An Interview with Robin Wall Kimmerer - Believer Magazine
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An Interview with Robin Wall Kimmerer

“What can we learn without words?”

by Janice Lee
Illustration by Samar Haddad
header-image

An Interview with Robin Wall Kimmerer

“What can we learn without words?”

by Janice Lee
Illustration by Samar Haddad

An Interview with Robin Wall Kimmerer

Janice Lee
56 Snaps

What is it and how is it that we want to remember? As I sit here, it feels like we are in the midst of several different kinds of reckonings. The pandemic is still very much real. In Portland, Oregon, the wildfire smoke has just barely cleared. Only a few days ago, because of the smoke, I dared not venture outside without a mask. Many of us are grieving the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Despite health hazards, the protests also rage on. And in this time, I think about the gifts these wounds might offer us: that there is medicine everywhere, that grief allows us to be more open to the mysteries of loss, that grief offers us clarity and wholeness of presence. Aren’t we here still? Don’t we yet breathe? Today, isn’t that still everything?

In this time of intense grief, Robin Wall Kimmerer’s work resonates with the wisdom of the entire plant world, its past and present and future. Plants are not simply of the world, passively shaped by external forces—they are world-builders, and they make it possible for the rest of us to exist. Through Kimmerer, I have learned to be more present with plants, with mosses—to learn from and with them. I am reminded that the verb “to be” can be thought of as “to make world”; that we cannot separate ourselves from the matter of the rest of the world, and that each and every encounter changes us. Her first book, Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses (2003), pushes readers to expand their perception outward (and downward). Today, Kimmerer, sixty-seven, continues to introduce students to the world of mosses as a professor of environmental and forest biology at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry.

In Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants (2013), Kimmerer, who is a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, writes about the language of animacy—that is, the ways we might rethink our language so that it also expresses the lives of other beings. Her writings suggest that instead of using language to pass judgment and classify—i.e., in English, saying that a tree is an oak, a pine, or a beech—we might bypass mere naming and enact the process of growing and becoming, such that we might say, “The tree trees” (the tree is becoming a tree) or “the cloud clouds” (the cloud is becoming a cloud). As Thomas Berry says, “we must say that the universe is a communion of subjects rather than a collection of objects.”

Everywhere, all plants and animals breathe together in an intimate cycle that is shared and, just like language, that can exist only because it is shared. Kimmerer’s work reminds us that today the relational qualities of air are the relational qualities of words, and you may learn more from paying attention to what lies beneath your feet than from what composes the sky above you.

—Janice Lee

I. “WHAT DO MOSSES HAVE TO TEACH US ABOUT UNCERTAINTY?”

THE BELIEVER: As I was re-reading Gathering Moss the other day, I stopped at this line: “Mosses are not elevator music; they are the intertwined threads of a Beethoven quartet.” That line really stuck with me. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about polyphonic assemblages and entanglement. So many human narratives are about protagonists, single heroic individuals. We always want the human to be the hero. Thinking about mosses means also thinking about landscapes, how things are connected, relationality. Mosses aren’t individual; they exist in relation. So especially during this time, what might we learn from mosses, especially in terms of thinking about individuality and community?

ROBIN WALL KIMMERER: It can’t help but be on our minds, as you say, in these times when we are having to unlearn a lot of things and remember things we have been made to forget. I was going to say “things we’ve forgotten,” but really it’s things we’ve been made to forget, and one of those is absolutely that balance between I and we. I think your question is so well put in thinking about ourselves as the protagonist of our story. People act as if our story is the only story, but that’s a fallacy. I think we can’t help but be struck by our interconnectedness. Community thriving promotes individual thriving. We have been sold this line about rugged individualism, which is not to say there’s not a role for that; there’s very powerful spiritual sovereignty for individuals. But our ability to thrive as individuals is dependent on our community thriving. And mosses absolutely exemplify that. There is no such thing as a moss—a moss standing alone. It wouldn’t work. They need one another, always, and I think that’s a powerful lesson that we are remembering in this moment.

BLVR: I think of your descriptions in Gathering Moss about how difficult it can be to grow moss. Like, if we want these lush carpets of moss, we can’t just grow them. It takes the whole forest to grow something like that. Or I think about how people try to farm certain types of mushrooms, but we really need the mushroom’s whole ecosystem in order to do that. We can’t just grow these things individually or in isolation. This capitalist way of thinking about the self and the individual is also about containment and control. There’s the idea that if we can understand something, if we can just go deep enough, eventually we’ll be able to understand it and contain it and control it. Right now it seems like we’re unlearning some of that. How we’ve responded to the virus, for example, is to build walls, to keep things contained. We’ve forgotten that humans, like plants, are permeable beings. Humans aren’t self-enclosed systems. We act as if we are not entangled in that which we act upon. What might the mosses teach us about the illusion of containment and control?

RWK: Mm-hmm. Mosses are so very permeable. I think about them in contrast to higher plants, which have barriers and boundaries, waxy leaves and so forth, trying to keep the inside in and the outside out. But mosses don’t have that capacity and therefore they’re really intimate with their environment. And that means there is a relinquishment of control. When moss dries out, it dries out. But that’s not the end of the world. You just wait and it’ll be wet again. And, you know, no harm done. It’s that notion of control and having all needs satisfied—or all wants satisfied—at all times that, of course, our society and our economies have really propelled us toward. That notion that we’re entitled to the wealth of the world and to comfort and to convenience is pretty new for humans. And those comforts and conveniences themselves can be barriers to intimacy and connection and relationality because they make us think it’s all about us and our needs, which are not independent of the needs and desires of the millions of other species on the planet.

BLVR: I feel like moss has helped me learn about seasons as well. I lived in California before I moved up here to Oregon, and in California, there are only, like, two seasons, right? There’s a sunny season and there’s a rainy season. And you get kind of spoiled living in California, because so many fruits and vegetables are available year-round; you aren’t really in sync with the seasonal cycles. So after reading your book, I started growing some moss on my windowsill. When I first placed it there, I had this desire to keep watering it, even throughout the summer. What I noticed was that the moss was getting tired. It actually needed the summer to rest, because that’s the time when there isn’t water. And so for me it was a lesson: This is the season when rest is happening. I eventually learned to water the moss according to what was happening weather-wise. I learned to trust the cycles, but this wasn’t something I was used to doing.

RWK: Right, and you have to change your life with the seasons as well. I live in upstate New York with four very distinct seasons, and it’s like having four different lives, and you don’t try to control that; you become part of the flow and let it teach you. We just say, “Now is a chance to celebrate something else, to be part of something else in the cycle.” Being permeable to place and ecology can lead to taking advantage of abundance during times of plenty and then not asking for more. Being content with what has been given, finding sufficiency. To me, minimalism translates as a kind of gratitude, of cherishing what is being given. Like your mosses when you water them. You see it. They respond like, Ooh! Oh, thank you. That’s just what I needed. They use it well.

BLVR: It occurs to me that during a time like this, when people are wanting to speed back up even though there are these crises happening, we’re actually being taught to slow down. You write, “Knowledge cannot be taken; it must instead be given.” To me, this is also about patience, as well as paying attention and slowing down. So even if we have the desire to know things, we can’t just go out and take that knowledge. We have to sort of wait for it to come to us. We have to learn to sit and listen. As humans accustomed to our busy lives, we’re being asked to prescribe to a different type of attunement with the world—one that we aren’t used to. 

RWK: Yes, your reflection on that, Janice, makes me think of when I was teaching my Ecology of Mosses class when the pandemic arrived, and in a matter of a few days I had to dismiss my class and say, “Go home, dear ones. We’ll figure this out, together.” But I remember, in that moment, looking at their faces where they were, so distraught and so uncertain and wondering what was happening, as we all were and still are. And I wanted to give them some kind of comfort. So I said, “Well, what do you think the mosses would say about this time? What do mosses have to teach us about uncertainty?” And one of the things we settled on together was the power of staying home. Because mosses have, as you know, a strong sense of philopatry, that love of home. They live “here” in a very specific niche and not anyplace else (many of them). By staying home, people and mosses are able to engage in reciprocal relationships with place. That place is taking care of you, but in order for that to happen, you have to take care of that place, which mosses do, and which people can do when they are rooted in place. That was one of the things the students took away: Yeah, here’s my opportunity to slow down, to be in place, to invest in relationships that will keep us all going. One of the other things I was very moved by was the students’ remembering how mosses shut down and become still when dealing with stress. When things aren’t right, they pause, they wait, and that’s in essence what we’re being asked to do: to stay home, take care of one another, be minimalist for a little while, and all will be well. So I think the mosses are good teachers about how we might imagine this moment we’re living in.

II. “THE GRAMMAR OF ANIMACY”

BLVR: Your writings about the language of animacy have resonated with me, and I also love to teach them in my creative writing classes to encourage students to think deeply about all the things we take for granted in the English language. To me, it seems like we are in a time when language especially seems inadequate. I’ve personally had a hard time writing and focusing on projects. There is a lot I’m experiencing in terms of what is being communicated to me by the world, and I’m listening, cultivating relationships with the earth, the plants and animals, but all this direct experience feels outside of language. I’m a writer, and normally my impulse is to write everything down, but just recently I’ve been feeling this resistance, like I want to keep the experience as an experience and not translate it into language. How do you feel about the role of language in a troubled time or in our current time?

RWK: I absolutely understand what you’re saying. It’s embodied knowledge, right? It’s a really intuitive kind of knowledge that comes from lived experience. Even though I’m a writer and a lover of language, I’m also very aware of the way that language of any sort boxes us in and closes off a kind of broader experience of the world, which we do not access with language but with our senses and intuition. Written language privileges the intellect, but it also privileges sight, because we function not in the oral tradition but in the written tradition. When we put names on things, when we trap them in sentences, do we stop listening? Do we stop feeling? Do we rely so much on words to capture what is that we think that’s all there is? I worry that our education system privileges reading and literacy so much that I wonder if we have an opportunity to know the world without language.

This is often on my mind, especially as a grandma, because I have these little people in my life who are all excited about stories and words and learning their ABC’s. And that’s cool, but I don’t want it to be their only valid way to knowing the world. I want them to be fluent in discerning: What do you hear? Whose voice is that? What does this feel like? What does this smell like? What can we learn without words? I love doing that with my grandkids because they have fewer barriers to that kind of experiential learning. I hope they learn to trust what they hear and see and sense intuitively in a way that our profound reliance on literacy cuts us off from.

BLVR: As humans, we’ve had this whole lifetime of acculturation into language. What are some ways we might unlearn some of our dependence on its structures?

RWK: In my own teaching as a naturalist, as a botanist, as an ethno-botanist, the first thing people want to know is “What’s the name of that thing?,” which goes back to our grammar of animacy, right? Once they have a name for it, it’s almost as if I can see shades go down on their brain, like, OK, I’ve labeled it. Good. That’s all I really need to know. And so what I do with a lot of my students is to say, “I’m not going to tell you the name. Get down on your hands and knees. Smell it, touch it, watch who it interacts with: What’s its story? And if you fully engage with that being, you will come up with a name after having gotten to know it a little bit.” They’ve all commented, of course, that “I will never forget that plant because I entered into a relationship with it. I used my whole self to come to know it. I didn’t just go, ‘Yep, that’s Abies balsamea. That’s all I need.’” So I think reawakening and trusting the knowledge that we can gain just by looking and sensing and smelling especially—that’s such an underused way of experiencing the world.

BLVR: Do you feel that maybe Indigenous languages allow for that relationality to happen more? In English, for example, we have more nouns than some other languages, right? It’s so much more about objects and calling things by name and having distinct categories. This is this, this is that. Even around the idea of personhood. It’s not even just that in Indigenous cultures everything is granted personhood. Actually, it was never something to be granted in the first place, whereas in English, because we have these labels, we decide that we’re going to assign names and personhood to other beings as if granting them promotion.

RWK: Right! I know! In Braiding Sweetgrass, I play with that idea, wondering what it would be like if [Carl] Linnaeus, the “father of Western taxonomy,” met the great namer of our Potawatomi people, Nanabozho, who didn’t just stamp a name of his choice on others. It was said that the names he learned came from getting to know those other beings so well that they told him what their names were. Which is so different from that command-and-control notion of I, Linnaeus, dub you Abies balsamea. That is a kind of ownership, as well as an objectification, and a kind of control for sure. As opposed to recognizing the sovereignty of other beings who already have their own names.

All I can really speak to is my own language [Potawatomi], of which I’m a student, but I also know this is true of many other Indigenous languages, which are verb-based; the language is all about acts of being. It isn’t about naming and holding things in place. It’s that everything is always becoming and changing. That’s evident not only in the verbs themselves but in all the different nuances of how they are conjugated. All the conjugations refer to a relationship of who’s doing what to whom and where they are doing it. Such as What was the color of the sky at the moment? There might be a different word for that. So it’s immensely complicated, but for a very good reason: to capture this shifting mosaic of relationship. And it’s very different from English, which tends to put things in boxes and then they don’t change. It’s no accident that English is the language of capitalism, as a noun-based language of objects and things. When you were asking about whether relationality is present in the language, at least in my language, I’d say yes, in its verbiness, in its construction that always indicates who is acting upon another, but also in the sound of the words. We are told that our language is of the land. Sometimes I like to listen, even though I may have no idea what people are saying, because [their speech] sounds like wind; it sounds like water on rocks with little birdcalls here and there; it absolutely sounds like the land. That notion of the land being our library, the land being our teacher, is present in the sounds of our language.

BLVR: That makes me think of the poetry collection Tree Talks: Southern Arizona by Wendy Burk. She conducted these interviews with various trees in Arizona, where she lives. The interviews might look like gibberish to some, because there are these mysterious slashes and punctuation marks on the page. The transcriptions, though, aren’t exactly what the trees are “speaking back.” My students pointed out, “These aren’t actually the responses of the trees. She’s just transcribing the landscape. She’s including noises like the squirrels or cars or the wind.” So we talked about: Well, what does a talking tree sound like, anyway? Would a tree have a voice that we would recognize the way that human speech is recognizable? Or are all of the noises and sounds that constitute the entire landscape all related to what the tree is saying? I thought the book was such an interesting experiment of transcribing what is paid attention to in the ecosystem, but it also brings up all these questions. When we have conversations with plants or animals, of course they’re not going to look like conversations we have with one another.

RWK: Oh, thank you for this reference to her work. One of my current writing projects is exploring this, trying to feature a botanical protagonist. And I wrestle every moment with this question of: How do they sound? Because it isn’t about the noise they make. How do I express what they are communicating? It’s not “The leaves are rustling.” That’s not language; that’s noise, in the way I’m conceiving of it. But how would we know? It’s that intuitive language, which is language-free, at least the way I’m getting around it in this writing, but also how I have experienced it. It is as if by listening with your whole self, you know something you didn’t know before. And it’s not like there were words in your head. It’s not like hearing voices coming from the tree trunk. I could not tell you what the words were; it’s a kind of language-less knowing, which is probably just the tiniest fragment of what’s there.

BLVR: It feels like telepathy to me. I think about the root of the word telepathy, which is just “to feel at a distance.” It’s not reading anybody’s mind; it’s feeling at a distance. And that to me feels like a really nice way to articulate what happens if I’m in a forest. I’m feeling what’s happening, and it’s not in language. It’s not even necessarily an image; it’s just this feeling and understanding and knowing that occurs.

RWK: Yeah, but once you experience it and accept that, it seems so clear, and yet so hard to explain. So I’m glad that you know what I’m talking about.

BLVR: This is why I have such a hard time putting things into language.

RWK: Oh, yeah, it changes the meaning, and then when it is framed as words, it can become contested. And that’s not the point at all. The relationship is the point.

III. THE CHESTNUT BLIGHT

BLVR: I wonder if you might speak more about how gratitude is present in Potawatomi. I think English is a language that communicates wanting and lacking: I own this. I want this. It’s a lot about control, and that dominance is built into the structure of the grammar itself. In terms of thinking about relationality, it seems that Indigenous languages are much more about abundance and gratitude. It seems easier to express gratitude in the language itself, rather than having to go out of your way.

RWK: I was once told by a language teacher that the phrase thank you is also a relatively new part of our language. And you might say, Well, wait, that doesn’t seem consistent if you characterize Potawatomi culture as a culture of gratitude. It may be as much about what we don’t have words for as what we do, because I’m told we didn’t need that [phrase] because of the underlying assumption of gratitude. Our worldviews and our ways are absolutely grounded in recognition of the abundance of the gifts of the earth. There is the understanding that all these other persons around us—the maple people, the beaver people, the deer people, the berry people—all of them are sharing with us, according to our Original Instructions. And that’s maybe one of the reasons we didn’t have explicit words for thank you. In our worldview, we’re all told that we each received original instructions when we were given the gift of life. And our gift, which is also our responsibility, might be to feed birds or to feed people or to keep people warm or to heal people or to heal trees. And so that is your role in the world and you are fulfilling it, and so that doesn’t require, in a sense, a special thank you for you being you. It is an acceptance that you are doing what the creator asked you to do. And I am just totally freewheeling on that, Janice. I’ve not heard people talk about that. That’s my conjecture about why it’s relatively new.

But absolutely we live in cultures of gratitude, where it’s understood that we are completely beholden to other beings for our lives, and our ceremonial lives are expressions of that gratitude. Our ceremonial lives transcend, of course, what in Western society would be secular. Going out to the garden and harvesting corn, which I was doing this morning: Is that a sacred activity? Or is that just garden work? There’s no distinction. Of course it’s sacred work. Those beautiful corn plants that went from a seed to plants that are twelve feet tall: that is a sacred act. There’s so much manifestation of life. I think the permeability between the sacred and the secular in our worldview can make it difficult to create those categories that Western people are used to: This is secular; this is sacred. This happens on Sunday (or Friday or Saturday), as opposed to being a way of life.

BLVR: In Braiding Sweetgrass, you write, “A gift creates ongoing relationship.”And medicine is not only about healing, about something that makes you better physically, but about something that improves your relationship to the world, that brings balance and alignment. So everything can be medicine. I wonder about the medicine of our time right now: with everything going on, people having to slow down, with the economy, with the pandemic. I feel like people are having to learn some really difficult lessons during this time, and there’s a lot of grief and loss. But I think that there’s a lot of medicine, potentially, in that.

RWK: I agree completely. I’ve been trying to write about that very thing: What if this is the medicine? Slowing down, knowing what’s really important. I can’t help but think that [this time] is medicine in so many different ways. It is a medicine for our human exceptionalism. The virus is reminding us that we, too, are subject to natural law. We are not different. I’ve been thinking so much in this time about chestnut trees and the pandemic of the chestnut blight. What must their grief have been like as entire forests of chestnuts were gone? We’re in the same situation. All living beings are vulnerable to these kinds of cataclysms. Can the medicine increase our ecological empathy? Not just for chestnuts, who experienced a terrible pandemic, or elm trees or ash trees or you name it—frogs, bats. We have a kind of solidarity with them now that we might not have had before.

In the springtime, we were closing down and staying in our homes at the same time as the birds’ lives were burgeoning around us. As the pandemic came upon us, we began asking: Where am I going to get food? How are we going to go to the grocery store? Will my family be OK? Where can I go to be safe? I thought, Dang, birds face that same kind of vulnerability every single day. Where is my food going to come from, because you people cut down the last place I know to get those berries? I’m worried that if I go out, I could die. Will my family be OK? That’s what it’s like to be a bluebird. The medicine we need comes with that ecological compassion. If we can see that the vulnerability we feel is the very vulnerability that we inflict on the natural world by our actions, then it’s worth it. That’s a powerful lesson to learn. I don’t know that in this moment we’re learning it. It takes time for these things to sink in. When you get out of yourself and your worries about your own life, maybe we will learn those things later.

I was also thinking about this yesterday, as I’ve been picking a lot of medicine. It’s that time of year. The elderberries are a really great antiviral medicine, and the patches of it here on the farm are so abundant. There’s ten times the usual amount of elderberries this season, and my freezer is full. I’m wondering,What does this sudden abundance mean? What does it mean that in this moment this particular medicine is coming so strongly? I’m not quite sure what to make of it, but it certainly has my attention and my gratitude. 

IV. A REALLY BIG WE

BLVR: “The dandelions are prophesizing.” This phrase came to me recently in a meditation and keeps returning to me, and I’ve been thinking a lot about prophecy, not as prediction of the future, but as an expansion of the present. I think about dandelions and their seeds and the way they spread. Some of those seeds will just get lost, but also many of those seeds when they land will be broken open, and that act of breaking open encompasses so much about hope amid grief. You need to be broken open in order to grow. There’s a real power in that vulnerability and that uncertainty, and I think a lot of people right now are waiting for things to go back to normal, which they never will, but a lot of people are worried about, Oh, well, how do I make this decision if I don’t know what’s going to happen in the next year? I don’t know what the economy is going to be like. Do I buy a house? Do I take this job? It occurs to me that we really have been operating under the assumption that we did control all these things. And now we’re really learning that, actually, we never controlled any of them. They were always uncertain. Control was an illusion.

RWK: Right. I think that’s part of the medicine, again: that idea of knowing that natural law applies to us too. And we can view that with fear because of our long illusion of control, but it also comes with this profound sense of kinship. Like you see on all the bumper stickers: WE’RE IN THIS TOGETHER. Yeah, we are. And that we is a big inclusive we. In Potawatomi, we have two cases for we. We have the inclusive we and we have the exclusive we. We have the we that includes you and me and the we that doesn’t include you. I think that’s a really interesting phenomenon. When we say we, what do we mean? This is an opportunity to have it be a big we, a really big we. We are all earthly beings, human and non-, and all are subject to the same forces of nature. I know that some people might perceive the attempt to dethrone human exceptionalism as a real threat, but to me it’s a kind of wonderful liberation. A liberation into kinship to say, Oh my gosh, there are other intelligences around us. We don’t have to figure all this out for ourselves. There are others who are far better at this than we are, including the mosses. They’ve been around for 350 million years. They’ve seen every climate change, every pandemic, shifting continents, volcanoes, everything that’s happened. They have endured through it. What does it mean to be successful, then, when most species in that length of time have gone extinct? But the mosses are almost unchanged from the beginning. That to me suggests a different notion of what it means to be successful. Not to be the biggest, the most powerful, or in control, but to have longevity in living well on the earth.

BLVR: How do you think about your relationship to your ancestors? Both your human ancestors, but also your plant and animal ancestors, all the entities that have preceded us. What redemption work might be happening through you and through them? What might you say to people who are struggling in this way around ancestor work? I’m thinking especially of white people and the history they need to face.

RWK: I feel so wholly the presence of my ancestors that I can’t offer much guidance to anyone else about how to find it. It just is for me. But I would say to encourage folks to know the people they came from. I feel often that we are the dream of our ancestors. I am the dream of my ancestors. They could have had no idea what our daily lives would be like, that you and I would be talking to each across the country, but they had such hope for us as human people to live good lives and to overcome the suffering that is present in every single generation. And I feel that suffering. The work I do comes directly out of the story of my grandpa being taken to the boarding schools where his culture was taken from him. Any little bit of work I am doing to try to find and make visible again those ways of knowing is because I have a responsibility to those ancestors who held that knowledge, that way of being, against all odds. And if I have a chance to cherish it, to hold it, and to breathe a little life on that ember of culture, to keep the fire alive, then I have to do that because they did that for me. It’s a sense of real accountability to history. But we can’t think about our ancestors without thinking about our descendants. It’s the same as to blow on that coal so you can pass it on to the next generation. There is plenty of pain and suffering and injustice in every single thread, and that creates for us the awareness of our responsibility for healing. Yes, we grieve the suffering of our ancestors, and in this moment, I am sad to say that I am grieving the future that my descendants may inherit. But that grief is a measure of our love and has to activate us to blow on that coal.

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