November 15, 2023

TEBBUTT | Robin’s Song

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Ever since surviving my first winter here in Ithaca, I have learned to recognise the song of the robin (Turdus migratorius) as a welcome signal of spring. The warm trills vie with the sun to chase the snowdrifts back up and over the lakes, clearing the way for the brighter days to come. By Halloween, however, most have long stopped singing as they save their energy for the cold months ahead. Yet, as November’s first flurries started to settle on the Ag Quad, many of us gathered to hear the voice of another Robin bring light and warmth to a dark time of the year.

There was chatter and excitement as people filled the chairs, floor and tables of a Warren Hall lecture theater to listen to Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer speak on Engaging Indigenous Knowledge For Land Care. A scientist and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, Dr. Kimmerer was introduced by faithkeeper and Cornell Research Associate Stephen Henhawk. He spoke in his first language of Gayogohó:nǫˀ (Cayuga), the sovereign Nation whose ongoing presence in the Finger Lakes precedes the establishment of the University, New York state and the United States of America.

This was a powerful start to a talk that drew out the undeniable connections between colonial attitudes to the People and landscapes of America, resulting in the widespread attrition of the continent’s cultural and ecological communities. Certainly, centuries of blind faith in the superiority of an extractive and instrumental worldview sit at the root of so many of today’s social-ecological challenges, from the abundance of algal blooms suffocating Cayuga Lake to the lack of people able to understand Henhawk’s speech in the language of this very region.

Kimmerer remains clear-eyed about these, and the countless other injustices that continue to be meted out by neocolonial institutions, including our own university, which retains mineral rights to much of the 987,000 acres that were appropriated from Indigenous lands in the 1862 Morrill Act. She does not shy away from calling out the role of corporations, governments and even the universities in which she speaks, as agents of the dispossession and destruction we see all around us. Crucially, however, the conversation neither begins nor ends there.

The way into this particular talk was through the story of a peace treaty between the Anishinaabe (which include Kimmerer’s nation, the Potawatomi) and the Haudenosaunee, which comprise the Gayogohó:nǫˀ. Dr. Kimmerer shared an image of the beaded wampum belt used to ratify the agreement, which features the motif of a dish with one spoon. The meaning of this symbol, which enjoins all parties to treat and value the land as a shared plate to feed all, formed a profound undercurrent to the messages of the day. Not only did it raise important questions, such as why this clear example of sustainability is largely absent from today’s environmental education, but it also provided a roadmap for a shared route out of the social and ecological crises that grab headlines daily.

It is a vital, draining and often thankless task to recognise and hold responsible the people and systems that sustain the ongoing violation of people and the planet. But what allows Kimmerer to fill a room with people and questions beyond capacity is her ability to do this in the language of hope and healing. As the director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, she is living proof that there exists another way of being: one which is able to take the best of the scientific worldview without being blind to its limitations. She marries this with Indigenous knowledge systems to create radical new research questions, such as “What does the earth ask of us?”

Reframing the narrative of our relationship to the earth in this way is another note that makes this Robin’s song so salient within the general chorus. Yes, she is unafraid to highlight the need for real, tangible and large-scale actions such as the Land Back movement. And yes, she draws attention to innovative solutions such as the legal case against an oil pipeline on behalf of Manoomin wild rice. But Kimmerer makes sure to characterize even this as a short-term, transitive approach, which is not the true end-goal of her plan for Indigenous land care. She situates these property transfers and litigations as necessary mechanisms within a way of relating to the land that has been enforced by industrial capitalism, but which remain steeped in notions of private ownership and therefore a world away from the more holistic treatment of the land as Commons.

For the heart of Kimmerer’s message is less about retribution and more about “falling in love with the land again.” She refers to growing outrage at the incessant plunder of the natural world as an “age of remembering,” as people start to question the replacement of diverse ecosystems and lifestyles with cookie-cutter reproductions of air-conditioned isolation. Indeed, her invitation in Braiding Sweetgrass for each of us to return to an Indigeneity we all share, however many generations back, and “reclaim our membership in the cultures of gratitude that formed our old relationships with the living earth” is a moving reminder of how much we all suffer when a mindset of exploitation takes hold. Even 200 years ago and on another continent, English poet John Clare lamented the enclosure and parcellation of the countryside by a few land-owners:

Inclosure like a Buonaparte let not a thing remain

It levelled every bush and tree and levelled every hill

And hung the moles for traitors – though the brook is running still

It runs a naked brook cold and chill

Kimmerer, I think, is right to invoke cultural memories of gratitude and reciprocity as she stirs her audience toward action. I don’t deny that blame, fear and mourning each have their rightful place within the political, climatic and ecological disasters of the 21st century. They are necessary and powerful motivators in a system that thrives on inertia and distraction. But Kimmerer’s message, rooted in love and the desire for a healthy, diverse and just world, was the burst of warmth that I needed as we head into the winter, at least until I hear the robins heralding spring.

Charlie Tebbutt is a third year PhD candidate in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. His fortnightly column Rêveries is a collection of musings that wander from the hill, over the Atlantic and out to the beautiful planet that we all share. He can be reached at [email protected].

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