‘Every breath we take was given to us by plants’: Robin Wall Kimmerer on climate change and Covid-19

The author of Braiding Sweetgrass has become a trusted voice in the era of climate catastrophe. She tells Lucy Jones how we can find hope in the living world around us

Lucy Jones

When I mention I’m interviewing Robin Wall Kimmerer, the indigenous environmental scientist and author, to certain friends, they swoon. Kimmerer, who is from New York, has become a cult figure for nature-heads since the release of her first book Gathering Moss (published by Oregon State University Press in 2003, when she was 50, well into her career as a botanist and professor at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, New York).

The release of Braiding Sweetgrass a decade later only confirmed their affinity. A collection of essays that weaves indigenous wisdom, decades of scientific knowledge and the teachings of plants, Braiding Sweetgrass influenced my thinking and the spirit of my latest book Losing Eden more than perhaps any other. For many, it is a kind of eco-Bible. It taught me to remember things I didn’t know I’d forgotten: how the living world is a feast of beauty and colour. How the plants, which provide our food and our breath, are gifts; that we can still learn from them today. How to imagine a different relationship with the rest of nature, at a time of declining numbers of swifts, hedgehogs, ancient woodlands.

It is a way of seeing which feels more essential than ever in our current planetary crisis. And, like a stone gathering moss, Kimmerer’s success has grown over the past decade. As children strike from school over climate inaction, amid wider-spread concern about biodiversity loss and species decline, and governments - hell, even Davos - taking the long-term health of the planet a little more seriously, people are looking to Native American and indigenous perspectives to solve environmental and sustainability problems.

'It was a deeply personal thing that I wanted to put on the page'

Earlier this year, Braiding Sweetgrass – originally published published by the independent non-profit Milkweed Editions – found its way into the NYT bestseller list after support from high-profile writers such as Richard Powers and Robert Macfarlane bolstered the book’s cult-like appeal and a growing collective longing for a renewed connection with the natural world. It will be published in the UK by Allen Lane this month. Did she expect its trajectory?

‘I had no idea,’ she says. ‘It was a deeply personal thing that I wanted to put on the page.’

Kimmerer’s intention when writing the book was to reflect the shared values of an indigenous world - she is a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation - as well as the scientific learning she has trained in (her PhD in plant ecology followed a Master’s at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and then she returned to her graduate alma mater SUNY, where she’s taught for nearly 20 years). She hoped ‘it would be a kind of medicine for our relationship with the living world.’

She’s at home in rural upstate New York, a couple of weeks into isolation, when we speak. The maple trees are just starting to bud following syrup season and those ‘little green shoots are starting to push up’. ‘I try to go into the woods every day,’ she says. ‘I saw spring onions on my walk last week, and little hints of the trillium and the violets, all of those who are waking up.’

Notice the pronouns. Those. Who. Are. The language she chooses gives the spring flowers personhood and respect, elevating them from mere objects. It is a hallmark of the language of Sweetgrass. It reminded me of the kinship we might have felt as young children, which I see now in my three-year-old - when spiders and woodlice and bumblebees were hes or shes - friends - instead of its or pests.

'We’re remembering what it would be like to live in a world where there is ecological justice'

The ethos of Braiding Sweetgrass was ahead of its time, even though much of its wisdom is from Kimmerer’s ancestors. How does she reflect on this current moment we are in, where growing climate awareness can feel hopeful, but then, well, HS2 work is still ongoing and climate change denial is also still mainstream, and have I brought children into a world that is doomed?

‘We are in the midst of a great remembering,’ she says. ‘We’re remembering what it would be like to live in a world where there is ecological justice, where other species would look at us and say those are good people, we’re glad that this species is among us. We’re remembering that we want to be kinfolk with all the rest of the living world. When we remember that we want this, this profound sense of belonging to the world, that really opens our grief because we recognise that we aren’t.’

It’s a painful but powerful moment, she says, but it’s also a medicine. ‘The grief opens the wound, that’s what grief is for, to compel us and give us a motive for love.’

This makes sense to me. The best thing I’ve found to deal with ecological grief is joining with my neighbours to rewild a patch of common land at the back of our houses. Elsewhere, there are many rewilding projects, community gardens, horticultural and other nature-based therapies and, right now, in the pandemic, a huge surge in a desire to grow things and tune in to the living world again.

We talk about the global pandemic crisis, the grief of families, the destruction and vulnerability. Ever the teacher, Kimmerer wonders if there might be a moment of learning for us, that it might be an opening to greater compassion and kinship, ‘as we huddle in our metaphorical burrows’, she says, comparing us to the animals sheltering from the Australian wildfires.

Kimmerer hopes we will be ‘different-better’ on the other side of this. It depends what we bring to the healing afterwards. ‘Do we jump right into the old business as usual or will we have learned something?’

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