Two Ways of Knowing
Robin Wall Kimmerer on Scientific and Native American Views of the Natural World
The Sun Interview by Leath Tonino | Issue 484 | April 2016

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Robin Wall Kimmerer has a PhD in botany and is a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, a Native American people originally from the Great Lakes, with a reservation today in Oklahoma. She describes herself as a “traveler between scientific and indigenous ways of knowing,” but there is little about her writing, public speaking, or teaching that suggests movement back and forth. Rather she seems to be standing still, looking simultaneously through two lenses, expressing two worldviews. Trees, for her, are photosynthesizing beings as well as teachers. A forest is an ecosystem and a home at once.


Born in 1953, Kimmerer was raised in upstate New York. The federal government had forced her grandfather, as a boy, to leave his home on the Potawatomi reservation in Oklahoma and attend the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. The school’s purpose was to assimilate Native American children, even against their will, and its founder’s motto was “Kill the Indian, and save the man.” Over time her family rekindled tribal connections, which she says had been “frayed by history, but never broken.” She did her graduate studies at the University of Wisconsin, where she focused on how plants reclaim abandoned zinc and lead mines, healing the damage of a destructive industry.


For a decade Kimmerer taught college biology in Kentucky, establishing herself as a leading expert on mosses. In 1993 she returned to upstate New York — which she calls “Maple Nation” — where she’s currently a Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Department of Environmental and Forest Biology at the State University of New York, Syracuse. Eight years ago she founded the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment, whose mission is to promote sustainability through programs that draw on both indigenous knowledge and science. The Center also works to increase opportunities for Native American students in the environmental sciences. “Science is often perceived to be at odds with indigenous values,” she writes. “The result is that Native Americans are barely present in the scientific community, where their unique cultural perspectives on environmental stewardship are greatly needed.”


Kimmerer’s first book, Gathering Moss, won the John Burroughs Medal in 2005, and her second, Braiding Sweetgrass, received the Sigurd F. Olson Nature Writing Award in 2014. Last year she addressed the General Assembly of the United Nations for the commemoration of International Mother Earth Day, and the year before that, she was a keynote speaker at the National Bioneers Conference.


I talked to Kimmerer on a bright summer morning at her farmhouse in Fabius, New York, where she raised her two daughters, both of whom are now grown. Before beginning the interview, we ate a brunch of quiche and green salad with strawberries at a picnic table in her yard. Kimmerer was warm and welcoming, with long, graying hair and dangling porcupine-quill earrings. She spoke with assurance, rarely pausing, her voice and her thoughts always clear.


After two hours we got up to stretch our legs and walked down a mowed trail, past a vegetable garden, and around a small pond. I mentioned a slug I’d recently seen that used a thread of slime to rappel off a ledge, as a rock climber might, and Kimmerer responded by pointing out the place where, a few days prior, she had encountered a wriggling green nematode: “It was a four-inch-long thread of a creature, a species I’d never seen before, living right here in the yard.” The two of us continued trading small wonders in a kind of ping-pong match. “Isn’t it all fantastic?” she finally said, the comment less a question than an exclamation.


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Tonino: You’ve always loved plants, but your relationship to them has transformed over time.


Kimmerer: I would describe my journey as a circle, moving out into academia but coming back to the way that I knew plants as a child. I grew up in a rural area much like where we’re sitting today, and I was interacting every day with plants in the garden, the woods, or the wetlands. I couldn’t go outside without being surprised and amazed by some small green life. I suppose it was their great diversity of form that first drew my interest: that on a small patch of ground there could be so many different ways to exist. Each plant seemed to have its own sense of self, yet they fit together as a community. And each had a home, a place where I knew I could find it. This inspired my curiosity.

From as far back as I can remember, I had this notion of plants as companions and teachers, neighbors and friends. Then, when I went to college, a shift occurred for me. As an aspiring botany major, I was pressured to adopt the scientific worldview; to conceive of these living beings as mere objects; to ask not, “Who are you?” but, “How does it work?” This was a real challenge for me. But I was madly in love with plants, so I worked hard to accommodate myself to this new approach.


Later in my career, after I’d gotten my PhD and started teaching, I was invited to sit among indigenous knowledge holders who understood plants as beings with their own songs and sensibilities. In their presence, and in the presence of the plants themselves, I woke from the sleep I’d fallen into. I was reminded of what I’d always known in my core: that my primary relationship with plants was one of apprenticeship. I’m learning from plants, as opposed to only learning about them.


I was especially moved by an eld­erly Diné woman who told the biographies of each plant in her valley: its gifts, its responsibilities, its history, and its relationships — both friendships and animosities. As a scientist I had learned only about plants’ physical attributes. Her stories reminded me of how I had encountered plants as a young person. That’s why I say I’m coming full circle after all these years — because I’m able to stop speaking of plants as objects.


Let me add that my appreciation of plants has been greatly enriched by knowing the beauty of chlorophyll and photosynthesis and hormones and cellular biology. Ideally the two ways of knowing can reinforce one another.


Tonino: Writer Vine Deloria Jr. has called indigenous knowledge the “intellectual twin to science.” Is that what you’re talking about?


Kimmerer: Yes. Both Western science and traditional ecological knowledge are methods of reading the land. That’s where they come together. But they’re reading the land in different ways. Scientists use the intellect and the senses, usually enhanced by technology. They set spirit and emotion off to the side and bar them from participating. Often science dismisses indigenous knowledge as folklore — not objective or empirical, and thus not valid. But indigenous knowledge, too, is based on observation, on experiment. The difference is that it includes spiritual relationships and spiritual explanations. Traditional knowledge brings together the seen and the unseen, whereas Western science says that if we can’t measure something, it doesn’t exist.


Tonino: What are some other differences between the traditional indigenous approach and the Western scientific tradition?


Kimmerer: When we use the scientific method in an experiment, we look at one variable at a time. In order to really understand how something works, science says, we must exclude all else. We’re not going to talk about relationships. We’re going to limit ourselves to cause and effect. This notion that you can rigorously exclude all factors save one, and in so doing find the cause, is not part of traditional knowledge.


In the traditional way of learning, instead of conducting a tightly controlled experiment, you interact with the being in question — with that plant, with that stream. And you watch what happens to everything around it, too. The idea is to pay attention to the living world as if it were a spider’s web: when you touch one part, the whole web responds. Experimental, hypothesis-driven science looks just at that one point you touched.


Another important difference is that science tends to want to make universal statements, whereas to the indigenous way of thinking, what’s happening between two organisms is always particular and localized, unique in space and time. Take the example of a bee landing on a flower for a sip of nectar. To the indigenous observer, it’s not some idealized Bee meeting some idealized Flower. There isn’t an attempt to generalize to pollinator ecology, or to say that it’s all being driven by certain physical principles. Those principles may be real, but they aren’t any more real than this bee on this flower at this time on this day with this weather.


Tonino: But how do you get beyond that isolated moment in space and time to develop a broader understanding? It can’t be that you have to start over with every bee and flower. Don’t the observations pile up?


Kimmerer: You’re asking: Is there an equivalent in traditional knowledge to what science calls a theory? Absolutely. But it’s a different kind of theory, one that centers on the idea of responsibilities. All bees, for example, have a responsibility to pollinate. The indigenous observer is asking the bee, How are you living out your responsibility? And what about you, flower?


The individual observer brings findings back to the community to share. He might talk about what happened when he was setting his trapline that day, and someone else might say, “Oh, a few falls ago I saw that same thing, and the consequence was this or that.” And then maybe somebody else chimes in that she saw the same thing, too, but the consequence was a little different. The information isn’t published in a professional journal, but it’s shared with the community and vetted by that community’s collective intelligence. I think of it as the equivalent of peer review.


Tonino: You say that indigenous observers interact with the world they’re studying. They participate. Why is that so important?


Kimmerer: Western science explicitly separates observer and observed. It’s rule number one: keep yourself out of the experiment. But to the indigenous way of thinking, the observer is always in relationship with the observed, and thus it’s important that she know herself: As I watch that bee and flower, as I study how water moves, as I observe the growth of the grass in this meadow, I understand that the kind of being I am colors how I see and feel and know. Furthermore, my presence might even be influencing how the world is working around me.


It’s important to recognize the relationship that exists between the observer and the observed. In Western science we believe our technologies and how we frame our hypotheses will eliminate our bias. A traditional perspective instead celebrates the relationship. A young person is going to see things differently than an old person. A daughter and a mother and a grandmother will see in different ways. All of these perspectives should be brought to bear. Rather than isolate them, we can incorporate them into the learning process.


Tonino: Do you think there’s an analogy between Native American oral traditions and long-term scientific research projects?


Kimmerer: Let me back up and say that paying attention to natural data has evolutionary value for a culture. If you don’t pay attention to the circumstances under which the salmon return to the rivers to spawn, you will fail at fishing. So there has always been great impetus to make meaning from data.


That data might not be quantitative, though. It’s not as if a thousand years ago on the Pacific coast people were meas­uring and weighing fish. But they were cleaning hundreds of fish, so their hands knew the size and weight and relative health of these beings. And their hands remembered “data” from the previous year and the year before. I can imagine a conversation that went something like: “You know what else was happening that year when the fish were so fat? There was a great hatch of mosquitoes,” or, “We had a really long winter,” or, “Water temperatures were up.” We search for connections. It’s what we do as a species.


The ecological history of a place is passed down through foodways, through stories around the campfire, through ceremonies performed on certain dates in honor of the cycles — such and such natural event tends to occur around such and such a date. And this knowledge has adaptive significance. If you don’t pay attention, you’re going to go hungry, or you won’t be able to find the medicine you need. It’s imperative that you collect and safeguard knowledge over the years. Western science — or, at least, ecology — has a growing appreciation for this basic truth: if we don’t have a handle on our fisheries and forests, we’re in huge trouble.


Tonino: Long-term studies, whether conducted by Western scientists or indigenous peoples, strike me as an effort to prevent amnesia.


Kimmerer: Yes, forgetfulness. I think of my friends just a few miles over the hill here at Onondaga Nation. They’re trying to restore their sacred lake, which has been horribly polluted by industrial dumping and sewage. They want to bring it back to the state described in the prayer of gratitude that opens and closes all their group meetings. They call it the Thanksgiving Address, and it’s an ancient description of how the world once was and can be again. They’re not using the EPA’s standards of allowable parts per million of some toxic chemical. They’re saying that lakes are places where eagles can come and feed and breed. Lakes are places where people can gather their medicines. Lakes are places where all kinds of creatures can drink and be refreshed.


Ceremony is often said to be how we remember to remember. The great orations, such as the Thanksgiving Address, reach back through time and say, “These are the relationships that have existed and should exist. With that in mind, let’s go forward and restore our environment.”


Tonino: That’s a lovely thought: ceremonies are how we remember to remember.


Kimmerer: Ceremony also reminds us of our responsibilities to creation. When you have ceremonies of gratitude, you understand how much the world gives to you, and you remember your dependency. Through the ceremony itself — the food, the regalia, the time spent in preparation — you are giving back. You’re putting energy back into both the material and the spiritual world. The two are inseparable. Ceremonies are as much about reciprocity as they are about gratitude.


Tonino: You’ve said that an indigenous elder might see the scientific method, which asks a direct question, as disrespectful. Why?


Kimmerer: Because the organism being questioned has its own intentions, its own agency in the world. It is rude of us to prod this sovereign being and ask: How come you’re doing that? How come you’re living that way? How come you’re that color? How come you’re that tall? How come you die in the winter? To someone who views each organism as a potential teacher, this type of pushy questioning is just plain rude.

It has also been explained to me that scientists’ interest in how things work leads us out of our place and into the Creator’s realm. We don’t need to know how something works. We need to know that it works to keep natural systems intact. We should remember that our curiosity exists in the human realm. It’s sometimes said that we humans are the “youngest brothers of creation.” We haven’t been around very long, and we should be humble and pay attention.


My personal view, as a Native American scientist, is that, while I honor this traditional perspective and acknowledge that science sometimes overreaches, I also understand that knowledge of underlying mechanisms can provide us with the tools for positive intervention in ecological systems. Knowing how something works can also be a source of wonder. At the same time, I appreciate the traditional perspective, which cautions against hubris and arrogance and the sense that we are “controlling” nature, as if it were a machine.


Tonino: If asking a direct question of the natural world is disrespectful, what’s the alternative?


Kimmerer: We can find creative ways of pursuing inquiry that are courteous and delicate and don’t demand information but instead search for it. I like to think of my own research as an interview process, a conversation.


Let’s say we want to know how a particular species of moss responds to drought. Some people would take samples into the lab and drought-stress them, but that’s pretty crude, in my opinion. If I want to know how water is important to moss, I’m going to go to wet places and be with the moss, and I’m going to go to dry places and be with the moss, and I’m going to discover whatever I can. I will say to the moss, “I’m not going to snatch you from your home and grind you up to learn your secrets. Instead I will sit at your feet and wait for you to tell me what I need to know.” And I’ll do so joyfully, appreciating the experience regardless of what data might come from it. A way of learning that’s not destructive, that minimizes interference — that’s my goal.


Patience and commitment are the key to learning from a being or a place. Unfortunately the institutions of science don’t commonly make room for the slow, steady approach.

I want to be careful here to separate the institutions of science from scientific inquiry itself. They shouldn’t be conflated. The institutions of science dictate that your grant lasts only three years and must produce a report. This propels a reductive, mechanistic approach. And the sad truth is that scientists have no choice but to follow the money. If you can’t secure the funding to do your research the way you want, you devise a project that you can get funded.


Tonino: What are the chief virtues of scientific inquiry?


Kimmerer: The first that comes to mind is repeated meas­urement as a way of seeing. I can think of instances in which the observations of native peoples could lead them astray. We can’t separate the observer from the observed, but we can avoid imposing our human perspective on the facts. Measurement can help with this.

Science also offers us many lenses for viewing the world. Technology can help us get outside of our human perceptions. When we look at a flower, we don’t see it the way a bee sees it. Advanced technologies can help us to see the flower from the bee’s perspective and get beyond the limitations of our five senses.


Tonino: That reminds me of an essay by Gary Snyder in which he makes the point that our bipedal, binocular, 150-pound, mostly hairless way of experiencing the world can get us only so far, and we need to try to go beyond it, if only imaginatively.


Kimmerer: This is especially true with plants. As a society we are plant-blind. It’s just green wallpaper to most of us. We don’t distinguish one species from the next, let alone appreciate that there’s a reason the leaf of this plant differs from the leaf of that plant; that a tree’s leaves change shape as it grows from a seedling to maturity; that bark can be thick or thin, smooth or rough. We hardly notice plants’ sophistication. We believe they don’t exhibit intentional behavior, but really they just behave very slowly. Although plants don’t have a nervous system like ours, there is good evidence that they can recognize other species around them and adjust their chemistry, growth patterns, and so on accordingly. Plants are interacting with one another all the time.


Tonino: Do they communicate? Collaborate? Wage war?


Kimmerer: Plants certainly do communicate, primarily through the exchange of chemical signals. They inform one another of insect and pathogen attacks, for example, which allows them to mount defenses. And there is evidence of collaboration as well as antagonism between plants. To my mind, plants meet any definition of intelligence. They have the ability to perceive, sense, respond to, and communicate about the environment. They create and maintain relationships with other beings. And they adjust their behavior in ways that benefit survival and reproduction.


Tonino: Why do most people resist the idea of plant intelligence?


Kimmerer: We tend to view the world through an anthropo­centric lens. Plants are radically different from us, and we tend to see “others” as inferior. Since most plants don’t exhibit rapid motion, we assume they do not exhibit behaviors. Because they do not have the same sensory organs and nervous systems that animals do, we assume that they have no sensation. Yet they sense the world in ways that are completely beyond us, such as perceiving very long and short wavelengths of light. We don’t understand plant intelligence very well, so we tend to dismiss it as nonexistent or primitive. But we also used to think that the world was flat. If we would embrace the possibility of plant intelligence and investigate it without any anthropocentric bias, we might be surprised by what we learn.


Then there’s the philosophical barrier to acknowledging plant intelligence: it would mean including plants within our circle of ethical responsibility. If we assume that plants are just objects, we are free to treat them however we please — they are of no moral consequence. If, however, we acknowledge the intelligence of plants, it would have significant implications for how we use them.


Tonino: Has your scientific work led you to feel greater empathy for the species you’re studying?


Kimmerer: Absolutely. I’d go so far as to say that if you can’t get to the point of feeling empathy, it’s not worth doing the work. I want to know what it’s like to be an oak or a birch or an ash.


Tonino: There’s a poem by Mary Oliver that begins: “Have you ever tried to enter the long black branches / of other lives … ?”


Kimmerer: Yes, I’ve tried. It’s an ability that can be learned — or relearned, as the case may be. Our ancestors understood this as quite normal and natural, whereas in our modern era we have forgotten what this kind of wordless communication is like.


Tonino: You’ve said that both science and traditional knowledge can be pathways to kinship. Does it matter which path we take, as long as we arrive at kinship eventually?


Kimmerer: No, I don’t think it matters how you get there. The scientist peering through binoculars and the native hunter studying tracks in the mud both experience kinship with the living world.


Tonino: So what is kinship?


Kimmerer: It has to do with the realization that we are all beings on the same earth, and that we all need the same things to flourish. Water, for example. When I pay attention to how birds interact with water, or how mosses interact with water, or how lichens interact with water, I feel a kinship with them. I know what a cold drink of water feels like, but what would it be like to drink water over my entire body, as a lichen does?

Kinship also comes from our reciprocal relationship with other species. Sitting here, you can get a whiff of ripe wild strawberries off the hillside. They are fulfilling their responsibility to us, and we will fulfill our responsibility to them. Those berries provide us with food and medicine, and in reciprocity, we perhaps unwittingly disperse their seeds and tend their habitat so they can continue to thrive. It’s like a family: we help each other out.


Tonino: Is that what you mean when you write that all flourishing is mutual?


Kimmerer: Yes. What’s good for life is good for all life, whether it’s green or two-legged or any other kind. Obviously there are trade-offs: the individual fish doesn’t flourish when it’s being eaten by the fisherman. But human flourishing and fish flourishing must be mutually reinforcing, or we wouldn’t both still be here, right?


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