The Intelligence in All Kinds of Life

I was teaching the names [of plants] and ignoring the songs.

I was entranced by this conversation with Robin Wall Kimmerer, a botanist and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. Kimmerer speaks of the shortcomings of science and language in describing and relating to inanimate objects, namely plants. How much more could we learn about other beings if we knew how to listen, instead of simply speaking about and categorizing them? Would we respect inanimate objects more if we endowed them with personhood? How would our relationship to the land improve? And can we really call plants, some of which close and open their leaves and turn their heads to follow a light source, inanimate? 

Science polishes the gift of seeing, indigenous traditions work with gifts of listening and language.

Kimmerer reminds me of botanist and medical biochemist Diana Beresford-Kroeger, author of The Sweetness of a Simple Life. As Kimmerer uses Anishinaabe language and traditions to enhance her scientific study of plants, so does Beresford-Kroeger apply ancient Druid awareness of natural systems to her study of trees and rare plants.

I’ve long rejected the separation of science and art, science and spirituality, science and storytelling. I believe a whole systems approach to the study of plants encourages us to truly appreciate all aspects of their being, and recognizes the multifaceted ways in which we relate to them: physically, emotionally, and mentally. We seem to know instinctually about the healing power of plants: we seek out green spaces in our cities and towns, perhaps practice the Japanese art of forest bathing or Shinrin-yoku. And yet we are oftentimes quick to discredit plants’ abilities to heal us at the cellular level, and deeper levels.



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