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The Stories and Languages of Home: A Conversation with Robin W. Kimmerer

In early December, the Center for Culture, History and Environment had the great pleasure of a visit from Dr. Robin W. Kimmerer. Dr. Kimmerer is a Distinguished Teaching Professor at the BraidingRWKSUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, New York. She also serves as the founding Director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment, whose mission is to create programs which draw on the wisdom of both indigenous and scientific knowledge for our shared goals of sustainability. During her visit she spoke at the CHE colloquium about language and the environment, a topic which will be explored in depth during the upcoming CHE Graduate Symposium, E is for Environment. I had the pleasure of speaking to Robin for a few minutes before she flew back to New York.

Listen to our conversation below. A lightly edited transcript follows. 

Heather Swan: Today on Edge Effects we’re talking with Dr. Robin Kimmerer. I’m Heather Swan, a lecturer at UW-Madison. And Dr. Kimmerer is a mother, a plant ecologist, a writer and Distinguished Teaching Professor at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, NY. She serves as the founding director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment, whose mission is to create programs which draw on the wisdom of both indigenous and scientific knowledge for our shared goals of sustainability.

Thank you for being with us. I heard you speaking in a TED talk in 2012, and you talked about the importance of names. You mentioned three words for a small fruit, for which the English name is “strawberry,” then you named the Potowatami name and also the scientific name. You also mentioned that many children can name up to 100 corporate logos but only 10 plants. I was wondering if you could talk about the importance of naming and learning names.

Robin W. Kimmerer: That’s a wonderful question. I feel like we have such a poverty in our language which mirrors a poverty in experience and relationship with the living world, especially plants. For me, not knowing the plants would be like walking down the street and not recognizing a single face and all the signs are in a foreign language. How do you feel at home without knowing who your neighbors are? I think it has real conservation implications as well, because until we understand that these beings are in relationship to us like—like that strawberry, we know what the gifts of that strawberry are, we take care of the strawberry. We have a name for it, whether we call it a strawberry or Fragaria ananassa in botanical Latin or Ode’ imin in our language, which means the heart berry—it doesn’t matter what you call it. To me, it’s the act of naming, the act of paying close enough attention that you could name the organism in whatever idiom is your own.

HS: In many of your talks you also tell wonderful stories and the stories you tell are very important for our historical moment. Can you talk about why stories might be important to you? Because of your own tradition or your life as a scientist?

RWK: Somebody far wiser than I said: “you know what the most effective communication technology ever devised by man is? Everyone always says it must be the internet or the printing press, but I think the answer is: the story.” We are hard-wired for story I think: we remember stories, we fill in between the lines in a way that stories leave us open to create relationships with a narrative. And I think stories are a way of weaving relationships. The other thing that I find powerful about stories, especially after years of writing only technical peer reviewed scientific articles where no story is allowed, is that stories embrace the intellect, physical sense, emotion, and spirit. It’s so holistic. We remember in these powerful ways because each part of our being has been touched. Gary Nabhan has said, as we try to heal the earth with restoration, with ecological restoration, that’s well and good but what we really need to do is re-story-ation. We need to tell ourselves a different story about our relationship to place. That’s where I think creation stories, either from antiquity or the creation stories we are in the process of writing today about our relationship to place, really matter. They can become a compass for us.

HS: That’s wonderful. Would you be willing to share the story about the ritual of sharing berries from one bowl? You had a line that said you shared the berries from one bowl, and you have this belief that there’s one bowl and one spoon. I thought you could tell us that story.

RWK: Yes, the actual phrase of the bowl with one spoon or one bowl, one spoon is an important concept in the Haudenosaunee [also known as the Iroquois] in upstate NY. It’s also manifest in our Potowatami ways. The “one bowl, one spoon” is really a powerful metaphor that helps us think about the earth. That’s the bowl, this wonderful round bowl with berries and fish and water—all the things that we humans need. But it’s one bowl and it’s bounded. So the idea of the one bowl that we all are fed from, the earth—that bowl is finite. So when it is empty, it’s empty. It’s our responsibility to keep it full, so that everyone can be fed. Everyone is not just people though, it’s all the beings of creation. So how we do ensure that the one bowl lasts us? It’s because there’s one spoon. We all eat from the same bowl, and we all use the same spoon. I think it’s a powerful metaphor for justice—that there isn’t a little bitty teaspoon for some people and a great big ladle for other people. These gifts of the earth are shared with us by Shkaakmikwe, Mother Earth.

HS: One of my favorite things that you say is that strawberries have their own intelligences. You suggested that if we imagine nonhuman beings as having these intelligences we would have to act with more reciprocity to them. When you talk about reciprocity, what could be we doing differently that would be a better way of being and enacting gratitude and reciprocity that you talk about so frequently?

RWK: The whole notion of reciprocity is the idea that every being has a gift. But that gift and responsibility are two sides of the same coin. The strawberry was given the gift of juicy red sweetness; it was also given the responsibility to feed certain elements in the community. So asking how we participate in reciprocity is asking “what is our responsibility”—but it’s also asking “what is our gift?” What is the gift of the human people? That’s what we’re called to give in reciprocity, in return for everything that we have been given, more often than not in return for everything we have taken. What is it that we have to give back? The reason I love to think about that in terms of gift and responsibility is that each of us has a different gift. As a parent, as a teacher, as an artist, as a gardener—whatever your gift is, we’re called to give it in return for everything that we’ve been given.

HS: That’s lovely. That’s a wonderful goal for us to remember our gifts and our ability to give back. One of the things that the CHE graduate symposium is organized around this year is what we mean when we use the word “environment.” Are we talking about the same thing when we use that word? Do you have a word you would use? Do you think it’s useful to use the noun “environment” or are there other words that you would offer as being more productive or that would offer more clarity?

RWK: It certainly has become part of our lexicon hasn’t it? But more often than not when people say environment, in the public lexicon anyway, it means environmental problems. Whereas when I think of environment, I certainly think about land, but land in a really holistic way. I suppose the more accurate word for what I’m imagining as environment is actually: home. Home would be the closest word for me, because home is the place that takes care of you but also that you take care of. Home is the place where you enact reciprocity, and home is where you belong.

Featured image: “Fragaria x ananassa” by Forest & Kim Starr, CC BY 3.0.

Dr. Robin W. Kimmerer is a mother, plant ecologist, writer and SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, New York. She serves as the founding Director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment. She is the co-founder and past president of the Traditional Ecological Knowledge section of the Ecological Society of America. Of European and Anishinaabe ancestry, Robin is an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. She is the author of numerous scientific papers on the ecology of mosses and restoration ecology, and is also active in literary biology. Her latest book, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants, was released in 2013. Contact.

Dr. Heather Swan earned a Ph.D. in English and an M.F.A. in poetry from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she is currently teaching environmental literature and writing. Her narrative nonfiction has appeared in ISLE and Aeon, and is forthcoming in Resilience Journal. Her poetry has appeared in many journals including Poet Lore, Basalt, Cream City Review, Green Humanities Review, and is forthcoming in the Raleigh Review. Contact.

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2 Comments

  1. Jennie

    Wonder who was the “wiser one” that said stories are the most effective communication technology is…

  2. neil Edwards

    This is a great piece, such insight and accuracy.

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