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Before We Take

On the Importance of Reciprocity:

All Flourishing is Mutual

Image by Daniel Mingook Kim

  • Flickr

On a beautifully sunny day in Santa Barbara, I met Art Cisneros at El Capitan State beach for lunch and a discussion about the natural world. We were here last weekend at this very place for a fire ceremony in which we made offerings to the fire and gathered in community to share wisdom and connection. 


We began our walk to the beach from El Capitan State resort, which led us to a shaded pathway into the trees and past the creek. We heard the frogs singing and Art shared with me a Chumash frog song. Immersed in nature and Storytelling, we walked toward the ocean. 


While we were walking and I was listening to his stories, I couldn’t help seeing the friendly faces of Mugwort wherever we walked. Their pointed leaves and clusters of green sprouted up and called out to me to be noticed. 


Mugwort is called “Dream Sage” by Chumash Medicine Woman Cecelia Garcia. It is a powerful ally for Dreamtime. Click the Mugwort icon at the bottom of the page to read more about her.


Wait--did you just refer to a plant as “her”? And what is this about Mugwort’s “faces”?


First, let me introduce you to Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. She explains it better than I could: 

“Our toddlers speak of plants and animals as if they were people, extending to themself and intention and compassion---until we teach them not to. We quickly retrain them and make them forget. When we tell them that the tree is not a who, but in it, we make that maple an object; we put a barrier between us, absolving ourselves of moral responsibility and opening the door to exploitation. Saying it makes a living land into natural resources. If a maple is an it, we can take up the chainsaw. If a maple is a her, we think twice.” 

- Pg. 57 of Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer

Art Cisneros discusses repiprocity.

Video by Olivia Robért at El Capitan Creek, February 2020

In my relating to the natural world, I choose to see all other living entities as the “more than human”, “stone beings”, “plant people”, in the way that my indigenous teachers have taught me. In the following pages, you can explore how modern medicine like Aspirin came from indigenous knowledge, how to make tinctures and infusions, and how to keep your immune system strong during flu season, through the use of natural plant medicine that has existed for thousands of years. 


But first, we need to talk about Reciprocity. 


Don’t just take my word for it, listen to our elder, Art, as he talks about the importance of repaying our debt and exchanging with the natural world when taking something from Mother Earth. 

“The essence of the gift is that it creates a set of relationships. The currency of a gift economy is, at its root, reciprocity. In western thinking, private land is understood to be a 'bundle of rights,' whereas in a gift economy property has a 'bundle of responsibilities' attached."

- Pg. 28 of Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer

These responsibilities are the ones we humans have inherited from the earth. To live in a good way we must ask before we take, do not take more than we need, and to always give something in return. 

“It is human perception that makes the world a gift. When we view the world this way, strawberries and humans alike are transformed. The relationship of gratitude and reciprocity thus developed can increase the evolutionary fitness of both plant and animal. A species and a culture that treat the natural world with respect and reciprocity will surely pass on genes to ensuring generations with a higher frequency than the people who destroy it. The stories we choose to shape our behaviors have adaptive consequences. 


 Louis Hyde has made extensive studies of gift economies. He finds that 'objects… will remain plentiful because they are treated as gifts.' A gift relationship with nature is a 'formal give-and-take that acknowledges our participation in, independence on, natural increase. We tend to respond to nature as a part of ourselves, not a stranger or alien available for exploitation. Gift exchange is the commerce of choice, for it is commerce that harmonizes with, or participates in, the process of [nature’s] increase.’”

- Pg. 30 of Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer


  • Cecilia Garcia, Chumash Medicine Woman:

  • Art Cisneros, Chumash Elder

  • Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer.  Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. Milkweed Editions, 2015.  Print.

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