Botanist and author discusses human-plant relationships

SUNY ESF botany professor and author of “Braided Sweetgrass” Robin W Kimmerer gave a lecture at Vassar on Wednesday, Feb. 15. / Yifan Wang for The Miscellany News

For Robin W Kimmerer, plants are some of her oldest friends and wisest teachers.

Growing up in upstate New York as a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, Kimmerer’s childhood memories were marked by her friendships and interactions with plants. “I grew up with plants. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t hanging out with plants, learning from them and having fun with them. And so when it was time to go to college, I knew I had to study botany,” she shared with the Vassar community during her lecture last Wednesday, Feb. 15.

In the dim classroom, an image of braided sweet grass was illuminated on the screen. Everyone seemed intrigued by Kimmerer’s story.

She continued, “I walked into my freshman interview and my advisor asked me why I wanted to study botany. I said I want to know why asters and goldenrod look so beautiful together. But he told me that this is not science, and if I wanted to know about such things, I should go to art school…I was crushed. It was my life-long dream to study botany, but I was told on day one, ‘you don’t belong here; the questions that you think are important don’t belong here.’”

Nonetheless, Kimmerer completed her degree, mastered the vocabulary and methodology of Western sciences, and became a distinguished botanist and professor at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry. While she deeply appreciates and acknowledges the value and significance of sciences, she never forgot the other kind of wisdom she learned from her elders, her land and her plants.

“From the indigenous paradigm, I learned to understand plants as persons, as beings and as companions, as relatives, as family, relate to nature as a subject relates to another subject, and think of the ecosystem as a community of sovereign persons,” Kimmerer said.

While Western sciences remain the dominant and privileged mode of knowledge in the field of environmental studies, botany and many other disciplines, the uncovering and inclusion of other ways of thinking and being is receiving increasing attention in the academic landscape. Director of Environmental Studies and Associate Professor of Chemistry Stuart Belli pointed to the meaning and significance of such alternatives.

“I believe Robbin’s views are still very much outside the mainstream of ‘Western science.’ But that is where environmental studies has a role (in my opinion)–to bridge between the perspective of Western science and a deeper consciousness that is excluded from our perspective. Her writing, her book, ‘Braiding Sweetgrass,’ takes us out of the dominant perspective so we can then see that there are other ways of thinking about nature,” Belli commented.

With a conception of plants and living beings drastically distinct and unfamiliar, it’s perhaps not surprising that Kimmerer also has in mind an understanding of human-nature relationship that is radically different and inspiring.

“How many of you are familiar with the ways in which people and nature are a bad mix, their negative interactions?” She asked. Almost everyone raised their hands.

“How many of you, then, are fluent with the mutually beneficial relationship between people and the land?” Far fewer hands were up.

“How is it that we have arrived at this state of inability that we can’t even imagine what a truly mutualistic relationship between people and the rest of beings? If we can’t imagine what it would be like to be givers and not just consumers, the question becomes how do we enact our material and spiritual responsibility to reciprocate the gift nature has given us?”

“One of the ways to do that is to pay attention to plants,” Kimmerer suggested. According to her, paying attention to plants means respecting them as an active, moral being with agency, rather than objectifying them with strictly scientific terms and excluding them from moral considerations.

In certain parts of the world, people are already living out such principles. Kimmerer noted, “The indigenous government of both Bolivia and Ecuador translated their indigenous worldview into the law and into constitutions of those countries: Mother Nature has rights.” She also pointed to the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth as a gesture that recognizes the personhood of non-human beings.

Ultimately, Kimmerer would like to see a braiding of scientific knowledge and indigenous knowledge, a symbiosis of two different, yet complementary ways of thinking, living and being. “Through science, through the act of looking into a microscope and finding out what went on inside these plants, I came to love and honor them even more now. [For me,] science magnified the beauty of plants, and deepened my relationship with them … The traditional knowledge and the scientific knowledge are like the purple and gold of asters and goldenrod. We learn so much more when the two come together.” she said.

Lydia Gold ’17, one of the organizers who invited Kimmerer to campus, read her work in a seminar last semester and became especially interested in how she deconstructs the frequently stark contrast between science and narratives within environmental studies. “In light of standing rock and Cochabamba water wars and things like that, there’s not really narratives behind that scientific side of climate change … In order to get more people interested and to have more voices heard, we felt that hearing stories…would really be more powerful and help make the scientific aspect more salient,” she shared her thoughts after the talk.

Gold continued, “Her work really shatters the view that science is always more important than narratives, humanities and social dimensions of environmental issues. Although scientific work is important, it is also really significant to pay attention to the aspects that you can’t exactly quantify in numbers.”

Beyond the field of environmental studies, the lecture is endeavored to establish and promote a stronger Native presence on campus. Co-President of Native American and Indigenous Student Alliance Monica Martinez thinks that a lecture about environmental studies may have helped increase people’s awareness of indigenous communities. “That’s important since most of those students aren’t really exposed to indigenous studies, especially not indigenous scientific knowledge. I hope that lectures like this will help change the way that people view Native issues and peoples.”

She continued, “There’s a tendency to dismiss indigenous knowledge as ‘hippy’ but I think Kimmerer’s lecture disproved that and showed how indigenous scientific knowledge can actually work alongside western science in a way that’s beneficial for everyone … It also think it helped get NAISA and NAS on more people’s radar. Hopefully more collaborations and Native-centered events will come in the future.”

According to Martinez, Vassar’s effort to recruit and admit greater numbers of indigenous students has been wanting. “[We hope to] make Vassar and the Admissions more aware of how important and urgent it is for them to admit more Native students. Right now for Class of 2017, there are zero listed Native students even though Brennan [McDaniel ’17] and I both checked the Native box (and always have)…there’s one student in ’18, one in ’19, and one in ’20. That’s it.”

Later in the evening, Kimmerer concluded her talk by giving thanks in the language of Potawatomi, perhaps reminding us of not only the responsibility to appreciate and respect the gifts we receive from nature, and to contribute our parts back to the land, but also the significance to recognize and promote the presence of Native culture in academia and beyond.

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