Written by MJ Ryan, SheEO Development Guide
That’s the central question of her heart that led Robin Wall Kimmerer, a member of the Potawatomi First Nation, to become a botanist. But as she described in a November 2020 Tapestry radio interview, to her earliest academic advisors, this question was decidedly not a welcome line of research. As a result, “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.”
But she persevered and today, she not only teaches at the State University of New York at Syracuse, but is the bestselling author of Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teaching of Plants, which features her unique blend of botany with Indigenous wisdom. Here is a tidbit of how she thinks. When the pandemic hit, she asked her forestry students, “What would moss do?” Here’s her answer:
- 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.’” Such lessons for all of us…
Kimmerer’s western scientific training taught her to see the world and everything in it as “it,” which is at the root of all our behaviors that have created global environmental crisis. “What I came to understand was that in Potawatomi languages…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’s central question touches my soul deeply every time I think about it. The world is so beautiful. If we truly allow ourselves to know that, what wouldn’t we do, what wouldn’t we sacrifice to save it? Three billion birds gone…one third of the bee population, 90% of the kelp off the California coast…. How do we allow the pain of the reality of these numbers touch us? Truly transform our way of living?
It is, as Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh says, about truly falling in love with the world so much that we can’t not act. That requires us stretching ourselves to contain both love and grief. How can we bear it?
One of my other wisdom teachers, elder Joanna Macy describes the moment we all find ourselves in as The Great Turning, the transformation from an Industrial Society to a Life-Sustaining one that we are privileged to be here to impact. For her, it’s also about having a wild love for the world, to quote the title of a book on Macy’s work. In it, ecologist Stephen Harding describes her work as: “a spiral that maps the journey to Gaian consciousness [or deep connection with the living Earth] in four stages. The first is gratitude, in which we experience our love for life. Next is honoring our pain, in which we learn how to suffer the pain of the world with others and with the world itself. Then, in seeing with new eyes, we experience our connection with life in all its forms through all the ages. Finally, in the last stage we go forth into action in the world as open human beings, aware of our mutual belonging in the web of life, learning through feedback in our social and ecological domains.”
When we dare to open ourselves to this process, says Richard Rohr who has studied with Joanna, we carry the following mindsets into the world:
- A heightened awareness of the suffering and dangers besetting our world with a greater respect for our capacity to face them without dodging, denying or numbing out
- An upsurge of energy as we unblock feedback loops by accepting our pain for the world, reframing it as compassion
- A wider sense of identity as a unique and integral part of the living body of Earth
- A growing appreciation for community—with each other, with our brother-sister species, with our ancestors and future generations. We feel supported by them as well as accountable to them
- A stronger motivation to join with others in service to life; confidence in the power of our solidarity
- A fresh sense of the diversity of our gifts and of the many interdependent roles to be played in the Great Turning
- Hence, gratitude for who we are as individuals, with all our personal strengths and limitations—even our wounds—and for our desire to be of use
- Commitment to goals extending beyond our individual lifetime; liberation from dependence on immediate, measurable results
- Gladness in being alive now, in this epochal moment on Earth; a sense of the privilege of taking part in the Great Turning
I don’t know about you, but I need these perspectives to face the realities of our situation and not fall into despair. Some days, some moments, are harder than others. But I find when I carry my gratitude and pain together, I show up with energy and commitment to do whatever I can to love and support this beautiful world we are privileged to be a part of.