Milkweed Editions, 2013, hbk, 320 pp
Reviewed by Marian Van Eyk McCain
As any ecologist will tell you, the most fertile places are those at the edge: the ones – like river estuaries for example – where two ecosystems meet and interpenetrate.
Likewise, with human beings. The most fertile and productive—and interesting—minds always seem to be those in which several different ways of thinking have met and interpenetrated and cross-fertilized. It is as though the more lenses we have through which to view the world, the brighter and more vivid its totality becomes for us and the more holistically we can view it and appreciate it.
Robin Wall Kimmerer, with her scientist’s mind and training, her mother’s loving nurturing nature, her seeker’s soul and her Native American heritage is the living proof of this, and the proof was never more in evidence than it is in this, her wonderful second book. Discovering the first one, Gathering Moss, back in 2003 was like finding treasure. This one is a veritable Aladdin’s cave, sparkling with insights and understandings.
Whether working alone in her garden, facing a bunch of students in her classroom, out doing fieldwork in the forest or patiently learning, word by difficult word, the language of her ancestors, she is awake and aware and open to new understandings. Through her, we see connections and relationships where we never noticed them before. As she tells her stories, they come alive for us until we can feel the sun on the wild strawberries, hear the ‘plink’ of maple sap into the buckets, ache with the bewilderment and loss of tribal people driven from the land they belonged to and children wrenched away from their families and culture. With her we marvel at the stately pecan trees that only fruit in certain years but when they do fruit, always do it in concert, in the same year.
How do those trees know it is a fruiting year? How do they communicate their decision to create thousands of nuts? This is a book about the animate Earth, a planet pulsing with life and colour, sound and magic. Above all, it is a book about how to live our lives in full awareness of that animacy. From it we can learn how to practice reciprocity, to give thanks, to live at all times in ‘right relationship’ with the planet that is our greater Self, to cherish the land that feeds and shelters us and to honour all the other life forms, great and small, with which we share kinship.
Sweetgrass, Robin tells us, grows best in places where it is regularly picked. You can explain this scientifically: If we remove 50% of the biomass, the stems are released from resource competition. The stimulus of compensatory growth causes an increase in population density and plant vigor. Or you can say: The grass gives of its fragrant self to us and we receive it with gratitude. In return, through the very act of accepting the gift, the pickers open some space, let the light come in, and with a gentle tug bestir the dormant buds that make new grass. Reciprocity is a matter of keeping the gift in motion through self-perpetuating cycles of giving and receiving.
This book, too, is a gift: a gift of gratitude to the living Earth and a gift to us all on our journey to wholeness.