NOTE: These four essays appeared originally in my local newspaper in the “Community Sustainability” column I edit (and mostly write).  They are all based on Robin Kimmerer’s wonderful book, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants.

What Lichens Can Teach Us

We face an increasingly difficult political situation with regard to preserving a healthy global environment for present and future generations.  As I search for guidance and comfort these days, I am finding inspiration in a book, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, by Robin Wall Kimmerer (Milkwood Editions, 2013).  

Kimmerer is a State University of New York Distinguished Teaching Professor of Environmental Biology. A member of the Citizen Potowatomi Nation, she is founder and director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment.  She demonstrates that we don’t have to choose between science and traditional native teachings, bringing both perspectives beautifully together in her thinking, writing, and teaching.

One chapter, “Umbilicaria: The Belly Button of the World” is a paean to lichens, a fascinating symbiosis of fungi and algae. We see them colorfully plastered to rocks and boulders everywhere in the woods, drying into a taupe-colored rock tripe, a “tattered scrap of brown suede” (p. 269), which instantly transforms “from a dry scab to tender green skin” at the touch of a few raindrops (p. 273).

Kimmerer explains, “The fungal/algal symbiosis so blurs the distinction between individual and community that it has attracted a great deal of research attention. Some pairs are so specialized that they cannot live apart from one another.  Nearly twenty thousand species of fungus are known to occur only as obligate members of a lichen symbiosis” (p. 272).  This phenomenon of mutual interdependence and reciprocity occurs throughout nature, but is especially exemplified in lichens.

In trying to understand how the marriage of alga and fungus occurs, scientists tried putting them together in the laboratory, with poor results.  The two lived separate lives under most conditions.  It was only when the scientists “severely curtailed resources… [and] created harsh and stressful conditions that the two would turn toward each other and begin to cooperate” (p. 272).

“When times are easy and there’s plenty to go around, individual species can go it alone.  But when conditions are harsh and life is tenuous, it takes a team sworn to reciprocity to keep life going forward.  In a world of scarcity, interconnection and mutual aid become critical for survival.  So say the lichens.” (p. 272)

How can we humans learn this important lesson?  We tend to do okay in short term crises, like earthquakes, fires, and floods.  Ordinary people step up, help one another, sacrifice their own safety for the benefit of others.  Tragically, other people, like “disaster capitalists,” take advantage of the crisis to make money at others’ expense.  However, in the slow crises we face today, like gross income inequality and world-changing climate disruption, we tend to try to go it alone, take care of old Number One, compete for dwindling resources, circle up the wagons to keep The Others out.

Seems like we have a lot to learn from lichens about the reality of our complete interdependence within our communities, with other living beings, and with the ecosystems that support our lives.  We can survive the hard times only through mutual aid and reciprocity—and we need to begin now to re-establish those severed connections, before it’s too late.

The Crossroads Before Us

As I said in my previous column, I am finding inspiration these days in Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, by Robin Wall Kimmerer (Milkwood Editions, 2013).  In this column, I want to share Kimmerer’s thoughts on the crossroads humanity faces, as foretold in the Seventh Fire Prophecy of her Anishinaabe ancestors.

“The Seventh Fire prophecy presents a second vision for the time that is upon us.  It tells that all the people of the earth will see that the path ahead is divided. They must make a choice in their path to the future.  One of the roads is soft and green with new grass.  You could walk barefoot there.  The other path is scorched black, hard: the cinders would cut your feet.  If the people choose the grassy path, then life will be sustained.  But if they choose the cinder path, the damage they have wrought upon the earth will turn against them and bring suffering and death to earth’s people” (p 368). 

Today humanity, or at least Western Civilization, stands at the crossroads between theses two paths.  Climate science documents that we are close to—or even past—the tipping point of climate disruption; scientists also warn of run-away resource depletion and species extinctions. 

The Seventh Fire is a sacred fire that must now be rekindled, as we relearn how to live in harmony with the web of life of Earth.  Kimmerer writes of her vision of this time of possible transformation: “I see the people of the Seventh Fire walking towards the crossroads with all they have gathered.  They carry in their bundles the precious seeds for a change of worldview…So much has been forgotten, but it is not lost as long as the land endures and we cultivate people who have the humility and the ability to listen and learn… The path is lined with all the world’s people in all the colors of the medicine wheel–red, white, black, yellow–who understand the choice ahead, who share a vision of respect and reciprocity, of fellowship with the more-than-human world” (p. 369).

In a civilization gone mad with greed and deception, the path of the Seventh Fire seems very hard to find and follow.  Instead we can find ourselves swept along on the paved highway, driving fast and blind, often without noticing the land we speed through, nor the deteriorating condition of the pavement ahead.

Yet the people of the Seventh Fire are rising up everywhere now, often under the leadership of the peoples indigenous to the land.  “They are using the fire stick of the original teachings to restore health to the people, to help them bloom again and bear fruit” (p. 368). Right now, we see them gathering by the thousands at the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in North Dakota, to defend the land and water from an oil pipeline, through prayer and peaceful protest. And the forces of the cinder path are gathering, too, defending the profits of the fossil fuel industry with militarized police wielding mace, tear gas, water cannons, and rubber bullets. 

Our choices become increasingly clear and dramatic.  Which path will we choose, as individuals and as a society?  Let’s choose the green path.  Let’s make the transition to energy sources that support instead of destroy life.  Let’s limit our consumption of energy and manufactured goods to what we truly need.  Let’s relearn indigenous ways of living with respect and reciprocity within the web of life.  Let’s dedicate ourselves to the well-being of future generations.

The Honorable Harvest

This is the third column in a series inspired by Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants (Milkwood Editions, 2013).  I want to share her Anishinaabe understanding of the “Honorable Harvest” and the implications that concept holds for all of us today.

Kimmerer notes that “the traditional ecological knowledge of indigenous harvesters is rich in prescriptions for sustainability…Collectively, the indigenous canon of principles and practices that govern the exchange of life for life is known as the Honorable Harvest. They are rules of sorts that govern our taking, shape our relationship with the natural world, and rein in our tendency to consume–that the world might be as rich for the seventh generation as it is for our own.”

The central principle in this canon is reciprocity, mutual giving and receiving with the natural world on which we utterly depend.  “… a harvest is made honorable by what you give in return for what you take… A harvest is made honorable when it sustains the giver as well is the taker.” 

What a concept in today’s world! You mean the world isn’t just here for us to madly consume for personal pleasure and profit?  Most of us in today’s hyper-consuming world rarely consider taking only what we need, giving back in reciprocity for what we take, and nurturing the world that nurtures us. Rarely do we even pause to wonder about the sources and true costs of the things and energy we consume. 

We must now relearn the old ways that allowed humanity to survive and thrive through ten thousand years before the Industrial Revolution.  How would reciprocity look in today’s world?  We can grow some of our own food organically, composting our kitchen waste and returning nutrients to the soil that produces our food. We can exercise reciprocity in how we spend our money.  We can buy from local farmers who grow foods organically for Farmers Markets in the summer time, getting to know them as friends. We can avoid buying products we don’t really need, shipped from distant places and produced under conditions we know nothing about. We can buy products that are certified fair trade and/or organic, to minimize harm in their production. 

That isn’t easy, by any means.  Kimmerer reports her experiment of going to a shopping mall, to see if she can shop there with “the same attunement and outlook with which I go to the woods, receptive, observant, and grateful.”  She finds it quite painful to bring that state of consciousness into a shopping mall, with heightened awareness of the delusions there, and of “the mountain of needless stuff that hurts the chances that my grandchildren will have a good green earth to care for.”  It’s almost too much to bear.

Have we indeed, as Kimmerer asserts, created an artificial ecosystem “where we perpetuate the illusion that the things we consume have just fallen off the back of Santa’s sleigh, not been ripped from the earth”?  As the Christmas season bears down upon us, I am afraid this is not an inaccurate metaphor.  And I ask, in all sincerity, how can we enjoy giving and receiving gifts in this season within the framework of reciprocity—not just between friends and family, but in relation to the web of life of Earth?  Can we find ways to give something back to the Earth for every gift we give to one another?  At the very least, let’s hold that possibility in our hearts and minds.

A World Full of Gifts

After checking out Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Kimmerer from our local library, I bought my own copy to read for the second time.  This time through, I found this passage on wild strawberries and wanted to riff on what Kimmerer says about them:

Finding a patch of wild strawberries still touches me with a sensation of surprise, a feeling of unworthiness and gratitude for the generosity and kindness that comes from an unexpected gift all wrapped in red and green…

Strawberries first shaped my view of a world full of gifts simply scattered at your feet.  A gift comes to you through no action of your own, free, having moved toward you without your beckoning.  It is not a reward; you cannot earn it, or call it to you, or even deserve it. And yet it appears.  Your only role is to be open-eyed and present. Gifts exist in the realm of humility and mystery—as with random acts of kindness, we do not know their source. (Kimmerer, p. 23-24)

I am moved by the idea of the world being full of gifts, simply scattered at our feet.  We moderns think in terms of “resources” that we can exploit, extract, and sell at a profit.  What if, instead, we considered the riches of the Earth as gifts—gifts we cannot earn or deserve, that just come to us by virtue of our being alive on this planet?  What a profoundly different relationship we might experience with the natural world in which we live.

And what gifts, besides wild strawberries, do we receive, no matter how undeserving we may be?  Air to breathe, rich with oxygen to fire our cells.  Clean pure water—so essential to life—pouring out of springs on the mountainside.  Sunshine, falling on everyone, warming the soil, air, and our bodies, fueling the basic processes of life.  Soils to grow our food and flowers, teeming with microbes and fungi that support life in so many ways we are just beginning to understand.  Trees and plants and the amazing array of animals that contribute to our physical and spiritual lives in myriad and interconnected ways.  The microbes that inhabit our bodies and help digest our food, maintain healthy chemical balances, ward off disease, and eliminate toxins.  Obviously, I could go on and on.

Those of us privileged to grow up in a rural environment with plenty of freedom and access to relatively wild nature may have experienced what Kimmerer did: “the world…as a gift economy, ‘goods and services’ not purchased but received as gifts from the Earth.”  In truth, the natural world operates as a gift economy, even when humans get into the act as middlemen, gathering up these free gifts and selling them to the rest of us in one form or another.

Of course there are very practical reasons for doing this; we need delivery systems to bring these gifts to us, especially when we live in cities and towns, and when we need food and materials not readily available in our area or in season.  Moreover, a lot of what we require now in modern life doesn’t just drop from trees like ripe fruit; it results from human labor and manufacture, like the computer I am writing on. We need human services: teachers, doctors, nurses, technicians, repairmen, and so forth.  And we need money as a medium of exchange (although not as an end in itself).

I only propose a shift in how we think about our relationship with the Earth.  Like the native peoples of this land, we can honor the Earth as our Mother, receiving and sharing her gifts with gratitude, instead of exploiting them to make a buck.