Growing up in the Midwest raised by Depression-era parents, my brother and I were taught the philosophy of “waste not, want not.” One never took more than one’s share. We repaired, recycled (out of necessity, not because it was a “thing”) and reused. The idea of renovating one’s kitchen because it was out of style was unheard of. We owned just enough to get by: a pair of shoes for school, play and church. So, I had to wonder, when did this inclination toward overconsumption begin? Do I really need three (OK four) long-sleeved white T-shirts? I didn’t suddenly win the lottery. This excessive lifestyle hit me hard while reading the book, “Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants.”
If you haven’t yet read this book by Robin Wall Kimmerer, please consider doing so. This book resonated with me like no other. It espoused many of our UU values, specifically the 7th Principle: “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” Unitarian Universalists broadly define the “web of existence” to include one’s community and environment. By incorporating her training as a scientist and as a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, the author embraces the notion that plants and animals are our oldest teachers. She writes about the natural world from a place of abundant passion, using her tools of science to awaken our ecological consciousness. She asks us to “acknowledge our human connection with the rest of the living world.” She reminds us to “appreciate the generosity of the earth and reciprocate” in kind. Philosophies I thought were my own. Yet here I am surrounded by stuff.
Our UU principle states that “actions taken seemingly in isolation can still have far-reaching effects, and responsible behavior includes being mindful of the potential consequences.” Wall Kimmerer’s themes of reciprocity, gratitude, indigeneity and reconciliation focus on the relationship between humanity and the earth. They reframe our view of natural goods not as being commodities to be taken, but gifts given with an implicit responsibility placed upon the receiver. Because we have been given these abundant gifts, it is our task to show the earth an equal measure of respect and care. Included in the book are guidelines for the “Honorable Harvest,” an agreement between consumers and providers. The guidelines, says Wall Kimmerer, are not written down, they are reinforced in small acts of daily life. If one were to list them, she says, they might look like this:
Know the ways of the ones who take care of you, so that you may take care of them.
Introduce yourself. Be accountable as the one who comes asking for life.
Ask permission before taking. Abide by the answer.
Never take the first. Never take the last.
Take only what you need.
Never take more than half. Leave some for others.
Harvest in a way that minimizes harm.
Use it respectfully. Never waste what you have taken.
Give thanks for what you have been given.
Give a gift, in reciprocity for what you have taken.
Sustain the ones who sustain you and the earth will last forever.
Unfortunately, too often, I have not extended the good manners of the “Honorable Harvest“ to the natural world. Too often I take what doesn’t belong to me and lose sight of its worth. The principles of the “Honorable Harvest“ have great resonance in an era where overconsumption threatens every dimension of our well-being. Reading this book has reminded me of our 7th Principle and the need to lead by example.
I have much work to do in terms of honoring the reciprocity between my humanity and the earth, in offering my gratitude and reframing my view of natural goods not as commodities, but as gifts bearing responsibility. Wall Kimmerer ends her book with this quote, “Whatever our gift, we are called to give it and to dance for the renewal of the world. In return for the privilege of breath.” May it be so.