In this chapter Kimmerer returns to her time living in Kentucky, where she moved because of her husband’s job at the time. Here she is teaching in an environment that is unfamiliar to her: her students are primarily Christian premed students whose interest in biology only extends to human beings. They seem to have no interest in ecology; they mostly just see her class as a requirement for graduation. Robin can’t understand how someone could be a biologist and be so uninterested in the rich diversity of life: “the earth is so richly endowed that the least we can do in return is pay attention.” Hoping to convert her students to a broader worldview, Robin decides to take them on a camping trip.
The timeline of the memoir aspect of Braiding Sweetgrass shifts once again, as this section takes place during the same time period as “Witch Hazel,” when Kimmerer and her young daughters moved temporarily to Kentucky. This chapter focuses on the importance of being mindful of the earth and the nonhuman beings around us. This simple act of paying attention tends to lead to greater respect and a deepened relationship of appreciation and reciprocity with the land.
Robin plans meticulously for the outing, knowing that she is under a large amount of scrutiny from the school, which is a small but prestigious college for wealthy Southerners that’s known for its high success rate of students going on to medical school. The dean even wears a lab coat to work to highlight the medical mission of the college. Robin manages to convince the dean that the trip is necessary for medical students here in coal country, as they should see the environmental factors that will be affecting their future patients. She is hoping to broaden her students’ perspectives by immersing them in the world of ecology—ecology makes us consider other species as valuable. Robin wants to distract them from Homo sapiens for at least a few days.
Robin’s students are not her usual group who has chosen to study botany and ecology. Rather, these are people raised on the worldview of Eve’s children: that humans are the only ones with animacy, that science should not go beyond data, and that land is private property to be used as its human owners see fit. In this way they act as a stand-in for potential readers of Braiding Sweetgrass, as Kimmerer attempts to convince them to broaden their worldview and question their culture’s prevailing assumptions about land and nonhuman beings.
Having received permission from the dean, Robin takes her students out into the beautiful Smoky Mountains, noting the contrast between the land’s living beauty and the charts and graphs of a classroom. Walking up a mountain after their first night camping, they experience different climates and environments as the elevation changes. Robin teaches while they walk, and the students write down the scientific names of things that she mentions, but they don’t seem enthralled by nature in the way that she had hoped. Knowing that the school already disapproved of this trip, Robin finds herself trying to justify it by making sure that the students’ notebooks are filled with facts and figures.
Robin finds herself in a similar mindset here as in “Asters and Goldenrod,” trying to prove to external powers (here the dean of the school known for its pre-med programs) that she is a real scientist by repressing the side of her that finds beauty, animacy, and wisdom in plants and instead focusing on data and checklists of facts. Even in the “pulsing animacy” of the woods, she tries to stick to her schedule and justify her trip to a school concerned only with hard science.
After a few days of this, Robin and the class come to a cold strip of spruce and fir tree habitat, which feels to Robin like the Northeast home that she has been missing. Overcome with longing, she lies down on the forest floor and delivers her lecture from there, finally loosening her self-imposed restrictions of scientific rigor. She discusses the endangered spruce-fir moss spider that lives in this environment, challenging her students to consider the spiders’ perspectives and to question our right to take their home from them. One student then awkwardly asks her if this is “like her religion or something.” Robin answers vaguely and then changes the subject, having learned to “tread lightly on these matters” among these devout Christians.
Out in the nature that she loves, Robin has tried to repress her non-scientific self, but she slips up here when surrounded by the flora that she misses so much. This is the first time that she is really challenging the students’ human-centric worldview, encouraging them to consider the perspectives of the spruce-fir moss spiders instead and to recognize their value and rights to live on the land that is their home. The students are clearly uncomfortable with this idea, as one student’s question shows: they are still seeing things through the lens of religious truth or falsehood, rather than a sense of communalism with nonhuman beings and the land.
On the last day of the trip, Robin and the students hike back to the parking lot through a beautiful grove of silverbells. She feels that she has failed in her goals for the venture, that she wasn’t able to teach “a science deeper than data” and instead focused only on “how it works and nothing of what it meant.” She remembers her own younger self wanting to study ecology to discover the secrets of Asters and Goldenrod, and she feels that she has let that younger woman down. She has obscured deeper truths with surface-level information, as if she had worn a lab coat into the forest like the dean at the university.
Here Robin recognizes that in a way she has acted like her adviser in “Asters and Goldenrod,” sticking to the surface level of science and ignoring the beauty, mystery, and animacy all around them in the woods. This is something that she has tried to avoid in her life since her revelation of the Louis Vieux elm (in that same chapter), but the pressure from those in power here, like the disapproving dean, led her to revert to her old insecurities.
As they walk through late-afternoon light on their last day, one student starts singing “Amazing Grace,” and soon they all join in and sing together. Robin feels humbled, like her students are offering a gift of love and gratitude in their own way, expressing wonder in a manner that goes beyond checklists of scientific names. They hadn’t really been tuned out the entire time, she realizes, and her job wasn’t to teach them everything or even to be the teacher at all. Her job was just to lead them to the true teacher—the land itself—and to make sure that they paid attention to it. “Paying attention is a form of reciprocity with the living world, receiving the gifts with open eyes and open heart,” she writes. We just need to be quiet to accept these gifts.
The students might not have had the exact experience that Robin wanted them to on their outing, but despite her lists of facts and figures they did learn a lesson from the land itself. This is the value of just paying attention and being mindful of the life around us. The gift of awareness—of “receiving the [earth’s] gifts with open eyes and open hearts”—leads to greater respect and gratitude, and the exchange of those gifts is an example of reciprocity in action. The students still see life through a Christian lens, but their song shows that this worldview too can embrace a sense of wonder and gratitude for the land.