Stories of Self (Vol. 7): Reciprocity with Robin Wall Kimmerer

 Images from What Would Metamorphosis Be Like? by Bridget Mendel Lee. Images from What Would Metamorphosis Be Like? by Bridget Mendel Lee.

Stories of Self is a twelve-volume essay series by Scott F. Parker that explores the nature of the composed self through conversations with artists working in a wide range of media.

A few weeks before I met her in Minneapolis, in celebration of International Mother Earth Day, Robin Wall Kimmerer spoke in front of the United Nations General Assembly about “Healing Our Relationship with Nature.” In the talk, Kimmerer called for a return to the kind of indigenous biocentric worldview that puts humans in non-exploitative relationship with the earth and expands the number and kinds of perspectives taken into account when acting. “When we gather as Nations, should we not also counsel on behalf of the Tree Nations, the Bird Nations, the Fish Nations, on behalf of soil? And seeds? And our precious water? Let us broaden our definition of ‘people centered’ to include them, our more than human relatives.”

Before giving her remarks, Kimmerer went to her tribal elders for advice. She was surprised they answered with only a single word: moccasin, or “walk gently upon the land.” Kimmerer considered the implications of this instruction: “We see the anthropocentric worldview even in our carefully crafted definitions of sustainable development. Sustainability goals revolve around the search for strategies by which we can continue to take from the Earth into the future. When these definitions were presented to traditional elders they observed, ‘It sounds to me like they just want to keep taking,’ when the question we should be asking is, ‘What can we give?’ What does the Earth ask of us in return for all that we have taken? Our definitions of sustainable development are embedded in the idea that humans are fundamentally takers. The indigenous/ancestral worldview offers another conception of ourselves as givers, as well.”

The challenge of politics is often agreeing that we live in the same world. When Kimmerer suggests listening to animals and plants, the notion is so at odds with what the Western mind takes as the way the world works as to be almost incomprehensible.

Kimmerer’s publisher, Milkweed Editions, brought her to Minneapolis to read from her most recent book, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teaching of Plants. I met Kimmerer for brunch the next morning. Milkweed had set us up with the expense account and forty-five minutes between her other appointments. I tried to take advantage of their generosity, but ended up with a runny vegetable hash. Kimmerer’s breakfast sandwich was probably the smarter move. With forty-five minutes already getting closer to thirty-five, Kimmerer started to speak about indigenous conceptions of self.

“In the West we really privilege intellect. We put the mind aside from everything else. Whereas in the teachings of the Medicine Wheel you are this person right at the middle. You are the orientation point—for your mind, yes, but your spirit and your emotional and physical being, as well. The self is the balance point where all of those ways of knowing come together.”

“The boundaries of self and the living world are not very distinct at all,” Kimmerer continued. “For me it really feels as if we are interdigitated, one with the next. Not only the human person and the living world. One of the things I really had to think deep and hard about before sharing the stories in Braiding Sweetgrass is that they’re not mine to share. These are stories of our people, stories of our land, so what is it that gives me permission to tell a story that is ours and not mine? There’s that bigger self, being part of a continuum of storytellers and knowledge holders.”

A few weeks before meeting with Kimmerer I had attended an Ojibwe drum feast. The elder who led the ceremony said that it was important to learn the old ways but that when the young attendees one day lead their own ceremonies they will make them their own; they will draw from tradition, but not be restricted to it. There’s strength in such flexibility. The bending tree doesn’t snap.

“The stories [in the book] are not verbatim,” Kimmerer said. “They’re pieces that weave together. What I try to do is listen for the heart of it and adapt that for what the audience needs to hear. I embrace that notion the elder spoke of that you have to make it yours, but you also have to make yours [gesturing toward the hypothetical audience].”

“A lot of our songs have vocables in them, they’re not lyrics or words. I remember asking about that, and they said it’s because what matters is how you feel. That’s what makes the song. A song that is about the sunrise might not ever have any words about sunrise. It’s both collective and individual at the same time. The notion of freedom and individuality in traditional people is really different. No one is told what to do. That’s why we tell stories instead of making rules. This story is supposed to bring something to mind for you. What you do with it is up to you.”

I can scarcely imagine a worldview more foreign to the way I was raised. And perhaps this accounts for my fascination, and Kimmerer’s seeming lack of concern, with the riddle of the self. So well does the self resist and elude analysis that I end up with the only moderately satisfying notion that it can be most fruitfully understood as a narrative, with all the ambiguities, contradictions, and unreliable narrators that this suggests.

In his book Native Pragmatism, which grounds America’s primary philosophical contribution in an indigenous and relational, rather than colonial and monolithic, worldview, Scott L. Pratt, sticking to treatise mode, argues for the possibility of doing things other ways: “If philosophy is a culturally located critique of widely held beliefs using resources, methods, and attitudes present in the culture, it follows that the practice of philosophy may take radically different forms. In some cultures, storytelling and ceremony might serve the function of critique and reconstruction, while in others, philosophy may be a matter of treatise-writing and formal discussion.”

Just as watching pornography is not like having sex, understanding a worldview is a participatory endeavor, and not an intellectual one. To take other ways of seeing seriously is to live them.

One virtue of Kimmerer’s method is that it takes its limitations into account: “I try to demonstrate humility in storytelling. It’s a way of saying that I’m not telling you this is true, I’m telling you that this is my experience of it. For me that’s a way of engaging things that are deeply mysterious. I am not an authority. I can’t tell you why the world is the way it is, but I can tell you how I experience it. This is just my experience, and it connects with bigger stories.”

One of the strongest connections I ever felt with my environment came the first time I ate psilocybin. I was in a damp, moss-covered Northwest forest examining the textures of leaves and barks when it became obvious to me that I was inseparable from the plants. It wasn’t a metaphorical insight or an intellectual one about gas exchange; it was perfectly literal—only language made me one thing and each plant another.

But there can be something just as sacred about knowing a thing as itself as there is in knowing it as everything else. We give names to things as a way to recognize, and even honor, them. How does individuality not slip into becoming individualistic?

“I think it goes back to the notion of gift and responsibility,” Kimmerer said. “You may as an individual say, ‘I was given this gift.’ And often our names are associated with that gift. But it’s also your responsibility. So you’re often named—not in a prescriptive way for what you are called to do in the world—but as a reminder that you are called to do something in the world and it is responsible to your name and to your person. So it is very much associated with the gift of individuality, but you then have the responsibility to give it back. It’s reciprocity. In return for the gift of being a living human person you have responsibilities to everything around you.”

A Westerner, raised on contracts, might say, “I didn’t ask for these gifts. How can I be obligated to reciprocate them?” To which I’d reply only that the question has been begged: what is the I distinct from the gift? If one person emerges from a world contingent of environment and culture, that person remains a mutuality. If we strip away all contingencies, we’re left with either nothing or everything—neither of which is much egoic credit to you or me.

“In Western thinking, your imagination is something that’s locked up within the personal property of your skull. It’s just yours, and it’s sort of fantastical. But the way the Mohawk think about it is your imagination is not in your head, your imagination is where your being merges with all the thoughts of the other beings. So the fantastical quality that comes because you’re accessing the knowledge of non-human beings so that what we think of in the Western world as so deeply personal is in fact collective. The self is so much bigger than in Western confines.”

I find a lot of resonance here with that first mushroom trip. When I told some people afterward about becoming one with plants they told me it was only my imagination. It was fun, but not real. I could easily understand how they were right, but part of me remained—part of me remains—unconvinced; my being, my self merged with the non-me and that loosened sense of self was in every way as real as the relatively constricted one I am most of the time.

If I’m at all right that memoir is about experiencing life as someone else and hopefully learning something about how to live from that experience, is it possible to expand the definition of memoir to include non-human ways of being?

“That’s so interesting because while I don’t read memoir, maybe I do. Because what I love to read is natural history. I love to read the memoirs of non-human beings. That is some of my favorite kind of reading. I do want to know what other lives are like. I love those moments when I can understand the world through a completely different perspective. You know that brain shift, where it’s like, ‘Wow, I see the world in a whole new way.’ And for me that rarely happens through a human lens. What would metamorphosis be like as a butterfly. For me that’s the kind of expansion that attracts me.”

“Does that take practice?” I asked her. “Does it take being in an environment where you have a chance to do that?”

“It’s observing,” she said. “If you watch a butterfly come out of a chrysalis or you watch wind move through the trees—that becomes a story you want to know about. If you’re surrounded by people all the time, of course, human memoir is what would be interesting. But that is very largely not the world I live in. I often joke with people that I can’t remember human names for anything. But I never forget a plant name. They’re somehow more immediate and accessible to me. Maybe because of their differentness, I don’t know. It’s a very different way of perceiving the world. And I think you’re right that you wouldn’t have it unless you spent a lot of time around non-human persons. You wouldn’t even notice them.

“It is tied for me with thinking about the self. I’m so interested in what I think of as the personhood of all beings. The way that we human persons engage in human exceptionalism, saying we’re the interesting ones here. We’re the ones with rights. But for me the rest of the world really is composed of non-human persons and they are just as interesting, if not more, than our own species.”

Cause and effect work both ways. Putting yourself in such environments can teach you how to see differently, but it depends on already seeing differently to value putting yourself there in the first place. On the one hand, there’s learning to see through some other point of view. And on the other, there’s not making that distinction in the first place—not feeling like getting out of the limited human perspective is anything other than the way things are.

“It is as if you come with the assumption of the personhood of all beings you pay attention in a different way. You look for the parables, you look for the lessons of beingness in others.”

“My daughter is so good at reading people. She would be able to tell you everything that’s going on in this room and, I realize, it’s not invisible to me, but I really don’t have that kind of facility. Whereas, if we were sitting out in the maple woods, it would be completely transparent to me who’s doing what. It’s just a different lens. Ability or disability—maybe I have a human disability—but it just is the way the world looks to me.”

When I think about what has been lost in the West along with a religious worldview, one of the things I settle on is ritual, a sense of honoring the sacred and a practice of decentering the selfish concerns that our culture is predicated upon. If memoir can allow us to see through someone else’s eyes—and if nature writing can help us see through non-human “eyes”—can these not, by expanding our empathies, replace some of what has been lost—and is this not a moral and a spiritual good?

“This notion of looking for replacement for religion, looking for deep meaning and connection is so interesting. One of the things I’ve found in the response to Braiding Sweetgrass is how deep is that well of longing for connection in people, to connect to something bigger and feel a part of it. And we just have so few outlets for it anymore. We have so few rituals and ceremonies anymore to connect us.”

“What kind of traditions would we want to pass down?” I asked her. “And without religion behind them, where would they get their gravity?”

“That idea of creating authentic ceremony and authentic relationship with place, we are sort of caught in the middle, we don’t have community, we do have family, but there’s something so powerful about doing it together. And the only place I see it is—and I think about this often—sports teams. You see how people wear what amounts to ceremonial gear, we’re gonna say the same thing, we’re gonna eat this food, we’re gonna come together. All for a ballgame. And I think, wow, what if we could harness that? To me it’s love of ceremony, love of community, but it’s energy misplaced—and, let’s say it, wasted.”

By now Casey O’Neil of Milkweed had joined us and was ready to usher Kimmerer to her next appearance. The timing was fine for me. The Minnesota winter was finally over and I was ready to get out on the lake. I walked a few blocks down the street to Lake Calhoun, where I rented a canoe and paddled through the strait leading to Lake of the Isles. This man-made lake, forming a chain between Calhoun and Cedar Lake, is home to muskrats, turtles, birds, and fish, all readily visible to a patient eye on a sunny day. I drifted out by the islands and examined the logs propped along the shoreline. They crawled with turtles. More than I had ever seen at one time. It had been a hard winter, and the sun felt good on the cold- and warm-blooded alike. I let the canoe rock in the water as I watched the turtles and wondered idly at reciprocity. What is the gift I have to give?

When Kimmerer had mentioned butterflies, I had thought of Chuang Tzu and his dream of being a butterfly—or was it a butterfly dreaming it was Chuang Tzu? As I fell into a light sleep the questions of self and reality lost their hold on me. I floated there on the wisps of consciousness not knowing if I was myself or other, not knowing if I was awake or dreaming, and not particularly minding such distinctions. For the time being there was only experience, the world so far and so close. Some of the turtles plopped into the water, and some remained on the logs swallowing the sun.

Volume 1: Human Contact with Patricia Weaver Francisco

Volume 2: A Tremendous Sense of Purpose with Kao Kalia Yang

Volume 3: I Am Who I Am with Marya Hornbacher

Volume 4: Just the Right Amount of Empathy with Wing Young Huie

Volume 5: Tending Toward Edification with Stephen Batchelor

Volume 6: Ashamed, but Undaunted: Autotheory with Maggie Nelson


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