Kimmerer begins by affirming the importance of stories: “stories are among our most potent tools for restoring the land as well as our relationship to land.” Because we are both storytellers and “storymakers,” paying attention to old stories and myths can help us write the narrative of a better future. She then relates the Mayan creation story.
In this chapter Kimmerer again looks toward a better future, but a large part of that is learning from the past, in this case mythology from the Mayan people of Central America. As stated before, an important aspect of culture is its creation myths.
In the story, the first divine beings, or gods, create plants and animals to fill the emptiness. Afterward they want to create a creature who can speak, and so they try to make humans. They make the first humans out of mud, but they are ugly and shapeless and soon melt away in the rain. Next they make humans out of wood. These people are beautiful, strong, and clever, and they soon populate the earth with their children. These people have no gratitude or love within them, however, and they disrespect the rest of creation. The gods send disasters to strike them, and they also give the rest of creation their own voices to speak out against their mistreatment. They all join together to destroy the wood people. Next the gods make people out of pure sunlight, who are beautiful and powerful, but they too lack gratitude and think themselves equal to the gods, so the gods destroy them as well.
This story comes from the Popol Vuh, a sacred Mayan text of mythology and history that was first written down in the 1500s but based in much older oral traditions. This creation myth echoes many myths throughout ancient cultures, as the gods try and fail to make the kind of people that they want. Also, as is the case in many creation myths, the people are formed out of already existing elements—and can be destroyed when the gods are displeased with them (similar to the Biblical story of Noah and the great flood).
Finally, the gods make people out of ground corn meal. These people are compassionate and loving, and they can dance in gratitude for the rest of creation. They are “wise enough to be grateful.” Out of all the gods’ experiments, only the corn people respect the world that sustains them—“and so they were the people who were sustained upon the earth.”
Note what the gods valued most in the people of corn: their ability to be grateful and to live in community with each other and the earth itself. These qualities also benefited them, as they were the only people to survive and endure.
Kimmerer muses on this story, wondering why the people of corn were the ones who ultimately inherited the earth. Corn, she says, is the product of “light transformed by relationship” via photosynthesis, and also of a relationship with people, creating the people themselves and then sustaining them as their first staple crop. This story is usually read as a history, but Kimmerer reminds the reader that in many Indigenous cultures time is not linear but rather circular. This makes the story both history, ongoing process, and prophecy of the future. She relates the idea that the Popol Vuh, the sacred Mayan text that contains this creation story, was used as a seeing instrument, or ilbal, through which its culture viewed their relationship to the world.
In “Witness to the Rain,” Kimmerer noted that everything exists only in relationship to something else, and here she describes corn as a living relationship between light, water, the land, and people. This passage also introduces the idea of ilbal, or a seeing instrument that is not a physical lens or device but a mythology. Kimmerer has described language as a sort of ilbal in the past, particularly in the differing ways that Potawatomi versus English languages portray the nature of what has animacy and value.
Immigrant culture should appreciate this wisdom, but not appropriate it, Kimmerer says. Instead, settler society should write its own story of relationship to the world, creating its own ilbal using science and art. She then comments how the scientific process of photosynthesis could also be described like a poem, with plants combining light, air, and water to make sugar and oxygen, our food and breath. Our breath then gives back carbon dioxide, which the plants use as their own breath. We are symbiotic organisms, and this living symbiosis is its own story of reciprocity and gratitude.
Every culture has its ilbal, both through its language and through its worldview and what it finds most important. Kimmerer warns settler society about appropriating from Indigenous peoples, but she also affirms again that society does need a new kind of ilbal that is healthier than what currently exists. This passage introduces another poetic metaphor of reciprocity as breath, here cycling through the process of plant photosynthesis and human respiration.
“The very facts of the world are a poem,” Kimmerer declares. These fact/stories used to be carried by elders and now they are usually the domain of scientists. But the technical language of science excludes most people, which also keeps them cut off from any ideas of the “democracy of all species.” “Science can give us knowing, but caring comes from somewhere else,” Kimmerer writes.
Kimmerer criticizes those who gatekeep science from the majority of people through the use of technical language, itself a further form of exclusion through the scientific assumption that humans are disconnected from and above other living things.
Science probably is the ilbal of the Western world, Kimmerer admits, but the current scientific worldview seems more like that of the wood people: clarifying material facts but blurring spiritual wisdom and relationships. She contrasts scientific practice, which brings the questioner into close contact with the natural world and invites a sense of wonder and curiosity, with the scientific worldview, which uses technology to advance exploitative materialistic economies. The scientific worldview also privileges human intelligence and value over all others, lacking humility—just like the people of wood.
Kimmerer has often pointed out the importance of direct experience with the land and other living things. The actual practice of science often means doing this, but the more general scientific worldview of Western society ignores everything that happens in these experiences, aside from the data being collected. Kimmerer again affirms the importance of the entire experience, which builds a relationship and a sense of humility.
In the Indigenous worldview, however, humans are seen as the “younger brothers of Creation” who must learn from those who were here before us: the plants and animals, who have their own kinds of intelligence and knowledge. Kimmerer imagines a kind of science in which people saw plants as teachers rather than as objects to be experimented on.
This idea has been mentioned several times before, but here Kimmerer directly challenges her fellow scientists to consider it as something other than a story: to actually allow it to inform their worldviews and work, and to rethink how limited human-only science really is.
Kimmerer closes by describing the Indigenous idea that each part of creation has its own unique gift, like a bird with its song. She wonders what our gift might be, and thinks back on the people of mud, wood, and light. They all lacked gratitude, which is indeed our unique gift as human beings, but increasingly Kimmerer says that she has come to think of language as our gift and responsibility as well. She imagines writing and storytelling as “an act of reciprocity with the living land,” as we attempt to become like the people of corn and create new stories about our relationship to the world.
Kimmerer often muses on how we can live in reciprocity with the land, and gratitude, as our uniquely human gift, is always an important part of this. Yet we also have another human gift, language, another of our ilbals that helps us to see the world—but that can also be a gift we offer back to the earth. This becomes personal to Robin’s own writing practice, as she not only considers the value of the tree producing the paper on which she writes, but also how the words themselves can be an offering of love to the earth.