Robin Wall Kimmerer – (Jane Goodall Hopecast S2 EP14 )


Full Transcript:

Conservation Chorus (00:04):

We are all connected, all our voices matter and it will take all of our bold talents and strengths to create a healthier planet. Our mother, our one and only. I aspire to change the world too, because of the hope she gave me. She devoted her life to it. Together we can save the world. Together we can, together we will.

Jane Goodall (00:25):

What is your greatest reason for hope? I’m Jane Goodall, and this is The Hopecast.

Jane Goodall (00:37):

Hello, on air first, this is Dr. Jane Goodall beaming in from my home in the U.K. It’s lovely to meet you all. In 2020, I started a podcast of my own, a Jane Goodall Hopecast, where I talk to incredible people about what gives them hope. I never thought I’d be a podcast host, but here I am. Today I’m so excited to speak with someone who shares my appreciation for and love of plants, as well as the rest of the natural world, Robin Wall Kimmerer. Dr. Kimmerer, an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, is a SUNY distinguished teaching professor of environmental biology and the Founder and Director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment.

Jane Goodall (01:29):

The center’s mission is to create programs which draw on indigenous and other scientific knowledge for our shared goals of an interconnected world where people, animals and the environment can live in harmony. She’s also the author of the New York Times bestseller Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. I’m so looking forward to our discussion about indigenous wisdom, the incredible nature of plants, and to affirming our integral relationship to the earth today for a better tomorrow. I hope you enjoy this hopeful conversation with Robin Wall Kimmerer.

Jane Goodall (02:17):

Robin, it’s really exciting to me that you have agreed to be our guest on this episode of The Hopecast. I think the first thing I’d like to ask you is I remember really, really well, and I don’t know how many years ago it was, but when we first met and it was a big occasion, there were a lot of people there, can you remind me of that occasion?

Robin Wall Kimmerer (02:43):

Jane, I remember it so well as well. We met on the shores of historic Onondaga Lake in Syracuse, New York, at the heart of Haudenosaunee territory here in upstate New York. It was in order to talk together about how indigenous ways of knowing could be medicine for this lake, which is both a sacred lake and the most polluted lake in North America.

Jane Goodall (03:12):

You are so well known for your books especially Braiding Sweetgrass. How did it all start for you?

Robin Wall Kimmerer (03:21):

My journey as a botanist and a plant ecologist, and I guess a student of plants Jane, began for me as a kid. I wonder if this is true for you too. People will say, “Well, how did you get this interest?” And I think I was practically born a botanist, looking at plants and being fascinated by them, as well as birds and salamanders and everyone else out there was the gift of growing up outdoors.

Jane Goodall (03:49):

Isn’t it fascinating because people always say to me, “What triggered your love with animals?” And I always say to them, “I was born with it. Maybe something happened when I was in my mother’s womb.” And that was the same through my childhood, all these things I did with animals, she was always supportive. And that’s such an important role for a mother, don’t you think?

Robin Wall Kimmerer (04:12):

Oh my goodness yes. I had pressed plants under my bed, on my desk, and like your mom, instead of saying, “Oh, get that mess out of here.” It was, “Oh, let’s look at these together.” She gave me my first wildflower book and sat with me to try to show me how to learn their names. So yeah, we don’t do this alone, right?

Jane Goodall (04:37):

No, we don’t walk life’s path alone. That’s such an important part of the journey, isn’t it? The people that you meet along the way, that you gather in. So you did botany at school?

Robin Wall Kimmerer (04:50):

Not until I went to university and I studied botany and plant ecology then, which was a rather different way of thinking about plants than my familial experience with them. It was my introduction to the Western scientific worldview having grown up on the land and with the background of my Potawatomi heritage, how I thought about plants and encountering the scientific worldview was jarring for me, but at the same time it opened so much to understand their inner workings and so forth that I hadn’t had access to before. It was a bit of a struggle between those two ways of knowing.

Jane Goodall (05:37):

Did you have any sort of arguments about the way you thought versus the way Western science thinks?

Robin Wall Kimmerer (05:45):

I did and much of it was because I was the only native student in the whole university. There was no one there to say, “Yes, that is the way that we think about plants.” So I became very quiet because I thought my ways of thinking weren’t welcome there. And it took me quite a long time to find my way back to my own voice.

Jane Goodall (06:12):

What’s fascinating me now about what we are talking about, the traditional knowledge versus Western science, is how the people studying trees are now completely moving into trees, communicate trees, nurture their young ones and all this new information. I imagine you are totally fascinated by it.

Robin Wall Kimmerer (06:37):

Oh, Jane, I am. And there’s a wonderful redemptive quality when I hear your story about having to struggle to have people accept your holistic view of chimpanzees, for example, that revolution is happening in the plant world. Some of the things about how plants communicate with one another, how they support each other, how they live as a we not just as an I, there are sometimes that I smile to myself and say, “Well, Western science is catching up to indigenous knowledge.”

Jane Goodall (07:15):

Yes. And I was absolutely fascinated by one thing when I first began to understand about the Japanese studies of Japanese monkeys. And they had very much not a Western science way of thinking, it was much more like the indigenous people. And then I went to Cambridge and I learned how to write as a scientist just as you have. And I enjoyed it. I mean, I love thinking things through logically and letting my intuition dictate a question and then saying, “Okay, now I’ll put on my scientific cap and test to see if it’s real.” I love that.

Jane Goodall (07:55):

But what I found with the original Japanese writing about the Japanese monkeys, it was just as I was writing and thinking about the chimpanzees, but then gradually it began to change. And I put on this scientific hat, but I never lost the underlying empathy.

Robin Wall Kimmerer (08:16):

Being able to speak and write scientifically and just the way that you’re talking about, I love that kind of investigation, but it’s only part of the puzzle, right? It’s only part of the tool set. And I think where we go wrong is when we’re taught that it’s everything, that that’s the only way to see the world. It’s an amazing way to see the world so powerful, but it’s not the only way. And when we bring them both together, as you have done, the world changes.

Jane Goodall (08:59):

In Africa with the chimpanzees, we have a whole wing now studying their use of plants in medicine, curing themselves. And it turns out that the local people they use the same plants very often for exactly the same medicinal use. Don’t you think that’s fascinating?

Robin Wall Kimmerer (09:21):

I do. I do. And I’m so intrigued to hear that’s true there. For us in Anishinaabe ways we say that it was the bear who taught us those things, because their nerves, their physiology is very like our own. And that’s how we learned a lot of medicines is by watching how the bears took care of themselves and to not count out the plants themselves as teachers, what role might they have played in somehow communicating to us their gifts.

Jane Goodall (09:53):

Mm-hmm (affirmative) I wonder. And we’re still finding out new things about plants. The role each different plant has in an ecosystem in combination with the animals in the ecosystem and how that makes up this whole beautiful tapestry of life, how connected we all are.

Robin Wall Kimmerer (10:12):

Biophysically, ecologically, genetically. And now we’re seeing this amazing work on plant cognition by Monica Gagliano and her colleagues that are starting to demonstrate plant memory and learning and behavior which is so slow and in a different mode. But just because they don’t behave like animals doesn’t mean they’re not behaving. It’s just a revolution in progress.

Jane Goodall (10:47):

It is. But is this going to lead us into big ethical problems? I mean, right now is this big, big movement towards a plant-based diet because of over consumption of meat is destroying the environment and wasting water, producing all this methane. So people now move towards a plant-based diet.

Robin Wall Kimmerer (11:10):

In Potawatomi ways we talk about this very thing, Jane, about what we call the honorable harvest, which doesn’t say, “Don’t consume,” because we as heterotrophic animals we have to consume, but it says, “To consume with honor. Consume in a way that does honor to the beings whose lives you’re taking and does honor to yourself as well.” There’s a whole protocol for how we treat the living world as relative.

Robin Wall Kimmerer (11:43):

When we met at Onondaga Lake that day opened as does any gathering in Haudenosaunee territory with what they call the words that come before all else, which are exactly what you’re saying. It is an inventory of thanks to the waters and the fish and the trees and the birds and the plants. And it’s a protocol that just brings people together in gratitude for exactly the beings whose lives are helping us.

Robin Wall Kimmerer (12:12):

And in it, we say, “Thank you to the corn beans and squash.” It’s such a wonderful example of regenerative agriculture that you grow the corn, the beans, and the squash together in one mound. But then that corn, if the crows don’t take it, stands up so straight, and then the bean has something to climb on. And the bean positions its leaves between the corn leaves so they’re not competing, they’re just collaborating. And of course the bean with nitrogen fixation is feeding the corn. So the bean is helping the corn and the corn is helping the bean. And then at their feet are the squashes with these big leaves that they have that are slightly prickly so they deter herbivores. They keep the soil moist.

Robin Wall Kimmerer (13:07):

So it’s a system that needs no irrigation. It needs no fertilization. It is the three of them together that creates that mutualism. It’s brilliant. And you get more food when you plant them in polyculture and it’s better for the soil. And it’s of course nutritionally complete diet. I actually like to use it as a metaphor for knowledge as well is to think about the corn as indigenous knowledge complete with its values. And then the bean is like the curious science that’s powered by that nitrogen. But when the bean is guided by these values of respect, reciprocity, gratitude, I think we do you better science when we have those two ways of inquiry and knowing together.

Jane Goodall (14:03):

I’m very excited and I’m sure you are to see how regenerative agriculture and permaculture and not taking hold. It’s just magic to see a whole ecosystem beginning to regenerate and to bring back the insects and the birds and the flowers. And if you give nature time and space, what nature will do to bring back what we took away.

Robin Wall Kimmerer (14:29):

Yes. And Jane that work, especially the work in agroforestry, just brings to mind as you say, if we get out of the way and let nature do the healing work, it’s really powerful that we have to and can have a hand in that. For too long I think we’ve bought this notion that humans and nature are in opposition to one another. That they’re a bad mix. The best thing we can do is hands off. When access to nature feels to me like a human right, how can we fall in love with the world if the world is all concrete?

Jane Goodall (15:08):

People say I’m a scientist. Well, I did get my PhD, but I think of myself as a naturalist rather than a scientist. And then people say, “Well, what’s the difference?” I say, “Well, the scientist goes out and wants to know and asks questions and tries to get the answer. Makes theories and tries to prove or disprove them. The naturalist goes out open to the wonder, letting nature fill you.”

Robin Wall Kimmerer (15:42):

Yes, it’s so much more whole isn’t it? It’s mind, body emotion, spirit, and imagination. And our scientific training can marginalize all those other beautiful human ways of being. We get more data, we get good P-values, but I don’t think it necessarily serves human values.

Jane Goodall (16:04):

I’m sure you’ve seen my octopus teacher haven’t you?

Robin Wall Kimmerer (16:07):


Jane Goodall (16:08):

I mean, isn’t that lovely? And to me, I mention it a lot because it epitomizes totally different kind of intellect. When you imagine having a brain in all your arms and legs and fingers so that they could all work independently, it’s impossible to imagine I think. And yet octopus can come up and do the same kind of solution to a problem that we do with our one brain here. I just love thinking about these things.

Robin Wall Kimmerer (16:39):

In that film I was thinking, of course, in that very section you’re referencing about, “But that’s how plant intelligence is. It’s a distributed intelligence of meristems and buds and root tips, all gathering and processing information.” And we were blind to it because it’s not how we think. We concluded that they must not be thinking at all, as opposed to opening our imagination to what creative problem solver you would be with distributed intelligence, octopus or a pine tree.

Jane Goodall (17:16):

Yes, that’s right. Imagination. You kept referring to imagination. When I was growing up, I was always telling stories and my mother wrote them down. I had some lovely stories when I was five. Telling stories, that is something so important. And in some cases, the only way of sharing knowledge is to tell stories.

Jane Goodall (17:39):

And I’ve found that when I’m giving a lecture, I shy away from statistics because although at the time they make sense, you don’t remember them. Whereas a story, you may not remember exactly the details, but you get the whole emotional feeling of a story and you can repeat it. And I’ve actually noticed with Native American storytellers, some of them, the stories they tell, they’re not always the same. It’s the same story, but has different twists in it. And I find that absolutely fascinating.

Robin Wall Kimmerer (18:13):

Yeah. The notion that stories are alive themselves and change and grow. And I agree, Jane, the way in which you have become a storyteller. I think that in my own evolution, I have gone from scientist to storyteller, because it feels like that’s what we need right now. We need stories that invite people into relationship with the living world, not inform them about it the way science teaches about nature, or we learn about nature. I want to learn from nature. And that’s what stories invite us to do I think is, they don’t tell us, they invite us into relationship. Yeah.

Jane Goodall (19:06):

When I was 10-years-old, I was telling everybody I want to grow up. I want to go to Africa. I want to live with wild animals and write books about them. But when I got offered the opportunity of going to study the chimps, I said, “I’m going to live with and learn from.” That’s what I said from the beginning. Not learn about, but learn from. That’s a big difference, isn’t that?

Robin Wall Kimmerer (19:33):

Oh my goodness yes. And it calls to mind the so often overlooked virtue of humility that is so lacking I think oftentimes in our human centric culture, of the humility to say, “I’m going to learn from intelligences other than my own.” For me, Jane, it is a great comfort to know that there are intelligences other than our own. If I thought that we as a species had to figure everything out, oh, we can’t, we can’t. But to know that we could rely on solutions from our relatives by learning from the living world, I think that’s the path forward. And if we can cultivate that humility, we will all be better for it rather than the arrogance of our time that we hold up.

Jane Goodall (20:31):

So I’ve asked you hundreds of question. Do you have any for me?

Robin Wall Kimmerer (20:35):

I think that one of the questions that’s very much on my mind that I would like to hear how you navigate is that like many folks I think who love the world, we’re pulled in so many directions of what do we think are the most important things we can do from the individual actions to the systemic change. In Braiding Sweetgrass I argue with myself about this. I’m caring for my little pond. Meanwhile, there’s a great polluted lake a few miles away. Where should my efforts be placed?

Robin Wall Kimmerer (21:13):

And it’s something that I continue to struggle with. And I’d love to hear how you’ve done this, because it feels to me like you’ve been doing it, both the small local things and the global things. I’d just love to hear about your thinking about how do you find where to invest your energy.

Jane Goodall (21:38):

I invest my energy in things that I am passionate about. The trouble is I’m passionate about so much, but I think if people tackle what they’re passionate about, “Okay, I want to do something. What can I do? I really care about these littered beaches.” All right. Get out there, roll up your sleeves, try and get the little group of people and pick up the litter.

Jane Goodall (22:05):

And the great thing is that once you see that you’re making a difference, it makes you feel good. And when you feel good, you want to do more so you feel better. And as you feel better doing your one thing, you take others with you, they become more inspired and it kind of spirals out. And then you find that in your community, some people care about litter. Other people care about rewelding. Other people care about protecting an endangered species.

Jane Goodall (22:34):

Some people want to stop the building of yet another shopping mall, and there’s enough of us to tackle the different things locally. And then when you realize that all around the world there are people tackling local things, that collectively is making a huge difference. And then you dare to think globally. And the answer is you can’t do it all.

Jane Goodall (22:55):

And so I always tell the young people do what you really are passionate about. And maybe later on you’ll enlarge your passion. Maybe you’ll stick to it and build it up. It doesn’t really matter as long as you do something.

Jane Goodall (23:12):

Well, Robin, I really want to thank you for being such a terrific guest and giving us so much wisdom. Thank you very, very much for joining this Hopecast.

Robin Wall Kimmerer (23:22):

Jane, thank you for the opportunity. It’s been a privilege to speak with you and thank you for all that you to you do.

Jane Goodall (23:33):

And thank you for all that you do too. Thank you everyone who’s tuned in today to on air first and special thanks to our Hopecast guest today, Robin Wall Kimmerer, and our production partner, FRQNCY Media.

Jane Goodall (24:06):

Feel hopeful and inspired to act with the Jane Goodall Hopecast by subscribing on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Podcasts, and anywhere podcasts are found. I’m your host jane Goodall. The Jane Goodall Hopecast is produced by the Jane Goodall Institute. Our production partner is FRQNCY Media. Michelle Khouri is our executive producer, Enna Garkusha is our producer, and Matthew Ernest-Filler is our editor and sound designer. Our music is composed and performed by Ruth Mendelssohn with additional violin tracks from Angie Shear. Sound design and music composition for the Conservation Chorus is by Matthew Ernest-Filler.

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About Author

Scientist. Activist. Storyteller. Icon. Jane Goodall blazed the trail and changed the world. Now, she's studying new subjects – humans! This brand-new podcast will take listeners on a one-of-a-kind journey as they learn from Dr. Goodall's extraordinary life, hear from changemaking guests from every arena, and become awed by a growing movement sparked by Jane and fueled by hope. Join us as we get curious, grow compassion, and take action to build a better world for all. As we face some of the greatest challenges to humankind and the natural world, we have a unique opportunity: the power of technology to connect and share ideas. Now is the time to galvanize people around Jane’s message of hope in action and bring big thinkers together to change hearts and minds alike. The Jane Goodall Hopecast is produced by the Jane Goodall Institute by Dan DuPont, Shawn Sweeney, and Ashley Sullivan. Our production partner is FRQNCY Media. Michelle Khouri is our executive producer, Enna Garkusha is our producer, and Matthew Ernest Filler is our editor and sound designer. Our music is composed and performed by Ruth Mendelson with additional violin tracks from Angie Shyr. Sound design and music composition for the Conservation Chorus is by Matthew Ernest Filler.