a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
Robin Wall Kimmerer’s first memory of science was when her kindergarten teacher used a magnifying glass to show her the complexity and detail of a snowflake. She was surprised by how something so “small and ordinary” could be “perfectly beautiful.” There was more to the world than what met the unaided eye: dazzling, secret, and mysterious knowledge.
Kimmerer’s initial magnified gaze at a snowflake was a surprise, but the fact that she became a botanist is not. She shares that she grew up with seeds in shoeboxes and pressed leaves under her bed, stopped her bike to identify species, had plants color her dreams. When she later applied to a forestry school that had few women, especially those who looked like her, an advisor asked why she wanted to major in botany. Her most honest answer was that the plants chose her, but she responded that she “wanted to learn why asters and goldenrod look so beautiful together.” This, apparently, was an unfit response, as she was advised that such concerns were not science, and then enrolled in General Biology so she could find out what was. Her natural tendency was to perceive pattern and relationship, to “seek the threads that connect the world,” but her education hammered home rigid separation between observer and observed. And she learned her lessons well, privileged to know the “powerful tools of science”; yet, “to walk the science path” she had “stepped off the path of Indigenous knowledge,” learning the Latin names of plants but no longer listening to their song.
Kimmerer eventually became a Professor of Environmental and Forest Biology at the State University of New York, integrating her paths while mostly focusing her studies on mosses; a hand lens around her neck, its cord tangled with her medicine bag, she explored levels in the “hierarchy of beauty” beyond ordinary perception. She writes that her knowledge of mosses comes from her scientific training, as well as the “plants themselves” and “intuitive affinity” for the knowledge of her Native heritage. Like the tangled cords around her neck, her science education twined with teachings from the old stories, in which “thrushes, trees, mosses, and humans” share a common language. Botany refines our ability to observe, but despite science’s power something is missing: listening as if “we are audience to conversations in a language not our own.”
In Kimmerer’s award-winning Gathering Moss, her mission is to give voice to mosses, from whom we have much to learn. Gathering Moss is filled with science, but what resonates beyond the science is pattern, beauty, and reciprocal relations among mosses and other species and animate forests. In fact, she writes that rivers, clouds, mycorrhizae, algae, salamanders, and slugs give thanks to the mosses, as do Indigenous peoples. The only ones who do not give thanks are humans who practice a limited epistemology.
Thankfully, Kimmerer gifts us a far richer and more inclusive epistemology, and thus an old yet new language of deep listening. Such listening, supported by grammars of science, animism, aesthetics, and spirit, enables us to practice an ecology of communication in service to what matters most: living humbly and well with all our kin.
In Braiding Sweetgrass, Kimmerer gathers insights from the “ancestral road” of myth and animism, or mythic-animistic communication, including the value of stories, ceremonies, rituals, remembering, and listening within specific places. In the chapter “Skywoman Falling,” she recounts the creation story of Skywoman falling from the Skyworld toward dark waters, only to be saved by a community of differing species. A great turtle appears, offering his back as a place to rest. Meanwhile, the others realize she needs land for a home, and so they take turns diving into the depths in search of mud. Each attempt ends in failure, but then little Muskrat, considered a weak diver, gives it a try. He was gone a long time, and then floated to the top, limp and lifeless yet holding a clump of mud. Skywoman spread the mud on the shell of the turtle, and, feeling immense gratitude, “sang in thanksgiving and then began to dance.” Land emerged along with her dance of thanks “until the whole earth was made,” not just from Skywoman, but from “the alchemy of all the animals’ gifts”: “Together they formed what we know today as Turtle Island, our home.”
Skywoman sang her praise for all she was given, and also did not come empty-handed: When she initially fell, she reached out to the Tree of Life that resided in Skyworld, grabbing a branch that contained fruits, seeds, and plants, which she then scattered on the land. Sunlight streamed from the hole she plunged through, germinating the seeds and turning the brown ground to lush green, with “wild grasses, flowers, trees, and medicines spread everywhere.” Animals, having plenty to eat, also “came to live with her on Turtle Island.”
The above is an abridged version of a particular creation story that, for Kimmerer, holds many lessons, beginning with sweetgrass, which is said to be the first plant to grow on earth, its scent reminding of Skywoman’s hand. Sweetgrass is often used in ceremonies designed to stimulate remembering, as well as to construct beautiful baskets, making it “medicine and a relative,” its value “both material and spiritual.” Perhaps most importantly, she writes that children who grow up with this story learn “the responsibility that flows between humans and the earth.”
The Skywoman myth, which is “shared by the original peoples throughout the Great Lakes,” supplies “original instructions.” Kimmerer is clear that these instructions are not like commandments or rules, but more like a compass providing guidelines for living well on the planet, including “ethical prescriptions for respectful hunting, family life, and ceremonies that made sense for their world.” Thus she finds much from the past that is worth participating with in the present, but for Kimmerer the most needed “instruction” is likely the reciprocity of the gift: “And as I turn it over again and again, Skywoman seems to look me in the eye and ask, in return for this gift of a world on Turtle’s back, what will I give in return?”
This question is rooted in myth, but also animism, or the orientation that recognizes that everything that is, is alive, and Kimmerer argues that we must learn a grammar of animism. After she came to learn, and excel at, the grammar of science, gaining a form of rational communication, she first heard the Anishinaabe word “Puhpowee,” which means “the force that causes mushrooms to push up from the earth overnight,” leading her to rediscover a grammar that respects unseen animate energies. She then further studied, remembering and reclaiming Indigenous languages that respect the “life that pulses through all things.” Attending to this pulsating life force requires listening by seeing other-than-humans as persons and family: “This is the language I hear in the woods; this is the language that lets us speak of what wells up all around us.”
Kimmerer’s ability to listen to other-than-human voices opened her to new questions, as well as interactions among species, including mosses and rocks: Why do some rocks host ten or more moss species while similar nearby rocks host only one? Working in the Adirondacks, this question led to another as she and fellow researchers called out the Latin names of mosses as they discovered them: Why do most mosses only have scientific names and not common ones, like many rock outcroppings do? Kimmerer’s daughters had named several rocks based on their relation to them—Reading Rock, Diving Rock, Bread Rock—but mosses tend to lie outside our circle of relations, treated like Buberian “Its” rather than “Thous,” and thus without “sweet secret names . . . for the ones we love.”
At one point in her studies, she discovered a cave-like opening among the rocks leading to a grassy meadow and rock-filled room covered with mosses. All were subjects now, animate and alive, the mossy rocks “vibrating with energy exchanged at a very long wavelength.” Rocks and mosses, she surmised, participate in ancient conversation; the rocks are “beyond slow, beyond strong and yet yield to a soft green breath as powerful as a glacier,” with soft mosses wearing away hard rock, “grain by grain bringing them slowly back to sand.” Standing inside this conversation, this circle, losing track of time, she recalled that ancestors knew rocks held the Earth’s stories and mosses have names other than the Linnaean taxonomy. This recollection was a gift, and thus she did not feel willed to scientifically name mosses within this place, within this reciprocity of presences, only the grace of responsibility. She would carry forward the message that “mosses have their own names” and their “way of being cannot be told by data alone,” even as she continued to explore the conditions that support diverse moss communities.
Gathering Moss has more science than I can share, along with a vision of an animate forest community. In fact, Kimmerer writes that the whole forest and food web give thanks to the mosses, since they offer their beauty along with many services, including capturing rainwater, which is nutrient-rich after running down the trunks of trees. Moisture-filled mosses also create humidity, which then aids the dispersion of mosses, which creates nursery-like moss-mats for seedlings and decomposes fallen logs by supporting fungi that create soil. Moisture-filled mosses also keep insects alive that would otherwise dry out and die, supplying food for birds and other species, and material for nests.
Kimmerer writes that Indigenous peoples gave thanks by offering prayers. Of course, colonizers speaking an I-It language of conquest and exploitation did not offer prayers, at least not the kind than recognizes all life as kin. And we continue to speak such language today, but we could, and should, give thanks, because gratitude creates openness for listening. Prayers may be answered, not in a petitionary ask-for-things way, but in an integrated mythic-animistic and rationality kind of way: ask good questions, with proper humility, and we may receive insights and guidance. But her integration of modes of knowing extends beyond mythic-animistic and rational communication to include aesthetic communication; in other words, we must not only learn to speak a grammar of animism, but also a grammar of aesthetics.
When Kimmerer’s wise teacher shared a magnifying glass so she could explore the complexity and detail of a snowflake, the already “gorgeous world” became “even more beautiful the closer you look.” But when her formal science education denied animism and aesthetics, she was reminded of her grandfather, who was forced to leave culture, language, and family behind in his first day of school, instructed to forget heritage and that there was only one way to think. But questions persisted: why do visually stunning pairs of purple and gold “end up side by side?” “What is the source of this pattern?” “Why is the world so beautiful?”
These seemed like good questions to her, especially since asters and goldenrod could grow alone. She had wanted to study botany and poetry, but was further instructed that she could only study one, as if they were not only separate disciplines but separate worlds; or, as C. P. Snow put it in 1959, “two cultures” that hinder our ability to enact fitting responses to global problems. Kimmerer chose plants, or plants chose her, because in her Native upbringing plants were “teachers and companions” to whom she was “linked in mutual responsibility.” But the “who” of the plant was replaced by “what is it?” and other valid yet reductionist questions.
Kimmerer’s natural tendency to perceive pattern and relationship was further aided when she heard a Navajo woman, with no university botany training, speak for hours about the plants in her valley, knowing names, where they lived, when they bloomed, who ate them, who lined their nests with what fibers, as well as their stories and relationships and the medicine they gifted. And she spoke of beauty. For Kimmerer, this talk, like learning the Anishinaabe word “Puhpowee,” was like “smelling salts” waking her up to the limits of her Ph.D., which offered one lens while this so-called uneducated woman provided knowledge that was “deeper and wider and engaged all the human ways of understanding.”
Kimmerer circled back to her original questions concerning beauty, questions that were “bigger than science.” Science does disclose information on rods and cones in the retina and color perception, with specialized receptor cells absorbing light wavelengths attuned to red, blue, and purple and yellow, sending signals to the brain. This explains why the combination of asters and goldenrod got her attention, but Kimmerer writes this does not explain why she perceives it as beautiful. Artist friends, however, pointed her to the color wheel, where purple and gold are complementary colors, making each more vivid. They express reciprocity via dialogic exchange of information, and this attracts humans, as well as bees “bent on pollination,” their “striking contrast” making them “the most attractive target in the whole meadow.” Asters and goldenrod growing together receive more pollinator visitors, a testable hypothesis informed by science, art, and beauty.
For Kimmerer, asters and goldenrod are like SEK (Scientific Ecological Knowledge) and TEK (Traditional Ecological Knowledge)—complementary parts of a larger pattern—and it is a “whole human being who finds the beautiful path.” Her questions, then, were scientific, yet ultimately about relationships and the “shimmering threads that hold it all together.” Her questions were about love and caring for the whole world, not separate worlds of the sciences and humanities, and yearning to understand and make “something beautiful in response.”
Kimmerer’s consistent practice of the grammars of mythic-animistic, rational, and aesthetic communication may prepare the ground for spiritual communication, or insights learned, or communicated to us, when having a spiritual experience. William James explored the variety of such experiences in the early 20th century, arguing that common characteristics include unity, ineffability, transience, and being outdoors. Today, the spiritual philosopher Ken Wilber has thoroughly catalogued spiritual experiences, which may approach the nondual realization of “thou art that.” A typical message is profound wonder or awe before nature’s diverse voices, or, taking another step, hearing the voice of nature expressed as unity-in-diversity, and we are often not quite the same afterwards.
Not surprisingly, meditation or contemplation may also prepare the ground, but so do ceremonies and rituals, especially if we are on sacred ground. Kimmerer is rooted in upstate New York, and several chapters in Gathering Moss and Braiding Sweetgrass explore this bioregion via the lenses of science and sacredness, but she brings these listening lenses, which further prepare the ground, wherever she goes.
In Oregon, she recounts the history of salmon, who were honored by coastal Natives in their annual journey from the sea to the rivers where they were spawned. Many rituals of thanks were performed, including the burning of the grassy headland fourteen hundred feet above the surf: “They mean for it to say, ‘Come, come, flesh of my flesh. My brothers. Come back to the rivers where your life began. We have made a welcome feast in your honor.’” And the salmon would come in droves, feeding people and other animals but also the forest. Carcasses dragged into the woods fertilized the land with nitrogen, benefiting trees but also skunk cabbage, another source of food: “Salmon fed everyone.” And in the spring, the headlands became a “beacon again” for the salmon, the burnt ground stimulating “the intense green light of new grass,” which became food for elk and a haven for wildflowers.
Kimmerer writes of the headlands as a sacred place that gifts the “long view”: the rocky coast to the north, ancient moss-covered ridges to the east, the unbroken sea to the west, and an estuary to the south. Eagles, symbols of vision, would soar above, and such a place drew seekers of visions who would fast for days: “They would sacrifice for the Salmon, for the People, to hear the Creator’s voice, to dream.” Of course, this story of ritual and respect does not end well, with dams and other forms of commodity-driven destruction silencing the salmon, including industrial forestry and agriculture.
Kimmerer traveled to the headland, turning inward as she walked the trail, her “busy mind” quieting down as she became receptive to the voices of nature, a stream singing, a winter wren chattering, an orange newt crossing her path. As much as she wanted to arrive at the headland, she willed herself to walk slowly, savoring the anticipation, tasting the “change in the air and the lift in the breeze” as she moved through the last of the alders. She was greeted by “golden grass” and “prairie earth” as she imagined those who have walked the same ground, but she was the only human present: “It’s just me, the grass, and the sky, and two bald eagles riding the thermals.”
And then it happened: “Cresting the ridge releases me into an explosion of light and space and wind. My head catches fire at the sight. I cannot tell you more of that high and holy place. Words blow away. Even thought dissipates like wisps of cloud sailing up the headland. There is only being.”
Spiritual experiences have long been described as beyond words and thought—i.e. ineffability—which is exactly how Kimmerer details this moment, adding a grammar of spirit to her array of dialogic orientations. While a transient experience, she received a message of unity. Everything is “only being,” a sentiment that I am sure she already knows, but now knows on a transrational, or rationality-plus, level and with more power. Kimmerer is already aware and awake, but spiritual communication of this type may be described via another characteristic: the power to transform, to crack open a limited sense of self such that we are open to listening.
In a chapter on old growth forests, Kimmerer writes that we think too much and listen too little, as listening creates “an openness to the world in which the boundaries between us dissolve in a raindrop.” In a chapter on lichens, which in Asia go by the name of “ear of the stone,” she imagines them listening, stating that the “harsh post-glacial world in which you began may well be our own unless we listen to the mutualistic marriage of your bodies.” In a chapter on superfund sites, she states that the land has been kidnapped, bound, and gagged, unable to “speak for itself,” which leads her to question: “what do we do in response?” And in a chapter on frogs attempting to cross a road in spring without getting flattened, she imagines their chorus: “Hear! Hear! Hear! The world is more than your thoughtless commute. We, the collateral, are your wealth, your teachers, your security, your family. Your strange hunger for ease should not mean a death sentence for the rest of Creation.”
Near the end of Braiding Sweetgrass, Kimmerer returns to story in the form of Windigo, a mythic monster that consumes and consumes without giving anything back. And the more it consumes, “the more ravenous it becomes.” The Windigo must be defeated, of course, especially in climate crisis times driven by eco-social injustice, or, as Kimmerer puts it: “The very earth that sustains us is being destroyed to fuel injustice.”
Fighting the Windigo with listening may seem a weak, or unfit, response, especially since our potential for listening beyond the human is often socially and structurally denied, and no amount of greenwashing or supposedly green capitalism is going to change that. But that is exactly what makes deep listening a radical act: the more we practice it, the more we will fight for structural change. And deep structural change will more fully allow us to practice deep listening.
Kimmerer writes that the Windigo is helpless before the many lessons of plants, including the braid of sweetgrass that hangs by her door, representing the “unity of mind, body, and spirit that makes us whole.” The Windigo, on the other hand, represents unraveling. But by practicing an ecology of communication, and thus deep listening, we may give our gifts, weaving together a world.
 Robin Wall Kimmerer. Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2003, vi.
 Robin Wall Kimmerer. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. Minnesota: Milkweed Editions, 2013, 89.
 Ibid., 43-44.
 Kimmerer. Gathering Moss, vi-vii.
 Kimmerer. Braiding Sweetgrass, 48-49.
 Kimmerer. Gathering Moss, 146-150.
 Kimmerer. Braiding Sweetgrass, 3-4.
 Ibid., 4-5.
 Ibid., 5.
 Ibid., 7.
 Ibid., 8.
 Ibid., 49.
 Ibid., 55.
 Kimmerer. Gathering Moss, 3.
 Ibid., 5.
 Ibid., 6.
 Ibid., 146-150.
 Ibid., vi.
 Kimmerer. Braiding Sweetgrass, 41.
 C. P. Snow. The Two Cultures and A Second Look. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1959.
 Kimmerer. Braiding Sweetgrass, 42.
 Ibid., 43-44.
 Ibid., 46.
 Ibid., 47.
 William James. The Varieties of Religious Experience. New York: Penguin, 1992 (1902).
 Ken Wilber. Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1995.
 William Homestead. “The Language that All Things Speak.” In Voice and Environmental Communication, edited by Jennifer Peeples and Steve Depoe. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2014.
 Kimmerer. Braiding Sweetgrass, 242.
 Ibid., 244.
 Ibid., 246.
 Ibid., 247.
 Ibid., 300.
 Ibid., 276.
 Ibid., 327.
 Ibid., 359.
 Ibid., 305.
 Ibid., 376.
 William Homestead. An Ecology of Communication: Response and Responsibility in an Age of Ecocrisis. Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2021.
 Kimmerer. Braiding Sweetgrass, 378.
Homestead, William. An Ecology of Communication: Response and Responsibility in an Age of Ecocrisis. Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2021.
—-. “The Language that All Things Speak.” In Voice and Environmental Communication, edited by Jennifer Peeples and Steve Depoe. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2014.
James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience. New York: Penguin, 1992 (1902).
Kimmerer, Robin Wall. Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2003.
—-. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. Minnesota: Milkweed Editions, 2013.
—-. “Mishkos Kenomogwen: The Lessons of Grass.” Traditional Ecological Knowledge: Learning from Indigenous Practices for Environmental Sustainability, edited by M. K. Nelson and D. Shilling, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2018.
—-. “Ancient Green: Moss, Climate, and Deep Time,” in Emergence Magazine online. Ancient Green – Robin Wall Kimmerer (emergencemagazine.org), 2022.
Snow, C. P. The Two Cultures and A Second Look. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1959.
Wilber, Ken. Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1995.
William Homestead is the author of An Ecology of Communication: Response and Responsibility in an Age of Ecocrisis (Lexington Books, April 2021). His new book, Not Till We Are Lost: Thoreau, Education, and Climate Crisis, is coming out in fall 2024 (Mercer University Press). Homestead had a long association with the Ometeca Institute, a nonprofit devoted to the integration of the sciences and humanities. His work with Ometeca, along with interdisciplinary degrees (MA in Communication Studies, MS in Environmental Studies, MFA in Creative Nonfiction), study with a spiritual teacher, and hiking experiences, provide much of the insight and inspiration for his writings. He is an Associate Professor at New England College and a member of the International Environmental Communication Association (IECA), the National Communication Association (NCA), and The Thoreau Society. He created and teaches The Voice of Nature, which challenges our anthropocentric bias by exploring listening within a more-than-human world.