All flourishing is mutual

Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer

How is it possible that in twenty years of education [my students] cannot think of any beneficial relationship between people and the environment? Perhaps the negative examples they see every day--brownfields, factory farms, suburban sprawl--truncated their ability to see some good between humans and the earth. As the land becomes impoverished, so too does the scope of their vision. When we talked about this after class, I realized that they could not even imagine what beneficial relationships between their species and others might look like. How can we begin to move toward ecological and cultural sustainability if we cannot even imagine what that path feels like? If we can’t imagine the generosity of geese?

Braiding Sweetgrass is so many variations on the theme of imagining, and really remembering, beneficial relationships between people and place.

How generous that they [fruiting trees] shower us with food, literally giving themselves so that we can live.  But in the giving their lives are also ensured. Our taking returns benefit to them in the circle of life making life, the chain of reciprocity.  Living by the precepts of the Honorable Harvest--to take only what is given, to use it well, to be grateful for the gift, and to reciprocate the gift--is easy in a pecan grove.  We reciprocate the gift by taking care of the grove, protecting it from harm, planting seeds so that new groves will shade the prairie and feed the squirrels.

Reciprocity is a thread woven through so many of her stories. It describes relationships that form from necessarily taking life to live, but also developing gratitude and exercising our power to care for and give back.

Gifts from the earth or from each other establish a particular relationship, an obligation of sorts to give, to receive, and to reciprocate.

Whatever we have been given is supposed to be given away again.

When the food does not come from a flock in the sky, when you don’t feel the warm feathers cool in your hand and know that a life has been given for yours, when there is no gratitude in return--that food may not satisfy. It may leave the spirit hungry while the belly is full.

Her vision is not one of relating to nature at arms length. The natural world provides so much more than opportunities for spiritual connection and moments of transcendence. Ecological systems provide the fabric and foundation for all life. We don’t step into them or visit them. They are part of who we are and re-establishing relationships of gratitude and reciprocity helps us regain that experience of belonging in a much larger web of life.

Some of the many links between a Western Grey Squirrel and their ecosystem.

Some of the many links between a Western Grey Squirrel and their ecosystem.