by Robin Wall Kimmerer
Oregon State University Press (2003)Buy Book
by Robin Wall Kimmerer
Milkweed Editions (2014)Buy Book
Robin Wall Kimmerer begins her book Gathering Moss with a journey in the Amazon rainforest, during which Indigenous guides helped her see an iguana on the tree branch, a toucan in the leaves. Without the knowledge of the guide, she’d have walked by these wonders and missed them completely. She honors the “humility rare in our species” that has led to developments like satellite imagery, space telescopes, and electron microscopes, which help us perceive both the vast and the miniscule. However, “our acuity at [the] middle scale seems diminished,” she writes, “not by any failing of the eyes, but [of] the willingness of the mind.” Attentiveness is the key, the only requirement, says Kimmerer: “Look in a certain way . . . adding depth and intimacy . . . and a whole new world can be revealed.”
Kimmerer describes herself first as a mother, then as a plant ecologist. As a mother, she has seen firsthand how we are born knowing how to pay close attention. We arrive knowing how to examine and embrace the world with the mind, body, emotion, and spirit—the four pillars of Indigenous knowledge. But somewhere along the way, we forget. Robin Wall Kimmerer is on a quest to recall and remind readers of ways to cultivate a more fulsome awareness.
It wasn’t language that captivated her early years; it was the beautiful, maple-forested open country of upstate New York, where she was born to parents with Potawatomi heritage. Her earliest memories are of the colorful play of purple aster and goldenrod in a field. When Kimmerer was a kindergartener, her teacher took the class out into the first snowfall of the season:
From the deep pocket of her coat she took a magnifying glass. I’ll never forget my first look at snowflakes through that lens, spangling the wooly sleeve of her navy blue coat like the stars in a midnight sky. . . . Even now I remember the sense of possibility, of mystery . . . I was dazzled by what seemed a secret knowledge of snow. For the first time, but not the last, I had the sense that there was more to the world than immediately met the eye.
Kimmerer’s innate wonder at her surroundings coincided with her parents’ reconnection with their Indigenous roots, a heritage that had been endangered by forced relocation of her Native American ancestors. This heritage was also threatened by the boarding school education of her grandfather at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, which strove to eliminate Indigenous ways of thinking and speaking.
The Carlisle school’s insistence on the “right way” to live undermined a great store of knowledge, a process that was echoed in the academic training Kimmerer encountered. “Long before I went to university to learn their scientific names, I regarded plants as my teachers,” she writes. But when she began university study, she didn’t tell the intake advisor about the collections of seeds and pressed leaves under her bed, or that “plants colored [her] dreams.” She did say she wanted to major in botany to learn “why asters and goldenrod looked so beautiful together.”
“That is not science,” the advisor said. He enrolled her in General Botany: “If you want to study beauty, you should go to art school.”
Kimmerer had a disastrous experience in that first botany class, but she persevered, becoming an adherent of the primacy of scientific thought. In time she was accepted to one of the world’s finest graduate programs in botany, partly on the recommendation of her advisor, who wrote that she’d “done remarkably well for an Indian girl.”
Kimmerer pressed forward, supplanting traditional knowledge (what she calls “spirit”) with coursework (“matter”), for a long while. She received a bachelor’s degree in botany in 1975 at the State University of New York: College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF); and then, in 1979, a master’s degree in botany at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; followed by a PhD in plant ecology at the same institution in 1983. Along the way, she built on her early enchantment with earth, plants, and sky and channeled these interests into academic and professional research. In her early career as a professor, first at two Kentucky universities and later at her alma mater SUNY-ESF, she published scholarly articles about the revegetation of abandoned lead-zinc mines, about the differential fitness of mosses and the role of slugs in their propagation.
However, as she writes, “the world has a way of guiding . . . our steps.” She experienced a chance-like encounter with a news clipping about a magnificent American elm tree, “champion for its species” and named for her Potowatomi grandfather, Louis Vieux. She discovered the clipping when a light was left burning and the door ajar in a Wisconsin horticulture garage; the light and the moment “shone on the path back home . . . the long, slow journey back to [her] people, called out . . . by the tree that stood above their bones.” Kimmerer recalled that “science as a way of knowing [was] too narrow for the task.” Storytelling “from the oldest days [recounted] the time when all beings shared a common language—thrushes, trees, mosses, and humans,” and these “messages of consequence” continually beckoned her.
Kimmerer did not train specifically as a writer, but her becoming one seems organic, the process a key to her success. Writer and mother of four Annie Proulx suggests that it’s important to “spend some time living before you start writing . . . time to have a life, to see change, to understand a bit . . . . It’s a great advantage to have that stuff under your belt when you start to write.” Kimmerer’s time spent living combines a natural, honed, and polished scientific facility with a growing immersion in storytelling and Indigenous language. By 2003, she’d produced Gathering Moss, her beautiful book of botanical essays. She was also contributing essays to magazines like Adirondack Life, Stone Canoe, and Orion.
Her work often features stories and wisdom from her daughters, Larkin and Linden, highlighting the parallels between what motherhood has taught Kimmerer and what close attention to plants can reveal. One lovely passage from Gathering Moss describes waiting for Linden to disembark from a plane. She’s been away for her first year of college. Kimmerer, restless at an airport coffee shop, sees a hand-lettered sign: If you fear change, leave it here. She writes:
Unaccountably, I find my eyes filling for a moment, wishing I could empty my pockets, casting off my load of change, bringing my daughter back, the little one, standing on a chair with my apron tied three times around her, cutting out Valentine cookies and splattering the kitchen with pink frosting.
The emotion of this moment recalls the plight of mosses at the end of a dry season, waiting for moisture, “crisped and baking on the summer oak. . . . They curl inward upon themselves, as if suspended in daydreams. And if mosses dream, I suspect they dream of rain. . . . When moisture is plentiful, the moss soaks up the water and grows prolifically. But when the air dries, the moss dries with it, eventually becoming completely desiccated.”
Missing her daughter, Kimmerer herself had felt “transformed . . . darkened . . . dry, and contorted . . . brittle.” She notes how we “are shaped by our affinity for love, expanded by its presence and shrunken by its lack,” in the same way her beloved mosses are shaped by their need for water. For mosses, desiccation and drying are “temporary interruption[s] in life.” Mosses are adept at remaining active as they wait; they have “sophisticated . . . roots, vascular systems, and . . . water-conservation mechanisms . . . Mosses have a covenant with change; their destiny is linked to the vagaries of rain. They shrink and shrivel while carefully laying the groundwork of their own renewal. They give me faith.”
These descriptions are twined with those of her daughter, stepping off the plane, “beaming a girl’s smile, but her woman’s eyes scan my face for signs of concern. . . . Walking along beside her, I see right away that she has not been wasting her days in waiting, she has been becoming. I know now there’s nothing in the world that would have me trade this lovely young woman, radiant, with her arm linked through mine, for the toddler who slept in my arms.”
Biologist Edward O. Wilson claimed that “science and art have the same creative wellspring . . . [poets should] colonize science.” From the Kimmerer wellspring came the lovely Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants in 2013. In 2020, and largely through word of mouth, it became a New York Times bestseller. In this second book, Kimmerer continues to expand and reclaim the traditional understanding of plants and the Potawatomi and Anishinaabe stories, told in languages that had been banished nearly to extinction.
Braiding Sweetgrass is an essay collection about weaving—braiding—traditional, Indigenous knowledge with scientific understanding to explore the imprint, excess, and healing of people as they interact with the natural environment.
One of the book’s most compelling chapters concerns the Windigo, a mythic monster of the north woods, the shrieking, insatiable villain of Anishinaabe legend. Windigo suffers the eternal pain of hunger, need, and want: “The more a Windigo eats, the more ravenous it becomes. It shrieks with its craving, its mind a torture. . . . Consumed by consumption, it lays waste to humankind.” One bite from the formerly human Windigo transforms its victims into cannibal monsters too, evil spirits that devour people:
Old teachings recognized that Windigo nature is in each of us, so the monster was created in stories, that we might learn why we should recoil from the greedy part of ourselves. This is why Anishinaabe elders . . . remind us to always acknowledge the two faces—the light and the dark side of life—in order to understand ourselves. See the dark, recognize its power, but do not feed it.
Always, Kimmerer draws power from the stories, from her incisive observations. This emotional weight is then connected with human experience:
The fear for me is far greater than just acknowledging the Windigo within. The fear for me is that the world has turned inside out, the dark side made to seem light. Indulgence that our people once held to be monstrous is now celebrated as success. We are asked to admire what our people once called unforgivable. The consumption-driven mind-set masquerades as ‘quality of life’ but eats us from within. It is as if we’ve been invited to a feast, but the table is laid with food that nourishes emptiness, the black hole of the stomach that never fills. We have unleashed a monster.
Other chapters detail industrial waste, environmental mismanagement, an economic-growth mindset that will not recognize natural laws that play out in every other species on the planet. But Kimmerer refuses to be despairing. She chooses hope and joy because “joy is what the earth gives me daily, and I must return the gift”:
Here on the [industrial] waste beds there are expanses without a living thing, but there are also teachers of healing and their names are Birch and Alder, Aster and Plantain, Cattail, Moss, and Switchgrass. On the most barren ground, on the wounds we have inflicted, the plants have not turned their backs on us; instead they have come.
This passage from Braiding Sweetgrass is redolent of her earlier book’s beautiful descriptions of tender, active mosses, “bursting with spores. Ready for rain, they release their daughters upon the updrafts of rising mist.” Kimmerer celebrates the way mosses are “poised and alert . . . laying aside resistance for the promise of becoming . . . I too can have a covenant with change.”
In Gathering Moss as well as in Braiding Sweetgrass, plants persist in showing how life, in both the family of [wo]man and in that of our non-human relatives, is filled with connection and agency, with opportunity, understanding, and interdependence:
Plants are the first ecologists. They are using their gifts for healing the land, showing us the way. . . . The plants are doing their work, rebuilding the nutrient cycle. . . . They hand off life to one another. They understand their interconnections; they understand that the life of one is dependent on the life of all. Leaf by leaf, root by root, the trees, the berries, the grasses are joining forces, and so there are birds and deer and bugs that have come to join them. And so the world is made.