“Living reciprocity” (part 3)

“ In the beginning there was the Skyworld. She fell like a maple seed, pirouetting on an autumn breeze. A column of light streamed from a hole in the Skyworld, marking her path where only darkness had been before. It took her a long time to fall. In fear, or maybe hope, she clutched a bundle tightly in her hand.

Hurtling downward, she saw only dark water below. But in that emptiness there were many eyes gazing up at the sudden shaft of light. They saw there a small object, a mere dust mote in the beam. As it grew closer, they could see that it was a woman, arms outstretched, long black hair billowing behind as she spiraled toward them. The geese nodded at one another and rose together from the water in a wave of goose music. She felt the beat of their wings as they flew beneath to break her fall. Far from the only home she’d ever known, she caught her breath at the warm embrace of soft feathers as they gently carried her downward. And so it began.

The geese could not hold the woman above the water for much longer, so they called a council to decide what to do. Resting on their wings, she saw them all gather: loons, otters, swans, beavers, fish of all kinds. A great turtle floated in their midst and offered his back for her to rest upon. Gratefully, she stepped from the goose wings onto the dome of his shell. The others understood that she needed land for her home and discussed how they might serve her need. The deep divers among them had heard of mud at the bottom of the water and agreed to go find some.

Loon dove first, but the distance was too far and after a long while he surfaced with nothing to show for his efforts. One by one, the other animals offered to help — Otter, Beaver, Sturgeon — but the depth, the darkness, and the pressures were too great for even the strongest of swimmers. They returned gasping for air with their heads ringing. Some did not return at all. Soon only little Muskrat was left, the weakest diver of all. He volunteered to go while the others looked on doubtfully. His small legs flailed as he worked his way downward and he was gone a very long time.

They waited and waited for him to return, fearing the worst for their relative, and, before long, a stream of bubbles rose with the small, limp body of the muskrat. He had given his life to aid this helpless human. But then the others noticed that his paw was tightly clenched and, when they opened it, there was a small handful of mud. Turtle said, “Here, put it on my back and I will hold it.”

Skywoman bent and spread the mud with her hands across the shell of the turtle. Moved by the extraordinary gifts of the animals, she sang in thanksgiving and then began to dance, her feet caressing the earth. The land grew and grew as she danced her thanks, from the dab of mud on Turtle’s back until the whole earth was made. Not by Skywoman alone, but from the alchemy of all the animals’ gifts coupled with her deep gratitude. Together they formed what we know today as Turtle Island, our home. [emphasis added]

Like any good guest, Skywoman had not come empty-handed. The bundle was still clutched in her hand. When she toppled from the hole in the Skyworld she had reached out to grab onto the Tree of Life that grew there. In her grasp were branches — fruits and seeds of all kinds of plants. These she scattered onto the new ground and carefully tended each one until the world turned from brown to green. Sunlight streamed through the hole from the Skyworld, allowing the seeds to flourish. Wild grasses, flowers, trees, and medicines spread everywhere. And now that the animals, too, had plenty to eat, many came to live with her on Turtle Island. [emphasis added]

  • Kimmerer, Robin Wall. Braiding Sweetgrass (pp. 2–5). Milkweed Editions. Kindle Edition.

The above is an origin story, shared by Distinguished Professor Kimmerer, a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, a plant ecologist, mother, and Director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment. It is an origin story from Indigenous peoples of the Great Lakes region. One of the first articles I ever wrote on Medium focused on the need for us to have a new origin story and then I took a shot at one and then tried to explain it in a way that, I hoped, would make sense to others. To be frank though, I never felt like I got it. There was too much of my grounding in scientific writing and philosophy baked into the story and, thus, it wasn’t a particularly compelling origin story. It was useful, perhaps, for the mind, but not particularly compelling for the body, emotions, or the spirit. The Skywoman story though was what I was looking for and, in my view, provides the foundational story we can draw from to understand how we can grow to become more than super apex predators, all while pointing to the fact that, while disappearing if we don’t act quickly, we can find ancient wisdom, particularly from indigenous communities, to help us find our future together. To that end, for real wisdom, I invite you to listen via audiobook (hearing Professor Kimmerer speak it out is powerful and, for me, more valuable than reading) or read Professor Kimmerer’s book, Braiding Sweetgrass. Whenever I refer to Professor Kimmerer below, I am referring to Braiding Sweetgrass.

In line with a desire to honor in gratitude the gifts of wisdom she bestowed in her book, I want to try and offer some ideas and principles on what I heard both from this book along with other readings and thoughts I’ve been having that resonate with these ideas. My goal is to try and continue to build up a way of being and acting in the world that involves becoming more than apex predators.

As Professor Kimmerer highlights (among many areas of wisdom, again, please engage with her work, I can’t do it proper justice), I think we are seeking out, living reciprocity. In line with how Professor Kimmerer framed the the Skywoman origin story as a guide or compass to action, but not a rulebook, I personally see at least four guiding principles, two guided more by how to understand natural systems and two that grow more out of guiding human systems and human actions, as central to living reciprocity:

cycles over outcomes;

resilience through resonant diversity;

compassion and gratitude are good;

moments make meaning.

Of course, these principles are not the only way to describe how to advance lived reciprocity, nor even the best. In Braiding Sweetgrass, there are so many good concrete, actionable ideas. For example, we could work towards shifting our language to one that does not fall into binaries around gender (as is common in languages that grew out of Latin) but, instead, to language that distinguishes between the animate and the inanimate, as is done in the native language of the Potawatomi people. This shift, which includes expanding the notions on what is “living” and “animate” and, also has far more verbs than nouns (whereas in English, there are far more nouns than verbs), shifts us away from a binary between humans and non-humans and, instead, invites us to treat all living and animate things as on the same level or with greater wisdom than humans. This would include recognizing notions like “to ocean” as animated things with their own actions, like ocean and its ways of being, are worthy of understanding and care, just as the actions of humans are. To quote Professor Kimmerer, “The arrogance of english is that the only way to be animate, to be worthy of respect and moral concern, is to be human.” There are many more in her book; again, I invite you to read the book. This piece is not meant to summarize or supplant but, instead, to build on and continue to pass on the gift that was given to me in engaging with it.

I want to offer a framing on a way of being that aligns with the wisdom implied by the Skywoman story and the concrete suggestions of Braiding Sweetgrass that, simultaneously, can be linked with apex predator logic, to both honor the seeds of wisdom that are present in apex predator logic and, simultaneously, help us to grow beyond it. It is with that intent that I offer these principles.

cycles over outcomes: When looking at natural systems, unstable systems arise when feedback loops and cycles are not working. This has been an undergirding argument for some time on why humanity was headed towards societal collapse via pathways like overpopulation, and, more recently, arguments on the ways in which our systems are unsustainable and, thus, on the pathway towards collapse. Building on Professor Kimmerer’s ideas, we can either recognize that history (and, by extension time), works in cycles and waves and, from that, weave a web of reciprocity through understanding of waves and cycles, or we will cultivate collapse.

Apex predator logic, in its very goal-oriented frame, inspires an outcomes sort of orientation to the world. Just look at the myriad examples of apex predator logic I mentioned in my previous posts and this becomes apparent; Minor Keith’s goal was to get power and money; to do that, he bent ecosystems, people, ideologies, political structures, and economic structures to his will, all to enable him to achieve his goal of amassing wealth and political influence. Wealth and power were the outcomes. Similarly, think of many businesses built during the industrial revolution or the 20th century. By and large, the general notion was to grow, regardless of consequences and was illustrated in the Lorax, ‘business is business and business must grow, regardless of no crummies in tummies don’t you know.’ To strive for one or a small set of outcomes, outside of the cycles that support the system, one drives the system to collapse. The logic of striving for an outcome also has a very problematic spinoff concept; waste. When a process seeks to produce a desired outcome, anything that is not that desired outcome is waste.

Well functioning natural systems do not have the notion of an outcome, nor of waste. They function on life cycles, with energy, nutrients, resources, and the like flowing in a sort of recursive cycle, though these cycles can and do evolve, hence more of the notion of a wave. Again, returning to Professor Kimmerer, when she described her lived experiences with caring and cultivating the pond ecosystem in her backyard, what is sought is balance though balance is not a state but a perpetual act and action. Think of the water cycle, the carbon cycle, the Krebb Cycle, and the like. Or, think about organisms living well together in an ecosystem; one organism’s poop is another organisms’ food. That is powerful and important. An ecosystem that has a resource piling up with nothing using it is a system that is out of balance. Cycles and reciprocity go hand in hand to create resonance and, by extension, stability in systems.

Stability through resonant diversity. Continuing on this notion of cycles over outcomes, a key way that natural systems create stability is through resonant diversity. This notion is picked up very well in the Skywoman story. It becomes brought into being when seeing the world and life as a gift, particularly a gift in the way Professor Kimmerer describes it. To offer a few quotes, “The essence of the gift is that it builds interdependence…It is human perception that makes the world a gift. Doing this will pass on a stronger future world. Objects will remain plentiful when treated as a gift…The fundamental nature of gifts. They move. This is hard to understand if you live in a society of private property. It’s understood via the misunderstanding shown with the phrase Indian giver. Everything given must be given away again.

The notion of “Indian Giver,” and, in particular, how poorly indigenous practices were understood by European colonists, provides a good grounding for thinking through gifts and its linkages resonant diversity and lived reciprocity. For western/proprietarians (those who attest to the notion of individual property), a gift is something to be cherished, which occurs by keeping it to oneself and ones progeny (an heirloom). Among indigenous people who do not have a notion of individual property, a gift is something to be cherished by passing it on to others so that it can further bring good into the world by being available to those who need it when they need it.

From an indigenous perspective, then, a gift is the conscious enactment of our interconnectivity and lived receptivity, lived out across all things living, human and non-human. Thus, food is a gift; nature is a gift; life is a gift. When all are acting out and supporting one another, giving and receiving gifts, as was illustrated in the Skywoman origin story, can produce stability and growth of life. Of course, this same notion is recognized in scientific discourse. For example, as per evolution, a population with limited genetic diversity is at risk of extinction. Or, as is well recognized in ecology, ecosystems, like rainforests, function and achieve stability through a wide and diverse range of organisms living interdependently upon one another.

Cycles over outcomes and stability through resonant diversity helps to recognize the potential value and place of hoarding, while also de-centering it as a prime motivation for organisms. In particular, there are times when a notion of hoarding is a valuable and valued action within an ecosystem. Again, Professor Kimmerer demonstrated this well with her story of the Pecan Council. In brief, Pecan trees are known to not produce pecans until an entire grove is ready to produce the Pecans together, after sufficient hoarding of the sugars needed to produce the pecans. Similarly, squirrels or birds stowing away nuts for the winter also highlights the value and place of hoarding in ecosystems. It highlights a recognition that, in functioning ecosystems that live through cycles, there are good times and there are bad times. Hoarding is needed to get through the hard times, by stowing away what is needed during the good times.

Or, you can even look at slower cycles and other resonant diversity patterns to see how hoarding can be a powerful pathway towards new possibilities. In particular, the current temperature of our planet exists, in no small part, because of the amount of carbon that was sequestered, over time, from the atmosphere into living things, soil, ice, etc. That sequestration/hoarding occurred very slowly though to enable life more broadly to adapt to it. Thus, hoarding is part of robust systems, given that the hoarding is done in a way that honors lived reciprocity.

Hoarding though becomes a problem when it is not done simply to get through the hard times but, instead, done as standard practice, as is the case with many current farming and agricultural practices (as discussed in a previous post). Thus, any act of hoarding must be recognized and enacted in alignment with the broader cycles of the ecosystems one exists within. This can be seen easily from the two principles and helps anyone who might have an interest or desire to hoard to have some broader principles to guide when to and when to not engage in hoarding.

Compassion and gratitude are good. By compassion, I am building more on the work of Dr. Frank Rogers than Professor Kimmerer at the moment, though I do think Professor Kimmerer’s notion of “gratitude” and Professor Rogers’s compassion as both deeply aligned to life and a central pathway towards lived reciprocity.

Starting first with compassion, Rogers’ notion of compassion is a way of being and acting that can includes honoring and offering care to oneself and to others. Compassion is not empathy as it goes beyond empathy towards the authentic embodiment and enactment of life honoring itself within a living being and among other living beings. Thus, feeling the urge to honor, care for, and act out in ways that honors and cultivates life within and outside of oneself is compassion.

Returning to Professor Kimmerer, gratitude is the pathway of life acknowledging the inherent value and gift of life. This can be seen, again, in the Skywoman story quoted, and also in the notions of a gift, as already discussed. Based on this, I am offering both the notions of compassion, as a framing from more of Western traditions, and gratitude, as one that may fit better in indigenous wisdom and perspectives, as an active way to live and be good. They both call and invite a way of being that involves life acknowledging, honoring, and cultivating life.

Greed is good is subsumed within compassion is good. In particular, greed is good honors the fact that self-compassion is an essential part of compassion. If one does not care for oneself, then there are problems. Life in oneself should seek out to exist and find its place within cycles and the diverse resonance of ecosystems. It is not a problem to care for oneself. Greed is good recognizes this part of compassion.

With that said, compassion and gratitude highlight how limited greed is as a way of trying to do good. Both compassion and gratitude, as ways of being and acting, invite the types of interactions, as demonstrated in the Skywoman story, that involve life and living beings caring for one another and supporting each other. It is through compassion that resonance across living beings can take place. And, from that resonance, new possibilities of diversity emerge. If one only engages in self-compassion and, thus, greed, then the flow of life between organisms gets stymied lived reciprocity falters, thus hurting both the person who is acting only from greed and those who that greed is directed towards or influencing. A fully engagement of compassion and gratitude are key to drives resonant diversity and, thus, stability of ecosystems.

Moments make meaning: This last one is both profoundly simple and, I think, profoundly difficult to understand. It is profoundly simple because it is acknowledgement of something we all, on some level, know. We only have and live out the present moment. Each present moment is our existence. These presents/gifts/moments are tied together across time and space to create our sense of context, a sense of journey, a sense of evolution, growth, and change and, from that sense, we start to be tied to and connected with the broader cycles and other animate and living things in existence. These moments, particularly when experienced not as a linear journey but as part of broader waves, oscillations, and cycles, provide us our linkage into things, experiences, and lived experiences that are so much more than what any given moment can describe. As the rhythms of life, not just of oneself, but of the other living beings one resides with in place, start to emerge, one starts to learn one’s place, not just in a physical space, but also temporally.

Returning again to Professor Kimmerer, her chapter on describing mothering nicely illustrates this. In particular, she described how women grow through various stages, from being a daughter and, thus in a place of learning, to a time of independence and finding oneself, to motherhood, which involves caring for others, and towards grandmother-hood and beyond, as a time to care for the places and spaces and ecosystems one resides in, cultivating life, broadly construed, that cares for all. Within these changing cycles though, it is each moment when one can choose to cultivate life of oneself and others, as illustrated by learning to be what one should be in each phase of life.

As one continues the practice of truly being fully present and aware of a moment and its place in relation to the past and and the future, one starts to be able to feel, in a truly embodied sense, notions like Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. In particular, space and time start to be felt and experienced as the same thing and not, in fact, separable. That notion starts to feel intuitive and embodied. One can start to feel, in some ways, the resonant gravitational pull of objects to one another and, simultaneously, the diversifying push of energy, actions, and forces as the lived inter-receptivity and balance of one another.

In a moment, we can become aware that we are both whole and, simultaneously, a very small part of much larger things, forces, actions. This notion was mentioned in ideas like Nirvana, in Hindi notions, in the Tao de Ching, and in very early Greek notions from Heraclitus, recognizing that there is only the flow of energy. It is also, returning again to Professor Kimmerer’s writings in Braiding Sweetgrass, felt and understood throughout the stories, tellings, and wisdom shared from the Indigenous communities she shares from. Thus, moments make meaning. It is profoundly simply and profoundly difficult to embody.

Might makes right is subsumed into the broader principle of moments make meaning, particularly in the context of the other principles. Indeed, where does “might” come from, but a living being’s capacity to exert force and to bend time and context to its will. That might only comes and is accumulated through a long series of moments, strung together, that bend the wave forms of ones context to it. For example, what is a king but a person whose ancestor likely took part in some large battle with others, did well, and, from that (and supported through apex predator logic and our inclination as apex predators to defer to the biggest alpha), was afforded power, resources and context to rule over others. That king then gains further power, if they enact super-apex predator logic via both hoarding and also outcompeting and destroying anything that might usurp their environments. These powers and privileges that are hoarded by the king only develop over time.

As Machiavelli was well aware in the Prince, it is times of transition, such as when the king passes, when there is no clear line of succession, when the broader ecosystem cannot provide enough to enable the alpha to hoard enough while still leaving other organisms just enough to subsist, that the might of a king collapses. In those moments, one sees the underlying hollowness to might makes right. There is always a larger force that is mightier than that which any single organism or group of organisms can wield.

Indeed, our species today is awakening to the utter hollowness of the Nietzsche’s notion of the Will to Power (which has a lot more, but for our purposes, lets just say its a well articulated variant of might makes right, as discussed earlier), as a guiding principle. As Attenborough’s Witness statement illustrates, our species’ great might will be overtaken by the greater might of the natural systems we exist in, resulting in the collapse of the ecosystems we rely on. If we don’t change, life won’t cease to exist, just the current forms.

With that, might makes right does point us to something. The profound importance of using power and privilege, not to produce our desired outcomes but to do our part in cultivating the life cycles, rhythms, contexts, and, thus, estosystems that sustain us and the rest of life as it exists on this planet. If we can use our might to make each moment the right action then we can bend and alter those waves, rivers, and flows of time in new directions, that cultivate life, all of it. This includes the small moments such as the choices we make when selecting what to eat, how to stay warm, how to find joy, how to play, how to connect with others, how to commune and show gratitude to nature and our fellow living beings, etc. It also includes the very large moments such as being ready when the much slower waves such as the political waves that move society towards reduced oppression, structural racism, and the like, monumental elections.

It is being able to live into moments and being ready to do that which is needed proportional to the moment, that the idea of might makes right can be properly centered and acknowledged. If we decenter all of apex predator logic, we recognize the importance not to oppress others. We simultaneously recognize the each of us cannot shirk on our duties to a moment to do what we can for life, all life and the cycles and resonant diversity we rely upon.

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Eric Hekler

Eric Hekler

Reading and writing about ideas for creating a society of health, well-being, and equitable participation. Science | Design | Behavior | Psychology