“All flourishing is mutual.”

If one [pecan] tree fruits, they all fruit—there are no soloists. Not one tree in a grove, but the whole grove; not one grove in the forest, but every grove; all across the county and all across the state. The trees act not as individuals, but somehow as a collective. Exactly how they do this, we don’t yet know. But what we see is the power of unity. What happens to one happens to us all. We can starve together or feast together. All flourishing is mutual.

Robin Wall Kimmerer – Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants

I read this passage from Kimmerer’s book a month ago and haven’t stopped thinking about it ever since.

It’s an odd time to be reading this book because, well, it’s made me sad, inspired, grateful, hopeful, enraged, calm, loving, [insert every possible human emotion], as if anybody can handle this kind of emotional highs and lows right now!!!

But it’s also been the perfect time to delve in this book because, it is not only an exceptional compilation of ecological knowledge and a poetic love letter to Mother Earth, but also a valuable lesson on gratitude, a poignant piece of indigenous history, a gentle urging on how and why we ought to treat all beings with reciprocity, a guide toward resiliency, and a prescription for restoration – from the brink of societal, ecological, and spiritual collapse of our own doing.

Some days it sure feels like the world is collapsing right now. People are dying. Economies are shrinking. Millions are losing their livelihoods. News stories of hoarding and price gouging are exposing some of the ugliest side of human nature, while the most reckless and selfish among us are still defying stay-at-home orders at their own peril, and everyone else’s. But perhaps more than anything, the pandemic has shed a bright light on the fragility of our system and the inequalities in our society.

Conversely, there are glimmers of hope, and lessons learned. Friends and families are connecting and reconnecting. “Mutual aid” is now a term in our daily conversations. Some people are realizing that the field of medicine is, in fact, not a conspiracy theory for forced vaccination. And that healthcare workers don’t enter this field “just to make a quick buck”. Endless emission and pollution don’t have to be a given. We see now that collectively, we can make drastic changes very quickly. Humanity is waking up to the fact that like it or not, we are all linked, and that how we treat the natural world affects our well-being and survival.

So now it’s the time to ask ourselves: How has the pandemic changed the way you live, and interact with others? what are some of changes you’ve made that you want to keep? What are the pain points in our system? Can you do something about it? How does a new outlook on life change your relationships, your work, or your activism? What kind of world do you want to return to, when we are on the other side of this?

I, for one, want to return to a world in which we took more walks in the neighborhood, stayed more connected, and appreciated ordinary things like a sunny spring day.

I also want to return to a world where we wasted less food, less paper products, less everything, and acknowledged the labor, resources, and land that made life as we know possible.

With everyone strategizing around fewer shopping trips, I want to return to a world where we operated with a healthy sense of deprivation, alongside the gratitude for abundance. We don’t have to run out the door the second we think we need something, and it’ll still be there when we truly need it – if not at the store – it’ll be within reach in our community.

I want to return to a world in which we examined our fear of scarcity, the real causes of shortages, and how our material goods are exchanged and circulated. The juxtaposition of long lines outside of food banks all while dairy farms are dumping milk is just too heartbreaking.

I want to return to a world where we don’t question if everyone “deserves” healthcare.

I want to return to a world in which we focused less on “if we can afford to” but “how we can afford to”.

I want to return to a world where we continued to recognize the people who keep our society afloat: the healthcare providers, sanitation workers, teachers, farmers, grocery clerks, mailmen, transit operators…and offer them the respect and livable wages they deserve.

I want to return to a world in which environmentalists broadened our activism because our work can’t be just about “the environment.” The outbreak has made it clear that nobody’s got time, energy or resources to think about sustainability when they are struggling to pay rent and put food on the table. Yet a system that allows some to go hungry and homeless – long before this pandemic – while allowing others to accumulate billions through massive exploitation, is the very reason we are in this climate crisis to begin with.

I want to return to a world in which the more privileged among us take a harder look at on whose backs our privilege is built upon, and engaged in more serious wealth distribution, even when there is not an economic meltdown.

I want to return to a world in which we united around science, but not what Kimmerer describes as the “scientific worldview.” She explains the distinction in Braiding Sweetgrass this way:

For what good is knowing, unless it is coupled with caring? Science can give us knowing, but caring comes from someplace else….While science could be a source of and repository for knowledge, the scientific worldview is all too often an enemy of ecological compassion. It is important in thinking about this lens to separate two ideas that are too often synonymous in the mind of the public: the practice of science and the scientific worldview that it feeds. Science is the process of revealing the world through rational inquiry. The practice of doing real science brings the questioner into an unparalleled intimacy with nature fraught with wonder and creativity as we try to comprehend the mysteries of the more-than-human world. Trying to understand the life of another being or another system so unlike our own is often humbling and, for many scientists, is a deeply spiritual pursuit…Contrasting with this is the scientific worldview, in which a culture uses the process of interpreting science in a cultural context that uses science and technology to reinforce reductionist, materialist economic and political agendas.

As materialist economic and political agendas are on plain display right now, I want to return to a world where we continued to think about and talk about public health, the economy, science and technology, and good governance. And a world where all this thinking, talking, tweeting, meme-ing, and complaining translate to acting, voting, and advocating.

I want to return a world where we actively supported and learned from the indigenous communities around the world, who have for millennia practiced economy of the commons and lived in ways that benefited the future generations. The communities that are comprised of less than 5% of the world’s population yet protect 80% of global biodiversity. The communities that are living examples of compassion and resiliency, despite forced migration and genocide. (Local friends, check out what is happening today to indigenous groups in our own state while everyone’s attention focuses on COVID-19.)

I want to return to a world where everyone, every living, and non living thing mattered. A world where all are allowed and given the conditions to flourish. Because all flourishing is mutual.

Header image: moss spotted on a recent walk. If you don’t think this is art, then I don’t know what art is!