Part 1

Where do we come from?  

What are we?

Where are we going? 

Where do we come from?

What are we?

Where are we going? 

It is the human condition, worldwide: to be coming from someplace which has filled you with stories about how the world works, what things mean, what is right and what is wrong; and to be on the way to the next place, to know that all is not well and that the world is hurting including you, to wonder how the future might be better than the past. 

The human condition is the journey, and may it not be one which merely recreates past suffering and brokenness, but enables healing and greater wholeness for more people and more beings. 

This is Robin Wall Kimmerer’s fundamental purpose, in her book Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. Originally published in 2010, it’s become a word-of-mouth publishing wonder, with more than 1.4 million copies in print and audio, and it’s been translated into nearly 20 languages. 

It is our privilege here at West Shore to spend an entire program year exploring and absorbing its wisdom.  

Did you hear that Kimmerer was recently named a MacArthur fellow, a recipient of the “genius grant”?

She is a genius. Our year-long-study of her book—your time spent reading it—will be worth it. 

So we begin. Hello Robin Wall Kimmerer, from West Shore. Let’s be introduced to each other. Let’s grow closer together. 

To help with this, listen to a story that comes from a creative writing workshop from 30 years ago, led by my poetry professor from the time, Professor Paul Christensen. He began that poetry workshop with this story: 

Ever since I was a schoolboy, teachers would single me out for shaming when I was caught carried away by a daydream, or some trail of small thoughts leading me far away from the classroom. I usually had no response to the question that was posed, like “Who is the father of our country?”; I must have stammered and then fallen silent, while the best student would shout out the answer to clapping and sighs of envy. I had no idea that I was being taught how to suppress the “little voices” in my head. I was told there was only one “big voice” to obey, the one that was shaped by the rules of educational philosophy, by the teacher’s humorless demand that we all look forward with blank stares while she lectured to us. My eyes would glaze over as I pretended to listen, but I was drifting again, sailing over the desk tops, the heads of my fellow students, the long face of the teacher as she repeated a lesson she had drilled into us days ago. Eventually, the big voice took over, and I was able to pay attention without being distracted. But I didn’t realize that I had become obedient to the point of living in an eerie silence, cut off from the comforting babble inside my head. It would be years before I would try to revive those lost voices that had taken me for tours of the universe.

And that’s the story, carrying the key distinction meant to help orient us as we start to get to know Braiding Sweetgrass: The Big Voice of authority, of the teacher, and yes, of the approval of peers who clap and sigh with envy when the best student shouts out the right answers—this singular, dominant voice, which demands single-minded obedience and which wields shame or worse to control people, vs. the little voices which are non-dominant, coming in from the margins, not valuable according to the standards of the Big Voice but bringing different values, different ways of sensing and seeing….

Can you relate? Are you already familiar with the Big Voice? And if there are no other voices you hear, just “eerie silence,” what does that say about the thoroughness of the dominant culture that has socialized you?  

Robin Wall Kimmerer shares story after story like this in her book, in which the Big Voice conflicts with the little voices of wisdom coming to her from her Native American family and from her life experience. One story has to do with strawberries. “Farmers around us,” she says, “grew a lot of strawberries and frequently hired kids to pick for them. My siblings and I would ride our bikes a long way to Crandall’s farm to pick berries to earn spending money. A dime for every quart we picked. But Mrs. Crandall was a persnickety overseer. She stood at the edge of the field in her bib apron and instructed us how to pick and warned us not to crush any berries. She had other rules, too. ‘These berries belong to me,’ she said, ‘not to you. I don’t want to see you kids eating my berries.’ I knew the difference: In the fields behind my house, the berries belonged to themselves. At this lady’s roadside stand, she sold them for sixty cents a quart.” 

Mrs. Crandall’s voice here is the Big Voice of what we might call dominant American culture, inscribed in no less than the Constitution which says explicitly, “nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation.” Yet Kimmerer hears the little voices still. They allow her to step back and wonder about the whole private property worldview. She says, “It’s funny how the nature of an object — let’s say a strawberry or a pair of socks — is so changed by the way it has come into your hands, as a gift or as a commodity. The pair of wool socks that I buy at the store, red and gray striped, are warm and cozy. I might feel grateful for the sheep that made the wool and the worker who ran the knitting machine. I hope so. But I have no inherent obligation to those socks as a commodity, as private property. There is no bond beyond the politely exchanged ‘thank yous’ with the clerk. I have paid for them and our reciprocity ended the minute I handed her the money. The exchange ends once parity has been established, an equal exchange. They become my property. I don’t write a thank-you note to JCPenney. But what if those very same socks, red and gray striped, were knitted by any grandmother and given to me as a gift? That changes everything. A gift creates ongoing relationship. I will write a thank-you note. I will take good care of them and if I am a very gracious grandchild I’ll wear them when she visits even if I don’t like them. When it’s her birthday, I will surely make her a gift in return.”

Kimmerer says that the story about Mrs. Crandall’s strawberries was “was quite a lesson in economics. […] Of course those berries were ten times bigger than our wild ones, but not nearly so good. I don’t believe we ever put those farm berries in Dad’s shortcake. It wouldn’t have felt right.”

Do you see why it wouldn’t have felt right?

Has Kimmerer’s story reignited some of your own little voices?

Again and again, in story after story, Kimmerer illustrates the confrontation of the Big Voice of dominant American culture with the little voices of contrary wisdom which, she contends, are where our true salvation lies. “For the greater part of human history, and in places in the world today,” she says, “common resources were the rule. But some invented a different story, a social construct in which everything is a commodity to be bought and sold. The market economy story has spread like wildfire, with uneven results for human well-being and devastation for the natural world. But it is just a story we have told ourselves and we are free to tell another, to reclaim the old one.”

Yes! The Big Voice is just a story we are telling ourselves, but there are other voices to be heard…. 

She definitely wants her college students to hear them, for she is concerned by how it seems the Big Voice has them in its grip. “One otherwise unremarkable morning,” she says, I gave the students in my General Ecology class a survey. Among other things, they were asked to rate their understanding of the negative interactions between humans and the environment. Nearly every one of the two hundred students said confidently that humans and nature are a bad mix. These were third-year students who had selected a career in environmental protection, so the response was, in a way, not very surprising. They were well schooled in the mechanics of climate change, toxins in the land and water, and the crisis of habitat loss. Later in the survey, they were asked to rate their knowledge of positive interactions between people and land. The median response was ‘none.’” Kimmerer goes on to say that she was “stunned.” “How is it possible that in twenty years of education they cannot think of any beneficial relationships between people and the environment?” “How can we begin to move towards ecological and cultural sustainability if we cannot even imagine what the path feels like??”

You see, that Big Voice according to which the land, together with plants and animals, is potentially private property to be bought and sold and used as its owner sees fit is also a Big Voice of alienation from the natural world. 

They are the same Big Voice. 

The same Big Voice that spoke into the ears of Christopher Columbus and all the early explorers who operated according to the Doctrine of Discovery, which gave spiritual, political, and legal justification for colonization and seizure of land not inhabited by Christians. 

The same Big Voice that shouted into the ears of American settlers and political leaders, who, in the 19th century, pressed Kimmerer’s American Indian ancestors into a forced migration trail of tears and death–removed from their native lands in the Great Lakes region, to Kansas, and then to Oklahoma. 

The same Big Voice that called for the rounding up of native children (including her grandfather) to go to government boarding schools whose purpose was to erase their culture, silence all the little voices of their Indian identity—to silence every one. 

This Big Voice: it’s been around for a long time. It is, above all, the Big Voice rumbling through the story of Adam and Eve in the Hebrew Bible. “Like creation stories everywhere,” says Kimmerer, cosmologies are a source of identity and orientation to the world. They tell us who we are.” Absolutely. And what does the Adam and Eve story say? That we have been disobedient and banished from the goodness of the Garden. That we need to learn to obey the Big Voice better. That we have been condemned to earn our way in life through the sweat of our efforts, as we dominate and subdue an ultimately unfriendly and uncaring wilderness. That the world is a vale of tears, and we are just passing through on our way to our true home in heaven. 

This is the Big Voice that rumbles and resounds through our American culture and beyond. 

This is it. 

Moving forward, we must decenter this Big Voice. 

We must remember and center the little voices. 

We must, we must. 

Where do we come from?  

What are we?

Where are we going? 

Where do we come from?

What are we?

Where are we going? 

Part 2

Where do we come from?  

What are we?

Where are we going? 

Where do we come from?

What are we?

Where are we going? 

Braiding Sweetgrass begins like the Hebrew and Christian Bible begins—with a creation story. But it is not the Big Voice. It is so unlike the Big Voice. Braiding Sweetgrass’ creation story (see below) is the story of Skywoman who “fell like a maple seed, pirouetting on an autumn breeze,” down, down, down into dark water below. “But in that emptiness there were many eyes gazing up at the sudden shaft of light.” These are the eyes of the geese. The eyes of loons, of otters, of swans, of beavers, of fish of all kinds. The eyes of a great turtle. Skywoman falls, and she is received by a community of animal intelligences whose wisdom is ancient and far exceeds hers. She is helpless in her falling, but the wise animals understand what she needs even though she does not: she needs land for her home. Like a democratic gathering, they reflect together on how they might secure land, concluding with a resolution by the deep divers among them that they will secure a bit of mud at the bottom of the water and bring that back. 

Now—this is radical! This picture of the beginning of all things! 

Be warned: the little voices are speaking. The little voices which enrage the Big Voice, and which the Big Voice wants to exterminate! 

Listen, nevertheless….

…to the little voices suggesting that humans are not the “pinnacle of evolution–the darling of creation—and the plants [and animals] at the bottom.”  

Kimmerer speaks for these little voices when she says in her book, “But in Native ways of knowing, human people are often referred to as ‘the younger brothers of Creation.’ We say that humans have the least experience with how to live and thus the most to learn—we must look to our teachers among the other species for guidance. Their wisdom is apparent in the way 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.” 

The little voices speak! 

And there’s more. Muskrat dives to the bottom of the water, dives, dives, and is gone for a long while. Eventually he surfaces but he is dead—he has given his life for Skywoman. And in his paw they find a small handful of mud. Turtle then says, “Here, put it on my back and I will hold it.” At which point “Skywoman bent and spread the mud with her hands across the shell of the turtle.”

Press pause. What is going on here? This is utterly foreign to the Big Voice focus on land and plants and animals being mere private property with which the human owners can do whatever they want. This is utterly foreign to Kimmerer’s college students, who can’t for the life of them imagine any beneficial relationships between people and the environment. 

This is absolutely no story of banishment, alienation, and domination. What we have here instead is a story about co-creation, partnership, reciprocity. Humans and the land in beneficial relationship. 

And so: 

“Moved by the extraordinary gifts of the animals, [Skywoman] sang in thanksgiving and then began to dance, her feet caressing the earth. The land grew and grew as she danced her thanks, from the dab of mud on Turtle’s back until the whole earth was made. Not by Skywoman alone, but from the alchemy of all the animals’ gifts coupled with her deep gratitude. Together they formed what we know today as Turtle Island, our home.”

And this is how the earth came to be–how we came to be. This is who we are and also what we may yet become, if we can listen more carefully to the little voices of a wisdom that can rescue us from the insanity of the Big Voice. 

There is so much more. I’m grateful we will be able to spend a year exploring Braiding Sweetgrass. But right now, here is what I want to say. With every sermon installment in this series, I am going to suggest a concrete action you can take that helps you, in your day-to-day life, to recreate the original partnership relationship between Skywoman and the land. That helps you recreate the sense of thanksgiving and love that caused Skywoman to dance. 

Here is this month’s action, and it’s simply about spending more time in the natural world. Just this. Be more in your garden. Be more in our Cleveland Metroparks. Be more in some wilderness setting. It’s about strengthening your personal relationship with the land. 

Kimmerer explains why the personal relationship issue is important, with another story about her college students: 

For years, I taught General Botany in a lecture hall with slides and diagrams and stories of plants that could not fail to inflame the enthusiasm of eighteen-year-olds for the marvels of photosynthesis. How could they be anything but elated to learn how roots find their way through the soil, sitting on the edge of their seats waiting to hear more about pollen? The sea of blank looks suggested that most of them found this as interesting as, literally, watching grass grow. When I would wax eloquent about the grace with which a bean seedling pushes its way up in the spring, the first row would eagerly nod their heads and raise their hands while the rest of the class slept.

In a fit of frustration, I asked for a show of hands: “How many of you have ever grown anything?”

Every hand in the front row went up, and there were a few half hearted waves from the back from someone whose mother had an African violet that had died a withering death. Suddenly I understood their boredom. I was teaching from memory, drawing on images of plant lives that I had witnessed over the years. The green images I thought we shared as human beings were not theirs, thanks to the supplanting of gardens by supermarkets. The front-row students had seen these things as well and wanted to know how such everyday miracles were possible. But most of the class had no experience of seeds and soil, had never watched a flower transform itself into an apple. 

In other words, how can her students even begin to establish beneficial relationships with nature if there is no personal connection involved? How can anyone’s environmental activism have integrity if love is not at the center? 

“The circle of ecological compassion is enlarged by direct experience of the living world, and shrunken by its lack.”

So this month, remember the animal and plant community that was there far before Skywoman entered in on the scene. Each animal, each plant, represents a little voice that can speak its wisdom to you, which it does by example. “They’ve been on the earth far longer than we have been, and have had time to figure things out.” 

I hope for you genuine moments of connection and delight. 

May you dance like Skywoman, with beautiful wise little voices in your head, because–

you’ve come home. 



Creation story from Braiding Sweetgrass, by Robin Wall Kimmerer:

She fell like a maple seed, pirouetting on an autumn breeze. A column of light streamed from a hole in the Skyworld, marking her path where only darkness had been before. It took her a long time to fall. In fear, or maybe hope, she clutched a bundle tightly in her hand. 

Hurtling downward, she saw only dark water below. But in that emptiness there were many eyes gazing up at the sudden shaft of light. They saw there a small object, a mere dust mote in the beam. As it grew closer, they could see that it was a woman, arms outstretched, long black hair billowing behind as she spiraled toward them. 

The geese nodded at one another and rose together from the water in a wave of goose music. She felt the beat of their wings as they flew beneath to break her fall. Far from the only home she’d ever known, she caught her breath at the warm embrace of soft feathers as they gently carried her downward. And so it began. 

The geese could not hold the woman above the water for much longer, so they called a council to decide what to do. Resting on their wings, she saw them all gather: loons, otters, swans, beavers, fish of all kinds. A great turtle floated in their midst and offered his back for her to rest upon. Gratefully, she stepped from the goose wings onto the dome of his shell. The others understood that she needed land for her home and discussed how they might serve her need. The deep divers among them had heard of mud at the bottom of the water and agreed to go find some. 

Loon dove first, but the distance was too far and after a long while he surfaced with nothing to show for his efforts. One by one, the other animals offered to help—Otter, Beaver, Sturgeon—but the depth, the darkness, and the pressures were too great for even the strongest of swimmers. They returned gasping for air with their heads ringing. Some did not return at all. Soon only little Muskrat was left, the weakest diver of all. He volunteered to go while the others looked on doubtfully. His small legs flailed as he worked his way downward and he was gone a very long time. 

They waited and waited for him to return, fearing the worst for their relative, and, before long, a stream of bubbles rose with the small, limp body of the muskrat. He had given his life to aid this helpless human. But then the others noticed that his paw was tightly clenched and, when

they opened it, there was a small handful of mud. Turtle said, ‘Here, put it on my back and I will hold it.’ 

Skywoman bent and spread the mud with her hands across the shell of the turtle. Moved by the extraordinary gifts of the animals, she sang in thanksgiving and then began to dance, her feet caressing the earth. The land grew and grew as she danced her thanks, from the dab of mud on Turtle’s back until the whole earth was made. Not by Skywoman alone, but from the alchemy of all the animals’ gifts coupled with her deep gratitude. Together they formed what we know today as Turtle Island, our home.