I spent part of Earth Day gardening, one day after I heard a lecture by Robin Wall Kimmerer, botanist, professor, writer and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. And then I listened to several of her speeches on Youtube. I wish I could say that listening to her led me to weeding and garden cleanup with a new, uncomplaining spirit–it didn’t–but it could change how I view the plant world and the earth itself. The last word, ‘itself,’ which I wrote without thinking, is proof that I haven’t absorbed her wisdom. Dr. Kimmerer would say that calling the earth ‘it,’ is equivalent to calling your gray-headed grandmother ‘it.’
We view the land as property, capital, a resource to provide for us. The indigenous view is that land is not property, but a living, breathing being for whom we have a moral responsibility. “It is our home, our library, our healer.”
Dr. Kimmerer noted that plants are our oldest teachers. “They were here first. They can take light, air, and water and turn it into food that they give away, and medicine.” The problem is that we haven’t been either good students or stewards. “More plant species have become extinct than are alive today.”
She spoke of the Virgin Earth Challenge, a $25 million prize for creating a system to permanently remove greenhouse gases, which was never awarded despite several high quality entries. While not denying that creating such a system would demand human ingenuity, “a system already exists to build oxygen, remove carbon from the atmosphere and store it for centuries. It’s called the forest.”
I learned that the oldest plants alive are the seventeen to twenty-five thousand species of moss, some of which are thriving in my yard. While I might not appreciate the moss’s invasion of my grass, I do have to look at it with some admiration for having avoided extinction over the course of four hundred million years.
This time of year, it’s easy to appreciate Dr. Kimmerer’s words. Even if we’re not growing our own vegetables, or picking wild mushrooms and digging roots for food, the sheer beauty of cherry and apple blossoms, the panorama of trees leafing out in every shade of green, and the burst of growth all around us makes it easy to be grateful to the earth. The next step beyond gratitude is to consider how to change our own behavior and reduce our carbon footprint.