Our Relationships With the Earth, and the Wisdom in “Braiding Sweetgrass”
We live by certain rules. They may or may not be written down somewhere, but by observing what we do, we can see the priorities and patterns in our actions. These are the rules or principles that govern our lives. It seems to me that, across most major countries of the world today, the governing principles are to make as much money as you can, and fight against anything that could limit how much you can make. In order to do that, the harvesting, mining, and extraction of “stuff” in order to make money must continue and even accelerate, if possible. Everything else is secondary to those rules.
People may say that they follow different principles. Many of the world’s faith traditions, and many of the ways we like to talk about ourselves, emphasize caring for others, caring for creation (or at least enjoying nature), and sharing what we have. But I am not talking about what we say, but rather observing what we do. With some important exceptions, what most of us do seems to conform pretty well to the rules mentioned above.
What’s wrong with that? We are taught that economies must grow, and if they do not grow they will stagnate and fail, and so we must feed the machine at a faster and faster rate in order to be productive. It is as if we have to break up all the furniture in the house to keep the fireplace roaring, as if the furniture would never run out and there would be more and more tables and chairs to break apart and feed the fire. We have been living in a very big house, but sooner or later we will run out of fuel for the fire.
From the first century, when the world population may have been between 150 million and 330 million (World Population Estimates, Wikipedia), the human population has grown to a mind-boggling 7.7 billion people (Worldometers), practically covering the continents in an endless hive. All of those people deserve a good life, but only a minority will have one that is materially secure. Too many will be hungry, homeless, sick, or preyed upon by others. However, all of them – anyone with so much as a pocketful of change – is a consumer. And with the majority of the planet trying to make the most money by selling the maximum amount of stuff to those 7.7 billion people, we are stripping and poisoning the earth, the garden that many believe we were put here to steward.
That’s an old-fashioned term, “steward,” meaning to manage and look after something that is not ours. What if we thought of the earth as something that we don’t own, but that we had the responsibility to care for? The alternative view is that we own it. Ownership is a completely one-way relationship – the thing we own is there to please us, we don’t have any obligation to it. We can use it, sell it, destroy it, and that is perfectly fine in an “I own it” relationship. If we are stewards, the relationship is very different. We are put in charge of something that is not ours, so we must take care to use it wisely, so that it is not harmed. But that places some constraints on our own behavior; we cannot sell it and we cannot strip all the value out of it for ourselves. Stewardship is not a relationship that works for those who are driven to create wealth regardless of the cost. It is not a business plan for the mega-rich.
When the population of the earth was counted in the millions, humans could ignore the idea of stewardship and the earth only suffered in a few places. Over the centuries, more people meant more impact as we went about the business of each obtaining as much power and wealth as possible. There are billions more of us, and we need that much more of everything. Our roads penetrate most of the land area of the planet, and our mines, factories, and agricultural fields cover vastly more of the planet than in the past.
The consequences of our continually growing population and our drive for endless economic growth are all around us. A recent paper in the journal Sciencepredicts the collapse of all fisheries by 2050 because of the loss of marine biodiversity. In various places across the globe, loss of insect populations is causing alarm, as reported recently in Scientific American. Perhaps it is easy for some people to dismiss the loss of pollinators as some sort of inconvenience to gardeners, but insects are incredibly important. Not only do they pollinate our crops, allowing us to be fed, they help break down dead things so that we do not live in a rotting graveyard. Insects are a fundamentally important part of most food chains, so that the loss of insects would bring about the collapse of a wide variety of insect-eaters, leading to the collapse of other wildlife that depend on those insectivores. The oncoming effects of human-induced climate change are in the news everywhere: heat waves killing people, sea levels rising and threatening coastal communities, loss of species that cannot adapt to a rapidly changing climate, and on and on. We are losing all kinds of wildlife species, leading some to speak of our causing a sixth global catastrophic loss of species.
Because large ecosystems can absorb little disturbances pretty well, we have believed that the earth is too big for us to harm. Years ago I had a climate-denying friend who argued that we were too small to change the atmosphere, that it was arrogance to think we could change the climate. That point of view comes from the time when we were a younger species, far below the 7.7 billion that we now number. But we are beginning to overwhelm the only livable place we know in the universe. There’s no place else to go.
I do not have practical answers. Like so many others, I contribute to the problem; I drive a car, use air conditioning, and so on. As the clock nears midnight, I don’t know how, or if, these problems will be solved, but I know it is wrong to give up, to surrender to the trap we have caught ourselves in. And since we got into this mess through a particular kind of relationship to nature, we should explore other possibilities.
There are other ways of being in a relationship with nature, other than by owning it, selling it, stripping it of valuable materials. It is possible to see it as a garden to tend with care, as in parts of the Judeo-Christian tradition. If we truly lived in that relationship, we might not turn the garden into a wasteland, but we would still be separate from the garden, benevolent but not really a part of it. There is also the possibility of placing ourselves within nature, as part of it, one of many lives that work together in partnership. Among the traditions and belief systems that see our lives and the lives of plants and animals as part of the same cloth are those of some Native American cultures. I am no expert on these cultures, but I can recommend a brilliant, lyrical, and wise book written by someone with one foot in the scientific tradition and one foot in the Potawatomi Nation of indigenous Americans. Robin Wall Kimmerer is a Professor of Environmental and Forest Biology at the State University of New York and a member of the Potawatomi Nation. Among her books is Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants.
Throughout the book, Kimmerer tells us the indigenous stories that create a relationship with nature consisting of reciprocity and gratitude, starting with the creation myth in which Sky Woman falls to the earth and is rescued by the animals. Together, each bringing their own gifts, Sky Woman, birds, an otter, and a great turtle create the world – Turtle Island. It is a shared effort, and the world would be incomplete without the contributions of every species. There is also the Windigo myth that warns about how unbridled appetite can separate us from all that we love and consign us to an existence of eternally consuming and never being satisfied. Sound familiar?
Importantly, stories of the natural history of trees and other plants are interwoven throughout the book, clear and lucid portraits of sweetgrass, maple, as well as animals such as mink or salmon. These are not simply scientific profiles (though her training as a scientist means that we learn many things about the biology of these species). She places us there in the field beside her, helping us appreciate small observations like raindrops in moss for their incredible beauty, and also the big, grand pictures of forests and coastlines. And along with that, she weaves Native American ways of being in relationship with nature into her narrative. Like braiding sweetgrass, she braids field observation, culture, and philosophy into a beautiful narrative.
It is important to understand that the book is not selling some indigenous religion in which we are to believe certain propositions in order to receive something (not that I think that any Native American religions work that way). Instead, what is described are ways of seeing the world and being in the world, marked by respect, gratitude, and reciprocity. How different those are from the ways our societies treat the earth now! Everything embodied in this book feels like a satisfying way to live life, a way to escape the insatiable greed of Windigo. The book is not a “fix” for the ecological problems we face, but it sure seems like a good, healthy foundation from which we might search for solutions.
A final note: get it in audiobook form – Kimmerer’s voice is perfect, like sitting comfortably by the fire, listening to a story told with compassion, friendly good humor, and wisdom.