Sweetgrass

This Wednesday morning, I leave for Morocco.  People often ask why we should travel to foreign countries.  “There’s so much beauty our own country we have yet to see,” they point out.  My reply has long been that, for me, the best thing about travel is finding places as different as possible from what I’ve grown accustomed to.  My default condition is that I’ve evolved to follow paths of least resistance – which is to say, I act  like a river, rolling downhill within the banks, powered by my own inertia.  I like travel best when it forces us me out of such ruts.

I’ve written before about the concept Daniel Kahneman calls WYSIATS, the illusion that “what you see is all there is.”  Kahneman describes “the remarkable asymmetry between the ways our mind treats information that is currently available and information we do not have.”  That’s why I love astronomers and astrophysicists so much: keenly aware of how vast the universe is, they’re constantly reminded how little information is currently available.  They talk about the huge unanswered questions.  They point to things they believed five years ago, only to learn they were wrong.  Traveling within my own country, just like reading the books of my own culture or conversing only with folks who share my religion or my politics, ensures that I will continue to base my understanding of reality on that tiny fraction of facts I can actually see – the facts I have always seen, because they share my rut.

A good friend of mine asks why I spend more time questioning the precepts of Christianity, capitalism, and American democracy than I do the precepts of Buddhism, communism, or the United Republic of Tanzania.  It’s not because I favor other systems or countries over those in which I’ve been raised.  On the contrary, it is because I see the greatest danger of falling into the WYSIATI rut with respect to the inherited beliefs I’ve spent a lifetime immersed in, unless I question them.  (And I have faith that whatever’s good in them will stand up just fine to my scrutiny.)

It is because of this that I have been so moved by Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass (Milkweed, 2013).  Reading it challenged not just my ideas about capitalism, ecology, and science, but the underlying ethics of everything I believe. 

The book may not present a panacea for the ills of the world.  But it did strike at the roots of my belief in Christianity, Democracy, Capitalism, the Enlightenment, Private Property, Western Science – all the basic systems of American thought that have claimed me as one of their own.  And the ironic thing is that I didn’t have to travel to Jupiter to get it, or even to Morocco – Kimmerer is a native American.  Her message is native American.  It grows from the roots of the land I’ve always called home.

So I write not to argue that Kimmerer’s views about science, economics, etc. are right, or better, than those I’ve grown up with.  Just that they are very different – and therefore, for me, profoundly thought provoking.  I especially love how she ties the way she thinks to her native American creation story.  I’d never realized how much the story of Adam and Eve – first heard, I suspect, when I was still wearing diapers – explains the rest of the world in which I’ve been living, and thereby forms the foundation of everything about my relationship to it.

In Kimmerer’s traditional native American creation story, Skywoman finds herself falling from someone unknown place high up in the sky.  She is saved from a death-splat on the hard earth when a gaggle of geese fly up to meet her and break her fall.  One by one, the other animals welcome and seek to help her.  She ends up feeling a debt of gratitude to them, a responsibility to reciprocate.  She plants a garden with which to help feed the other animals.  Skywoman, in this creation story, is a newcomer who learns about the world from other living things, creatures who have been here far longer than she has, creatures who have much wisdom to impart.

How different is the story of Genesis, of God creating the whole world just for Man, telling him that he is made in the very image of God, that his wisdom is second only to God’s.  How different is Genesis, in which Man is charged with giving names to the animals, than the native American story of Nanabozho, in which Man is charged with the responsibility of learning the names of the plants and animals around him.  How different is our Judaeo-Christian teaching that other living things have been provided for us to put to our own uses.  How different the idea that we are here on earth as mere temporary visitors, briefly passing through on our way to eternal homes in Heaven, at the right hand of God.

As every landlord knows, temporary renters sometimes think differently than residents whose children will live in their homes for generations to come.  Not surprisingly, when we think of ourselves as recent arrivals in a world populated by others for millennia, we may end up thinking differently than if we see ourselves as owners of a place where everything else has been put here just for us, and which we will soon be leaving. 

In the Judaeo-Christian creation story, everything from the sun and the stars was created in just seven days, and Man – created that first week – has been at the top of the heap for thousands of years since.  How different when we think of a Universe that is fourteen billion years old, into which homo sapiens made his appearance in the last ten millionth of that time.   As Kimmerer says, the Skywoman story captures the idea that “we humans are the newest arrivals on earth, the youngsters, just learning to find our way.”

The implications of the native American worldview for ecology may resound more with some (like me) than with others.  Personally, I sense a kindred spirit when Kimmerer asks me to imagine an America focused less on a Bill of Rights and more on a Bill of Responsibilities.  I suspect many of my spiritually-inclined friends would smile with me when Kimmerer – a scientist – writes critically of the “unblinking assumption that science has cornered the market on truth,” or observes that “[w]e are all the product of our worldviews – even scientists who claim pure objectivity.”

But what I find most alluring is how Kimmerer portrays the native American mindset as steeped in humility. 

 After describing vast and complex communications among the trees in a forest – communications that Western science is only beginning to understand –  Kimmerer writes, “There is so much we cannot yet sense with our limited human capacity.  Tree conversations are still far above our heads.”

And, “[A]s a scientist, I am well aware of how little we do know.”

And, “We Americans are reluctant to learn a foreign language of our own species, let alone another species. But imagine the possibilities. Imagine the access we would have to different perspectives, the things we might see through other eyes, the wisdom that surrounds us.  We don’t have to figure out everything by ourselves: there are intelligences other than our own, teachers all around us… We have an opportunity to learn from them, to understand ourselves as students of nature, not the masters.  The very best scientists are humble enough to listen… [I]t takes humility to learn from other species.” 

Indeed – doesn’t it take humility to learn from other religious traditions, from other political parties, from other anything?  Quite often, as I read Braiding Sweetgrass, I found myself wondering whether I was stretching Kimmerer’s points too far, to support my own views.  Kimmerer was thinking of other species when she wrote, “Trying to understand the life of another being or another system so unlike our own is often humbling and, for many scientists, is a deeply spiritual pursuit.”  I found myself applying that same sentiment to understanding members of our own species in political discourse.  So too with another of her observations: Kimmerer describes being out in the rain, observing and listening, but I read more into her statement: “Paying attention acknowledges that we have something to learn from intelligences other than our own.  Listening, standing witness, creates an openness to the world in which the boundaries between us can dissolve in a raindrop.”

I recommend Braiding Sweetgrass. There was a great deal in it that I will never be able to forget.  And as I look forward to Morocco, I am especially looking forward to the night we will spend in the tent, in the Sahara, where the dryness of the desert will have removed so much moisture from the air, making the sky clear.  It’s supposed to provide one of the best views of the Milky Way from anywhere on earth. 

I hope to be awestruck, humbled by the vastness of things unknown.

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2 thoughts on “Sweetgrass”

  1. Joe — I always wanted to spend some time with one of those desert tribes. Is that the Tuareg, where you will be? Enjoy your time outside the tent under the stars, maybe a little wood smoke in the air, with soft grunts from resting camels to remind you are still here on earth.

    Or, maybe it will be smoke from burning dung, and the camels will be snarling. My notions are from books, but you will be there which is your point entirely. Whatever it turns out to be, have a great time.

    Phil M

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