An Honorable Harvest: Rediscovering a Reciprocal Relationship with Resources

Contrary to popular belief, resources in this world are limited. Some are irreplaceable, and when misused will be lost forever. Others can suffer a loss of quality due to overuse. Still, some, though seemingly unaffected by mass consumption because of abundance, are simply taken for granted with no thought given to the indefinite future of the resource. Robin Kimmerer, a Professor of Environmental and Forest Biology at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, states that there is a hidden problem, too, one that is undetected by the scientific scope of analysis: all the resources in the world are a gift, and treating them as anything less is an atrocity. The connection between dwindling resources and a lack of respect for those resources cannot be ignored, for when you value something, you respect it. “When we rely deeply on other lives,” Kimmerer argues, “there is urgency to protect them.” (177). To get back to a harmonious relationship with the natural world and its resources, people must adopt the mindset of Indigenous peoples of the past. This respectful relationship can only be accomplished if people consume resources with practices of reciprocity and awareness to the longevity of those resources while reflecting on the necessity of using them in the first place.

One such practice to change the mentalities of people from that of entitlement to that of thankfulness. Kimmerer is no stranger to harmonious relationships with nature as she has been taught to respect even the voiceless forms of life: “I explain why I’ve come and ask their permission to harvest, inquiring politely if they would be willing to share.” (175). When the leek bulbs she intended to harvest for dinner with her daughters (a symbol of empowering them with food from their homeland) appear withered and sickly, Kimmerer kindly returned them back to the soil, taking their unsightly conditions as a sign that they were not ready to harvest—a far cry from the common settler mindset which promotes the disposal of any resource that is underperforming. When she returned several weeks later, the leeks yielded an abundant harvest and were ripe for the taking. She believes the left side of the human brain is an analytical tool used to judge the state of the resource, such as its health and abundance, while the right side of the brain is used intuitively to sense whether it is the right time to harvest based on spiritual and emotional messages (Kimmerer 178). Kimmerer uses the story to illustrate that there are enough resources when men are not greedy, and by remaining patient and responsive to the resources and their Creator, people will have enough. Mankind, she argues, must “take only that which is given.” (177).  By simply acknowledging the resource and expressing gratitude for it, one can be inspired to live by needs as opposed to wants.

Another practice revolves around the quantity of resources taken from the land. Kimmerer reflects on the early bounties of Turtle Island, flourishing due to the native practice of never taking more than half of the resources (181). Even the half rule subsided when necessary, specifically in instances when the resource was growing sparse. It was better to go without for a short time than to have that resource lost forever. When colonists settled there, they balked at the alleged laziness of Indigenous people for wasting the resources and under-harvesting. What they did not realize is that the natives better understood the ecosystem and how the resources fit into place. To modernize the concept, Kimmerer also shares a story of an Ojibwe family who harvested rice from their canoes while allowing half of it to fall into the water below. When a well-meaning guest offered to reconstruct the harvesting method to guarantee a more successful harvest, the family declined, explaining that the rice fell into the water to provide seed for the following year while simultaneously providing sustenance for the ducks and other creatures in that region (Kimmerer 182). What the guest and many settlers do not realize is that there is mutual benefit in only taking what one needs. Not only do the breathing creatures survive from the same resources, they land and plants themselves require some of the resources to remain intact to prepare the bounty for the next season. Stripping the land of resources may provide short-term benefits, but it is hardly a sustainable or humane solution. Convenience is not always the answer.

Many Indigenous people derive their resource consumption practices from an aural set of loosely defined rules called the Honorable Harvest. The phrasing and ideas vary from culture to culture, but they revolve around the idea that one should understand nature and resources, have a reciprocal relationship with those resources, take only what one needs and use every bit of it wisely and not wastefully, and to continuously give thanks for the resources (Kimmerer 183). By following these rules, Indigenous people of the past believed the Earth would be sustained indeterminately. Where many environmental regulations today are based solely on the biophysical realm, Indigenous peoples designed their guidelines using both logic from the physical world and intuition from the metaphysical world (Kimmerer 183). Colonist cultures have taken drastic measures, intentional or not, to undermine this relationship and, consequently, the Earth has grown barren in many regions, negatively affecting numerous peoples and ecosystems throughout the world. It seems a simple enough practice, taking only what one needs. But people often give into selfish desires, especially when they regard the land and its resources as ill-worthy of life and longevity. There is also a problem surrounding the definition of enough and what it means to everyone, especially when one’s needs get tangled up in one’s wants (Kimmerer 184).

How much does any one person need? Cleary, the suggested concept of taking no more than half is to be combined with some cognitive conclusions about personal sustainability and the amalgamation of resources that are nearby. Kimmerer suggests that knowing how much to take may be easier than one thinks. She illustrates this concept by explaining how people are taught at a young age to take just enough interpersonally. “If you are visiting your sweet grandma,” Kimmerer says, “and she offers you homemade cookies on her favorite china plate, you know what to do.” (184). The average person would take one, express much gratitude, and take just enough to be respectful of the grandmother while leaving some for others who may wish to partake. Why, then, would people see fit to treat the Earth and its and resources any different? These resources are gifts from the Creator, intricately woven in a complex system that would yield gifts indefinitely if respected and treated with care and gratitude. If one barged in and took all the cookies unsuspectingly, and the china plate for good measure, the grandma would not only be heartbroken but also uninclined to bake cookies in the future. Natural resources react in kind. Once pillaged and depleted, resources are likely to straggle in quantity and quality at best and vanish altogether at worst.

It is easy and common for today’s North American people, founded on settler entitlement, to shrug off any environmental concern as tree-hugging hallucinations conjured up by those fearful of technology and success. Mankind is the top of the food change, they argue, and it is their ordained right to steal and pillage whatever they desire. It is Darwin’s survival of the fittest united with colonial conquest, all wrapped up in a package that promises never-ending luxury for all people. The problem is that luxury and convenience, at the levels promised by first-world propaganda, will sustain few people for a short amount of time. The effects of these lifestyles are already taking a toll on the resources, and it is a despicable thing that the less-fortunate feel the adverse effects first. Still, no one is safe from natural resource depletion, be it food, water, or energy. If people are going to restore the remaining resources for daily essential needs and a small handful of wants, they must return to the Honorable Harvesting methods encouraged by Indigenous peoples. These ideas do not need to be replaced by better technology for most of the answers are already known. Respect and renewal, not obliviousness and artificiality, are the correct responses.

Even though many people are removed from the harvesting and production processes, they can still make sustainable choices by what they shop for and who benefits from their purchases. Was that pound of beef locally sourced from a grass-fed cow, or was it an abused animal with a poor and chemical-based diet where all proceeds support a mega-industry? Was that shirt manufactured by synthetic fibers at a toxic plant in a foreign country, or was it comprised of organic materials in abundance and produced by a small family business downtown? Was that water consumed through multiple plastic bottles, tossed in the trash while they remained half-full, or was it consumed in its entirety through a reusable container? These daily decisions matter, and if more people took them seriously there would be a significant renewal of resources. Still, it is not enough to simply be mindful of purchases. If people remain fully removed from the natural world, their resolves will weaken closely followed by their votes made with their purchases. The artificial lighting and walls, the convenience of the shopping system, the detachment from the source—it is enough to distract even those with the best intentions. There must be interaction with the land, even if it is in the simplest of ways like hikes and small gardens; how can one respect something he or she does not know or understand? Then, the resources will be enough to sustain multitudes of people, all the while returning people to the mutually beneficial relationships with the Creator and land. Only through this mindset will people be truly nourished physically, mentally, and spiritually.


Works Cited

Kimmerer, Robin Wall. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the

Teachings of Plants. Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions, 2016. Print.


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