“When times are easy and there’s plenty to go around, individual species can go it alone. But when conditions are harsh and life is tenuous, it takes a team sworn to reciprocity to keep life going forward. In a world of scarcity, interconnection and mutual aid become critical for survival. So say the lichens.”
This is a quote from Robin Wall Kimmerer’s beautiful book Braiding Sweetgrass, a book so inspiring that I used another excerpt to begin a recent article for The Ecologist. That article draws a parallel between the way sweetgrass is grown and the way wisdom is passed on “hand to earth to hand” and how, in places such as Off Grid Festival, we can practice this reciprocity whilst learning tools and techiques to help bring about a more resilient world.
The Economist article discusses the permaculture principle of the edge effect, which is about all the juicy stuff that goes on at the edges and how the zones between systems and cultures tend to be creative, fertile, abundant places. Off Grid Festival is one such space, perched as it is on the edge of mainstream culture. Braiding Sweetgrass is an example of this too – a book exploring the intersection between modern science and traditional lore. A botanist who is also a member of the native Potawatomi people, the writer speaks from the margins – between two cultures each running counter to society’s established norms.
As a female scientist, Kimmerer faces the derision of male counterparts who consider her thinking irrelevant, insignificant or just plain wrong. Her Native American wisdom exists only thanks to the stubborn refusal of her ancestors to surrender their world view to those who thought they knew better. From these cultural edges, she creates a fusion which is a powerful testimony to motherhood, belonging and indigenous wisdom that manages to be both unique and universal.
Braiding Sweetgrass was recommended to me by Claire Dunn, an Australian writer and wilderness guide who has made it her mission to bring nature wisdom to urban dwellers. In this way she, too, creates meaning from the intersection of two cultures – three, if you count also the culture of the feminine. In addition to ancient and modern wisdoms, both Claire and Robin Wall Kimmerer offer a perspective that my Catalan friend and healer Esther Pallejá Lozeno might call mano izquierda.
“No tener mano izquierda” is an expression said to originate in the bull fighting ring, where the right hand – mano derecho – is the hand of action and force, and the left – mano izquierda – is the hand which is linked to intuition and skilful means. A person with mano izquierda has the ability to handle difficult situations with sensitivity, even using a ‘sixth sense’, whereas someone said to be lacking in this will appear tactless and undiplomatic. It’s not hard to see someone with mano izquierda is displaying qualities associated with the feminine.
In traditional medicine and yoga, the left side of the body is linked to the feminine, but as with many other left-handed associations, the expression in Spanish also has the sense of acting with cunning and trickery. In some cultures, left-handedness is said to be linked with the devil and children have been discouraged from writing with their left hand. It is painful, yet unsurprising that in a patriarchal world, this left-handed/ left sidedness, along with many other ‘feminine’ qualities, has been devalued.
Gently yet persuasively, Kimmerer asks us to re-evaluate. What if, along with honouring Mother Nature and Mother Earth, we could honour this more intuitive, feminine approach? Might it bring about a more gentle, respectful way of being in the world? A more attentive way of listening – to ourselves, to each other and to Nature herself? And in so doing, might we facilitate a more reciprocal kind of culture, the kind of culture about which indigenous people – both male and female – speak so wistfully?
“Science and traditonal knowledge may ask different questions and speak different languages, but they may converge when both truly listen to the plants.”
Reciprocity requires that we recognise the value of the other and enter into a mutual relationship. We see that masculine energy allows us to act decisively and with strength, while the feminine brings a more feeling tone, concerning itself with the WAY that we do things – or sometimes, the way that we do NOT do things. A feminine way of being might ask that we wait longer, rest often, take more time to be. Between these two cultures – the culture of the masculine and the culture of the feminine, we can find harmony, balance and equality as well as reciprocity.