Robin Wall Kimmerer was never supposed to be on the bestseller lists. A mother, a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, and a State University of New York distinguished teaching professor, she writes essays that encourage greater ecological awareness and recognition of the reciprocal relationship between humans and the natural world — which are all too often the opposite of everything our culture supposedly values.
Her 2013 book, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, is about plants, weeding her garden, environmental sustainability, and wisdom she has picked up along the way. “I was deeply skeptical that anyone would want to read this book,” laughs Kimmerer today, after a surprise year atop the New York Times bestseller list. “My intent was to share my stories.
“As a teacher, as someone deeply involved in environmental thinking, I thought: Maybe I should see if this way I live in the world — a perception of the world as gift to which you respond with gratitude and reciprocity — resonates with anyone outside my usual publication world of science and academia.”
The world might not have been ready to think deeply about sustainability when the book was first published, might not have been ready, in Kimmerer’s words, “to think of the world not as stuff, but as gift,” but people are ready now.
We asked Kimmerer about her strategies for better living through perceptivity, and she shared her day-to-day ways of being alert to beauty, regeneration, and wisdom in our big, beautiful, troubled world.
“One of the things essential for my own well-being is time outside,” says Kimmerer. “I hope it doesn’t sound flip, but my greatest advice is: Go outside. My best writing comes when I’ve done something physical — weeding the garden, stacking firewood — any of those tasks that demand your whole body and therefore free your mind. When I come back, I feel so grounded, as if body and mind are reunited.”
Cultivate a Garden
“Above all else, I think it’s important that each of us create a relationship with the living world and bring out our inherent curiosity and wonder. There are powerful economic forces that want to keep us from growing our own food, from the fact that there’s medicine in just being outside moving in nature. Out in nature, your heart rate goes down, your inflammation lowers. We suffer what’s been called nature-deficit disorder.”
See a Way Forward
Kimmerer meets a lot of people suffering from climate grief, people without a clear sense of what a good future might hold, for them or their children or grandchildren. “When people realize all is not lost, that there are indigenous ways of sustaining ourselves and the land and water, they feel so much better. It is absolutely essential we reevaluate ourselves as part of an ecosystem and learn to see ourselves in a system of mutual responsibility. We don’t need to live in a system of crisis and helplessness.”
Live as if You Mean it
“The river does not ask you where you are from before you take a drink; it takes care of all of us. If a river gives us a drink, we have to reciprocate. Protect it, make sure it isn’t struggling with pollution. Live as if you mean it — not as if you were passing through, but as if this was the home of your children.”
This article originally appeared as “Giving Back” in the December 2022 issue of Experience Life.
Looking for inspiration for your next book club read? Explore these books that have been featured in Experience Life.