#13: Robin Wall Kimmerer and Porousness

#13: Robin Wall Kimmerer and Porousness


30 May 2019

For the first part of my last semester of graduate school, I listened to the audiobook of Robin Wall Kimmerer's Braiding Sweetgrass. Her voice, both on the page and in my ear, was warm, and funny, and wise. Braiding Sweetgrass is arguably her best known work: a book of deeply interconnected short essays that forge links between Kimmerer's training as a biologist and traditional ways of knowing passed along not only by her own family's Potawatomi traditions but those cultivated by native peoples across North America. More than that though, more than anything, what Kimmerer is arguing for is considering yourself a part of the radical embodied network of the natural world. Kimmerer's entire ethic is based on raising into the light what has been laughed out of laboratories, raising up native knowledge as kin to scientific understanding, raising up the maple trees in her back yard and her daughters and cattails and salmon rushing upriver as kin to each other and to her. The fundamental question her work asks of us is what would it look like to relate to everything as if it were kin to you

I graduate from Harvard Divinity School today, and my brother graduated from his undergrad this week, so I've had an unusually high number of opportunities to listen to people deliver commencement speeches to gorgeous examples of embodied networks: there are all these classmates and colleagues there, engowned and capped and between them thrum all of these beautiful friendships and roommateships and classmateships, and behind them sit all of the family and friends that got them there, sometimes two or three generations deep, and around or in front of them all the professors that have taught them through their time there, all the people whose words and reading lists are all thrumming through these new graduates' heads. And they all sit there for a while, listening to speeches sometimes in this big, beautiful ring of sentry trees, and then the network...lights up. The grads process out, and find family and friends and loved ones. You end up meeting everyone else's parents, your professor is suddenly talking to your mom, a friend is being absolutely sweet to your grandmother. Graduation days are times when networks feel utterly easy and effortless, when seeing yourself as part of groups, of lineages, of families of all different kinds feels easy and natural even if on many other days this same network with these same people feels...less easy.

Also: I graduate from Harvard Divinity School today!

In reflecting on my time here, I've largely been making the classic mistake of confusing struggle or pain with growth, and feeling, then, like perhaps I haven't grown all that much, but as it turns out, being happy and fulfilled in your work and personal life is actually a great way to do the work necessary for turning into a better, more thoughtful person. Kimmerer's book has been a foundation stone in this. Other foundations were Stephanie Paulsell's class on Virginia Woolf and religion, Terry Tempest Williams' class on finding beauty in a broken world, getting to be in community with future chaplains and doulas and community builders and environmentalists and writers who care deeply about each other and the work we are all doing together. The end result was this: a deep commitment to porousness. 

Like trees hold each other in community by the roots and through the air, sharing resources and rendering themselves receptive to their co-growers' chemical signals of danger and their cries for help, like trees filter water and air into themselves and in so doing render themselves both vulnerable to and deeply entwined with their environment, I've been thinking about an ethic of porousness as maybe the key to being a person in a world that is rich, and deep, and beautiful. And while I think I got to most of what I'm talking about in the Woolf essay I linked to above--that when applied to the suffering other, this porousness must move us not just to fellow-feeling, but to action, to a deep understanding that we are bound together and in trust to each other through our vulnerability--I actually think I don't go far enough. Kimmerer's voice in my ear for all those weeks, her reminder as I moved through the world that all of it, all of it, is relational--no, not just the people I walk past every day on my way to the library, not just my friends, or my family, or my professors milling around on commencement, but the tree at the center of campus, and the squirrels, and the single morel mushroom that grows in the corner of my backyard, and the nest of blue herons that lives in a tree on my way to work. 

I've been thinking a lot about this Brecht poem, and especially, obviously, these lines: 

What times are these, in which
a conversation about trees is almost a crime
For in so doing we maintain our silence about so much wrongdoing! 

We're getting to a point these days, with oceans rising and trees dying and old growth forests all but extinct from the face of the earth, that talking about trees is talking about wrongdoing. Talking about anything right now feels like talking about wrongdoing, and making a commitment to porousness sometimes feels like making a commitment to...feeling a lot of pain and helplessness on behalf of things you pretty fundamentally cannot help. But that porousness is there anyways, we are all, already, in the words of Judith Butler, "undone by each other." This is how grief works, an inability to imagine an "I" continuing on past the loss of the "you," but it can also, critically, be how joy works.

And what better thing to keep yourself open to, than the sight, the feeling, of leaves reaching upwards on a bright and warm day?