by Cameron Wilson

photo showing a Mullein plant with soft green greves, larger ta the bottom, getting smaller as they near the top, which has several small light yellow flowers attached to the stalkAs a recent music school graduate, people wonder how I got so deep into the path of environmental stewardship. Along with a pandemic that gave me ample time to hang out with ancient hemlock trees in the Upper Peninsula, I took a gap year during quarantine and read my all-time favorite book: Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. I could write a whole essay series fangirling about this book, but a key point I like to focus on is how much Robin Wall Kimmerer emphasizes the power of storytelling as a key component for healing our relationship to the natural world. She quotes a 1994 statement from the Indigenous Environmental Network: “Ecological restoration is inseparable from cultural and spiritual restoration, and is inseparable from the spiritual responsibilities of care-giving and world-renewal.”

Care-giving is a RESPONSIBILITY! And it feels good… so this seems like a win-win to me. 

This has led me to come back to asking myself two questions:

  1. How can I care for the natural world and feel joy in the process?
  2. How can this work simultaneously heal and energize our human communities?

Kimmerer offers a wealth of knowledge in moving towards solutions for these questions. One offering is the idea of the Honorable Harvest. The Honorable Harvest is an informal set of values and practices that guides a healthy relationship between humans and the rest of the Earth. One key point of this framework is that when we take life from the Earth for our own gain, we give something back. If we want to treat the natural world as a friend, collaborator, and giver of motherly nourishment, then we are compelled to reciprocity — exchanging gifts for mutual benefit. This caring reciprocity is the opposite of the normalized extractive attitude that our society has towards the natural world.

Giving back can happen in many ways, both directly and indirectly, and it isn’t always something physical. In many belief systems, metaphysical and spiritual gifts are just as important as physical ones.

As a performer and composer, Kimmerers’ messages compelled me to orient my storytelling around uplifting plants and fungi, to restore the knowledge and care-giving that once was given to the non-human world. During the time I was reading, I noticed that I felt a special connection to a particularly soft plant, the Great Mullein (Verbascum thapsus). As I walked by this Mullein (we call her Ms. Mully)  on my way home every day, I noticed something different every time: varied colorations in the younger leaves, a new beetle or aphid getting cozy,  and a beautiful flowering stalk growing higher and higher until it was taller than me.

photo of four people holding hands in a circle facing outwards. The light has a red tine. there are two people in the background playing instrumentsSo, naturally, my collaborators and I got together a poet, six musicians, three dancers, and the dead stalk of Ms. Mully herself to create a performance that explores the knowledge the Mullein plant offers, and expresses our gratitude (P.S. say hi to the Mullein plant in the medicinal garden for me).

Something I learned from that project is that the process of making art itself can be a meditation, a focusing of intention and care towards a person or plant. Even if a painting you made dedicated to your milkweed plant is momentary and the outcome can’t be quantified, your thoughts and intentions are always received in some way beyond human cognition. And your love is strengthened just by the thought, the embodied act. 

I invite you to learn what you can do to care for the natural world AND feel good while you are doing it! Giving gifts is a great place to start. Some ideas to get you going:

  1. Do a seed-scattering ceremony with your friends
  2. Dance through your grass on the way to your car in the morning
  3. Plant native plants that make pollinators happy
  4. Read your journal to your compost pile