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
When I tell you a story, whatever it is about, I am telling you about myself, my culture, my beliefs, my politics, my issues. The story may not sound like it is about me- but if I picked it, the fact that I am telling it, says something about me, who I am, and where I come from. The way I tell it may say even more. Have you ever noticed that some people, when they tell a story, what ever it is about, manage to make it mostly about themselves?
Everyone has stories. Stories pass on information, a worldview, a way of living.
You’ve heard the comment that history is told by the winners. The stories that get preserved, tell us something about the dominant culture, and what it values. The stories I learned as history, about the creation of Canada as a nation, were usually about brave and adventurous European discoverers, coming to a vast, untamed, and largely vacant land. The fact that there were communities, civilizations, nations long established here was never the focus of the story.
It reminds me of the way Sir Edmund Hilary is described as the first person to climb Mount Everest. He was the white guy, a beekeeper from New Zealand. How many of us can name the man who made the final ascent with him?
Tenzing Norgay was Hillary’s Sherpa guide. But Hillary and Norgay wouldn’t have got anywhere near the top of Everest by themselves. They were members of an expedition that included a dozen climbers, 35 Sherpa guides, and 350 porters, who carried the 18 tons of food and equipment needed for the climb.
We usually only hear part of the story, and what part gets chosen, tells you something about those who choose, and tell the stories. My favourite part of Edmund Hillary’s story is that 7 years after his famous climb of Mount Everest, he led another Himalayan expedition, sponsored by the World Book Encyclopaedia, in search of the Abominable Snowman. They did not find each other, but that’s a whole other story.
I grew up minutes away from the Fort William First Nation, on the edge of Thunder Bay, and never heard stories from that community, even though its history goes back a lot further than that of the Europeans who settled in Northern Ontario. It was as if the history of Canada, of this whole continent, began when white men arrived on its shores.
When the government of Canada decided to dismantle the culture and traditions of the First Nations people, they took the children, many against their will, and without parental consent, to places where they were not allowed to hear or speak the languages of their people. They were only allowed to hear, and speak English, and their traditional stories were replaced with the stories of the Bible, and with the same primers and textbooks used in white people’s schools.
Take away the language, you take away the stories. Take away the stories, and you take away cultural memory. That’s a very effective way to destroy a people. The goal was to solve the Indian Problem in Canada, by making the children into slightly darker skinned versions of white kids, so that they could be fit in, assimilated into mainstream, meaning white, Canadian society.
The stories we tell, and how we tell them, tell a story about us. The Bible has some kind of creation story in at least five different places. Over the weeks of the season of Creation we are hearing them. Last week we heard Psalm 8. This week our story comes from Genesis chapter 1. It’s the one that describes the Creator making everything over the course of 6 days, and then taking a rest day, to step back and enjoy it. In this story, before the Creator relaxes, they make humans, and then ask the humans to take care of the earth, and all that has been created, including all the creatures.
In our western culture we seem to have taken that part of the story about being caretakers, and upgraded ourselves from land managers, to owners. That was the attitude our forebears brought with them when they colonized and settled here in this part of the world. They used all their powers of persuasion, friendly and otherwise, to get title to the land, to claim it as their own.
“In the settler mind, land was property, real estate, capital, or natural resources. But to our people, it was everything: identity, the connection to our ancestors, the home of our nonhuman kinfolk, our pharmacy, our library, the source of all that sustained us. Our lands were where our responsibility to the world was enacted, sacred ground. It belonged to itself; it was a gift, not a commodity, so it could never be bought or sold.”
Did you hear that? Really hear that? The land, the whole world viewed as a sacred gift from the Creator, meant for the good of all, and not to owned, or bought, or sold.
That is such a foreign, weird idea to most of us. It’s not the story we have been told, or that we tell about the world. It’s a story that was not easily compatible with the stories the White Europeans came here with, that shaped their view of the world, and how to live in it.
The Ojibwe’ story we heard about the creation of Turtle Island shows Sky Woman working together with the animals, to make a safe place for them all to live. It is a cooperative vision, not a competitive one. It is a story not about owning and exploiting the gifts of creation for profit and power, but of taking care of what has been given by the Creator, for the good of all.
I read a commentary on this story, that pointed out that the creation of Turtle Island depended upon the bravery and determination of the smallest water creature in the story. Muskrat risked their own life to dive deep, and bring up the bit of soil Sky Woman needed, to begin the making of the new place to live.
Muskrat had a story about themselves, that said they were not as capable or useful as the larger water animals, the beaver, the fisher, the marten, or the loon. But when all these larger, stronger creatures failed, the muskrat let go of their former, limiting story, and lived into a story that encouraged them to try, to stretch themselves, to risk giving themselves to something beyond themselves.
Wilika Matchweta Asimont, the woman who offered that commentary describes herself as a survivor of Canada’s First Nations boarding school legacy and foster care system. What stories about herself did she have to let go of, in order to make a life beyond all of that? What stories did she discover in new ways, to live into, in order to survive, and thrive, and be of help to others?
As a community of Jesus followers, we have a story that we tell over and over again, and act out, that is meant to tell us something about the world, and about the Creator, our relationship to the Creator, and to each other. It’s a story we hold sacred, sacred enough to call it the sacrament of communion.
When we share the sacrament today, and I say the words, I will also be listening deeply to the story, trying to go as deep into the story as little Muskrat, to get a hold of a little something, that will help build a world.
Our scripture reading for today is the third chapter of the Book of Genesis, in the Old Testament. It is one of those bible stories that many people think they know, and have probably never read. Misinterpretations of the story have been the foundation for some very unfortunate theology, that has reinforced, and encouraged sexism, and misogyny, with a distorted, and negative view of women.
As we hear the story, I invite you to pay attention to what is in the story, and what you expected to hear, that is not actually in the story.
Genesis 3:1-24 (New International Version)
Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”
2 The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, 3 but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”
4 “You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. 5 “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
6 When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. 7 Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.
8 Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. 9 But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?”
10 He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.”
11 And he said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”
12 The man said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”
13 Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?”
The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”
14 So the Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this,
“Cursed are you above all livestock and all wild animals! You will crawl on your belly and you will eat dust all the days of your life. 15 And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring[a] and hers; he will crush[b] your head, and you will strike his heel.”
16 To the woman he said,
“I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.”
17 To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’
“Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. 18 It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. 19 By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”
20 Adam[c] named his wife Eve,[d] because she would become the mother of all the living.
21 The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them. 22 And the Lord God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” 23 So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. 24 After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side[e] of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.
Learning Time: What about Good and Evil? A reading of Genesis 3
Life is a gift from a generous God. We live in response to the gifts God gives. There is purpose and meaning in life, and God knows what it is, even when we have trouble seeing it.
One major challenge to this vision for life is what philosophers have named the “problem of evil”. The question usually goes something like this, “Why is there death and pain and cruelty in the world?”
From early in the history of the Christian faith, the answers to that question have usually involved the words sin and evil, and the starting place has tended to be with the 3rd chapter of the Book of Genesis. I don’t find it helpful to read The Garden of Eden story as literal truth.
We may also need to shovel through all the interpretation, and editorial comment that over the centuries has been piled on top of the actual story. First off, there is no mention in the story of a Devil. There is a talking serpent. In our English translation the snake is described as “crafty” but scholars say that in the original Hebrew, the word would be more like “sharp-witted”, or “mentally acute”.
Preachers have often put the serpent in the role of tempter, but is that true to the story? Here is what the serpent actually says to Eve. “You will not surely die… For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
The serpent tells her the truth. Touching the fruit does not kill her. Somehow, eating the fruit gives her wisdom, and the capacity to know what is good, and what is evil. How exactly is that a bad thing? As a parent, I hope and pray that my kids will be able to discern good from evil! The world is a far more dangerous place if we walk around without this basic survival skill.
Does knowing that there is evil make us more likely to do bad things? If anything, not being able to tell the difference between good and evil seems like a guarantee of getting hurt, or hurting someone else. I wish there was some fruit I could feed my kids that would give that wisdom. I’d like some for myself as well!
Often when this story is told, the spin is added that the as yet un-named woman then went on and tricked Adam into taking a bite- a bite of the what? Is it a pomegranate, a boysenberry, or a tomato? We have been programmed to think it is an apple- but the story does not say that. What else did the preachers and teachers add over the years? The story says:
”When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.”
The woman did not trick the man into eating the fruit. He was with her, she offered, and he ate it. The suggestion that she led him astray is unfair. According to the Bible, he knew the rules before she did.
If God made the first man, and then made the first woman to be his helper, would it make sense that God would make the helper as a temptress, to lead her partner astray? This makes me wonder if all those story-tellers and preachers over the years forgot the other creation story, in the first chapter of Genesis:
“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him”
In that creation story, God made the world, and then made the first people, and then set them in charge of the world. There was no special tree that humans could not touch- it was all made for their use. At the end of the sixth day of all this making, God saw all that was made, and saw that it was very good. God did not make defective or corrupt human beings. Humans were made in the image of God.
Unfortunately, certain male authority figures in the early Christian church preferred the creation story in the second and third chapters of Genesis. They used the story, in ways that I think go beyond the text, to explain the existence of sin and evil in the world. For them, the trouble starts when sexuality is introduced to the human drama. After the first man takes his bite of the mango, or whatever, the story says,
“Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves. “
One author has suggested that they might have eaten a fig, since they sewed fig leaves together. That is the image we remember: Adam and Eve with very carefully placed fig leaves as their only protection.
Being naked has become an issue. They just barely got their fig-suits on, and God entered the scene. But this is a very different God than the one we pray to and sing about. This God has an actual physical body. The story says “ the man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the LORD God among the trees of the garden. “
This God does not seem to know all and see all. “… the LORD God called to the man, “Where are you?” (Would the God we think of really have to ask? Can you hide from God?)
The man answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid. And God said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”
The man said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”
The man and woman sense that they have done something wrong. But what? Was it the eating of the fruit, or is it connected to having noticed each other’s nakedness?
At this point in the story some preachers would start talking about sin. The sin of lust, as these two are looking at each other being naked. The sin of disobedience, because they broke the rule about not eating the special fruit. Hunger for the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil would be connected to other physical hungers and desires. In the more traditional teaching, the point would be made that in our spiritual lives, it is the body that drags us down into the pits of sin. The woman would especially be blamed, representing as she does the temptations of the flesh.
No surprise here, as the first to teach it this way were men, priests of a church that had begun requiring celibacy in order to serve, and rationalizing it with a theology that said, in spite of our being created in God’s image, the world and our bodies are not good, but the source of corruption and sin.
Out of this interpretation of the Garden of Eden story came the idea of the Fall, the moment at which all human beings were condemned to be tainted by sin and prone to evil, because of the actions of the first man and the first woman, after listening to a very clever talking snake. Aside from my questions about reading the story this way, I wonder about the God character in the story. Is this a fair and loving, and righteous God?
If eating that fruit was an evil thing to do, how could the first man and woman even know that it was wrong, if they did not have the knowledge of Good and Evil? Some argue that they offended God by disobeying the directive to leave that tree alone. But even in our less than perfect legal system we do not put people on trial if we know that they are incapable of knowing right from wrong. Wise parents do not punish children for making mistakes when they are too young to know the difference.
Wise parents also do not discipline when angry, and they try to match the severity of the offence with appropriate consequences. God in the story loses their temper, and sends enormous punishments flying out all over the place. All serpents are cursed because the woman listened to the one in the Garden. (At least this detail confirms that the serpent was really a serpent, and not a symbol for the Devil.)
This God says that woman’s pain in childbearing will be greatly increased. This is a curious curse, and a clue to us that the account is not be taken literally, since at this point in the story there has yet to be any child-bearing. The first man’s curse is that he will now have to work for a living, and eat by the sweat of his brow. That will be his fate until he dies.
This God makes clothes for the first man and first woman before ushering them out of the Garden of Eden, and into the cold hard world. Then this God says something I find very interesting- perhaps the most revealing thing in the story: “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil.”
Who is the “us” in the phrase “like one of us”? This sounds like a story about a god who knows they are not the only god.
This is one of the places where the Bible reveals itself to be a kind of library for stories and traditions which are much older than Israel, and the religion of the Jews. There is a hint here that some of this story came from a polytheistic religion, that had more than one god.
Most religious traditions have some kind of creation myth that addresses the questions, “Where did we come from? Why are we here? What is it all for?” As people from different cultures met through trade, or travel, or war, they would exchange stories. Over time, the stories could move into the religious folklore of a people. They would be kept if they seemed to ring true in some way.
The story of how Adam and Eve come to leave the garden is not all that useful in explaining the origins of sin and evil in the world. Interpretations that blame Eve, and by extension, vilify all women, are offensive. But if the story does not explain our lot in life, it does offer a pretty accurate description. The story tells us that
there is pain from the moment of our birth, that we are called upon to make choices between good and evil, that we have to take care of the world, and work to feed ourselves, that none of us will live with forever and that even when we get in trouble, God is with us. Amen