Where do we come from
What are we
Where are we going?
Where do we come from
What are we
Where are we going?
The Big Voice of dominant American culture is more than ready to tell us. It’s more than ready.
It tells us that the status quo is just fine.
It tells us that humanity is broken and the world would be better off without us.
You heard me right. The Big Voice shouts out of both sides of its mouth. The Big Voice declares one thing then, in the same moment, declares the opposite.
Take the ”status quo is just fine” pronouncement: this refers to how people generally know that you can’t treat other people as things. When you deal with people, there must be respect. But if it’s things we’re talking about, you can do what you want with them and the only constraint is whether those things belong to some other person. You just can’t take another person’s things. As Robin Wall Kimmerer affirms, “If you’re visiting your sweet grandma and she offers you homemade cookies on her favorite china plate, you know what to do. […] You gratefully take what has been given. But you wouldn’t dream of breaking into her pantry and just taking all the cookies without invitation, grabbing her china plate for good measure.” “It’s what we teach our kids,” she says.
Thus the Big Voice pronounces, “The status quo is just fine.” But side-by-side with this comes a radically opposite judgment from the same Big Voice. Robin Wall Kimmerer has heard it channeled through her college students, as when they declare that there are no beneficial relationships between people and land. She has heard it channeled through her scientific colleagues who communicate what she calls the “Western scientific worldview, which sets human beings outside of ‘nature’ and judges their interactions with other species as largely negative. They,” she says of her science colleagues, “had been schooled that the best way to protect a dwindling species was to leave it alone and keep people away.”
But perhaps this side of the Big Voice of dominant American culture is most clearly communicated through such things as the 2007 non-fiction book by Alan Weisman entitled The World Without Us, which is about what would happen to the world if humans suddenly disappeared. The not-so-subtly-implied-message? Humans are a toxic virus and it’s best for Mother Earth if her human children vanished.
That’s the rallying cry of the Voluntary Human Extinction movement. Do you know about this? Founded by Les Knight in 1991, this is essentially a group of folks who believe that the best thing humans can do to help the Earth is to stop having children. A recent New York Times article on this explains: “Mr. Knight added the word ‘voluntary’ decades ago to make it clear that adherents do not support mass murder or forced birth control, nor do they encourage suicide. Their ethos is echoed in their motto, ‘May we live long and die out,’ and in another one of their slogans, which Mr. Knight hangs at various conventions and street fairs: ‘Thank you for not breeding.’”
So there you have it: the Big Voice, speaking opposite things out of both sides of its mouth, and we are all caught in its whiplash effect. One moment, humanity is all right. Next moment, humanity is all wrong.
But that’s the Big Voice. What might we learn from the little voices coming in from the margins?
Braiding Sweetgrass, if it is anything, summons up these little voices for us to finally hear, so that we are less entranced by the Big Voice’s confusing shouts.
The little voices. They arrive as … questions:
How do we find the Honorable Harvest again?
How do we make our relations with the world sacred again?
How do we consume in a way that does justice to the lives we take?
Such questions indeed imply that we are in a bad time. That the Honorable Harvest is lost and people take more than they need and take way beyond what they are given. That our relations with the nonhuman world are blasphemous, a desecration, a defilement. That humans are a part of the circle of life and life must feed on life but human consumption patterns are deeply disrespectful of this.
The little voices concur: the times are perilous indeed.
But look closer at their questions: all of them also imply the possibility of repentance. They also imply the possibility of repair, restoration, return. There is hopefulness here. If insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, the little voices suggest that there actually is a way out.
The many questions really add up to one question: How can the world be made whole again, including us? Not “the world without us.” Not “voluntary human extinction.” But neither “the status quo is just fine.” Not that either. There must be change.
Part of the change is to acknowledge that, yes, there really are positive human interactions with the natural world. Kimmerer offers example after example of this.
And so she says:
“[T]he grassy meadows tell us that for sweetgrass, human beings are a part of the system, a vital part.” “Humans participate in a symbiosis in which sweetgrass provides its fragrant blades to the people and people, by harvesting, create the conditions for sweetgrass to flourish.”
Or she notes:
“Corn, beans, and squash [The ‘Three Sisters’] are fully domesticated; they rely on us to create the conditions under which they can grow. We too are part of the reciprocity. They can’t meet their responsibilities unless we meet ours.” “Perhaps we should consider this a Four Sisters garden, for the planter is also an essential partner..”
And on and on. Part of the change is to disbelieve the Big Voice’s absolute negativity regarding human interactions with the land. Positive interactions have existed in the past—are demonstrated at the very least by Kimmerer’s native ancestors and their ancient land practices—and can point the way to a renaissance of that.
Part of the change is at least recognizing this.
But there must be more change. Change which is … radical.
Radical? Stick with me for part 2.
“It came to me while picking beans,” says Robin Wall Kimmerer, “the secret of happiness.”
I was hunting among the spiraling vines that envelop my teepees of pole beans, lifting the dark-green leaves to find handfuls of pods, long and green, firm and furred with tender fuzz. I snapped them off where they hung in slender twosomes, bit into one, and tasted nothing but August, distilled into pure, crisp beaniness. […] Maybe it was the smell of ripe tomatoes, or the oriole singing, or that certain slant of light on a yellow afternoon and the beans hanging thick around me. It just came to me in a wash of happiness that made me laugh out loud, startling the chickadees who were picking at the sunflowers…. I knew it with a certainty as warm and clear as the September sunshine. The land loves us back. She loves us with beans and tomatoes, with roasting ears and blackberries and birdsongs.
And that’s her story. What Robin Wall Kimmerer calls her “epiphany in the beans.” The word “epiphany” used here is perfect: an “epiphany” is a religious term which means “the showing forth or the manifestation of the divine.”
There, surrounded by beans, the love that the land has for humanity was distinctly and clearly made manifest to her.
And it made her happy indeed.
That she experienced this epiphany is even more remarkable when we remember the dominant Western culture worldview within which we all function, her included. This Big Voice worldview envisions humans as simultaneously exceptional and damned. Humans are exceptional because we are the only people. Meaning: we are the only ones with spirit and intelligence. Therefore, we are damned. We are damned by existing in a natural world environment that has no spirit and intelligence that might answer back to humanity’s own. We are lonely, and the landscape that surrounds us is alien to us, hostile even, so that to survive, we must master it. We must take from it whatever we can get.
Our human selfishness is as much our suffering as it is our survival strategy.
Say it again: our human selfishness is as much our suffering as it is our survival strategy.
This is fundamentally what needs changing. The fundamental task is to re-imagine our essential human situation and act accordingly. To realize that we humans are neither exceptional nor damned. To acknowledge that the nonhuman world has personhood even though it may appear different from human personhood. To affirm that, really and truly, the land loves us with its own distinctive love language. To learn how to honor that love language and to show love back.
What will it take for us—here and now—to have our own personal “epiphany in the beans”?
Now, Robin Wall Kimmerer is perfectly aware that to say such a thing—“the land loves us”—is to raise questions. She says, “I sat once in a graduate writing workshop on relationships to the land. The students all demonstrated a deep respect and affection for nature. They said that nature was the place where they experienced the greatest sense of belonging and well-being. They professed without reservation that they loved the earth. And then I asked them: ‘Do you think that the earth loves you back?’ No one was willing to answer that. It was as if I had brought a two-headed porcupine into the classroom. Unexpected. Prickly. They backed slowly away.”
If you were asked that question, what would your response be?
Are you backing slowly away right now?
I mean, I want to believe. I want to believe that the land truly loves me. I want to believe that for all sorts of pragmatic reasons. For if I believe that—that the land loves me, that it has its own kind of personhood—then it becomes a they. Plants and animals are no longer things to which I can do whatever I want, without regard for their own dignity or desires.
The intellectual and emotional reset that follows from this insight is global.
For one thing, it leads to a return to the Honorable Harvest, with its main ethic of not just taking only what you need, but taking only what you are given and never stealing. Because, it is disgusting to steal from beings who love you. It is disgusting.
It also leads to a re-establishment of sacred relations with the Earth, and principally this means a constant honoring of the plant and animal lives we must consume so that we might live. For if such lives feel love for us, and give themselves as gifts, then our consumption must be respectful. It must be spiritual. “[The] exchange of a life for a life, the endless cycling between my body and the body of the world” becomes finally seen in all its fullness as the sacrifice of people—nonhuman people yes, but people nonetheless. “Killing a who demands something different,” says Kimmerer, “from killing an it.”
I want to suggest three things you might do to help you have your own “epiphany in the beans.” Last month I suggested the value of developing a gratitude practice. For this month, here you go:
Number 1 is to de-center the Big Voice and its depressing perspective on the essential human situation. Perhaps the myths that Kimmerer shares out of her Native heritage might be helpful medicine. So we want to turn up the volume of these little voices. The Indigenous creation myth, for example. In the beginning, Skywoman falls from Heaven in a beam of light. The animals below in the darkness catch her, care for her, make for her a home of mud, and she reciprocates with the bundle of seeds she carries in her hand. “These she scattered onto the new ground and carefully tended each one until the world turned from brown to green. Sunlight streamed through the hole from the Skyworld, allowing the seeds to flourish. Wild grasses, flowers, trees, and medicines spread everywhere.”
Do you see how love is at the center here? Skywoman is met by the animals with loving care, and she reciprocates with loving care, and out of such love comes everything: the growing world.
The Number 1 thing to do is soften the Big Voice and turn up the volume of the little voices.
Number 2 is to engage reason. How might it be reasonable to say that the nonhuman, natural world has its own kind of personhood which is different from human personhood? Robin Wall Kimmerer speaks to this directly. She asks us, “What if you were a teacher but had no voice to speak your knowledge? What if you had no language at all and yet there was something you needed to say? Wouldn’t you dance it? Wouldn’t you act it out? Wouldn’t your every movement tell the story? In time you would be so eloquent that just to gaze upon you would reveal it all. And so it is with these silent green lives. [Plants] speak in a tongue that every breathing thing can understand. Plants teach in a universal language: food.” That’s the love language! Kimmerer then says, “[Humans and the land] are linked in a co-evolutionary circle. The sweeter the peach, the more frequently we disperse its seeds, nurture its young, and protect them from harm. Food plants and people act as selective forces on each other’s evolution – the thriving of one in the best interest of the other. This, to me, sounds a lot like love.”
What do you think?
Finally, the Number 3 thing to do: practice re-enchanting the world. “What would it be like,” Kimmerer wonders, “to live with that heightened sensitivity to the lives given for ours? To consider the tree in the Kleenex, the algae in the toothpaste, the oaks in the floor, the grapes in the wine; to follow back the thread of life in everything and pay it respect? Once you start, it’s hard to stop, and you begin to feel yourself awash in gifts. I open the cupboard, a likely place for gifts. I think, ‘I greet you, jar of jam. You glass who once was sand upon the beach, washed back and forth and bathed in foam and seagull cries, but who are formed into a glass until you once again return to the sea. And you, berries, plump in your June-ness, now in my February pantry. And you, sugar, so far from your Caribbean home—thanks for making the trip.” And then Kimmerer says, “In that awareness, looking over the objects on my desk—the basket, the candle, the paper—I delight in following their origins back to the ground.”
This is the heightened sensitivity that helps to re-enchant the world and save it from the appearance of utter deadness. We struggle with this constantly. Kimmerer rightly says, “We have constructed an artifice, a Potemkin village of an ecosystem where we perpetuate the illusion that the things we consume have just fallen off the back of Santa’s sleigh, not been ripped from the earth. The illusion enables us to imagine that the only choices we have are between brands.”
The third thing to do, then, is to take active delight in following the things we consume back to the ground, back to the source. And to live in gratitude for this. To realize that our human lives are possible only because of the gracious gift of the land—that the land’s gifts are gifts of grace, unearned by us, gifts of grace, gifts of grace.
Let us accept graciously.
It is the secret of happiness.
Let it be so.