Intertwining science, spirit, story

About a year ago I was glad to have the opportunity for a rare visit with my cousin, Ron Knight, when he was in Indianola visiting his mother, Wanda. During the visit he mentioned he had recently read “Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants” and thought it was one of the best books he had read. I bought a copy, but it is on the long list of books yet to be read.

An email yesterday from another friend mentioned the book, so I’ve begun to read it. The following is from the preface.

I could hand you a braid of sweetgrass, as thick and shining as the plait that hung down my grandmother’s back. But it is not mine to give, nor yours to take. Wiingaashk belongs to herself. So I offer, in its place, a braid of stories meant to heal our relationship with the world. This braid is woven from three strands: indigenous ways of knowing, scientific knowledge, and the story of an Anishinabekwe scientist trying to bring them together in service to what matters most. It is an intertwining of science, spirit, and story—old stories and new ones that can be medicine for our broken relationship with earth, a pharmacopoeia of healing stories that allow us to imagine a different relationship, in which people and land are good medicine for each other.


Kimmerer, Robin Wall. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants . Milkweed Editions. Kindle Edition.

One thing that triggered were thoughts I’d occasionally had about science and spirit. From my days at Scattergood Friends School and Farm, I had been aware of the idea some people had, that scientists tended to not believe in God. I began a life-long interest in science from the time I was old enough to use a microscope, do experiments with a chemistry set, and build and fly model rockets. Looking back, I’m sure my Quaker parents were horrified when publications from the Atomic Energy Commission began to arrive.

Being raised as a Quaker, a belief in the presence of the spirit was part of my everyday life. I didn’t see a conflict between a belief in God and what I learned about science. Most of my adult life was spent as a respiratory therapist in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit of Riley Hospital for Children and then doing medical research in our Infant Pulmonary Function Lab. The more I learned, the clearer it became that the complexities of life had to have been created by something much greater than humans. This was even more true when I was involved with research, and we had to work so hard to discover things we didn’t know.

Neonatal ICU, Riley, photo permission granted

It was also helpful that I was able to spend time with, and have a life-long friendship Don Laughlin, who was Quaker, an engineer, and involved with Scattergood Friends School. I was blessed to spend the summer before my senior at Scattergood working in his medical electronics lab. He never expressed having difficulties in working in science and a belief in God.

Don Laughlin

One problem I saw from an early age was the rejection of science by so many, especially when it would be personally inconvenient to recognize scientific knowledge. Specifically, I have been troubled all my life by the refusal of millions to stop driving cars and reduce other practices that cause greenhouse gas emissions. The greenhouse effect is easy to understand, and simple experiments prove the principle. I knew this from my teenage years. What I couldn’t understand was the refusal to change lifestyles to protect our environment from the damage increasing greenhouse gas emissions was doing to Mother Earth. In some ways it was unfortunate that catalytic converters were developed, that stopped visible smog from auto exhaust. That made it easy for people to ignore what they couldn’t see.

One the Spirit side of this, my spiritual outlook has been significantly deepened and broadened by recent opportunities to learn more about indigenous beliefs and practices. I was deeply moved by the example of those who were at Standing Rock, with their unwavering example of prayer and nonviolence, especially in the face of state sponsored violence. As Nahko Bear said when he was speaking to the Native youth who had just been attacked by security dogs:

Remember that nonviolent direct action is the way to a successful revolution.  And that is a hard one, because they are so bad (chuckles).  When they come at us you just want to hit ’em, you know?  Just sit with that.  I know it’s tough.  They’re going to try to do everything they can to instigate you.  But remember what we’re here for.  We’re here to create peace for our Mother.  We’re not here to create more violence.
When you’re feeling bad, when you’re feeling frustrated, put all your prayer into your palms, put them to the ground, put them back to the sky, honor the Father, the Mother, just know it will be alright.
Are you guys feeling proud, are you proud of yourselves?  Because the whole world is watching.  The whole world is watching.  So whatcha gonna do?  Gonna show love?  Are you gonna be smart?  You gonna think before you act?  Take care of each other?  Your gonna show ‘em what family does?  They don’t know what that’s like.
You gotta put down the weight, gotta get out of your way.
Get out of your way and just look around the corner at your real self and look at all the potential that this beautiful Earth and love has to offer you.
It’s crazy being out in front of you guys.  I had a moment there.  I was like, I like started spacing out and I’m like oh god they’re looking at me aren’t they?  I was thinking about how much happened before any of us were here.  You know?  There is a lot of history here.   We gotta hold that when we’re standing out there.  You gotta hold that when you’re on that line out there, too.  You’re here for a lot more than just this pipeline.

Nahko Bear

It was because I wanted to learn more about indigenous beliefs that I knew, as soon as I heard about it, that I was led to take part in the First Nation-Farmer Climate Unity March. I knew, as actually did occur, that this would be the way for me to begin to learn. We were a small group of Native and non-native people who spent 8 days together. During the miles of walking down rural gravel roads, we had hours and hours to share our stories, to get to know each other. As Manape LaMere said during the March, the reason we are marching together is so we can work together in the future. To do that, we need to begin to trust each other. To trust each other we need to understand each other.

ALL THAT WE ARE IS STORY. From the moment we are born to the time we continue on our spirit journey, we are involved in the creation of the story of our time here. It is what we arrive with. It is all we leave behind. We are not the things we accumulate. We are not the things we deem important. We are story. All of us. What comes to matter then is the creation of the best possible story we can while we’re here; you, me, us, together. When we can do that and we take the time to share those stories with each other, we get bigger inside, we see each other, we recognize our kinship — we change the world one story at a time.

Richard Wagamese (October 14, 1955-March 10, 2017)
Ojibwe from Wabeseemoong Independent Nations, Canada

These are ways I see that we can blend science, spirit and story.

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1 Response to Intertwining science, spirit, story

  1. The Leckbands says:

    Hi Jeff, FYI…Robin Wall Kimmerer will be speaking in Ames on April17 at 7pm in the Memorial union

    Sent from my iPad

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