These words, written by Robin Wall Kimmerer in her book Braiding Sweetgrass, speak to a grief I’ve felt all my life. I have always been troubled by my own need to constantly consume. Thankfully, though, through the generous teachings of those wiser than myself, I have since come to realize that consumption can be a source of joy and reciprocity, if practiced respectfully and consensually.
The way I have most often been taught to take other beings into my body is based on colonizer values – those of extraction – endless need and greed. Though I can hold complicated compassion for myself and the ancestors who have made my existence possible, I cannot make excuses for our exploitive ways of being. None of us can continue to perpetuate non-consensual behaviors and hope to ever live in a just, thriving world.
The quote above is from a chapter entitled, “The Honorable Harvest”. It can be read as a kind of beginner’s guide to building healthy, reciprocal relationships. Based on the traditional ecological knowledge present in the stories and teachings of her Potawatomi elders and ancestors, Kimmerer offers a list of practices to uphold, “whether we are digging wild leeks or going to the mall”.
The first and most important part of the process is also that which is the least intuitive for those indoctrinated into objectifying the natural world – asking for permission. She explains how the simple practice of obtaining consent, even from beings that cannot speak with vocal cords, “shows respect for [their] personhood.” It is also, however, “an assessment of the well-being of the population.” As a scientist, she can use analytical observation to deduce whether the area is home to enough healthy plants to sustain harvests indefinitely. Simultaneously, as a spiritual person, she can use intuition to listen for the, “open-handed radiance that says take me, or ... a tight-lipped recalcitrance that makes [her] put [her] trowel away.” Regardless, she is slowing down enough to notice the nuanced messages present in her surroundings.
Since the worldview that birthed this practice is shared in various iterations by Indigenous cultures globally, Kimmerer notes that, “the guidelines for the Honorable Harvest are not written down, or even consistently spoken of as a whole – they are reinforced in small acts of daily life.” Regardless, she seeks to provide a list for those of us most comfortable learning from the written word. Here is the list she provides (non-italicized comments are my own):
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 (since the first might be the last!).
Take only what you need.
Take only what is given.
Never take more than half. Leave some for others (human and more-than-human!).
Harvest in a way that minimizes harm. (Efficiency isn’t everything!)
Use it respectfully. Never waste what you have taken (even if you make a mistake and cannot consume what you’ve harvested, always compost organic material so death can nourish life!).
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.
Another book I’ve had the honor of reading that speaks to similar themes is Plants Have So Much to Give Us, All We Have to Do Is Ask by Mary Siisip Geniusz. It is brimming with wisdom that sits at the nexus of practicality and spirituality. I will not attempt to sum up this book, it is too deep and varied for me to do justice to in a few paragraphs. Instead, I will encourage you to read it yourself and share just one example it offers of how to cultivate reciprocity in dire circumstances. It is easy to think that harvesting honorably can only happen when one is blessed with a luxurious amount of time and energy. However, the true wisdom of these principals reveals itself when practiced even in trying times.
Once when the author’s teacher, Keewaydinoquay, was spending the winter alone in the middle of Lake Michigan, she broke her leg. She ended up having to harvest all the boneset growing on the island to help her heal before she could make it to hospital for a cast. After this, however, she sowed boneset seeds on the island for the rest of her life. “In her need she took the boneset, but she well repaid her debt.” This story shows how reciprocity is a long-term practice that increases plant populations in the end, even when they must be temporarily over-harvested during emergencies.
I want to stress that all actions can be done with the Honorable Harvest as a guide. For example, Geniusz begins her book by offering respectful thanks to the sources of the wisdom she shares. The preface states, “the knowledge that has been recorded in these pages has come to us through countless generations of the Gete-anishinaabeg, the Old Ones, our ancestors, and the Aadizookaanag, the spirits who hold our teachings, including those of the plants, trees, and animals who brought this knowledge to our ancestors. We first and foremost would like to say Miigwech, thank you, to all of them.”
In our daily lives, we can strive to reach this level of respect and integrity with each breath. If we see all things around us as gifts, instead of “resources” to be exploited, we can learn to receive each moment with real gratitude. This could look like anything from taking stock of what we already have in the fridge, freezer, and cupboards before grocery shopping or eating out, to resisting a chance to get drunk or high or impulse buy something on the internet. It can even look like simply catching ourselves before speaking unkind or untruthful words to loved ones. When we take the time to ask ourselves tough questions about what we really need, what we really want, and where those wants and needs are coming from, healthier relationships can begin to grow. Consent is not an easy concept to navigate in practice, but it is necessary to engage with if we ever hope to break harmful cycles of behavior.
I know, as a descendant of colonizers, even my simple presence on the land I call home did not occur consensually. Because of this, I believe non-native people (particularly white folks such as myself) need to think as deeply as possible about what it means to live in right relationship with the land and our fellow community members. This begins with acknowledging history, as well as present realities. Acknowledgement, however, is not enough. We must first listen to and then take action to support our neighbors who belong to Indigenous nations. They face countless forms of discrimination and oppression under ongoing colonization and yet still thrive while sovereignly stewarding land and waterways all across turtle island and the globe.
We need to remember this especially if we are Permaculture practitioners. As UMass alum, Shannon Mo, wrote in a previous blog post about the land on which UMass is built, “it is... important to acknowledge that Permaculture itself is synthesized Indigenous knowledge. The creators of Permaculture simply wrote down what Indigenous cultures around the world have been doing for thousands of years.”
In their post, Mo shares a variety of helpful links and resources for learning more about Indigenous communities past and present. I encourage you to check it out, and afterwards to look into opportunities to take action shared on the website of the local Ohketeau Cultural Center. If you are reading this from another location, you can search for the nations of the land where you live via this site: native-land.ca and research ways to get involved from there.
The unsettling and decolonization the Earth badly needs will not happen overnight. It took generations create the global systems of oppression that churn out suffering on a daily basis. Intergenerational healing takes intergenerational action. The only way this ideal can become reality is for each one of us to commit to an ongoing practice of respect, reciprocity, and consent, within and without.
Eli Raczynski (class of ’21) is currently collaborating with UMass Permaculture Initiative as part of a year-long independent study focused on plant medicine, wild and cultivated. They are pursuing a Bachelor’s Degree with Individual Concentration entitled Learning from the Land.