Robin W. Kimmerer, Ecology and Culture

Knowledge has power only when it is shared.

From an “Ecologist Directory” maintained by the ESA Education Office about 2004-2011. Profile circa 2005.

As with many ecologists, Dr. Kimmerer’s training began in the forests of her childhood home. With European and Anishinaabe ancestry, Dr. Kimmerer is a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation.

Portrait of Dr. Robin Kimmerer in a red blouse on a blue background.

Dr. Robin Kimmerer

She helped found ESA’s Traditional Ecological Knowledge section in 2002, and served as its chair until 2006. She specializes in moss ecology, disturbance ecology, and the cultural significance of plants. Dr. Kimmerer is also the author of Braiding Sweetgrass and Gathering Moss, two popular books about indigenous wisdom and plant teachings.
M.S., Plant Ecology, University of Wisconsin, Madison
Ph.D., Plant Ecology, University of Wisconsin, Madison
Current: Distinguished Teaching Professor and Director, Center for Native Peoples and the Environment, College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, New York
In her own words, from an ESA profile:

A childhood spent exploring the woods and streams near my home in upstate New York led me very naturally to an interest in ecology. I was directed toward college study in environmental biology through the guidance of a high school teacher. College mentors such as Dr. Ed Ketchledge helped shape my desire to become a plant ecologist. A rewarding summer spent doing undergraduate research at the Cranberry Lake Biological Station provided the impetus to continue graduate study in ecology.
I was an avid reader of environmental literature and an environmental activist, which made me aware of the compelling need for active participation in the environmental community. My undergraduate experience at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) first exposed me to the wide array of potential careers in ecology, from basic research to applied biology. I was particularly drawn to mentors whose careers had a direct impact on conservation, who employed science in service to the land. My current position is Associate Professor of Environmental and Forest Biology at SUNY ESF.
In Native American philosophy, we regard plants as our first teachers, so my training as an ecologist really began in the woods. I was an undergraduate Botany major and worked in the summer as an environmental educator. After graduating I worked as a biologist for a pharmaceutical company, which was not a good fit for me. I was eager to return to ecology so I earned my MS and PhD in plant ecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. My first academic job was as a part-time instructor when my daughter was an infant and then I taught at a small liberal arts college before accepting my current position at SUNY ESF. The challenges along the way have been many, particularly as a woman of Native heritage in the dominant academic culture. Maintaining a balance between family life, community and career has required extra effort. Academic research and teaching can demand a narrowing of focus, which I have tried to resist and instead, moved in a direction of greater and greater integration among disciplines. Today my work spans traditional ecological knowledge, moss ecology, outreach to tribal communities and creative writing.
The ecological questions we face are increasingly complex and require a great diversity of approaches. I would urge students to bring their whole selves to the endeavor, so that cultural differences and individual imagination are more fully expressed in our community. For example, indigenous knowledge, once ignored, is increasingly being recognized as a valuable contributor to ecological understanding. I would advise students considering a career in ecology to explore the great variety of avenues for participation in the ecological community-as scientists, educators, writers, policy makers, activists. An important step in choosing a path is knowing your own strengths and interests, and creating a way to use them.
Finding the right mentors can be a great help in navigating the process of becoming an ecologist. The investment of time and energy in cultivating good relationships with mentors will pay great dividends in the long run.
Knowledge has power only when it is shared. Increasing ecological literacy is a major challenge faced by ecologists, for environmental solutions are often based in human communities with different perceptions of land and nature. Finding ways to more effectively communicate the lessons of ecology is imperative. Oftentimes the language and culture of science excludes participation by diverse audiences. Engaging the approaches of literature and art, as well as science may be effective. Respectful listening to other perspectives is probably a good place to begin, since communication is a two-way process.