psychologist, teacher, and author
Opening our eyes in new ways to our natural world
Introduction: I am pleased to introduce today’s guest columnist, Mary Vandergoot. She is a psychologist, author, and former faculty member at Calvin University, presently teaching in their prison program. Her second novel in the Maggie Barnes Trilogy series has just been published. Mary is a member of the Kaufman Institute book group, a fan of Robin Kimmerer, and will be leading the discussion of Kimmerer’s upcoming Wege Speaker Series lecture.
It’s spring in Michigan, that time of year when all around us what has been resting in the achromatic gray of winter bursts into color. Trees are leafing out in shades of green, redbud is adding color accents, the birds are symphonic, and honeysuckle is perfuming the air. It’s a perfect time for West Michigan to welcome Robin Wall Kimmerer. The Wege Foundation has invited her for the Annual Wege Speaker Series, and on May 27 she will be talking about “Healing Relationships with the Natural World.” In the following week, on June 2, the Kaufman Institute will host a group discussion of her lecture.
It is especially heartwarming that Robin Wall Kimmerer has roots in this region. She is a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, whose peoples joined the Odawa and Ojibwe in the Council of the Three Fires that first gathered at Michilimackinac well over a millennium ago. From them we learned to call the lake that runs along our western shore “Lake Michigan,” and from them we inherited the name of our state.
Robin Wall Kimmerer is a nature writer whose “Braiding Sweetgrass” first appeared in its successful Milkweed edition in 2020. It is a book that warms a reader’s heart, and it gets passed along from hand to hand or with enthusiastic recommendations by those eager to share its stories. The subtitle is an accurate summary: “Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants.” The more common introduction by those recommending it to friends is: “This is really good stuff. Read it! You’ll like it.”
Kimmerer is a prominent voice in a new cohort of nature writers, committed to opening up the mysteries of life woven together from natural forms, living things, and the humans who live along with them. Like Kimmerer, many of these writers are scientists as well, but instead of inviting us into their labs or presenting us with statistical data, they invite us to look, to listen, and to give full attention to all around us. They tell us stories, and many of the stories Kimmerer tells are received from elders who have passed along generations of indigenous wisdom.
These writers are opening our eyes to ways we relate to the natural world. When we distance from it or view it with a cold eye, we are likely to perceive it as raw material available for our use. We subordinate it to our ulterior motives, many of which are shaped by profit motives. Something different happens when we observe with no other motive than to become familiar. Bodies of water and the intricate life systems around and in them are so much more than what we see when we open a faucet. Forest spaces shared by a panoply of life ranging from microscopic fungi to monumental cedars are so much more than sources of wood. Is it possible that the animals living all around us, sometimes hidden for their own safety but just as often because we don’t see them, are more aware of us than we are of them?
If we become familiar with the web of life into which we too are woven, we find it fascinating and beautiful. That is a first step. And then because we know it better and are becoming aware of how often we have neglected or damaged it, we conclude we should take care of it. There is another step, however, to which the new cohort of writers is pointing us. They are suggesting something more immersive. They are advising that we stop impeding nature and let it reveal to us its own potential for healing. Then if we harmonize ourselves with it and realize that we are part of it, we may begin to understand how much we need it. We may also discover that it needs us, but we will not know in what ways it needs us until we have lived with it in harmony and become familiar. This is a relational view of nature, a mindful and cooperative one.
Stories let us see our natural partners as participants rather than objects. They cooperate with each other and with us. Some of the stories being written by the new cohort of nature writers have been criticized for anthropomorphizing nature, for making animals and plants sound too much like us. Skeptics doubt that plants send messages, that fungi build communication networks, or that older trees intentionally protect their young even at a cost to themselves. We have been trained to see nature’s processes driven by competition in the struggle to survive. Cooperation among plants and animals sounds strange. The possible exception might be pets we take into our homes or working animals we domesticate. But trees in a forest? That for many is too far a stretch, until we are told a story that helps us observe them. When we are invited into a space of familiarity, our frame of reference changes.
Robin Wall Kimmerer has introduced us to the wisdom of plants. Canadian ecologist Suzanne Simard has alerted us to the “forest wide web” communication system of fungi living beneath the soil surface and serving the plants of the forest. German forester Peter Wohlleben has shown that the emotional lives of animals are far more elaborate and beautiful than we have been willing to acknowledge. The list is too long to mention here, but what is encouraging is that the list of those helping us reshape our relationship with nature is growing.
When we listen to the stories of those who are calling us to heal our relationships in the natural world, when we look around us and see things differently, we begin to see ourselves differently too. Robin Wall Kimmerer says it well in her book when she suggests that the stories are “medicine for our broken relationship to the earth, a pharmacopoeia of healing stories that allow us to imagine a different relationship, in which people and land are good medicine for each other.” It’s with delight that we anticipate her visit to West Michigan.