February 25, 2016
Robin Wall Kimmerer —
The Intelligence in All Kinds of Life

“Why is the world so beautiful?” This is a question Robin Wall Kimmerer pursues as a botanist and also as a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. She writes, “Science polishes the gift of seeing, indigenous traditions work with gifts of listening and language.” An expert in moss — a bryologist — she describes mosses as the “coral reefs of the forest.” Her work opens a sense of wonder and humility for the intelligence in all kinds of life we are used to naming and imagining as “inanimate.” She says that as our knowledge about plant life unfolds, human vocabulary and imaginations must adapt.

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is the State University of New York Distinguished Teaching Professor at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse. She is founding director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment. Her books include Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses and Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants.

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Canyoning in the Blue Mountains, a rugged region west of Sydney in Australia’s New South Wales.

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I love this episode. I was walking and looking at the moss on the street and all of the sudden the world made more sense and was more alive. Thank you, ladies! You are like to beautiful roses in the garden.

To Krista Tippett:
Just want to let you know how much I enjoy & value "On Being".
It is wonderful. I don't always have time to listen to all of your shows or even to spend the time to review those which can be revisited later.....but I really savor the wisdom, beauty of the things and people and experiences/philosphies/points of view you present on your show.
My best regards & thanks and keep doing what you are doing!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Kenneth B. Liegner, M.D.

Thank you for this wonderful interview. Dr. Kimmerer, like so many of your guests, demonstrate that a life of scholarship can provide deep personal and spiritual meaning and create positive impact on culture and society.

I’ve been a biologist for nearly three decades, and while I love almost every show and every type of interview, I am especially grateful to be introduced to these extraordinary natural scientists that I meet on your show. Your guests invite us into a view of scientific investigation that is not only deeply informed by their own spiritual and religious histories, but is also promoting continued spiritual growth as they think carefully about what their insights into the natural world really mean. I have learned so much from these interviews, and I look forward to many more.

But you must know-do you-that the scientists that you have identified are rare and unique, outliers in an enterprise that practically celebrates blindness to spirituality and meaning. I am slowly and somewhat painfully making may way out of a career as a scientist, which has not been without moments of great joy, because it has so often left me spiritually starved or even spiritually defeated. Had I encountered more people like Robin Wall Kimmerer (or Rachel Yehuda or Lindon Eaves or Sylvia Earle or any number of your guests) as colleagues or mentors, perhaps I would chose to steel myself to keep fighting the good fight.

I do wish your show would explore the darker side of science. I am not talking about eugenics or the Nazi experiments or Tuskegee or other instances in which science has been usurped to justify social and historical atrocities, though these are certainly worthy topics. I am talking about how contemporary academic science consumes enormous quantities of human and material resources for outcomes whose value we are not encouraged (putting it generously) to question, and how the enterprise itself can damage the spirit and intellect of the practitioners.

Dr. Kimmerer spoke eloquently of the need for the two-eyed view and her passion to integrate this view into the education of future scientists. In my experience though, we (scientists) are not merely blind in one eye; rather we have a distorted view of the world that entitles us to single-mindedly pursue our interest without ever questioning the true impacts. We are actually at the point where our unwillingness to look at how we use resources, labor, and institutional and national wealth are imperiling the future of higher education and of science itself. I’d like to see you and your guests go there.

This is not intended to be an anti-science rant. But I would like to have an honest conversation about science that does not stop with celebrating its many gifts, which should be obvious to any thinking person (and your guests do an excellent job of moving the conversation beyond the self-congratulatory extolling of advances in knowledge and technology), but provides an honest accounting of the costs.

You've raised a very important issue. I've only recently come across On Being after quite a long search for such a movement. I've yet to explore fully, but I sense an oasis rather than a widespread deeper body of thought. I search because I think we as a species have totally lost the plot! We've detached the power of nature, science, for short-sighted material gain, and lost sight of its holistic origin and purpose. I can see how such a movement needs to create critical mass. I can see how such a movement could not achieve that mass by alienating the all powerful abusers of science (most of us in truth).

I disagree. I believe there is significantly more than enough focus on the darkness in this world, scientific and otherwise.

Krista, I am immensely grateful for your work in the world. Please keep doing what you're doing, in the way you're doing it.

We need your focus and your perspective on being.

Perhaps the world is so beautiful so that we will love and care for it. Just as Robin Wall Kimmerer discovered that the purple and gold flowers that so frequently occur together in nature attract more pollen, so are humans attracted to the beauty in nature, inspiring the creation of National parks and the protection of wetlands, etc. Unfortunately, we humans are complex beings with competing drives -- we have allowed greed to extinguish much of the natural beauty of our planet. People like Kimmerer are doing the important, life-saving work of bringing us back to our senses.

Thank you for this especially beautiful interview. One way we could begin is to continually refer to Earth as Earth - not as the earth. I practice this not only with Earth but with Universe, Moon, Sun...

I wrote the following couple of years ago and add it as an exclamation point!
What’s in a Word? From Culture to Landscape
Words are important. They are loaded with history and context. And for several years now, the word culture bothered me. It seemed inadequate.
Then recently, I read David Peat’s insightful book, The Blackfoot Physics, and in the short span between the dim light of dawn and the explosive evening sun, I was transformed. Within the wisdom of this book is the recognition that connection to the landscape “molds, shapes, influences, and ultimately transforms the people who come to occupy it.” That connection creates a map in the head that transcends geographical representations because it is imbued with songs, ceremonies, and histories. This map is a part of coming-to-knowing, learning based on cycles -- cycles of life, the day, plants and animals, Moon, the seasons, civilizations, and the great cycles of Cosmos. This kind of knowing is what we might call tacit knowledge in our knowledge economy. It is the discriminating perceptions of the mind and senses versus the accumulation of facts and data. It also acknowledges obligations and relationships.
My transformation was that landscape was the word I had been seeking in place of culture. I suppose culture is fine for describing the past, but it doesn’t encompass the present. Landscape not only represents all of the historical past in which we currently participate, it also sweeps us into the aliveness of the present. It forces us to open our gaze in at least the four directions. It invites words like flow and flux, rotation and return, passing and renewal, weather and seasons, spaciousness and expansiveness, and curiosity and participation.
Landscape may help us realize the full expression of peoples’ gifts and talents versus the limiting rigid and static stereotypes that the word culture sometimes encourages. We cannot see anyone else’s landscape. We have to be curious to discover their view. Even if we were to stand in the same shoes, the other person’s map in the head is unique, and in a few seconds, Earth will have turned; the landscape will be different. More deeply, we may realize and appreciate that the person we knew in the dim light of dawn may have experienced a transformation by the evening sun. And isn’t that the dream of diversity? Could it be that it is also an energy differential that propels personal transformation as well as organizational transformation?
Try it on. Open your gaze. What is your landscape right now?

Ms. Kimmerer's voice, as well as her message, was gushing with reverence. It must be quite a treat to be one of her students.

It is more than a treat. Her lectures often contain elements that are poetic in tone and it seems as if she has spent a solid week preparing for each day's class. As a long time (almost twenty years) Outreach student at SUNY-ESF I have encountered several outstanding teachers. I wouldn't dare attempt to rank them but I can say that Robin Kimmerer is wonderful.

I love the relationship that Robin nurtures with plant beings. It is so important for us to remember this connection that all people had at one time, long ago.

I was surprised by her comment that she envies plants' ability to photosynthesize, that we humans have nothing that compares to that process. I'd like to suggest that we do have a very special synthesize skill: we are able to take our emotional energy (usually from loving connections with others/Nature) and create energy that can heal, nurture others spiritually and invoke great insight and inspiration that brings forth real change in the world. Perhaps we have a kind of emo-sythesis ability. It is my opinion that Robin is very skilled at this as she has used her love of plants to create a learning community that has inspired many, many people.

The more we can be aware of our synthesizing skills, using it for the highest good of all, the more we will thrive as a species.

I love this idea of our human capacity for synthesis and transformation. I'd not thought of it this way before. Just as the plants provide nurture and medicine in photosynthesis, we too can be medicine for each other and for Earth. I can't photosynthesize, but I can phyt0synthesize!

WONDERFUL perspective about "eco-synthesis". I beleve it is as real & active as is photosynthesis.

The reverence that Robin shows for every aspect of existence is refreshing and inspiring. The joy and sense of peace she conveys truly lifts up the listener to a reflective and receptive mindset. Her talk feels like an unforgettable walk in the woods , with revelations bursting forth from lush foliage , where the very air seems to be filled with music.

Ki and kin struck me as of value for humans pronouns as well. Nonbinary gender pronouns are fraught with debate but as a cis women I would be happy to be called ki/kin instead of she/her. Who needs gender when you can be an animate being of the earth?

A friend gave me a copy of Gathering Moss years ago. The paperback is worse than dogeared; it's wrinkled and warped from having been left out in the rain, having accompanied me on many afternoons of lying in the sun, reading. Coffee, tea and oil stains dot the pages because I took the book with me everywhere. For a small book it took me a very long time to read it, because I had to read certain passages. over and over, the language was so beautiful. Gathering Moss is one of my favorite, best-loved books. Thank you, thank you for having this brilliant scientist, talented writer, wise-woman on your program.

Absolutely magnificent. Science polishing (rather than our politics of science) nature and providing new lenses. I just loved her take on moss, purple + gold flowers - how everything is connected. And most importantly how our English language gets in the way and may be one of the root causes behind our continuing disconnection with nature's system. Everything is SO connected - especially our language. I'd like to see this episode being picked up by more major media streams and the 'pop' media. Thank you SO much.

Robin is a true gifted healer!! Thank you......

Love the episode with Robin Wall Kimmerer - she reflects the philosophy that I resonate with - that the Universe is Aware or Conscious - which is encapsulated by Ramana Maharshi and Nisargadatta Maharaj (TatTavan Asi or I am That) as well as the more recent understanding of Biocentrism by Robert Lanza

I love this episode in that it reflects the philosophy with which I have come to resonate - that the Universe, including all beings, is Aware or Conscious (what various religions have come to call God). This was spoken by Ramana Maharshi and Nisargadatta (Tat Tvam Asi or I am That). In the West this is arising as Biocentrism by Robert Lanza.

Wonder-Full insights!

What a great (and remote?) perspective Robin Wall Kimmerer evokes when she speaks of a way of life in which, like moss, we, humans, would give more than we take. Education would then be the development of our reciprocating skills and capacities and the Ecological Debt Day would jump from mid-August this year to next year or further.

It is worth noting that the plant she chose as an example, moss, is often used as a model of "humility" (a word rooted in the same humus as "humanity") and is thus a key to the "passage which we did not take, towards the door we never opened...", as in this quote by Jacques Maritain : "Let us but grant to a bit of moss or the smallest ant its due nature as an ontological reality, and we can no longer escape the terrifying hand that made us."

"Terrifying" (tremendum) is indeed one side of the coin, but "wonderful" (fascinosum) is the other, and if religion often relies on the tossing of that coin, spirituality embraces both sides like grief and love in your guest's closing remarks.

Rooted as it is in aboriginal spirituality, that interview is completely "in-tune" with the vision of eco-theologians like Teilhard de Chardin and Thomas Berry. The latter wrote in The Dream of the Earth: “Our challenge is to create a new language, even a new sense of what it is to be human. It is to transcend not only national limitations, but even our species isolation, to enter into the larger community of living species". In The Universe Story (coauthored with Brian Swimme), Berry also writes that "the universe is a communion of subjects rather than a collection of objects". Robin Wall Kimmerer teaches exactly that. Thank you for allowing us to hear that message of hope in her gentle voice.

Thank you for this podcast and this interview. She speaks the truth! I'd love to learn more.

For past 2 days been thinking of mosses and ferns, triggered by visit to NYBG (New York botanical garden). Mosses and ferns have intrigued me since childhood, I grew up in Caribean and they have always held a fascination. I went on to study botany in undergrad, that's as far as I went formally, been an avid gardener, and just enjoy watching the seasons unfold And have always had the sense the plant life was the observer of us humans, much like me observing the mosses etc and allowing, and unfolding the big map of this life as we know it

Beautiful show with Robin Wall Kimmerer. Just wanted to mention the book Kinship with All Life by J. Allen Boone which resonates with these beautiful insights. I love On Being.

Just wanted to mention Kinship With All Life by J. Allen Boone.

Robin, I'm so glad to hear about your work. There are at least a few others who have bristled at the abstraction of nature by western science, and pushed to find another more holistic way to scientifically study the things of nature in their own forms.

There seem to be roots going as far back in history as you might like, to Goethe and all the way back to the so called "nature religions" of the Greeks, from which science developed. The roots of our more holistic ways of relating to nature are also interestingly "hidden in sight" , deeply embedded in all natural languages, which don't develop from theory but for directly referring to the subjects of our experience, most often without abstraction as well. It even comes out in how modern science is forced to use natural language to discuss its abstract theories, making the "practice" of science a use of natural language and only the "method" of science carefully regulated to follow abstract theory! Someday soon that might become self-conscious, the way things are going, I think!

You might find some of my efforts on those lines, to write a new scientific language, that can entertain both ways of interpreting the world, letting one go back and forth for different uses. I get enormous help in that regard from Christopher Alexander's "pattern language", as a way of identifying and being explicit in describing the holistic designs of things.

-2015 Henshaw, J., Guiding Patterns of Naturally Occurring Design: Elements. PURPLSOC 2015 proceedings,

-2015 Henshaw, J., Guiding Patterns of Naturally Occurring Design, Mining Living Quality, PLoP 2015 proceedings.

Dr. Kimmerer (Robin) may be interested to know that Iowa has a Pottawattamie County just east of Omaha, NE.

Kansas has a Pottawatomie County, with a Potawatomi Indian Reservation, just east of it in Jackson County, both east of Manhattan, KS and north of I-70 in Kansas. So, eastward of Manhattan and north of Topeka, KS.

And, as Krista knows, Oklahoma has a Pottawatomie County southeast of Oklahoma City and Norman, east of I-35 and south of I-40.

All of which results in a curious combination of name-place origins and word etymologies. By the way, the (public) Joslyn Art Gallery in Omaha, NE has a good display of Plains Indians art and artifacts which might be of interest to many.

In the Shambhala Buddhist tradition, which descends from the indigenous Tibetan Bön culture, we develop awareness and relationship to the unique intelligence inherent in all phenomena - sometimes called sentience, sometimes called basic goodness, and sometimes understood through "Ki," a word and symbol that refers to the original element of good, primary, wholeness that is the basis of all beings and the environment. Because we share this nature with our environment we can experience a communication that is continually taking place with the phenomenal world - especially accessible in nature, but also present in the built environment. Tuning into this is like tuning into a natural support system that most of the time we don't realize we have. It was so lovely to hear my own experience and understanding reflected from a different avenue of practice and inquiry. Thank you both for continuing this work.

For the last three days I had been meditating about my childhood love of moss: What a gift ,then, to hear the broadcast this morning; something has aligned and been affirmed for me. Thank you, Ms. Tippett and Dr. Kimmerer for this profound spiritual nourishment.

Listening to Robin Wall Kimmerer this morning describing mosses and rocks in conversation was beautiful and stopped me in my tracks to ponder this. Now I want to listen more attentively to this conversation.

Lovely show & reflections- many thanks

oh my goodness! thank you so much for explaining so many things about me I never quite understood, that made me feel out of sync with the world and even ashamed sometimes. I'm so relieved - I'm a moss!! :-) thank you...!

What an interesting and important program. It inspires the same sort of work that Thomas Berry writes about, a new language for the ecozoic age. Brilliant discussion and insights. Thank you. Dave Ross

Robin's reference to youth recognizing 100 corporate logos yet much less natural growth resonates with my similar experience; in that having moved (at the age of 50) from SE MI into the southern Appalachian Mountains of wNC made me aware that while growing up in Detroit I recognized many of the automobile brands / models yet few flora.

Each Sunday I leave for work at 7 AM so I have a wonderful opportunity to enjoy ON BEING. I am the coordinator of Crossroads of Michigan Sunday Soup Kitchen, so on my way to work I listen intently and it is such a beautiful way to begin a beautiful day of service.

Last Sunday, as always I enjoyed the On Being presentation and was especially touched by the description of and importance of moss! Also I was intriqued by the brief conversation regarding the appropriateness of using the term sustainability. Could you direct me to some resources on this discussion.

Thank you so very much for a spectacular program each Sunday!

With Gratitude,
Elizabeth Walters

This is one of my favourite episodes (favourite podcasts) of all time. Robin's deep reverence for the natural world was apparent. Ten years ago I was in the midst of a Masters program at Saint-Mary-of-the-Woods College in Terre Haute, Indiana on Earth Literacy. When Kimmerer was talking about how to bring the wisdom of indigenous cultures into education, I thought that this was the program I was doing. It incorporated environmental science, religious and indigenous wisdom and culture, and grief into its curriculum. The program was closed down for low enrolment after 5 or so years. It was ahead of its time.

Dr Kimmerer might be interested to know that in my native language of Welsh, the word 'chi' (pronounced more like the french 'qui' ) is used as a more reverential form of 'you', such as a child would use towards an adult, or an adult would use to a stranger or someone in authority. The Welsh language traces it's roots back to ancient celtic times - another rich lineage of people's who's views of the earth we are only just beginning to appreciate as 'wise' again.

I loved this interview! My now 25 year old son was influenced by Kimmerer's book Gathering Moss a few years back and found it very inspiring. She was partly responsible for inspiring him to spend 1 year focusing on mosses. He makes videos combining the beauty of moss with his amateur scientific explorations. I thought some of your readers might find them interesting! They're about 5 minutes each. Sphagnum moss:
Thyme moss

What an amazing program! Thank you so much. I feel as though I've just a profoundly religious experience.

I'm studying climate for 4 years now (instead of watching television). And I discovered that the real dominant forces that drive this planet are not the big visible things, but the tinny invisible organisms that for a human eye escape under the radar. Organisms at a ten thou of an inch ( a millimeter divide in 1000) ... they are not plants and not animal, but something else. They live miles deep in the ocean and beyond hundreds of feet deep in rock and ocean floor. Glass life (silicium based diatoms) live in the arctic in water below zero degrees Celsius (32°F) as long as it not ice they are ok with it. All these micro organism by they vast quantity stabilize atmosphere over millions of years.

Francis also sensed our oneness with Creation and reverence for all things. “Brother Sun, Sister Moon” was his way of showing reverence for Creation, and bringing “animation” to so-called inanimate things. This show adds depth to our desire to grow beyond the mechanization of the universe — to live into the oneness of all things.

I love how she works with different ways of knowing to create a fuller view of the world around us. There's great benefit to understanding a plant both by its parts and elements and as well as its character and our kinship to it...or...ki. Indigenous ways of knowing help us respect and appreciate our fellow living beings. Science shows us the otherwise invisible processes and enriches our knowledge.