me; I consider myself an environmentalist; and I have strong ties to my indigenous heritage and modern tribal concerns.
Here are some of my favorites stories:
- Pecan refers to the nut of the Pecan Hickory tree (Carya illinoensis), but derives from the Potowatomi word pigan. What a neat little tidbit of information, which is only more interesting as the story unfolds. The Potawatomi tribe was forcibly removed 3 times, originally from their native lands in Michigan, to Wisconsin, then Kansas, and eventually Oklahoma. In their homeland they enjoyed a variety of nuts, including hickories, black walnuts, and butternuts, each with their own individual names. So when they came upon a wild grove unknown nut trees in Kansas, hundreds of miles from their home, they excitedly shared them, calling them generically as nut, pigan, and which stuck in English.
- Language defines a worldview, as any linguist will tell you. The Potawatomi language gives the same level of conscientiousness referring to specific plants and animals, even rocks, as it does to your grandmother, resulting in very few “it” pronouns. Also, the word “Puhpowee” translates as “the force which causes mushrooms to push up from the earth overnight,” which adults also occasionally use for certain other shafts that rise mysteriously in the night. Now if that isn’t an epitome of native american humor, I don’t know what is.
- A large family of renowned Potawatomi artists make baskets in the traditional way. They harvest the black ash trees themselves, then strip and dye the wood before crafting beautiful creations. They honor and recognize the individuality of each tree as a nonhuman person. As black ash numbers declined, Kimmerer and her graduate student Tom Touchet investigated, finding the root cause to be under-harvesting, since the small seedlings couldn’t get any sunlight in the dense canopy.
- Carlisle, Pennsylvania opened the first Carlisle Indian Industrial School in 1879 as the first government-run boarding school for Native American children in order to “Kill the Indian, Save the Man.” Kimmerer’s family resides in in the northeast US instead of Oklahoma because of these schools. The town is known for its fervent preservation of its heritage, but the city has held “ceremonies of remembrance and reconciliation” as it tries to look at its history honestly. Kimmerer found forgiveness hard to find.
- The Anishinaabe tell of a legendary monster that hunts men in the woods on freezing nights. It was once a man, but now ten feet tall and reduced to base instincts, it eats people. And if bitten, you become one too, forced to cannibalism. I love the story, and that it’s evident the Windigo, as it’s called, is a culmination of deep-seated fears of dark cold nights. Kimmerer argues that we can learn from the story, rising above our immediate hungers as a society, rising above the incessant take, take, take of our Earth’s resources.
- Many nations have negotiated claims for their stolen tribal lands in New York state and elsewhere, some purchasing land from individuals and even threatening lawsuits against those who won’t sell. But instead of causing displacement of their new neighbors, the Onondaga Nation focused its efforts on securing land titles, legal means to restore the land, including the heavily polluted Onondaga Lake and surrounding areas. In 2010, federal court dismissed the case.
However, I am disappointed by the lack of science that Kimmerer shares, and especially the way she views science as something separate and inherently detrimental to our relationship with nature. “To walk the science path I had stepped off the path of indigenous knowledge,” and “Science can be a language of distance which reduces a being to its working parts; it is a language of objects.” I agree that traditional science is a bunch of old white men with narrow western worldviews, but that is changing and has been for decades. We can teach the future scientists of tomorrow to open their ideas to new hypotheses and experiment types, and so much has already been studied and there is so much to learn and so much awe to find in the world around us.
As devil’s advocate to what I just stated, Kimmerer does mention a poem written in the language of chemistry, “Carbon dioxide plus water combined in the presence of light and chlorophyll in the beautiful membrane-bound machinery of life yields sugar and oxygen.”
When Kimmerer leans into the woo-woo—for example, when you come into the knowledge that the Earth loves you back—I grow cynical. In my mind, this argument hurts the book as a whole, but I also want stories that bridge the gap between indigenous knowledge and modern science, and ultimately I’ll admit this is more of a memoir with bits of science here and there.
Don’t get me wrong, I agree on the most basic level with Kimmerer’s arguments, and love that she is sharing her own story. I fully understand why the smell of humus promotes a release of oxytocin in the human brain. I agree that humans are the youngest siblings of Creation, and have yet to learn the wisdom, especially moderation, the give and take, of how to live in a reciprocal relationship with the plants, animals, and fungi around us.
Highly recommended for anyone who loves gardening or walks through forests!