Bound by a Covenant of Reciprocity
January 9, 2020 12:59 PM   Subscribe

The Intelligence in All Kinds of Life "I can’t think of a single scientific study in the last few decades that has demonstrated that plants or animals are dumber than we think. It’s always the opposite, right? What we’re revealing is the fact that they have extraordinary capacities, which are so unlike our own, but we dismiss them because, well, if they don’t do it like animals do it, then they must not be doing anything, when, in fact, they’re sensing their environment, responding to their environment in incredibly sophisticated ways. The science which is showing that plants have capacity to learn, to have memory, we’re at the edge of a wonderful revolution in really understanding the sentience of other beings." Bontanist and Author Robin Wall Kimmerer speaks with Krista Tippett about how sustainability is a cop out, the things we can learn from plants, and what it means to be an educated person.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah. Here’s something beautiful that you wrote in your book Gathering Moss, just as an example. “The rocks are beyond slow, beyond strong, and yet, yielding to a soft, green breath as powerful as a glacier, the mosses wearing away their surfaces grain by grain, bringing them slowly back to sand. There is an ancient conversation going on between mosses and rocks, poetry to be sure. About light and shadow and the drift of continents.” That’s so beautiful and so amazing to think about, to just read those sentences and think about that conversation, as you say.

Ms. Kimmerer: Yes. And it’s a conversation that takes place at a pace that we humans, especially we contemporary humans who are rushing about, we can’t even grasp the pace at which that conversation takes place. So thinking about plants as persons, indeed, thinking about rocks as persons, forces us to shed our idea of the only pace that we live in is the human pace. It’s, I think, very, very exciting to think about these ways of being which happen on completely different scales, and so exciting to think about what we might learn from them.
Ms. Kimmerer: Thank you for asking that question, because it really gets to this idea of how science asks us to learn about organisms. Traditional knowledge asks us to learn from them. And when I think about mosses, in particular, as the most ancient of land plants, they have been here for a very long time. They’ve figured out a lot about how to live well on the earth, and, for me, I think they’re really good storytellers in the way that they live. An example of what I mean by this is in their simplicity, in the power of being small; mosses become so successful all over the world because they live in these tiny little layers on rocks, on logs, and on trees. They work with the natural forces that lie over every little surface of the world, and to me, they are exemplars of not only surviving, but flourishing by working with natural processes. Mosses are superb teachers about living within your means.
posted by Anonymous (6 comments total)

This post was deleted for the following reason: Poster's Request -- frimble

Wow, I love this so much! So much great stuff about looking at science and botany holistically and from an indigenous perspective. Especially this story (which I have super boiled down so please read the interview if you haven't ):

I wanted to know why asters and goldenrod looked so beautiful together ... And I was told that that was not science, that if I was interested in beauty, I should go to art school ... Those complimentary colors of purple and gold together, being opposites on the color wheel, they’re so vivid, they actually attract far more pollinators than if those two grew apart from one another.

As well as the discussion of sustainability vs reciprocity. And I've recently become kind of obsessed with mosses so I loved the extended discussion of them - such cool and interesting little plants.

Just put myself on the library waitlist for her book. And now I see she has another one entirely about mosses... ahh!
posted by sunset in snow country at 1:17 PM on January 9, 2020 [1 favorite]

Braiding Sweetgrass is one of the best books you'll ever read, I heavily endorse it.
posted by yueliang at 1:23 PM on January 9, 2020 [4 favorites]

Stoneweaver, thank you so much for posting this! Uplifting reading for tonight.

I'll add another enthusiastic endorsement for Braiding Sweetgrass.
posted by heatherlogan at 4:16 PM on January 9, 2020

Also, that's Professor Dr. Kimmerer to us.
posted by heatherlogan at 4:17 PM on January 9, 2020

If you like this, you'll love The Overstory.
posted by lalochezia at 7:49 PM on January 9, 2020

Years ago I visited a strip mining operation in (I think) Bulgaria. I have only a vague recollection of the exact circumstances, but I vividly remember the landscape as we drove up to the facility. Sloping, greenish hillsides dotted by orchards & small herds of cattle gradually transitioning into more mountainous terrain, a bit less green, a bit more austere & imposing, but nevertheless dignified, magnanimous. A beautiful landscape, not easy perhaps, but harmonious, well adapted.

Then we arrive at the mining operation itself, where we watch enormous machines basically scrape the skin off the mountains, leaving giant, lifeless scars denuded of all potential, all value extracted. I remember this so vividly because what stuck out in my mind is the pitiful inability of industrial/scientific language to even begin to articulate the feeling that hits you when you behold such a spectacle; the feeling that this is a tremendous violation of something. Which may or may not be justified -- that depends. But not having the language to express it in the first place felt & feels absurd & surreal.

From the linked piece:

Mosses have, in the ecological sense, very low competitive ability, because they’re small, because they don’t grab resources very efficiently, and so this means that they have to live in the interstices. They have to live in places where the dominant competitive plants can’t live. But the way that they do this really brings into question the whole premise that competition is what really structures biological evolution and biological success. Because mosses are not good competitors at all, and yet they are the oldest plants on the planet.
posted by dmh at 9:35 AM on January 15, 2020 [4 favorites]

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