One day Robin is out in her garden, picking beans. She sees the remnants of her daughters’ harvesting work (they are still young and living at home at this point), and she notes that she loves watching them garden, as it makes her feel like a good mother. Kimmerer then returns to the story of Skywoman, explaining that when Skywoman buried her own daughter in the ground, certain plants grew up from her body: tobacco from her head, sweetgrass from her hair, strawberries from her heart, corn from her breasts, squash from her stomach, and beans from her hands.
The book enters a new section here but continues the theme of motherhood and trying to be a good mother, often through Robin encouraging her daughters’ relationship to the land. This chapter also returns to the Skywoman story as the origin of many of the sacred plants that Kimmerer highlights throughout Braiding Sweetgrass.
Robin thinks about how she shows her love for her daughters: by giving them gifts and providing for their needs. Today in the sunlit garden, she connects this idea to the earth itself, feeling suddenly sure that “the land loves us back.” Why else would it provide us with such abundance? she asks: it’s “what good mothers do.” Kimmerer says that she spends a lot of time working through scientific equations about the relationships between land and people, but in that moment, all that she can feel is “the ultimate reciprocity, loving and being loved in return.”
This is the epiphany in the beans of the chapter’s title: the thought that the earth actively loves us as human beings, and that this is why it is so generous in its gifts to us. Robin has thought much about how she can be a good mother, but now she thinks of the earth as a good mother also.
Kimmerer addresses the cynical plant scientist aspect of herself, who would cringe at the idea of the land literally loving people, and she tries to explain to this plant scientist that the concept makes sense. She provides a quantitative list of how a mother shows love for her children, and then transposes that list onto a person’s love for a garden, and finally onto the garden’s love for the person. Throughout history plants and people have shaped each other evolutionarily, she notes, and this kind of interdependence seems like another kind of loving relationship.
This passage is an example of Robin Kimmerer actively trying to reconcile her cynical plant scientist side with her more spiritual self. Again she goes through the process of relaying facts and then drawing conclusions from those facts, finding wisdom that might go beyond the realm of science but does not necessarily contradict it.
Kimmerer describes a class that she taught about relationships to land, and how all the students professed to love the earth, but were left speechless when she asked them, “Do you think that the earth loves you back?” Kimmerer then asked them what might happen if people actually believed such a thing, and the responses were positive and overwhelming. “You wouldn’t harm what gives you love,” one student says. Kimmerer then describes how her daughter Linden calls her to talk while she works in the garden. One day Robin asks her if she feels like her garden loves her just as she loves it, and Linden says yes, “My garden takes care of me like my own mama.” This answer brings Robin great joy.
Just like thinking of natural resources as gifts rather than commodities changes one’s perspective, so thinking of the earth as actively loving us as human beings changes our relationship to the land: as Robin’s student puts it, you wouldn’t harm what gives you love. Linden’s answer shows again that Robin has been a good mother to her daughters, and that they associate her mothering with care and generosity—and with the generosity and care of the earth as well.
Kimmerer describes an unnamed man she once loved who had mostly lived in the city, and who claimed that the place where he felt safest and most familiar was his car—he never had a real relationship with any part of the land itself. A few years later, he tried to kill himself in that same car. Kimmerer wonders if much of our society’s problems stem from a similar disconnection to the land. Her daughter Larkin, now in grad school, works with at-risk youth in urban gardens. The kids are accustomed to seeing all food as a commodity, and are surprised by the gifts the garden offers for free.
Kimmerer has stated that one of her main goals is to change her readers’ sense of relationship with the land, and she has described positive outcomes related to a renewed closeness between people and the earth—but now she turns to our society’s ills and connects them to a disconnection from the earth. If everything is a lifeless commodity to be used and sold, then we are alone as a species, surrounded by our tools and technologies that offer no community.
Kimmerer says that in a garden, “food arises from partnership.” It takes the gardener’s work to make sure that everything thrives. When people ask her how to restore a relationship between people and land, she always tells them to plant a garden. Even such a small connection sets something greater in motion and can become a microcosm of the potential love between individuals and the earth.
The beauty of a garden is that it is reciprocity in action. The earth gives its gifts of food, but only because the gardener gives their gifts of labor, care, and time. This is another small, workable action that readers can take to improve their relationship with the natural world.