Robin Kimmerer: ‘Take What Is Given to You’

What happened to the world I knew?

Robin Kimmerer, Potawatomi Indigenous ecologist, author, and professor, asks this question as she ponders the fleeting existence of our sister species—species such as the passenger pigeon, who became extinct a century ago. She asks this question as she tells the stories of Native American displacement, which forever changed the lives of her ancestors. And she asks this question as she bears witness to global climate change, the disturbance of natural habitats, and the destruction of native lands.

In her presentation at the 2014 Bioneers Conference, Kimmerer brings to life the heartbreak inherent in the commoditization of nature and human development without reverence for Mother Earth. Listen to her story by watching the video below or reading the transcript that follows.

I want to say at the outset that I will not tell you anything today that you don’t already know, but we forget, we human people … our elders have told us that our job is to remember. To remember. That’s where the stories come in, because once upon a time, the skies over the Potawatomi homelands carried flocks of birds so vast they darkened the sky. They could take days to pass by overhead; flocks so large that their collective weight in roosting broke off the limbs of trees.

It was 100 years ago this fall on September 1, 1914 that the last passenger pigeon passed from this Earth. She was known as Martha, and she lived all alone in the Cincinnati zoo. In this time of accelerating species loss, this centennial commemoration of her death has really weighed very heavily on my shoulders. So I dedicate this talk today to her.

I was surprised to find that while a knew a fair bit about the extinction of the passenger pigeon. I knew relatively little of their lives. So I started reading. I read about their communal nesting, all wing to wing, the way they cherish their single egg, how they shape the forest with their feasting on oaks, and how they came like a distant wind and settled by the thousands to roost, conversing with one another—mothers, children, relatives of all kinds—in the voices which linger in the name that our people bestowed upon them. We called them “omimi.”

I was also fascinated to learn about how the lives of omimi intercepted with the lives of my Potawatomi ancestors … how many of our people understood the great flocks as flocks of departed souls, and how today we wear bird clan regalia of red and blue in their honor. And that one of the early chroniclers of the abundance of omimi was none other than Simon Pokagon, a Potawatomi leader, who described them, as it was proverbial among our fathers, that if the great spirit in his wisdom could have created a more elegant bird in plumage, form and movement, he never did. Among Simon Pokagon’s people up there on the St. Joseph River was a leader who had a daughter named Shinoda, “the wind blowing through,” and she was my great, great, many greats grandmother.

Like omimi, they moved about the landscape together too, making their lives in the oak forest where they, too, feasted on acorns, set their lodges in communal circles, and relatives of all kinds, wing to wing, cherishing their single offspring. They gathered around the fire at night to tell stories.

But someone else wanted those forests for farms, and the birds became a threat to the crops. And so, 1838 was a year in which passenger pigeons were killed by the thousands in traps, with shotguns, in nests, packed in salt and sent by trainloads back to the East. The birds became fewer, and so our people became fewer.

Our Potawatomi people were canoe people. Our lodges were built on cold, blue lakes under the birches and the pines, lakes that rang with the voices of loons. Our Potawatomi people were canoe people until they made us walk, until someone else wanted that forest, and we were marched away at gunpoint from all that we knew … marched from Michigan to Kansas in what became known as the Trail of Death. I imagine my grandma, Shinoda’s hand just trailing over her beloved medicine plants as she walked away from them, saying a silent farewell to maples.

We should ask them about climate change. In a single season, they lived it. What is it like to exchange a cool, lush forest for a hot, dusty grassland? Lakes for dry riverbeds? Baskets of wild rice for sacks of weevily flour? Loons for—well, there is no replacement for loons.

When I found the photograph of Martha, I felt in her gaze a lament. How could something so beautiful, so ancient, so prolific simply vanish? What happened to the sound of their wings and where did everybody go? What happened to the world I knew?

And you know what? Every time I looked at that photograph, I felt my great grandmother’s voice tugging at my sleeve. Born on the shores of Lake Michigan and buried on the Kansas prairie, she probably said it too. How could something so beautiful, so ancient, so prolific just go away? What happened to the world I used to know?

Climate change is a major driver of species extinction. On average, we lose 200 species every day. Every day. Shouldn’t we be looking over our shoulder and saying goodbye as well? Because the stories of our people and the stories of omimi converge, for both were swept away by the same wind, and we know what happens when two winds, two weatherfronts collide—great turbulence and often suffering for the ones below. Two winds, two worldviews, met on this continent … worldviews which color our relations with the living land, which shape our answer to the question of: What does land mean? A worldview in which land was understood as sacred, as our sustainer, our pharmacy, our identity, our home, our library, the place where we play out our moral responsibility in return for our very lives, peopled with our non-human relatives.

This is a way of being in which the tar sands are unthinkable. This view of the Earth suddenly encountered another view, a kind of climate change in values. The whole notion of land as a set of relationships and moral responsibilities was replaced by the notion of land as rights, rights to land as property, and what our people called the gifts of the land suddenly became natural resources, ecosystem services and capital. Nature as family became nature as machine, and our non-human relatives, our teachers, became mere objects for consumption. This is a way of being that invites us to the tar sands.

This is the same question that has us teetering on the precipice of unparalleled extinction and climate chaos. Is the land a source of belongings or a source of belonging?

The turbulence of the clash of worldviews spawned the wind that tried to blow away the Potawatomi and propelled the extinction of the most abundant bird on Earth, and we need to remember and name this heartbreak because that same wind still threatens us all, and its temperature is rising.

You should know that the story of Martha and my grandmother, Shinoda, are foretold in the Anishinaabe teachings, the people of the Seventh Fire. It’s an ancient teaching which could not be more urgent, for unlike our sister species, omimi, we are still here—with teachings that enable survival and resilience, teachings that the Earth asks for today.

In the teachings of the Seventh Fire are the history of our people, and I’ll share just a tiny fragment of it today, each fire refers to an era in the history of our people. It’s the story of our origins, our migration, and of our great teachers who warned of the changes that were to come.

The teachings told about a time when the people would become separated from their homelands and from each other, forbidden by law to practice our religions, speak our own languages. A whole way of knowing was threatened with extinction. It was said that there would come a time when you could no longer dip your cup into a stream and drink, when the air would become too thick to breathe, and when even the plants and animals will begin to turn their faces away from us. This, too, we know has come to pass.

But it’s a story of hope as well, because the Seventh Fire teachings spoke of a time when all of the world’s people would come to a fork in the road and stand there together with a choice to make. In my imagination, one path is soft and green, all grassy and spangled with dew and you want to walk barefoot there. But the other path is burnt, and it’s black and it’s all cinders; it would cut your feet. Prophecy has become history, for at this time when the world as we know it hangs in the balance, we know we are at that crossroads.

The prophecies of the Seventh Fire tell us that if we want to choose that green path, we first have to turn back along the path that our ancestors left for us and pick up the teachings that they gave us, to retrieve the language, the ceremonies, our spiritual ways, and only when we have picked those up can we then walk that green path to light the eighth and final fire.

We are the people of the seventh fire, marching toward the lighting of that eighth fire, all of us. It is the people—the wisdom that we reclaim—that will allow us to renew the world. The indigenous peoples and the newcomers, we are all part of this story.

If I could choose just a single element of the traditional teachings that we’re called to pick up, it would be the teachings of the honorable harvest, which were taught us by the plants who give us everything that we need. We are destined by our biology to take lives in order to sustain our own, aren’t we? And that utter dependence upon the lives of others sets up certain responsibilities which are simultaneously practical and spiritual. This is known as the honorable harvest. They are rules of sorts for our taking. It’s a covenant of reciprocity between humans and the living world, a very sophisticated, ethical protocol. One of the first steps of the honorable harvest is to understand that the lives that we are taking are the lives of generous beings, of sovereign beings, and in order to accept their gift, we owe them at least our attention. To care for them we must know what they need. And at the very minimum, we should know their names, especially this one, whose name is “heal all.”

It’s a sign of respect and connection to learn the name of someone else, a sign of disrespect to ignore it. Yet the average American can name over 100 corporate logos and 10 plants. Is it a surprise that we have accepted a political system that grants personhood to corporations and no status at all for wild rice and redwoods? Learning the names of plants and animals is a powerful act of support for them. When we learn their names and their gifts it opens the door to reciprocity.

These guidelines of the honorable harvest were taught to me by generous teachers as I was learning to pick medicines and berries. But it also applies to every single exchange between the people and the Earth, from catching a fish to fossil fuel extraction. The protocols for the honorable harvest are not really written down, but if they were it would look something like this: When you get to the woods, you don’t just start grabbing everything in sight. We’re taught never to take the first plant that you see, and that means you’ll never take the last. This is a prescription with inherent conservation value.

Then, if we encounter another plant, we ask permission. I’ve always been taught to address that plant, to introduce myself and tell it what it is that I have come for. If you’re going to take a life, you have to be personally accountable for it. I know there are places where if you talk to a plant, they’d think you were crazy. But in our way, it’s just good manners.

It’s a two-way conversation, though. If you’re going to ask, you have to listen for the answer. You can listen in different ways—pragmatically, intuitively. Look around. See whether those plants have enough to share. And if the answer is no, you go home, for we remember that they don’t belong to us, and taking without permission is also known as stealing. If you are granted permission, then take only what you need and not a bit more. This is a difficult step in our materialist society, where the difference between wants and needs are so blurred.

The honorable harvest counsels that we also take in such a way that does the least harm, and in a way that benefits the growth of the plant. Don’t use a shovel when a digging stick will do. Use everything that you take. It’s disrespectful of the life that’s given to waste it, and we have forgotten that the easiest way to have everything that you need is not to waste what you have.

Be grateful. Give thanks for what you have received. And in an economy which urges us to always want more, the practice of gratitude is truly a radical act. Thankfulness for all that is given makes you feel rich beyond measure. It reminds us that we’re just one member of the democracy of species; it reminds us that the Earth does not belong to us.

The next tenet of the honorable harvest is to share it with others, human and non. The Earth has shared generously with us, so we have to model that behavior in return. And a culture of sharing, we know, is a culture of resilience.

Reciprocate the gift. We know that in order for balance to occur, we can never take without also giving back. Plant gatherers often leave a spiritual gift behind, but it can also be a material gift—weeding, caretaking, spreading seeds, helping those plants to flourish. We give songs. We give ceremony. We give our respect. We give fertilizer. The ways to reciprocate are many.

What if the precepts of the honorable harvest was the law of the land? What would the world look like if a developer poised to convert a meadow into a shopping mall had to ask the permission first of the goldenrod and the meadowlarks, and had to abide by the answer?

Can we extend the concept of the honorable harvest to address the causes of climate change and extreme energy development? You bet we can. I’m told that there is a teaching even older than take only what you need, and it is take only that which is given to you. It’s a pretty challenging idea to be able to discern what it is that is given as opposed to what we simply take, and I’ve really wrestled with this idea. I’m not sure I fully understand it yet, but I’m pretty sure that coal from mountaintop removal is not given to us. Tar sands oil is not given to us. But the sun’s energy is given to us everyday. Every day the wind blows. The surf rolls. They’re given to us freely and without limit. Had we taken only that which was given to us, perhaps today we would not be afraid of our own atmosphere.

For a time my research as an ecologist was in the field of restoration ecology, but I came to understand that it’s not the land which is broken, it’s our relationship to land which is broken. Our work must be to heal that relationship. The honorable harvest is a small part of that healing.

We need acts of restoration for polluted lakes, for degraded lands, yes, but we also need a restoration of our own honor, honor in the way that we live, so that when we walk through the world we can hold our heads up high and receive the respectful acknowledgement of our plants and animal relatives. We can look them in the eye in return. And the reward is not just a feel-good sense. It may save us all.

Our challenge as scientists, as citizens, as leaders, as designers, planners and dancers, as students and artists and dreamers in the Bioneers community is to ask how can the effect of the honorable harvest be realized on the land and in our communities? For if we had adopted the wisdom of the honorable harvest instead of marching it away to whither in the dry lands of Kansas, we might this very spring have looked up to see flocks of omimi flying overhead in what Aldo Leopold called a living wind.

If we sustain the ones who sustain us, the Earth will last forever.

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