At some point, intellectual historians will have to reckon with the phenomenal success of Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. When they do, they may place it among the most important works of its kind, up there with Walden, say, or Silent Spring. Now is probably not the time. First published in 2013, it is at this writing number three on the New York Times bestseller list of non-fiction books in paperback, a list it has appeared on now for 131 weeks.
What accounts for the book’s success? Certainly, a genre exists for lyrical nature writing. But it appears that Braiding Sweetgrass has crossed over to a wider audience. In the midst of this era of multiplying, accelerating crises, there is something emotionally stabilizing about Kimmerer’s book, and I think that can be attributed to her central concept: reciprocity.
Kimmerer is a professor of botany, trained in universities and mainstream science. But her concept of reciprocity comes from her background as a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and her training in Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK). In the creation story with which she begins the book, Skywoman falls from above in a beam of light. The creatures in the darkness catch her, care for her, make for her a home of mud, and she reciprocates with the bundle of seeds she carries in her hand. In this way the earth was made, “not by Skywoman alone, but from the alchemy of all the animals’ gifts coupled with her deep gratitude” (4). An alchemy of reciprocal gifting, in other words—you receive a gift, you’re grateful, and you give a gift, and that creates a bond. Kimmerer later gives this a more systems science description: new arrangements are created, old ones transformed, by a joining of “obligate symbiosis” (343).
Indeed, Kimmerer is braiding together a kind of intellectual symbiosis between TEK and a systems science-informed biology that pushes back against conceptions that have long persisted in popular thinking about life and how it works. We are used to the idea of human life as essentially a struggle against a hostile environment. We are used to the idea that what is exceptional about human beings is that they are inherently ‘out of balance’ with their environment, that some sort of parasitic selfishness is the essence of human nature. In contrast to this, Kimmerer encourages readers to imagine what “beneficial relations” between humans and their environment “might look like” (6). What she describes is less a struggle than a kind of letting go. “A gift comes to you,” Kimmerer writes,
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. (23-24)
This passage comes from a chapter that draws on Lewis Hyde’s 1979 book, The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property. But I’ve heard the theological concept of grace similarly described. Certainly, the familiar transfer of religious ideas to ecological thinking is present in Kimmerer’s language. From the Indigenous perspective, of course, there was never a division between the two. Her TEK is as spiritual as it is empirical.
My father-in-law, wholly secular, a mathematician, used to say that for him a walk in the forest was a sufficient substitute for church. That’s not an unusual sentiment. Familiar too are claims, expressed by many, that they ‘love’ nature, that they love the natural world. The idea of reciprocity provides for the rarer situation; it provides a way to conceive of nature as, in Kimmerer’s words, receiving people’s love and loving people back (122). If you’re going to think of yourself in a reciprocal relationship with an ecosystem in the way Kimmerer means it, you’re going to have to allow yourself to think about ecosystems as having spirits—or minds—of their own. You’re going to have to partake in some animism.
That’s asking a lot. For many secularists and religious folk alike, that’s taking a step onto uncomfortable ground. “How, in our modern world,” Kimmerer asks, “can we find our way to understand the earth as a gift again, to make our relations with the world sacred again?” (31).
She answers by telling stories. Some are personal stories about her experiences with her children in the garden or with her students in the woods. Others, like the story of Skywoman, are Indigenous myths, repurposed for the present day. For Kimmerer, these myths are important and relevant to our moment because they come from a time when people could still hear and interpret the teachings of “other species,” especially plants. The wisdom of plants, she writes, is
apparent in the way that they live. They teach us by example. They’ve been on the earth far longer than we have been, and have had time to figure things out. They live both above and below ground, joining Skyworld to the earth. Plants know how to make food and medicine from light and water, and then give it away.
Plants know, in other words, how to live reciprocally, and “we need to learn to listen.”
Behind this prescription is a direct case for narrative as the primary method of conveying the foundational ideas that shape a society’s imaginary. Drawing on Gary Nabhan’s construction, Kimmerer describes her project of ecological restoration as “re-story-ation.” Our relationship with the land we live on is “broken” because the dominant story we tell about it is in error. That story was brought by the immigrants from Europe to justify their domination, and it continues to inform our institutional structures and shape our responses to crisis (9-10, 31).
Kimmerer is not alone in this viewpoint. Agreement about the source and the time of the wrong-turning is widespread among those scholars concerned with ecological breakdown, mass extinctions, global warming—those scholars who see these matters as the meta-crisis, the broader habitat, so to speak, in which our political and social ills are nested, nurtured, and grow.
Writing these words brings to mind a video clip presented at one of the hearings on the January 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol. This clip showed long-time, right-wing Republican Party operative Roger Stone taking the official oath for some militant organization. “I am a Western chauvinist,” Stone vowed, “and I refuse to apologize for creating the Modern World.” The way this militant group has chosen to articulate and perform the debate is crude, narrow, and toxic. Still, the group’s general reading of the history aligns, at least in broad terms, with those scholars who associate the de-legitimization of animist belief systems and the advancement and institutionalization of an extreme dualism with the rise of the modern world and the philosophies of the West.
Kimmerer, for her part, defends the practice of Western science. She defends its practitioners, for whom the actual work of science—of “revealing the world through rational inquiry”—is an “often humbling” and “deeply spiritual pursuit.” But Kimmerer makes a distinction between scientific practice and “the scientific worldview.” The latter uses the products of science and technology “to reinforce reductionist, materialist, economic and political agendas.” The scientific worldview is destructive because it sustains “the illusion of control” and “the separation of knowledge and responsibility.” Kimmerer’s “dream” is that “the revelations of science framed with an Indigenous worldview” will lead to “stories in which matter and spirit are both given voice” (345-46).
Who will tell these stories, Kimmerer asks (9). For me, someone who has invested so much time and much of his living in hearing, reading, and thinking about stories, that’s the intriguing question. What are these stories and where are they? Who will tell them? Who is telling them?
A version of this essay appeared in Society for US Intellectual History.