Robin Wall Kimmerer is a member of the Potawotami nation, and a botanist, and professor of environmental and forest biology. Her book, Braiding Sweetgrass is an artful weaving of personal history, stories from her indigenous culture, and scientific observation.
In a chapter called the Council of Pecans, she told a story about her grandfather and his brothers, who one fall day in 1895 went fishing in the midst of drought, in an effort to bring some protein home for the family supper table. They caught nothing, but on the way home, walking near a grove of trees, one of them stubbed his toe on something hard and round hidden in the tall grass.
The boy looked down, then picked up a hard green ball from the ground and whipped it through the trees at his brother like a fastball, and yelled “Piganek! Let’s bring ‘em home!” Pigan is the name in their language for any kind of nut, but was brought into English by the settlers as pecan. The boys could not carry many in their hands, but they took off their pants, tied the legs off with twine, and filled them like we might use a grocery bag. They ran home in their underwear, with their pants over their shoulders like big forked logs, to present their treasure to their mother.
Kimmerer’s people were originally from the Great Lakes region, in Michigan. When settlers wanted their land to farm, they were moved to Oklahoma, which is where those boys were when they brought home pecans for supper. They were moved again, to Kansas, to make room for another wave of white settlers.
Kimmerer has been back to the old family home place in Oklahoma, and there is a pecan tree shading what remains of the house. She wrote, “I imagine Grammy pouring nuts out to prepare them and one rolling away to a welcoming spot at the edge of the dooryard. Or maybe she paid her debt to the trees by planting a handful in her garden right then and there.”
That’s a great image. The woman pausing from her work of preparing food for a hungry family, to plant a few pecans in the garden. The phrase Kimmerer used was to pay a debt. There is a recognition in those words of a relationship between the people and the trees that provided food. There is gratitude, and respect, and responsibility. Another word we could use is interdependence, the recognition that all beings: plant, animal, human, need each other, and have duties to one other.
Kimmerer wrote, “in the summer of 1895, the root cellars throughout Indian Territory were full of pecans, and so were the bellies of boys and squirrels. For people, the pulse of abundance felt like a gift, a profusion of food to be simply picked up from the ground. That is, if you got there before the squirrels. And if you didn’t, at least there would be lots of squirrel stew that winter. The pecan groves give and give again. Such communal generosity might seem incompatible with the process of evolution, which invokes the imperative of individual survival. But we make a grave error if we try to separate individual well-being from the health of the whole. The gift of abundance from pecans is also a gift to themselves. By sating squirrels and people, the trees are ensuring their own survival.”
When the pecan trees have a big production year, and throw off a lot of nuts, the squirrels pack their larders. When they are well-fed, the plump pregnant mamas have more babies in each litter. Increased squirrel population means more food for hawks and foxes, and they flourish. Then predation increases, and the squirrel population decreases. Some of the nuts they’ve buried lay undisturbed, and more pecan trees get their start. There is a rhythm, a pulse to all of this.
Kimmerer sees herself, and her people, not as bystanders to this organic, living drama, but as integral parts of the living web. As I mentioned last week, this way of seeing is very different, and not easily compatible with the worldview of the settlers, the ones who displaced Kimmerer’s people.
When our White Europeans forebears came here, they brought the understanding that land was a commodity to divided up with lines on a surveyor’s map, property to be assigned, bought and sold, and put to work for the benefit of the owner.
Living in Kingsville, I hear a lot of discussion about land that was historically designated for agriculture, but is now hidden under acres and acres of plastic sheeting, for greenhouse operations. Are these farms, or factories? What happens to all the other forms of life that were once part of the ecosystem on that land? Where do the deer run, when glowing polyethylene structures cover their old trails?
I don’t know the answers, but I appreciate that Kimmerer’s way of seeing the world brings a different sense of involvement, interdependence, and responsibility.
This week we took time in the service for our annual blessing of the animals. It’s a tradition that goes back almost over 800 years in the Christian faith. There was a man in Italy called Francis of Assisi, who in his own way, pointed to the interdependence of all that lives in God’s creation. He wrote poetry in which he called the sun his brother, and the moon his sister. He considered all the animals to be family. By his words, but most often, with his actions, he encouraged love, and respect for all living creatures.
He was probably what people today would call a nature mystic- he felt a profound spiritual connection to God, when he was out for a walk in the woods. There are stories about him preaching sermons to the birds, encouraging people to feed animals who had been displaced when land was cultivated for farming, and of him praying for the healing of injured animals.
Francis knew and taught in the 13th century what many people today also know, that animals are capable of both receiving, and offering love. They live in relationship with the natural world, and the other creatures around them, and have much to teach us. Amen