Goldenrod and Asters: My Life With Plants

Goldenrod and Asters: My Life With Plants

Once and future BMC resident Robin Kimmerer is a mother, grandmother, plant ecologist, writer and professor at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, New York.  She is the Founding Director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment, whose mission is to create programs that draw on the wisdom of both indigenous people and scientific knowledge to promote sustainability. She is an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation.  This is an excerpt from her 2013 book Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants, which won the Sigurd Olson Nature Writing Award.

I like to imagine that they were the first flowers I saw, over my mother’s shoulder, as the pink blanket slipped away from my face and their colors flooded my consciousness. I’ve heard that early experience can attune the brain to certain stimuli, so that they are processed with greater speed and certainty, so that they can be used again and again, so that we remember. Love at first sight. Through cloudy newborn eyes their radiance formed the first botanical synapses in my wide- awake brain, which until then had encountered only the blurry gentleness of pink faces. I’m guessing all eyes were on me, a little round baby all swaddled in bunting, but mine were on goldenrod and asters. I was born to these flowers and they came back for my birthday every year, weaving me into our mutual celebration.

People flock to our hills for the fiery suite of October but they often miss the sublime prelude of September fields. As if harvest time were not enough—peaches, grapes, sweet corn, squash— the fields are also embroidered with drifts of golden yellow and pools of deepest purple, a masterpiece.

I wanted to make a good first impression. There were hardly any women at the forestry school in those days and certainly none who looked like me. For the freshman intake interview, I wore my new red plaid shirt, a hallmark of foresters, so I’d fit right in. My new faculty adviser peered at me over his glasses and said, “So, Miss Wall, why do you want to major in botany?” His pencil was poised over the registrar’s form, twitching, while portraits of Linneaus and Asa Gray looked on from his walls.

How could I answer, how could I tell him that I was born a botanist, that I had shoeboxes of seeds and piles of pressed leaves under my bed, that plants colored my dreams, that the plants had chosen me?

So I told him the truth. I was proud of my well- planned answer, its freshman sophistication apparent to anyone, revealing what I hoped was a deep knowledge of plants. I told him that I chose botany because I wanted to learn about why asters and goldenrod looked so beautiful together. I’m sure I was smiling then, in my new red plaid shirt.

But he was not. He laid down his pencil as if there was no need to record what I had said. “Miss Wall,” he said, fixing me with a disappointed smile, “I must tell you that that is not science. Beauty is not the sort of thing with which botanists concern themselves.” I tried again: I’d like to learn why plants make medicines, why willow bends for baskets and why strawberries are sweeter in the shade. “Also not science,” he said and he ought to know, sitting in his laboratory, a learned professor of botany. “And if you want to study beauty, you should go to art school.”

I had no rejoinder; I had made a mistake. I did not have the words for resistance, only embarrassment at my error. But he promised to put me right. “I’ll enroll you in General Botany so you can learn what it is.” And so it began.

I didn’t think about it at the time,the echo of my grandfather’s first day at the Carlisle Indian school, when he was ordered to leave everything—language, culture, family— behind. But they did not cut my hair.

If a fountain could jet bouquets of chrome yellow in dazzling arches of chrysanthemum fireworks, that would be Canada goldenrod. Each three- foot stem is a geyser of tiny gold daisies, ladylike in miniature, exuberant en masse. Where the soil is damp enough, they stand side by side with their perfect counterpart, New England asters. Not the pale domesticates of the perennial border, the weak sauce of lavender or sky blue, but full- on royal purple that would make a violet shrink. The daisy-like fringe of purple petals surrounds a disc as bright as the sun at high noon, a golden- orange pool, just a tantalizing shade darker than the surrounding goldenrod. Alone, each is a botanical superlative. Together, the visual effect is stunning. Purple and gold, the heraldic colors of the king and queen of the meadow, a regal procession in complementary colors. I just wanted to know why.

Why do they stand beside each other when they could grow alone? There are plenty of pinks and whites and blues dotting the fields, so is it only happenstance that the magnificence of purple and gold end up side by side? Einstein himself said that “God doesn’t play dice with the universe.” Why is the world so beautiful? It seemed like a good question to me.

In moving from a childhood in the woods to the university I had unknowingly shifted between worldviews, from a natural history of experience, in which I knew plants as teachers and companions into the realm of science. The questions scientists raised were not “Who are you?” but “What is it?” No one asked plants “What can you tell us?” The primary question was “How does it work?” The botany I was taught was reductionist, mechanistic. Plants were reduced to objects; they were no longer subjects. The way botany was conceived and taught didn’t seem to leave much room for a person who thought the way I did. The only way I could make sense of it was to conclude that the things I had always believed about plants must not be true after all.

That first plant science class was almost a disaster. I barely scraped by with a C and could not muster much enthusiasm for memorizing the concentrations of essential plant nutrients. There were times when I wanted to quit, but the more I learned, the more fascinated I became with the intricate structures that made up a leaf and the alchemy of photosynthesis. Companionship between asters and goldenrod was never mentioned, but I memorized botanical Latin as if it was poetry, eagerly tossing aside the name “goldenrod” for Solidago canadensis.

I scarcely doubted the primacy of scientific thought. Following the path of science trained me to separate, to distinguish perception from physical reality, to atomize complexity into its smallest components, to honor the chain of evidence and logic, to discern one thing from another, to savor the pleasure of precision. The more I did this, the better I got at it. A master’s degree, a PhD followed. No doubt on the strength of the letter of recommendation from that freshman adviser, which read, “She’s done remarkably well for an Indian girl.”

I am grateful for the knowledge that was shared with me and deeply privileged to carry the powerful tools of science as a way of engaging the world. I remember feeling, as a new professor, as if I finally understood plants. I too began to teach the mechanics of botany, emulating the approach that I had been taught. And yet there was always something tapping at my shoulder, willing me to turn around.

To walk the science path I had stepped off the path of indigenous knowledge. But the world has a way of guiding your steps. Seemingly out of the blue came an invitation to a small gathering of Native elders, to talk about traditional knowledge of plants. One teacher I will never forget—a Navajo woman without a day of university botany training—spoke for hours and I hung on every word. One by one, name by name, she told of the plants in her valley. Where each one lived, when it bloomed, who it liked to live near and all its relationships, who ate it, who lined their nests with its fibers, what kind of medicine it offered. She also shared the stories held by those plants, their origin myths, how they got their names, and what they have to tell us. She spoke of beauty.

Her words were like smelling salts for me—I was suddenly newborn wide awake—and profoundly humbled in the shallowness of my own understanding. Her knowledge was so much deeper and wider and engaged all the human ways of knowing. She could have explained asters and goldenrod. It was the beginning of my reclaiming that other way of knowing that I had helplessly let science supplant. I felt like a malnourished refugee invited to a feast, the dishes scented with the herbs of home.

I circled right back to where I had begun, to the question of beauty. Back to the questions that science does not ask, not because they aren’t important, but because science as a way of knowing is too narrow for the task. Had my adviser been a better scholar, he would have celebrated my questions, not dismissed them. He offered me only the cliché that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and since science separates the observer and the observed, by definition beauty could not be a valid scientific question. I should have been told that my questions were bigger than science could touch.

He was right about beauty being in the eye of the beholder, especially when it comes to purple and yellow. Color perception in humans relies on banks of specialized receptor cells, the rods and cones in the retina. The job of the cone cells is to absorb light of different wavelengths and pass it on to the brain’s visual cortex, where it can be interpreted. The visible light spectrum, the rainbow of colors, is broad, so the most effective means of discerning color is not one generalized jack- of- all- trades cone cell, but rather an array of specialists, each perfectly tuned to absorb certain wavelengths. The human eye has three kinds. One type excels at detecting red and associated wavelengths. There is one for blue and the last one optimally perceives light of two colors: purple and yellow.

The human eye is superbly equipped to detect these colors and send a signal pulsing to the brain. This doesn’t explain why I perceive them as beautiful, but it does explain why that combination gets my undivided attention. I asked my artist friends about the power of purple and gold, and they sent me right to the color wheel: these two are complementary colors, as different in nature as could be. In composing a palette, putting them together makes each more vivid; just a touch of one will bring out the other. Purple and yellow are a reciprocal pair.

Our eyes are so sensitive to these wavelengths that the cones can get over-saturated and the stimulus pours over onto the other cells. A printmaker I know showed me that if you stare for a long time at a block of yellow and then shift your gaze to a white sheet of paper, you will see it, for a moment, as violet. This phenomenon— the colored afterimage—occurs because there is energetic reciprocity between purple and yellow pigments, which goldenrod and asters knew well before we did.

The real beholder whose eye they hope to catch is a bee bent on pollination. As it turns out, golden rod and asters appear very similarly to bee eyes and human eyes. Their striking contrast when they grow together makes themthe most attractive target in the whole meadow. Growing together, both receive more pollinator visits than they would if they were growing alone.

It’s a testable hypothesis; it’s a question of science, a question of art, and a question of beauty. Why are they beautiful together? It is a phenomenon simultaneously material and spiritual, for which we need all wavelengths of knowledge. When I stare too long at the world with science eyes, I see an afterimage of indigenous knowledge. Might science and traditional knowledge be purple and yellow to one another? We see the world more fully when we use both.

The question of goldenrod and asters was of course just emblematic of what I really wanted to know. It was an architecture of relationships that I yearned to understand. I wanted to see the shimmering threads that hold it all together why the most ordinary scrap of meadow can rock us back on our heels in awe. And I wanted to know why we love the world.

There was a time when I teetered precariously with an awkward foot in each of two worlds; the scientific and the indigenous. But then I learned to fly. It was the bees that showed me how to move between different flowers— to drink the nectar and gather pollen from both. It is this dance of cross- pollination that can produce a new species of knowledge, a new way of being in the world. After all, there aren’t two worlds, there is just this one good green earth.

That September pairing of purple and gold is lived reciprocity; its wisdom is that the beauty of one is illuminated by the radiance of the other. Science and art, matter and spirit, indigenous knowledge and Western science— can they be goldenrod and asters for each other? When I am in their presence, their beauty asks me for reciprocity, to be the complementary color, to make something beautiful in response.