An Essential Conversation

I just read the transcript of an essential conversation between Krista Tippett and Robin Wall Kimmerer. If you listen to or read just one episode of Tippett’s brilliant series of conversations, let it be this.

It sent me back to the talk I gave at the Monadnock Summer Lyceum in 2011 wherein I said:

What happens to us spiritually when we perceive our kindred creatures as commodities instead of an interwoven thread in the fabric of Creation? What happens when we forget that how we live is neither representative nor sustainable?

Now is the time to recall human existence prior to conceiving ourselves exclusively as the knowers, before we relegated our co-inhabitants to the status of that which can be known. When we acknowledge our fellow creatures as capable of assembling and utilizing information about us and the rest of life, everything becomes everybeing.

We relish our -ologies: anthropology, climatology, psychology, zoology—but that doesn’t mean we’re unique in our capacity to observe, detect, experience the beingness of others. What distinguishes us is that our inquiry objectifies; we pursue knowledge in order to dominate—and in so doing, cleave ourselves from who, what and how we study.

Kimmerer said:

One of the difficulties of moving in the scientific world is that when we name something, often with a scientific name, this name becomes almost an end to inquiry. We sort of say, well, we know it now. We’re able to systematize it and put a Latin binomial on it, so it’s ours. We know what we need to know. But that is only in looking, of course, at the morphology of the organism, at the way that it looks. It ignores all of its relationships. It’s such a mechanical, wooden representation of what a plant really is. And we reduce them tremendously if we just think about them as physical elements of the ecosystem.

She goes on to note that the language of sustainability

is pretty limited. If something is going to be sustainable, its ability to provide for us will not be compromised into the future. And that’s all a good thing. But at its heart, sustainability, the way we think about it, is embedded in this worldview that we, as human beings, have some ownership over these, what we call, resources, and that we want the world to be able to continue to keep — that human beings can keep taking and keep consuming.

The notion of reciprocity is really different from that. It’s an expansion from that, because what it says is that our role as human people is not just to take from the earth, and the role of the earth is not just to provide for our single species. So reciprocity actually kind of broadens this notion to say that not only does the earth sustain us, but that we have the capacity and the responsibility to sustain her in return. So it broadens the notion of what it is to be a human person, not just a consumer. And there’s such joy in being able to do that, to have it be a mutual flourishing instead of the more narrow definition of sustainability so that we can just keep on taking.

That reminds me of what I wrote in 2011:

When we become the vast cataloguers of other beings, trading the terms of endearment for classifications, we relinquish an intimacy both sustaining and spiritual. While it is impressive and perhaps useful to know the Latin names of species, consider what we often forget about trees. How our very lives depend on them. That we inhale oxygen they expel while they filter the carbon we emit. Every moment of our lives is a French kiss. But instead of treating the trees as our beloved we view them as forests to manage, timber to cut.

I don’t mean to sentimentalize here. I heat with wood. And a score ago when told to ask for help from a God of my understanding, I could conceive only of the trees, who I so effortlessly believed in. Easily I prayed to the great beings who towered above, who dwelt for centuries, whose autumnal canopies arrested me with their beauty and instructed me in the grace of letting go. So what does it mean to burn the beings I so reverently behold?

It deepens a relationship to pray to what we fell.

It’s why our ancient agrarian forebears blessed the animals they hunted, the trees they cut, the earth they tilled. It’s why contemporary indigenous people still do. Blessing, as the healer and writer Rachel Naomi Remen puts it, occurs in relationship when we recognize and acknowledge each other’s true nature and inherent worth.

When we recognize a kindred spirit within kindred being, we uplift ourselves. We engage in tikkun olam, mending the rent fabric of Creation.

Here’s the bio blurb for Robin Wall Kimmerer from On Being:  “State University of New York Distinguished Teaching Professor at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse. She is founding director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment. Her books includeGathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses and Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants.”

To encounter this understanding of conversation articulated by Kimmerer thrills me:

There is an ancient conversation going on between mosses and rocks, poetry to be sure.…And it’s a conversation that takes place at a pace that we humans, especially we contemporary humans who are rushing about, we can’t even grasp the pace at which that conversation takes place. And so thinking about plants as persons, indeed, thinking about rocks as persons, forces us to shed our idea of the only pace that we live in is the human pace. And it’s, I think, very, very exciting to think about these ways of being which happen on completely different scales, and so exciting to think about what we might learn from them.

In a week where political discourse has desecrated human sentience, I am encouraged, enlivened and restored by turning instead to the conversation between moss and stone.