"Braiding Sweetgrass", Echotopia's mission & reciprocity. What's lovexlove got to do with it?
Updated: May 29
Three years after I launched Echotopia, teacher-puppet-procession-maker-leader friend, Valeska Populoh, stopped by my market stall one Saturday, looked thoughtfully at my set-up, and then told me about Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer and her book Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge & the Teachings of Plants. Valeska then said that my mission-driven business embodied Dr. Kimmerer's philosophy. After hearing that news, I read the book. Poet and botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer is now one of my guiding lights. Her glorious book has become my sacred text.
In "Braiding Sweetgrass" Dr. Kimmerer uses the term "reciprocity" which goes beyond our collective human effort at repairing the harm we've done. We are tasked with noticing, then mimicking - in ways that excite and suit us each - the behavior of a garden, a tree, a bee colony, a flowering plant: doing multiple beneficial things at once for our green-blue world. As Dr. Kimmerer tells it, the behavior of a vegetable garden looks a lot like love....for people and other beings. She invites us to engage in reciprocity, in tangible ways, with the natural systems that sustain us, even if we're hesitant, even if we're from settler cultures, as am I.
Dr. Kimmerer's chapter on Aster & Goldenrod has particular resonance. Years ago, I paired these two in my front garden for late-season pollinator food and, yes, beauty. As an occasional visual artist, I loved the color combination against an azure sky. Years on, a huge volunteer Pink Aster has replaced Purple Aster. Still, at growing season's end, dozens of buzzing, blurring bees, come to stillness on her petals.
I had taken an introductory workshop on beneficial natives at Blue Water Baltimore and had transformed my small gardens with selected plants who provided food for the greatest numbers of pollinators throughout the growing season. Turns out, Aster and Goldenrod also compete for space, and are constantly moving and changing. But that's another story. Turns out, I have only scratched the surface of learning about local native plants in my garden. Still, again, every year, hungry & tired bees congregate at both plants until frost time, wherever Aster & Goldenrod are on offer.
In 2012 I started making Echotopia's unique Seed Rounds though I didn't have the word 'reciprocity' to describe this circle shaped invention - native seeds embedded in recycled paper. This project had begun as 16" large recycled paper discs with color pencil drawings of flowers whose seeds were embedded. The idea was drawings magically transformed into the actual thing drawn. Art with no end of life trash: instead, as a literal start of new life & ever expanding beauty and and life. An added benefit: the paper, once tree bark, is returned back to healthy soil. I called my original invention'Disappearing Drawings" and I even did a video on the topic. Having learned from research, and having observed my native garden, I was in awe of native wildflowers and their outrageously generous abundance. I had decided that a business merely creating LESS trash, being LESS bad, didn't adequately honor our place, nor what I knew to be true about behaviors, based on my life experience. Through Seed Rounds, I integrated a re-sounding expansion of Chesapeake bioregion species protection - local bugs, birds and so on -into my business model. Not coincidentally, pollinator gardens also enhance community beauty and create a sense of wonderment, which makes us all happier.
So, via my Seed Rounds, in the garden, I enacted my big idea of echoing benefits - a philosophy borrowed from my nature observations, one that remains exciting to me.
My experiences: too many "weeds" which I am too lazy to pull, blame it on mosquitoes or humidity, a growing recognition of common plants, benign or unwise neglect, imperfection, new species' arrival such as dragonflies, more and more birds' nests around our small home and garden, a noisy seasonal aviary, sudden death, disappointment, a varied pace, endless surprises....
So, years on, in an unlikely sort of suburb, turns out we've created a living food source and sanctuary for humans and non humans.
When I began these comforting experiments in art and nature, I lacked a one-word description, and I didn't know of Dr. Kimmerer's work. Today, Reciprocity is a term I use all the time to describe my core mission, my deliberate cycles of good echoes via my eco business and behaviors.
We also grow delicious lettuces, berries, herbs & colorful annuals yearly. Our sons, goddaughter and their friends love to visit, spend time in the garden, and take inspiration from our modest yet bountiful sanctuary. I continue to grow and save, seeds of, native wildflowers and beneficial annuals. I plant some in my parents' humid Annapolis garden also summer box turtle 🐢 home. I continue to share hundreds of seeds every year at markets for pollinator gardens.
"Braiding Sweet grass" is a must-read book. Thank you, Valeska.