Parul Sehgal: This is The New Yorker Radio Hour. I'm Parul Sehgal in today for David Remnick.
Robin Wall Kimmerer: You see all the blackberries, oh, they were not in bloom yesterday, but look at this cloud of white. It's all blackberries. They'll be jam and pie this summer.
Parul Sehgal: I recently took a trip to Western New York, to its fields and its forests to visit Robin Wall Kimmerer, an unlikely literary star, a botanist by training, specialist in moss, an expert naturalist.
Robin Wall Kimmerer: I've been keeping up all day long.
Parul Sehgal: Kimmerer has had a long career in universities, but she felt constrained by the world of Western science. She's Native American, and the indigenous teachings she learned, the sense of connection she felt with the land, plants, and animals around her, had been dismissed by the scientific community. Well-established in her career, Kimmerer set out to publish a collection of essays to bridge the divide, the result is Braiding Sweetgrass. It's published first by a small presence, it's becomes phenomenal since.
It's been on the New York Times bestseller list for more than three years, and sold well over a million copies. Last year, Kimmerer received the MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called genius grant.
Robin Wall Kimmerer: Here we are. Walk up to the park now.
Parul Sehgal: It's a decade since Braiding Sweetgrass was first published, and I went to talk with Robin Wall Kimmerer at her home, outside Syracuse, New York. When people write memoirs that are read and beloved readers will talk to them about, like, "How's your mother and how's your sister?" We act that way about your pond and your tree, which is what you wanted.
Robin Wall Kimmerer: It is. I love that because, in that case, it's an attachment to place and you understand what it would be like to have that attachment, and to work for it.
Parul Sehgal: We're standing at the banks of this pond near her property. It's reigned with willows and dogwoods, and it's loud. It's so full of bird song and insects. It's noisier than my block in Brooklyn.
Robin Wall Kimmerer: You see this bright, shiny yellow grass in here, that's sweetgrass. Come here, beautiful. Hold that for a little while. As it starts to dry, it will give you the most wonderful fragrance.
Parul Sehgal: When she bought the property, the pond was full of algae, choked with algae, and she worked very, very hard to dredge it out, to clean it to make it a place where her daughters could swim, but also to return it to this loud, humming, squacking community around us.
Robin Wall Kimmerer: So many birds. Look, there's that pair of little green herons. The parents taking off. Do you see the red-winged blackbirds over there? These dragonflies humming about. It really is for me a magical little place. There's so much life here. You just heard the yellow warbler there, brown thrasher calling over there.
Parul Sehgal: I think you hear them, but they also must be registering you. They must be like, "She's back. Robin is here. She's brought some other humans with her this time."
Robin Wall Kimmerer: It's true. I know they know me. My pandemic project, when we couldn't have friends over for dinner, I started having dinner parties at the pond for the winter birds. I could go out and spread a table with all of these treats. My goal was, by the end of the winter, to have the chickadees land on my hand and eat seeds from my hand. I thought it was going to take months. It took about two weeks. I know they all know me.
Parul Sehgal: It's easier for me to describe what Braiding Sweegrass does to a reader rather than describe the book itself. It's a book that changes people, it moves them. You have a spiritual experience reading this book. If you haven't read it, imagine a series of linked essays that don't fit cleanly into any conceivable categories. These are scientific essays. Why do aster and goldenrod bloom together in such intense display? Or why does maple sap flow so abundantly in the spring? There are also meditation on our relationship with the natural world and they draw heavily on Native American teachings handed down from generation to generation.
Kimmerer's home is surrounded by rolling hay fields and farmland, but her house is ringed by giant maples.
Robin Wall Kimmerer: Would you like a cold drink?
Parul Sehgal: Yes, please. I would love to. We went inside and sat at her dining room table to talk. What were the earliest seeds of this book for you? Before it was even a book, did it start as questions? Did it start as sentences? Where did you find it? Or how did it find you?
Robin Wall Kimmerer: For me, it really started with this notion that it feels to me that our relationship with land is broken. So much of the environmental movement to me is grounded in fear. We have a lot to be afraid about. Let's not ignore that. What I really wanted to do was to try to find a way in which to help people really love the land again. I think that's why we are where we are, that we haven't loved the land enough. Part of that for me is tied up with the notion that we look around us at all of this abundance and we call it natural resources. We think about it as ecosystem services or sometimes commodities.
Whereas from my perspective and very much grounded in a Potawatomi way of knowing, all of this is a gift. What I always see is that most people don't understand the world is gift. When you do, the response of gratitude and reciprocity flows from that. I really set for myself this goal of seeing if we could help tell stories that would help people see the world as a gift.
Parul Sehgal: I want to imagine where you were when this mission, this great ambition presented itself. Where were you living? What was happening in your life when you first started working on this book?
Robin Wall Kimmerer: I was living here in the abundance of state New York. At that time, my youngest daughter was still at home about to leave for college. It was a transition time for me. It was also a time when I felt well-established in my career as a scientist. I had fulfilled the sorts of things that tenure requires of you. I had done all those things which were expected of me. I wanted also to do that thing which I wanted for myself, not what institutions wanted of me. That helped to give me the impetus to write in what I think of as my true voice.
Parul Sehgal: One of the mysteries about this book for me is, it has to do with the voice. In the sense as I was reading it, sometimes I was like, "Who's speaking right now, and who's being spoken to?" There's a rotating point of view, sometimes it feels to me that you're writing to your daughters, but then the point of your shifts and you actually have a chapter told from the point of view of your daughter. At some points, it feels almost like you're trying to make a language for nature to speak to nature.
Did you have a reader in mind as you were working on it and hearing your free voice for the first time? Did you imagine it finding readers in the world? Who was in your mind at that time?
Robin Wall Kimmerer: I was quite explicitly writing for two audiences at the beginning, little did I know, it would be quite a different audience. I was writing for my scientific colleagues in order to try to make the case for indigenous science and traditional ways of knowing and reimagining what science looks like when it's imbued with values. That was one audience. I also was writing always with my listening to native people. That I wanted the stories that I told, the reflections that I shared, I wanted my native community to say, "Yes, this is true, this is our way," because I wanted to be very sensitive to the fact that this is my story, but it's not my knowledge. This is a knowledge of collective generations, of people listening to the land. Those were the two audiences that I had in mind. You're right, that there's maybe an implicit audience. For me, it is the land. As a botanist, as a person who's just been madly in love with dirt, trees, and birds forever, I wanted to be sure that I was representing them. It's not possible to fully tell their story, but I wanted them to be present, and to create a sense of empathy compassion, and respect for the living world.
Parul Sehgal: You describe yourself as being in love with dirt, but as I was reading this book, I started to keep a running list of words you were teaching me, and you're in love with dirt, but you're in love with language. You taught me words that I never heard of. Whicker, the soft, neighing sound of a horse. Ducks dabble, the way they skim off the top. Just beautiful list of language you've given me, and I'm curious about the origins of your sensitivity to language. When did that happen?
Robin Wall Kimmerer: Good question. I certainly grew up in a family where they were fine storytellers. My dad was a wonderful storyteller, and the master of some of those old-time, colorful expressions that I just loved. I'm sure that was an influence, but as a young person, I loved poetry. I still have the books of poetry from when I was 8, 9, 10 years old, so it feels like an innate level of language, which is also part of being a scientist. That precision in language, that that little part of leaf, it has a really particular name.
Being steeped in the particularities of the living world that comes from science, also appeals to my poetic self because of that discipline of finding just the right word.
Parul Sehgal: The discipline and also the pleasure, when you describe as salamander as feeling soft like an overripe banana. That's pleasure for its own sake. It's getting it right, but it is also just-- Kimmerer goes from being this academic scientist, and she was writing papers with titles, and I looked one up, environmental determinants of spatial pattern in the vegetation of abandoned, lead zinc mines. To writing this book that's far more poetic, unclassifiable, searching, and if you pick up this book, and you go to the back of it, you see her bio, there's another really startling fact.
She lists herself before she lists herself as anything else, as a scientist or anything, she lists herself first as a mother. That is unusual for any writer, let alone a scientist.
Robin Wall Kimmerer: I'm so glad you've highlighted this, because so often in the academy, we are asked to identify ourselves according to our institutions, our titles, and our disciplines. First and foremost, I know that I am a mother, because it's a relationship, it's a nurture, it's this sense of being loved by the world, and having loved for the world, that really propels me. In most scientific disciplines, we're not even allowed to talk about that. We can't even say the word. For me, it's an act of resistance to first claim that I am a mother first.
For me, the boundaries between me being a mother and being nurtured by Segmekwé, by Mother Earth, they feel like the same thing. It feels very whole to me. Inevitably, I had to write about being a mother. Another element of that is I'm constantly aware of the fact that what feels like second nature to me of this intimacy with the land and plants, is not second nature to most of my readers. Nature is like a park or a wilderness area, and so I wanted to use mothering also as a vehicle for expressing the kind of relationship that one can have with the living land, being mothered by the land and mothering in return.
Parul Sehgal: That's Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of Braiding Sweetgrass. Our conversation continues in just a moment. This is The New Yorker Radio Hour. This is The New Yorker Radio Hour. I'm Parul Sehgal, I'm a staff writer at the magazine. I've been speaking today with Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of Braiding Sweetgrass, a book about botany and much more that's been on the New York Times bestseller list for more than three years. Braiding Sweetgrass shares Kimmerer's indigenous knowledge about the natural world, and one of the themes of her writing is her own family history.
She's an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, and her family's story contains the history of American Indian policy in the US. Her ancestors were forcefully removed three times in a single generation, pushed out of their homelands around Lake Michigan, and left essentially to starve in Oklahoma. It's one reason why it feels so powerful for Kimmerer to come back, reclaim these teachings in Braiding Sweetgrass. They were so nearly lost.
Robin Wall Kimmerer: They say that we are inevitably living our ancestor's stories, and joyfully, I am. I think about, in particular, my grandfather, who at only nine years old was taken from his family on our reserve in Oklahoma and sent to the Carlisle Indian School whose motto you may know, was to kill the Indian to save the man. It was the most violent, colonial assimilative enterprise. I always knew those stories growing up. I also knew of my grandfather's resilience and resistance to that painful, painful chapter, but when I was a little kid, I longed for culture.
I would ask my dad, "What's the word for this?" or "What's the ceremony for that?" He always had to say, "I don't know. That was taken from us at Carlisle." I'm so grateful to him that he didn't just say I don't know. He said, "This was taken from us." That wound was always present for me. As a young kid, I remember saying, if there could be schools that are designed to take that away, doesn't that mean there could be schools that are designed to give it back, to bring it back? That story has really made a path for me. Every word of our language that I learn feels like a little piece of healing.
Yes, the wounds of colonialism, attempted erasure, attempted genocide are at the heart of the book. This is a book about resilience, remembering, and recovery as well. I think really early on in the formation of Braiding Sweetgrass, I wrote with what seemed hubris at the moment to say I want this book to be medicine. It turns out I think it has been.
Parul Sehgal: Can you tell me a little bit about when you first realized that the book was starting to take off? Did you hear from readers? How did you come to know?
Robin Wall Kimmerer: It began for me with letters, with real letters. I remember the first one. I had a wonderful airmail letter from someone in France, and I thought, "What? Someone in France is reading Braiding Sweetgrass," and their response of how it helped them love land more. I thought, "That's just wonderful I have a reader." It meant so much to me. I still have that letter, and boxes of others, of beautiful, handwritten correspondence and emails. It was at first overwhelming to me. I had never any expectation that this book would find a wide audience. I feel deeply responsible to readers because they share often really intimate stories of awakening, of a healing, of their own what I would call longing for relationship with place. It fills my heart, but it also is sometimes makes my heart heavy because it's a lot to carry. I also am buoyed up by the fact that really often those letters come with a celebration of, guess what I did? I started a community garden. I began a forest preschool.
The letter from someone who said, "I work on Wall Street, and I can no longer do so. I am now moving north and starting an organic farm." Hundreds of letters of people who are changing their lives because they're remembering something. They're remembering how they want to live.
Parul Sehgal: There's a wonderful moment in your first book Gathering Moss, where you say that when you look at moss, moss shouldn't have made it. Moss is small. Moss can't grab onto almost anything, can it, really? Moss has to live in little cracks in the fissures but it teaches us poignant things right now, you write. You say that it's about leaving more than you take, working together, and staying small. I think you wrote that about 10 years before Braiding Sweetgrass.
Robin Wall Kimmerer: Yes, I did.
Parul Sehgal: I think about Braiding Sweetgrass with its own questions, as you say, you were writing it when your own girls were leaving home. It's a book about the combination of certain kinds of mothering and I'm wondering here now, what sorts of questions are preoccupying you? Are you looking at the moss again? What are you looking at?
Robin Wall Kimmerer: First, I want to say that both Gathering Moss and Braiding Sweetgrass are works of love for mosses, for the world, and in the case of my children leaving is also an exercise. What am I going to do with all of this love when I don't have to make peanut butter sandwiches? What am I going to do with all that love? You make me cry too. I'm still in that place but in a place which now, how to say, the world that I'm so in love with this, on the precipice and so that's what consumes me.
How can stories, how can indigenous knowledge be the medicine that can bring us back from the brink? I don't know that it can be but I'm certainly going to try because that's the gift that's been given to me. To me, when I think about what will pull us back from the brink is a change in worldview away from this human exceptionalism and into kinship with the living world. If we really felt, understood, and embodied kinship with the living world, we wouldn't cause our family to go extinct. We wouldn't.
What I'm trying to do now with another writing project is to try to somehow really connect with readers to the personhood of nature, to the beingness of other species, and to really try to write in such a way that creates a wave of ecological compassion. That's where my head and heart are.
Parul Sehgal: Does the response to your book and the way it has been embraced and recommended, and this is a book that is a success because people are placing it in other people's hands. Does that make you feel optimistic?
Robin Wall Kimmerer: It does. The very fact that people are reading a book about plants, that they're reading a book about plants from an indigenous perspective, and that people are answering this call of reciprocity. Braiding Sweetgrass is an invitation, isn't it? It's an invitation into reciprocity, to say what is your gift and how could you give it to the world? What I'm hearing as I travel and in correspondence, I'm hearing this huge yes. How I'm experiencing this is a word that you used at the outset and that is of a kind of remembering?
When there are audiences of people in tears, I think, "What is this about?" This is about remembering what it would be like to be nurtured by the earth. It's like people are deeply lonely before that, so that gives me a lot of hope that there isn't this emotional response. It makes me think about a wonderful prompt that some fellow writers and I used in a conference once we said, "What do you love too much to lose?" We said to the audience, and we said to them, "What are you going to do about it?" Their list of what do I love too much to lose was endless and the list of what am I going to do about it was wholly inadequate to the moment.
Parul Sehgal: That's Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of Braiding Sweetgrass, which was released 10 years ago this year. We spoke near her home in upstate New York. I'm Parul Sehgal. This is The New Yorker Radio Hour.
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