“Gifts from the earth or from each other establish a particular relationship, an obligation of sorts to give, to receive, to reciprocate.” –Robin Wall Kimmerer
The notion of a gift economy is at the heart of Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass. Kimmerer shares a different way of being in the world: one that recognizes the gifts that have been given to us and the necessity to reciprocate. In the modern world we have been taught that nature’s resources are ours for the taking. We have not been taught that nature’s resources are not infinite, that they exist in a web of interdependent relationships in which minerals, plants, animals, and human beings all participate. Everything we do has consequences for other living things.
For many environmentalists, the goal is to leave “wild” nature alone. In this model, the destruction human beings have done to nature is recognized. But what is not understood is that human beings are part of nature too. For hundreds of thousands of years, we and our ancestors have interacted with nature. The model of setting aside spaces for wild nature does not recognize that human beings can interact in positive ways with nature and that we have done so for millennia.
Some years ago, I was shocked to read that native Australians intervened in nature by periodically burning the land. This intervention in nature opened spaces for animals and helped to regenerate certain plant species. The Aboriginals learned to do this from nature: by observing the consequences of fires set by lightning and other natural causes. Why was I shocked? Because I assumed that all human interventions in nature are negative, I imagined and hoped that indigenous people left nature alone. I wanted to view the indigenous people as “innocent” in a way that modern human beings are not–thus denying that intelligence and decision-making governed the Aboriginals’ interactions with nature.
Last summer I was surprised when a forest management expert who is part of the Green Party Greece explained that the thick forests surrounding Athens which create enormous fire hazards have not always been there. He criticized the current human desire to live in the forest in order to be “closer to nature.” Acting on this desire means that the forests are filled with houses and that forest fires lead to destruction of human property and human lives. I could not help thinking of California.
In traditional Greek culture no one wanted to live “in” the forest. People cleared parts of the forest to create spaces where sheep and goats could graze. These open areas where the grasses were kept in check by the animals provided natural fire barriers. People grouped together in villages some distance from the forest. Interventions in nature by people and animals created a sustainable economic and environmental system. The man who spoke to us argued that current laws protecting forests from human intervention must be changed to permit responsible forest management.
Robin Wall Kimmerer writes that sweetgrass, used by indigenous peoples to make baskets, is disappearing from places where it used to grow. The basket makers asked for her help as a botanist. They told her that sweetgrass is harvested by some by pulling it up from the roots and by others by pinching off the grass above the roots. In either case only some of the sweetgrass was taken, leaving enough to regenerate the field. The basket weavers wanted to know which method was better for the sweetgrass.
Robin’s graduate student Laurie designed an experiment in which some sweetgrass would be harvested by one method, some by the other, and some fields would not be harvested at all. Laurie expected that one method of harvesting would lead to better results. What she found was that harvesting sweetgrass by either method resulted in healthy fields, while not harvesting at all caused the fields to decline. The experiment showed that human intervention using traditional methods was actually good for sweetgrass.
This of course does not mean that modern farming methods that depend upon pesticides are good. Modern farming methods focus on the product and the price without concern for the web of relationships in which farming occurs.
“I must take from the world in order to live,” Robin Wall Kimmerer tells us. The way forward is to return to the way of the “Honorable Harvest” that all of our ancestors once knew. Robin Wall Kimmerer derives the principles of the Honorable Harvest from the wild strawberry harvest and insists they apply to everything we take, in every aspect of our lives.
The Honorable Harvest
Never take the first one.
Listen for the answer.
Take only what you need.
Use everything you take.
Share what you have taken.
Reciprocate the gift.
There has been a great debate about whether and how Europeans can and should learn from indigenous cultures. My friend the late Carol Lee Sanchez told me that it is perfectly fine for Europeans and their descendants to learn from the Indians how to love nature. She noted with typical Indian humor, “You have to learn it somewhere.” She added, “What you don’t need to do is to wear feathers or to enact our rituals in our ways and in our languages.”
Carol P. Christ is an internationally known feminist writer, activist, and educator living in Heraklion, Crete. Carol’s recent book written with Judith Plaskow, Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology, is on Amazon. A Serpentine Path: Mysteries of the Goddess is on sale for $9.99 on Amazon. Carol has been leading Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete for over twenty years: join her in Crete. Carol’s photo by Michael Honneger.
Listen to Carol’s a-mazing interview with Mary Hynes on CBC’s Tapestry recorded in conjunction with her keynote address to the Parliament of World’s Religions.