Monday, November 06, 2023


"Plants tell their stories," writes Robin Wall-Kimmerer in her book Braiding Sweetgrass, "not by what they say but by what they do."

Our Western minds tend to object, But plants don't tell stories. Certainly, this is anthromorphizing. Kimmerer, however, asks, "What if you were a teacher but had no voice to speak your knowledge? What if you had no language at all and yet there was something you needed to say? Wouldn't you dance it? Wouldn't you act it out? Wouldn't your every movement tell the story? In time you would become so eloquent that just to gaze upon you would reveal it all. And so it is with these silent green leaves . . . Plants teach in the universal language."

Science is a way of understanding the world, a way that favors the mind. Indigenous people, however, have long known that real understanding also includes the body, emotions, and the spirit. This is something that all ancient people's have known.

Kimmerer is both a scientist and a citizen of the Potawatomi Nation which allows her, in her book, to weave together new understanding for readers by revealing the magnificent and humbling truth that no matter how complex and wonderful a "discovery" we make, we find that our ancestors and nature have not only already known about it, but have taken advantage of it.

When Kimmerer writes that plants are telling us their stories, she is only sharing ancient wisdom that has been handed down for centuries.

Isaac Newton is credited with "discovering" the laws of motion and universal gravitation, yet every living thing was already well-versed in these laws. We had to understand gravity in order to use and preserve our bodies. Our eyes tracked objects as they arced across the sky according to the principles of motion.

Long before we discovered the Earth's electromagnetic fields, birds and butterflies have been using them to navigate. Animals like bats and dolphins were employing echolocation (seeing with sound or as science journalist Ed Yong puts it, "touching with sound") for millennia before our scientists discovered it. Neurons were communicating with electricity eons before electricity was "discovered."

The Potawatomi Nation elders knew that trees were talking to one another long before scientists "discovered" that they communicate, just not with human language, but through pheromones carried on breezes and laden with meaning.

Indeed, one finds that all claims of scientific "discovery" might be more accurately called "re-discovery." Even the European Scientific Revolution that ushered in the so-called Age of Enlightenment, was really mostly focused on re-discovering the wisdom of "the ancients."

Science simply gives us another way of looking at it things that are already known, if not by humans, then by our fellow animals and plants. It doesn't stand alone as a way of understanding, but rather offers one narrow perspective, as important and valid as all the other perspectives, but only one of the infinite ways there are to understand.

Standard schools focus almost all their attention on knowing through science, although they tend to ignore the fact that the scientific method is a process by which theories are proposed, and consensuses are formed, only to be replaced by new theories and a new consensus. Science, like all efforts to seek truth, doesn't stand still. A well-regarded neuroscientist once told me that by the time we read about brain research in the popular media, it's already mostly invalid because the field is moving so fast. I often wonder about all those tests I took in school and how many of my right answers would today be marked wrong and vice versa. 

I find myself drawn to this idea that all knowledge is really just a re-discovery. As Doris Lessing wrote, "That's what learning is. You suddenly understand something you've understood all your life, but in a new way." So often we look at education as the process of filling empty vessels, but what if we started with the knowledge that each child, no matter how young, came to us as a fully formed, enlightened and wise person? What if we stopped viewing it as a process of moving from ignorance to enlightenment, but rather as a project of creating opportunities for each of us to add new perspectives to our own?


"This inspiring book is essential reading for every family choosing a preschool, every teacher working with young children, and every citizen who wonders how we can raise children who will make the world a better place." ~Dr. Laura Markham, author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids

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