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Syracuse ecologist and storyteller named 2022 MacArthur Fellow

Robin Wall Kimmerer, Plant Ecologist, Educator, and Writer, 2022 MacArthur Fellow, Syracuse, NY
John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
Robin Wall Kimmerer, Plant Ecologist, Educator, and Writer, 2022 MacArthur Fellow, Syracuse, NY

Last week the MacArthur Foundation announced its 25 Fellows for 2022. The foundation aims to reward creativity with a $800,000 no strings attached stipend.

Robin Wall Kimmerer is a professor of environmental biology at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry and is one of the 25 MacArthur Fellows for 2022.

The foundation recognized Kimmerer as an ecologist, a writer, a scientist and a storyteller. A member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, she has written a book about the intersection between traditional ecological knowledge, Western scientific tradition and the lessons plants can tell us.

WRVO spoke with Kimmerer about being named a fellow, her work and her plans for the grant money.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How does it feel to be named a MacArthur fellow?

It's incredible to me. I mean it's an incredible honor. I feel like I've just been given this great gift that comes with a responsibility as well. I'm, of course, really, really, really happy, really honored to receive this award.

Could you walk us through your day when you found out you were going to be named a fellow?

It turns out that the foundation was sending me all these emails and phoning me. But, I was really busy and so I didn't respond. Finally, they sent me an email that said "We'd like your confidential recommendation about a candidate." So I thought, "Okay, I can squeeze this in." So, I scheduled a phone call with them for while I was driving to another meeting. Honestly, I had to pull over. I had to pull over and sit in my car and say, "This cannot be happening."

It was a very emotional, overwhelming sort of day. Working in the intersection of indigenous knowledge and Western science in a setting where Indigenous knowledge has intentionally been erased from academia, it is so gratifying to have this recognition for the Indigenous science of our cultures to be recognized this way.

I'm keenly aware of the fact that this recognition illuminates the importance of Indigenous knowledge, indigenous knowledge holders and all of the communities that are doing this work. It's certainly not just me.

The nickname of the prize is a "genius grant." Do you consider yourself to be a genius?

No, of course not. My sense is that what the foundation is trying to reward is creativity and creativity comes in so many forms. I love looking at the list of all the fellows, musicians and activists and physicists and artists and writers. There's so many ways to think creatively and share that with the world.

Could you tell us a little bit more about your research and your work and what might have led to you eventually getting named a MacArthur fellow?

I work in a lot of different realms and I suspect it's the intersection of those realms which drew the attention of the MacArthur Foundation. I'm a botanist, I'm a plant ecologist, I'm a scientist, but I'm also a writer. As a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, I also have a deep connection to traditional ecological knowledge. My work is trying to create a relationship between the wisdom of indigenous science and some of the tools of Western science and seeing how we could bring those together for sustainability.

What does it mean to be a storyteller and a scientist?

I feel what a privilege it is to be a botanist, to sit at the feet of plants and learn from them. I feel also that I have a responsibility to share what I've learned from the plants with the wider community. Too often, I think we scientists tend to write and communicate in such a way that excludes the public rather than invites them in.

My work as a storyteller at the intersection of Indigenous knowledge and scientific knowledge, I think, is a really important invitation to people to come into thinking about our relationship with the living world in a different way. I think that my greatest influence at this moment is not so much in scientific research, but in communicating a different world view about the natural world.

You mentioned being able to learn from nature and learn from the plants around you. What have you learned during our lifetime and your career from the natural world?

Oh, how long do we have? One of the things I would say that's most important that I've learned from the plants is generosity. When you really come to know plants and the way they creatively live their lives, one of the inescapable truth is that they are very generous with their gifts. When you think about it, the air that we breathe is a gift from the plants. Every bite of food that sustains our lives is a gift from the plants. So the notion of the generosity and the abundance of the living world is something you learn immediately from being with plants.

That has a lot of coherence with the Indigenous worldview which is centered on cultures of gratitude, on cultures that are asking not, "What more can we take from the earth?" but, "How do we honor the gifts of the earth and give our own gifts back in return?" That question is really at the heart of my work as an ecologist, as a writer and as a teacher.

The MacArthur fellowship comes with a $800,000 grant. Do you have any plans at this time for what you are going to do with the money?

It's so exciting to think about the opportunities that are created by this grant. One of the things that I'm really excited about is this sense of liberation of my time. I've been working on a book for several years now and the opportunity to really dig in and devote myself to completing writing that book is one of the things that would be high on my list.

I'm also really committed to continuing to advance Indigenous knowledge, to use these funds in ways that I don't quite yet know, to protect our cultural plants, to engage more deeply in the work of biocultural restoration and working toward land justice for Indigenous peoples. That's the arena in which I will use these funds, but exactly how I don't know yet.

Anything else that people should know about you and the work you are helping to do?

I guess I would only reflect that the MacArthur awards are given to individuals. There is a very much that cult of the individual in Western society, whereas in Indigenous communities there's a really deep appreciation that nothing that we do we do alone.

Indigenous knowledge is collective knowledge. It's knowledge which is intergenerational. I'm grateful for what has been shared with me, but it really feels as if this kind of recognition should be going to our communities, for they are generating, maintaining, and sharing Indigenous knowledge.

Ava Pukatch joined the WRVO news team in September 2022. She previously reported for WCHL in Chapel Hill, NC and earned a degree in Journalism and Media from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. At UNC, Ava was a Stembler Scholar and a reporter and producer for the award-winning UNC Hussman broadcast Carolina Connection. In her free time, Ava enjoys theatre, coffee and cheering on Tar Heel sports. Find her on Twitter @apukatch.