Interview of Robin Wall Kimmerer ― Resistance Radio

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Hi, I’m Derrick Jensen. This is Resistance Radio on the Progressive Radio Network,. My guest today is Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer. She is a mother, scientist, writer, and Distinguished Teaching Professor of Environmental Biology at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, New York. She is the founding Director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment, whose mission is to create programs that draw on the wisdom of both indigenous and scientific knowledge for our shared concerns for Mother Earth.

Kimmerer is an enrolled member of the Citizen Band Potawatomi. Her writings include numerous scientific articles and the books Gathering Moss, which was awarded the John Burroughs Medal for nature writing in 2005, and Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants, released in October 2013. As a writer and a scientist, her interests in restoration include not only restoration of ecological communities, but restoration of our relationships to land. She lives on an old farm in upstate New York, tending gardens both cultivated and wild. 

So first, thank you for your incredible work, and second, thank you for being on the program.

RK: I’m honored to talk with you, Derrick.

DJ: Thank you. So, my first question comes from an essay you wrote called “Returning the Gift,” and is “What does the earth ask of us?” And another question is “How does she ask?”

RK: I am so enamored of that question, because of the assumption of the animacy of the earth that is built into that question, and the fact that by thinking that the earth asks something of us reminds us that we, as human people, are not just consumers, as dominant social institutions would have us believe, but that we are, or can be, co-creators of abundance, that we are participants in the flourishing of the earth. So I just love that question because it reminds us of that, that we have something to give.

And in a way, I think about that question of, another way to think of it is; what is it that we human people can give in return for the gift of the Earth. And you know, I work as a scientist in the natural resources field. And if we just think about that term, “natural resources,” right? I think that’s a very problematic notion, of course, that things don’t have intrinsic value, they only are valuable once we transform them into the things that we need. I really like to think that I work in the field of ecological gifts, because every day, the earth showers us with these gifts, these wonderful attributes of the companionship of other beings, water and food, and the air, and all of those things that we haven’t earned, you know, or in any way deserve them. They are gifts. That’s how it feels to me, anyway.

And when we receive a gift, that then opens the door to reciprocity, to say “What are the gifts that we are called to give in return for all the gifts of the earth?” That’s how I really hear that question.

And I have a long list of things that I would say, you know, “What is it that we should be giving? What does the earth ask of us in return for all that we’re given?”

And I think that one of the first places that I always start, especially with my students, is with attention. That in a world that gives us redwoods and mosses and salamanders, we should at least be paying attention to all of those beings and gifts, and to the fact that our lives are utterly dependent on them. And that kind of paying attention is what I think’s needed to bring us to a place of feeling that we live in a world made of gifts, rather than a world made of natural resources. And once we’re to that place, you think, “Well, what is our natural human response to gifts?” Therefore, what is it that the earth asks of us?

And from many traditions around the world, of course, one of the answers to that question is gratitude. When we pay attention, when I pay attention, I can’t speak for everybody; I feel called to gratitude. When I realize that all of these beings around me are supporting my own flourishing and that of those around me. So, gratitude. And gratitude might seem like a simple thank you, like kind of a weak tea, given that we live in the age of the sixth extinction and a time of climate chaos. But gratitude, I think, is really powerful medicine. It’s a gift that we human beings possess, and can share.

And when we really practice gratitude, it brings forth a sense of enoughness and sufficiency, I think. It makes you feel rich when you’re grateful. You think “Oh my gosh!” You enumerate all these gifts that are around you. And I think in a sense there are practical consequences of that emotion of gratitude; they are that we take less. And when we look at climate change, when we look at the biodiversity crisis, we all know that that is, in a linear way, related to our own consumption. And so if gratitude can be a control or a restraint over our own consumption, gratitude then becomes a really powerful tool for caretaking, for the earth. And so that’s one of the things, I think, that the earth asks of us, is gratitude.

And you know, in indigenous societies there are so many stories that relate to failure of gratitude. They’re teaching stories about how when people forget to be grateful, what are the consequences of that? And that’s one of the ways, I think, in response to your second question “How does the earth ask us?” When we make mistakes, when we are not grateful, when we are not being in reciprocity with the earth; there are serious consequences. And there are these lots and lots of teaching stories about what happens when the people forget to be grateful, and the corn doesn’t grow and the rivers don’t flow and the world starts to fall apart.

And they’re really powerful stories, that remind us of our responsibility to gratitude. And I think it’s really interesting that in the western storytelling tradition there are very few such stories about failures of gratitude to the living world. Most of our stories are about relationship to each other, and not to the living world.

DJ: Thank you for saying all that. It reminds me of two things. One of them is that, as you said that last line, I was thinking “How many tragedies have you read – western tragedies – have you read where the hero’s, the tragic hero’s fatal flaw is a lack of gratitude?” I don’t think that’s a common theme at all. So I’m just sort of validating what you just said. And certainly not gratitude to the real world, to the natural world.

And the other thing; it’s so interesting that we’re having this conversation today. The listeners don’t know this, but you and I have been trying to schedule this for months. And we scheduled it today, and last night my mom – every year my mom buys firewood from some – from a family down on the Klamath, and they’re Indians. Over the years, we’ve established, especially my mom has established a relationship with them.

So yesterday, the woman drives up with the firewood, and her daughter is with her. And her daughter was so excited to show my mom pictures of her ceremonial dress that her – she’s 15 – that her grandmother had made for her, with abalone shells, and pine nuts. Beautiful, beautiful dress. Weighs 50 pounds, I found out, too. And it took the grandmother three months to do it.

And the whole point of this story is that she said to the grandmother – I don’t know if I’ll be able to say this without crying – she said to the grandmother; “How can I thank you for this?” And the grandmother said “Don’t thank me with words. Thank me by living a good life.” And, you know; “Thank me by being a good person.”

And that seems to me to go to the – it’s just so interesting that in two days I’ve heard the same version of gratitude from two indigenous women from different halves of the country. Different sides of the continent.

That’s all.

RK: I think that’s really – that’s, I really like that synchronicity, because it calls forth that idea, that this is one of our primary responsibilities as human people, is gratitude. And you know, gratitude changes us, right? Gratitude changes us, it makes us so much more – I think it makes us more powerful in the world, it helps us understand our own agency. That when we have that gratitude, we’re motivated to do good in the world, as that grandmother told her daughter. When you are the recipient of so many unearned gifts, you just feel like you are called to give your own in return.

DJ: Thank you for that. And another thing that I’m thinking about is one of the first things you said, about how these questions of what the earth asks of us speaks to this being an animistic perspective. And you talked about Natural Resources departments. I think of a line a lot – there’s a line by this Canadian lumberman; “When I look at trees, I see dollar bills.” And a couple of years ago, there was an article in the local newspaper about crabbers, and talking about why crabbers work so hard. And the newspaper quoted one of the crabbers as saying “Well, imagine all these envelopes filled with $1.50.” Each crab is worth about $1.50 to the crabbers. “Imagine all these envelopes all over the ground, filled with $1.50. You’d run around as fast as you can, for as long as you can, picking them up.”

And I’m just contrasting that perspective with the notion of gratitude. That the whole “natural resources” vs “the world consists of gifts …” – I mean, it seems to me that the notion of the world being filled with envelopes full of $1.50 is like a toxic mimic of walking around seeing that the world is full of gifts. Do you see what I’m trying to get at?

RK: Absolutely. Absolutely. And I think that really gets to the notion of who is it that is giving these gifts? And where is our gratitude directed? Because in a worldview that sees dollar signs on trees and envelopes of money as crabs – that is the view of a dead world, right? Where those so-called “natural resources,” those envelopes stuffed with money, are stuff. The worldview that the world is made up of stuff and that stuff is our property, for which we’re competing, is the complete opposite of a world where you feel like the world is full of persons. That those crabs, and those trees, and those salamanders and the maple tree that’s shading my porch right now, are not stuff, but they are persons. They are persons. They’re not human persons. They are, as David Abram said, more than human persons, with their own gifts, their own ways of being in the world. Beings who have so much to teach us. They’re not envelopes stuffed with dollar bills.

It’s all a matter of how we see those who make up the world. Are they beings? Or is it just stuff?

DJ: So, one of your books is called, has the title of Gathering Moss. Can you – okay first off, I completely agree that every being is sentient. Years ago, twenty-some years ago, I interviewed Neil Evernden, and he said that he didn’t agree with the notion of significant humans and non-significant nonhumans. I said, “Well, where do you draw the line, then?” I was a young person and still searching this. And he just looked at me and said “Why do you have to draw the line at all?”

And my whole being just opened up at that moment. There was a feeling of homecoming. It’s like, “Of course.”

And so, having said that, can you talk for a minute about moss as people and moss as beings in a forest? I know it’s a very open-ended question, but just take it wherever you’d like.

RK: I would love to. And I’m glad we’re talking about mosses in particular in this context. Because they’re so small, because they are underfoot, they’re probably a really good example of that which might be dismissed as stuff, as maybe green decoration on rocks and roots and stumps. But it takes just the smallest shift, and coming into relationship with them, to understand that they are persons, that they are beings, and indeed I think they are teachers.

Oh, where to begin? One of the most remarkable things about mosses is that they are the oldest plants on the planet. They first put leaf to ground 350 million years ago. And when you look at fossil mosses, and you look at contemporary mosses, you see that they haven’t changed that much. Think about that. Through all of the climate changes, through all of the cataclysms in the last 350 million years, you say “What is it that endures?” Most things have gone extinct, right? But the mosses have not. And to me, that really pulls my attention, my respect, to say “What is it, how is it that these organisms live that allowed them to in a way completely define what it is to be successful?” It’s not about being big. It’s not about controlling the environment.

It’s about endurance. It’s about being small, being resilient. So that 350 million years later, you’re still here and still giving your gifts and still doing right by the world. To me, that’s a pretty powerful combination, and that’s one of the reasons I really look at mosses, both through a scientific lens and through a philosophical lens, to say “What is it that they have to teach us about sustainability?” About a whole different way to think about “What does it mean to be sustainable?” And 350 million years of success, and the tremendous diversification of all these beautiful, beautiful little mosses in every corner of the continent; that’s a pretty amazing kind of success.

Then we have to ask “What’s the secret?” Right? How do they do it? And I think they’re eloquent teachers of the power of being small, and the fact that smallness, operating within appropriate scale, living within your means – mosses are really good teachers of flourishing in a way that uses natural forces, natural processes, rather than opposing them. And I think that’s something we could learn from.

DJ: Well, that really ties in to what I was going to say. I’ve lived on this land here for 16 or 17 years, and when I moved in, parts of it were still forest, and parts of it had been trashed. And there’s a path I walk every single day, that used to be a road, and one of the things I’ve noticed, just watching over the last decade and a half, is that the mosses were often in places that are not sunny. The mosses were the first beings to come back into the road. So they sort of move out there, and then they will – oh gosh, this is a terrible phrase – “pave the way.” They will prepare the ground, let’s say. They move in for a little while, and then after that you start to see seedlings of trees come up in that area. And so it feels to me like they are almost like a scab forming over before the skin can come back. Or they’re like a, to use a completely human model, first responders? They are the ones who come in to start the repair, at least in the shady parts. Does that make sense?

RK: It absolutely makes sense. And to me, that is one of the lessons that I take from them. They are absolutely pioneering species. I think of them as some of the finest land healers, because they’re first, and they bind the soil. They absolutely create conditions that foster the biodiversity that is to follow. They are, in a sense, to continue that metaphor, I suppose; they’re bandages. They’re bandages on the earth. They make a seedbed for the others, they hold the nutrients in place that would otherwise wash away. They purify water, they build soil. In essence, in their very elegant way, mosses give much more than they take. They have very minimal demands on the environment. They’re opportunistic. They take advantage of what is given to them, what is made available to them, and then they use it in a way that fosters the flourishing of others. And that’s one of the major reasons I look at them as teachers that I want to pay attention to. How can we do that?

DJ: This all for me gets to the heart of one of the questions of evolution and natural selection. And we’re taught often that natural selection is based on “the selfish gene” and ruthless competition where everybody is trying to conquer everybody else, like a game of Risk or Monopoly. Basically everybody else, it doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about bacteria or trees communicating.

Here’s a little story. Trees, or plants, as you know, communicate to each other to … like, if there’s a caterpillar eating a leaf, the plant can send out messages to all the other plants around, saying “Hey! There’s a caterpillar eating a leaf. Change the taste, or the composition of your leaf to make it so it’s not palatable, or so it’s toxic to these caterpillars.” And I saw some questions asked by western scientists saying – they were asking the question; “But why would a tree, or any plant, waste energy cluing in its competitors that somebody’s eating on them?”

And when I read that, I just laughed and said “Let’s change the word ‘competitors’ to ‘neighbors.’” It’s like, the reason that the plants will let the other plants know is because they recognize that a redwood forest doesn’t just consist of redwoods, but also of alders and cascara and willows and everybody else. And so my point is that the story you just told about the moss just sort of, for me, goes to the heart of the question about whether the world is really this “nature red in tooth and claw” where everybody’s trying to kill everybody else, or whether it’s – it’s of course more than any of us can say. We can put models on it, but it’s always more than that, because real life is more complex than anything we can think. But also, is the world – I love what Vine Deloria said about how the world is a symphony, and our role is to figure out our role, and then to play it at the proper time. Our role is not for the violin players to try to wipe out the oboe players and take over the whole symphony. But instead, our roles is to try to play our proper role. Do you see what I’m trying to get at here, too?

RW: Oh, completely. Yeah. And the notion of a world completely structured by competition, as you’re saying, was a major evolutionary paradigm for a really long time. But that paradigm is beginning to crumble with additional evidence that suggests that the agent or the recipient of natural selection is a community, not an individual. That when one flourishes, all flourish. And there are certainly examples on either side of this, for sure, that are trotted out and are compelling examples. But for the longest time, our adherence to the notion of individual selection based on competition really dominated. And with examples of tree communication, with examples of things like the powerful mycorrhizal network that knit an entire forest together. Not just members of the same species, but many other species. We’re starting to understand that the unit of selection may be much, much greater – the consequences of that selection are much greater. We’re really talking about cooperation leading into flourishing, which is mutual. And mosses are just superb teachers of that. You know, when mosses get water, which is what they really need, they don’t keep it to themselves. All of the architecture of a moss is designed to share water, because when water is shared, the whole community flourishes. There are just so many examples of this, where mosses are, I think, kind of waving the flag and saying “It’s all about cooperation, not about competition.”

DJ: And do you believe that – it’s becoming increasingly clear to me that a forest itself is a larger living being. And a river is a larger living being. And – I’m just going to leave it at that. Do you have any comments about that? What do you think? That it’s not just – I think it’s a mistake to look at this little – well, here’s a question. So – I don’t know the answer to this. When I look at a patch of moss, how many plants is that? Is that – is this like one big moss? Or is each little clump a plant? If we sort of start with that, and then move outward. Is a patch of moss – and I know when I say “one being,” that we’re already in difficult territory. But so, can you tease that out a little bit?

RK: (laughing) Yes, we are in difficult territory, both scientifically and philosophically. The scientific first: Part of it is that we actually don’t know. When we look at a clump of moss that all looks the same, there might be 500 shoots. But are they all distinct genetic individuals? They might be. But they’re probably not. They’re probably shoots that have the same genetic composition, it might be one entire individual. But it might not be. Without doing molecular analysis you actually cannot tell. But ecologically, they behave as if all of those little shoots were organs of an individual, if that makes sense. So they behave as a community.

And that’s just within one species. Some of our studies have shown that the mosses actually, when they grow together, as they often do, multiple species together, they too are interacting in these really integrative, holistic ways, where competition was predicted, but when you look for it, what you find is cooperation instead.

DJ: So, before I jump back to the moss, I mentioned perceiving a forest as a being. Can you talk about that a little bit?

RK: Yeah! And again, it sort of depends on what you mean in that context by “being.” But to me, I think that it is the entire forest, made up of interacting parts that are conscious and aware of one another, and responding to one another, as if they were linked by negative feedback loops, and positive feedback loops. As if they were linked in biochemistry and ecology, as they all are. It’s unequivocally the case that none of them are acting alone. To go back to Vine Deloria’s metaphor, they are all instruments in the orchestra, playing their own role. And if you take one out, it doesn’t sound the same, and the whole thing begins to dwindle.

DJ: So let’s go back to where we started, and what is the proper role – and this is a completely unfair question, because there are many roles, but what is the proper role of humans in the forest orchestra, or in a desert orchestra, or in whatever orchestra you want to talk about? What would be some of the proper roles? I mean, you said gratitude – I’m going to back up again. That in a salmon-based forest, like I’m in here, there are many, many roles played by bears, for example. But one of the roles is to carry salmon, in their bodies, away from the river, where there’s this tremendous influx of nutrients, and one of their roles is to carry the salmon into the forest and poop it out. Because the nutrients don’t do any good to the center of the forest if they’re all at the stream bank. And eagles play the same role, and insects play the same role, and humans can play that same role.

So I don’t want to break either bears or humans down into simply a carrier of salmon in their bodies, but what are some of the proper roles that humans can play, and should play, in this forest or desert or grassland orchestra?

RK: I think I would begin with the notion of restoration. It’s all about reciprocity, really. How do we reciprocate the gifts? And one of the ways we reciprocate the gifts of the earth is through healing the damage that we have done. So ecological restoration, and restoration of respectful relationship with the living world, with the more than human world, is, I think, one of the gifts that humans have. So, healing the damage we’ve done. Doing restoration. And your images of your forest where you live, of parts of it that are whole and intact, and other parts of it that have been damaged, it’s our responsibility, it’s our role to heal that damage where we can.

But another important element of reciprocity is to understand our role as givers, not just consumers. And your question really is “What is it that we humans have to give?” And part of it also relates to having the humility to receive the gifts of the earth, and to know that in our receiving them, we actually contribute to flourishing.

One of the things that I’ve learned over the years from working with herbalists and medicine gatherers, foragers, is the fact that in many cases, there are plants that depend on human activity for their own flourishing. That human people actually create the ecological niches that those plants need. It could be as dramatic as the use of fire, which, we were told, that native people were given the fire stick to bring good things to the land. And indeed, we know that the suppression of fire has caused a dramatic loss in biodiversity. So bringing our gifts, and managing the land, in such a way that biodiversity is amplified, is a human gift.

It can be also the small act of when we harvest plants we take from the earth, that we give back in ways that help the flourishing of that individual species. There are a whole raft of species that flourish upon harvest, upon human harvest. The plants actually go away and diminish when we’re not there to receive their gifts. And so as we are givers to the ecosystem, we also have to remember that sometimes our role as foragers, as participants in subsistence, actually enhances flourishing of those organisms.

But that isn’t always the case, right? You know, sometimes our taking is too much, it’s way too much. We shouldn’t be taking in that manner. It gets back to this other way that we answer “What does the earth ask of us?” Of “Pay attention.” Pay attention to the living world as if they were individual beings with their own needs and requirements from the world, so we come to know the difference. Whether we should be taking that plant because it flourishes by our taking, or whether we should never take that plant because it can’t stand the harvest.

In order to do that, we have to pay attention. We have to name those organisms and have a relationship with them. It pains me to read the statistics that the average American can recognize 100 corporate logos, and only 10 plants. And what is it that’s really sustaining us here? Where are we giving our attention? And I think that is one of the great roles of human kind, is to pay attention and respond respectfully.

DJ: I’m thinking a couple of things. And thank you for all that, that’s really great.

I’m thinking that, I’ve said I’ve lived here for 16 years, and there are parts of the forest that I walk through every single day, and there are parts that I don’t know very well, and it pains me that I know how to navigate the Microsoft word processing program “Word” better than I know how to navigate some parts of the forest where I actually live. And that’s just going back to what you said. Or being able to – you know, I can hear a rock song from the 1970’s and I can name the tune in four notes, and there are birds I hear every night, I love the sound of these birds. I don’t know what their name is. I hear them every single night.

And that strikes me as both sad, and disrespectful, and a lost opportunity.

RK: I agree with everything that you’ve said, but I would also add to that, that not knowing the names and roles of beings is also dangerous. Because when we don’t know them, their losses become invisible. It becomes part of, what do they call it, the shifting baseline –

DJ: Declining baseline.

RK: Declining baseline, yeah. Thank you. That we don’t remember what a whole, intact ecosystem is like. And by knowing the names of those beings as well as we know how to navigate our laptops is a bulwark against their loss. Because when we go in the woods and we no longer hear a wood thrush, that really tells us something. And it tells us that we have to do something. And so paying attention enables us to be better protectors. Paying attention helps us, and being grateful at the same time helps us in a sense do a continual monitoring of the well-being of all of our forest relatives. And it’s only then that we really can be activated, I guess.

DJ: The frogs in the spring sing really loud here, and about ten years ago I noticed that they weren’t quite so loud as they were when I moved in, and I just listened for a year or two, and I started getting worried. So I started looking into why the Pacific tree frogs were declining in the pond near my house, and I found it’s because they are – the ozone layer has been weakened, which allows more UVB through, which weakens the egg sacs, which allows a mold called saprolegnia, which normally just eats the weakened egg sacs. It’s supposed to be there, it’s not like chytrid, where it’s an invasive fungus.

Anyway, the egg sacs were weaker because of the ozone layer being depleted. And UVB doesn’t go through glass. So what I do all winter is about once a week I get in the pond and I bring a bunch of frog eggs into the house, and I hatch them out and put them back in the pond. And it’s just a little thing, I’m very happy to do this act of gratitude back to the frogs for existing.

And that’s half the story. The other half of the story is when I first started trying to figure out why they were declining, I was asking all sorts of local people, and for the most part nobody had noticed. And the thing that gets me is that I guarantee that if the San Francisco 49ers or the San Francisco Giants, if they started disappearing, that these same people would notice.

But because these frogs, who live – they’re our neighbors, our friends. These are the closest beings – I hear the frogs more than I hear human beings. And yet most people don’t – the only way you could not know this is if you didn’t ever go outside. I’m just commenting on the lack of so many of us paying any attention to what’s going on in the real world.

RK: I agree completely. Terrible missed opportunities. It leads to what some philosophers have called “species loneliness.” That we are adrift, and many of our social pathologies arise from this species loneliness. Of not having the companionship, the guidance, the lessons, and indeed the honorable relationship with the rest of the living world. You walk through the world and feel ashamed of what your species has done and become. That’s a kind of very slow toxin to the system. And we – by paying attention, by entering into gratitude, and forming reciprocal healing relationships with all of the rest of the world, we reclaim something really fundamental to being human beings.

DJ: So can you tell a couple of stories about some of your favorite – you’ve talked about mosses, can you talk about any of your other favorite nonhuman neighbors/fellow travelers/family members? I mean, do you want to talk about grasses, or do you want to talk about bears? Are there any other nonhumans you would like to highlight either your relationship or your family’s relationship or some larger relationship with? Like, if you asked me that question I could talk about bears. I see bears every day, I love bears. Anyway, so are there any others that you’d like to talk about?

RK: Wow, that’s a hard one to choose from. I think I would want to talk about grasses. Again, because I’m really interested in those organisms that we take for granted. I get to see bears a fair bit too, and I never take them for granted! (laughing)

But grasses, people do. And one of the grasses that, you know, I write a lot about, as you know, is this wonderful grass, wiingaashk, sweetgrass, which Linnaeus properly named in botanical Latin, the sacred fragrant holy grass. (Hierochloe odorata.) It’s a grass that I love because of its – well, for many reasons. But because of its personality. It seeks you out, rather than going and hunting for it. But this subtlely fragranced, wonderful grass is one of these teachers of the importance of humans in its life, in that in some of our work with sweetgrass, by paying very deep attention to this plant, in trying to restore it and be sure that it flourishes, what that plant taught us is that it needs to be harvested. And if you harvest that plant with honor, with self-restraint, in a proper way, by entering into reciprocity, by giving gratitude; that grass doubles or triples its gift back to you in the next year. You pick it and it says “Yeah! I wanted to be part of your basket. I wanted to be part of your ceremony, so my response to you is to grow more.”

Whereas sweetgrass that is ignored, that no one ever pays attention to, no one is ever grateful for it, because they don’t even see it, let alone bend down and pick that single stem. It will go. It will leave. Fields of sweetgrass where people don’t harvest it, in a couple of years there’s not going to be any sweetgrass there. It’s a plant that has an intimate relationship with respectful humans.

And this goes back to the question that you began with, of not only what does the earth ask of us, but how does she ask? And I think that sweetgrass is a really good teacher of asking. That if you behave in reciprocity and with honor, we both will flourish. But if you ignore me, and take me for granted, I simply won’t be there.

DJ: This whole conversation, as you’ve been talking about nonhumans, I’ve been sometimes substituting words and thinking about – everything you’ve said about sweetgrass? Could be said of a friend or a lover. In that, if you demand too much of them, in a demanding way, as opposed to accepting gifts, then they’re not going to stick around. If you ignore them, they’re not going to stick around. I think that everything you’re talking about – these are not really difficult concepts for people to ask at all. This is how we are when we’re in a normal happy, healthy, even human relationship.

RK: Yes. Exactly. That’s what I mean by “this is our human capacity,” this is our human role. It’s what we do. We know how to do this, and our work is to remember that our relationships extend beyond the boundary of our own species. And that we take those same, exact notions of respect and reciprocity and paying attention and love and gratitude, and we apply them to the more than human beings that are around us as well. We do know how to do this, it’s a matter of what I have heard elders say of, you have to remember to remember.

DJ: And how do we, or you, or any of us, in addition to … well, there’s two questions. One of them is; how can people manifest this in their lives, and I’m wondering especially for people who live in a city. How can they do this? And then my second question’s going to be – and this might be the last question – how can we help to propagate this so more humans will understand it, and will live it? So the first question is “How do we manifest this in our own lives?” Especially in a problematical situation like city, and secondly, how do we help other people to understand it?

RK: Well, the first question of how to manifest this in a city, Derrick, is one that I have really wrestled with. And I have to admit, I have never lived in a city. Maybe because it’s a place where I could not enter into reciprocity with the living world. It would feel wrong. I couldn’t do it if I couldn’t be in reciprocity with the world. And so I think about that. These are beautiful concepts, but how do you manifest it if you don’t have a garden to tend, or a patch of woods to care for, or birds to know about?

The way that I’ve come to think about it is that there have to be surrogates for hands in the earth. Your caretaking hands that can’t be engaged with the living world – a surrogate for that, is it currency? Is it money? Does it become that we enter into reciprocity with the living world by our economic choices? By saying “No, I will not participate in that dishonorable harvest?” I.e., “I won’t buy that.” And I will participate in mutual flourishing by investing my funds for the food that I eat and the things that I need in my life?

That’s kind of the direction that my thinking goes as I search for what is a surrogate for having your hands in the earth when you can’t. But I also will say that I’m baffled. I don’t know the answer to that question.

DJ: Yeah, I don’t either. It’s very difficult.

When I go on tour, I end up, at the end of the day, I always go to the hotel room, and then I shut the drapes, and I just sort of hide because I feel like I’ve been abraded by the city. I feel like I can’t actually breathe again until I get back to the forest.

I guess there are two more questions, still. One of them is “How can we best propagate this understanding, this remembering of this other way to be?”

RK: I think it is by paying attention, encouraging paying attention to the living world around you. And this doesn’t have to be in a maple forest or a redwood forest. That happens in the city. That happens in the city when you pay attention to, you know, the moss in the sidewalk cracks. To the trees that are so courageous to be coming up in the empty lot near you. The birds, the foxes. There’s so much life in the city. And to remember that paying attention to these as if they were beings, as if they were relatives, as if they were our teachers; just opening your mind to that possibility creates a whole paradigm shift. You no longer walk through a world full of stuff. You walk through a world full of beings.

So I think simply eyes, mind and heart open to the natural world, is how we propagate that.

DJ: So isn’t that the answer to the first question too, then? Of, in the city, you can still find the trees and still – that’s something I do when I’m in a city, is I try, when I’m walking down the sidewalk, I try to acknowledge, “Here’s a tree.” I’ll stop and I’ll just touch the bark of a tree. Or I recognize even the ants walking across the sidewalk. I thank the little dandelions who are pushing up the sidewalk. So maybe that’s part of what people in the city can do, too.

RK: Yeah, that’s absolutely true, to recognize the beingness that is around you.

DJ: So as well as reading your extraordinary books Gathering Moss and Braiding Sweetgrass, how else can people find out more about your work?

RK: I am often, well not often – I am constantly on the road giving talks, many of which are available as videos, here and there. And those are certainly possible. But I will also say that I have a pretty minimal web presence. It’s just not my – it’s not my habitat. So I don’t have a website or anything like that. I know, in this day and age, can someone actually say that? Any of this? (laughing) Yes, I can.

DJ: Well, they can still read your books, and then perhaps, even more important than reading your books, they can go out to a forest and they can actually sit with some moss.

RK: Absolutely. You really connect to what it is that I have to share.

DJ: Well, thank you so much for being on the program. And I would like to thank listeners for listening. My guest today has been Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer. This is Derrick Jensen for Resistance Radio on the Progressive Radio Network.

Filed in Interviews by Derrick Jensen
No Responses — Written on September 25th — Filed in Interviews by Derrick Jensen

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