For Pagans the Sacred encompasses us all, rivers and mountains, oceans and deserts, grasses and trees, fish and fungi, birds and animals. Understanding the implications of what this means and how to experience it first hand involves our growing individually and as a community well beyond the limits of this autistic civilization. All Our Relations exists to help fertilize this transition.
A review essay on Robin Wall Kimmerer’s "Braiding Sweetgrass"
The lost world
Our EuroPagan traditions were last practiced centuries ago. Traditions that had developed in an unbroken sequence since the Pleistocene are gone. Some folklore, myths and sagas have come down to us. Some writings have survived, especially from Greece and Rome. These bits and pieces remain, but like fossils, they are far removed from their ecosystems and relationships.
This is even true of the writings. The philosophical schools of antiquity were not like the schools of today. Aristotle studied with Plato for 20 years, until Plato died. And he was not a slow student. Plato emphasized his most important teachings were never written down. They are gone forever. These ‘schools’ were more like ashrams than today’s universities.
Pagan life was lived more through practice than through learning in our sense of the word. But the day to day practices by which Pagan insights manifested in a way of life are forgotten. Surviving clues hint at an entire world has been lost to us.
For example, in the Phaedrus Socrates suddenly went into trance and a spirit spoke through him. He endorsed divinely sent madness. Even more significantly, no one in the dialogue was surprised. This kind of thing happened in Pagan Greece. Socrates’ teachings were highly controversial, his going into trance was not. Today the opposite is true.
If Pagans today are to become more than the polytheistic equivalent of “Sunday Christians,” this is the world we need to re-enter, and integrate with our modern one.
Teachers for our time
Among America’s indigenous peoples the religious and cultural loss was much more recent and bad as it was, not as complete. Disease and genocide ravaged these mostly oral cultures. The subsequent culture war against the survivors sought to destroy their soul. Children were seized from their families, and taken to ‘residential schools’ where they were forbidden to speak their language and subjected to totalitarian indoctrination. As the founder of these schools, Col. Richard Pratt, said 1892, "all the Indian there is in the race should be dead." Those who survived physically returned mostly ignorant of their tribe, its culture and values. Surviving elders sought to teach those still interested, but until well into the 20th century it was illegal for many Indian people to practice their religion, First Amendment be damned.
But compared to what happened earlier in Europe, much survived. I have spoken with a Crow Sun Dance priest who remembered as a small boy going into remote parts of his reservation to watch outlawed Sun Dances. As more Native Americans became interested in reconnecting with their past, it has begun to reconstitute itself. Unlike religions based on texts, so long as life exists the lessons are there for those with eyes to see and hearts to feel. Spirit is always speaking, it is we who are often hard of hearing.
Today modern American NeoPagans are making the first steps along a long spiritual moral and intellectual journey to free our society from the accumulated pathologies of nearly 2000 years of monotheistic monopoly on the human spirit, in religion, in society, and in government. Such a long period of suppression of all ideas not approved by those in authority led to a vast forgetting of what once was known and equally vast reordering of how we think about what we do know.
When that monotheistic monoculture began to collapse the first bursting of its limits often manifested in nihilism: the belief that anything goes because there is no meaning. The only value model Westerners knew was monotheistic, and if “God is dead,” as Nietzsche saw more clearly than any before him, nihilism seemed the alternative.
“Are we not perpetually falling? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is it not more and more night coming on all the time?”
I consider nihilism a connecting feature between many on the political right and the university left. This poisonous residue of rejected monotheism still afflicts us. But that’s another essay.
We Pagans are entering a new era as part of a gradual recovery from monotheism and its cultural residue. We are rediscovering the meaning that has always existed. But we are not very far into this journey. We learn rituals and go through initiations, and successful rituals and initiations show us we can connect with the more-than-human, and that it will respond. But then what? How do we walk through that door wisely?
We are hampered by a shortage of elders, trusted teachers to help us along this path. There is so much to unlearn as well as to learn. And often we need to discover both by ourselves because, as in Plato’s cave, we are surrounded by the blind who think they can see.
Robin Wall Kimmerer is one of the teachers who can help us rediscover the best of the world we have lost and seek to rediscover, and combine it with the best of the world we have. She is a respected university professor, botanist, ecologist, noted writer, and Potawatomi Indian. Kimmerer is a modern scientist who has re-engaged with traditional Native American elders and their practices. In my opinion her Braiding Sweetgrass, should hold a place of honor on every thoughtful Pagan’s bookshelves.
A language of animacy
After listening to elders at a Pow Wow she vowed to learn Potawatomi, her people’s language, a language in danger of extinction. In one of her most important chapters “Learning the Grammar of Animacy,” Kimmerer recounts the transformative impact of immersing herself within a language so deeply different from English.
English is a language with far more nouns than verbs. Potawatomi is a language of relatively few nouns and a great many verbs. English is a language that frames the world as mostly inanimate, Potawatomi frames the world as mostly living actions. English is easily compatible with seeing the world as lifeless ‘its’. It easily embraces a Protestant view of the world as stuff created for us by God, without value except as tools and resources for our use. Potawatomi invites seeing the world as living subjects; many independent peoples worthy of respect. From a traditional Potawatomi perspective modern English speakers relate to the natural world much as a sociopath relates to other people. Sociopaths do not appreciate what they are missing. Neither do we. But our eyes can be opened if we take the time to try.
Of course not all English speakers are guilty of this failing and I am sure the Potawatomi have their share of sociopaths. But our languages frame and shape our perceptions, what we see and notice as contrasted with what we do not see. They are not simply neutral transmission belts for communication. As Kimmerer got more proficient with Potawatomi she began to experience her world differently.
What in English we call a hill, a noun, in Potawatomi is a verb translated as “to be a hill.” The same is true for much else. Even stories, which reminded me of the Western mystery tradition view of thought forms.
Perceiving the world in this way is very different from perceiving it as we are encouraged to by our language. Kimmerer writes “Imagine your grandmother standing at the stove in her apron, and then saying of her, ‘Look, it is making soup. It has grey hair.” … In English we never refer to a member of our family, or indeed to any person, as an it. . . . we use the same words to address the living world as we use for our family. Because they are our family.” (55) This insight is hardly unique to the Potawatomi. It is ubiquitous among many tribes, as in the well known Lakota phrase: Mitakuye Oyasin.
A living world is a world of reciprocal relationships. They can be healthy or unhealthy, wise or foolish, but they can never be expressed as those between a subject and an mere object. A world of reciprocity recognizes we are always immersed within value laden relationships. It is as far from the world of Ayn Rand as it can get.
Such a world encourages a “gift economy.” What keeps such an economy alive is not “rational self interest,” the standard of so much modern ethics, but rather respect. Living in a gift economy comes alive in her pages, I cannot do them justice here. But one thing is clear acquiring ever more is an ethic for a world of objects. It is captured by the bumper sticker of a few years ago: “He who dies with the most toys wins.” In a world of relationships the same attitude is called greed. And greed destroys the relationships needed for sustainability and harmony, as the insane denial of global warming illustrates. As Kimmerer observes, “Cautionary stories of the consequences of taking too much are unbquitous in Native cultures, but it is hard to recall a single one in English.” (179)
Kimmerer does not solve the tension between the modern commodity economy and a living world, but she helps us grasp what that tension is, and why it matters. (I believe there are solutions, but that is another essay, even a book.)
Kimmerer’s shift in perception did not lead to her give up science, which she continues to practice. Rather, she became “bilingual,” and her life was enriched and deepened as a result. Without rejecting modernity Kimmerer shows how everything is transformed. And she does so beautifully, with great heart and a razor sharp mind.
We do not need to learn Potawatomi. But we can learn to become more aware of how language biases in our thinking and shapes our perceptions in ways at variance with our religious and spiritual experience. Many of us are part way there already, for we understand R. Buckminister Fuller’s observation “I seem to be a verb.” I think Kimmerer would add “And so is most everything else.”
I have given a brief description of but one chapter in a book of many chapters, chapters which I believe are best read one at a time and then allowed to sink in a while before going on to another.
A feast of riches
I think her main theme of interest to Pagans, is her contrasting the dead world of modern philosophy, religion and economy, where what is valuable is valuable because it can be transformed into something not itself, to a living world most appropriately characterized by relations of respect, etiquette, and the economy of gifts. She does so through stories, autobiography, and the rhythms of daily life, unlike yours truly’s more academic presentations.
In my terms the first world has no intrinsic value and the second is defined by it. The perspective she gives help deepen our understanding of our Wheel of the Year and integrate its insights into our day to day lives, not by becoming Indians but by learning respectfully from them. The Potawatomi and other Pagan peoples of this place lived lives punctuated by countless ritual and ceremonial observances. Not just the big moments equivalent to our Sabbats and Esbats, but every day. An inspirited world is a world without a sharp division between the sacred and the profane, and the same ideally holds in our spiritual practices. Such observances do not have to be primordial or indigenous. Kimmerer describes growing up with the “coffee ceremony,” and how important it was. She writes “ceremonies transcend the boundaries of the individual and resonate beyond the human realm.” (249) As we integrate them into our lives we integrate our lives into the more than human. What distinguishes between living in this way and living in a purely modern way is our way of relating, rather than anything about that with which we relate. Verbs again.
The importance of a culture of gratitude (106) is a central message of her book. As Kimmerer demonstrates, life can be lived both very practically and in connection with the sacred. Respect and gratitude provide the link. Her favorite practice of gratitude is the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address. It has become a daily prayer for many traditional Indians and happily replaces the Pledge of Allegiance in more traditional Indian schools. (112) I think a similar recognition would be of great benefit for our own community. How nice it would be if every Pagan gathering opened with a NeoPagan version of the Thanksgiving Address.
Such a practice is more than simply words. It has power. I know that during the greatest crisis of my life learning to give sincere thanks for all that had precipitated the greatest misery I had ever suffered is probably the only reason I am writing today. And there is so much more immediately positive for which to be grateful. We do not need to wait for crises.
There is so much more here. Each chapter stands on its own even as it helps deepen our understanding of those that went before and come later. I recommend reading Braiding Sweetgrass one chapter at a time. Enjoy and savor each course as if it were in an unusually rich meal.
A personal comment
Kimmerer’s book is so beautifully written I repeated the same mistake I had made when first reading Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac. I believe it is the most profound book a EuroAmerican has ever written about nature. But for me at first Leopold’s book seemed little more than beautiful animal stories and a memorable but underdeveloped account of the philosophical framework behind them. Later I repeatedly re-read it while teaching it. I was amazed at how much more insightful he became with each reading. Bit by bit Leopold was teaching me to see, and not just to think abstractly.
Kimmerer does the same, but from the perspective of a Native woman. Leopold hunted and she has extraordinary knowledge if the plant world. Learning about this is one of the many side benefits of reading her book. Her title fits. She also gives more explicit attention to the need for and a case for a radical alternative to the dominant Western world view. I think Leopold would have agreed, but given when he wrote, he had to touch upon this dimension carefully. It is there but subtly so, and easily missed. Most do. They will not when reading Braiding Sweetgrass.
When I went back to her book the better to write this essay, the same dynamic happened. Kimmerer had become so much deeper, so much more insightful! I had already decided to write a review for Witches and Pagans before my second examination, but its real depth became apparent to me only after that second exposure.
I think my missing important truths I later found was because we scholars are taught to distrust beauty as a distraction from truth, which is impersonal. Beauty is supposedly a seducer blinding the light of our reason. For Leopold, for Kimmerer, and I suggest, for wise Pagans, beauty is a part of what is most real. Accepting this is part of the unlearning she can help us achieve before we can begin to see our way more clearly. For it is a beautiful book.
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