Published: Thinking Like a Watershed

Incredible mapping project  of the Lake Champlain Basin, by Matt Parilla.
Incredible mapping project of the Lake Champlain Basin, by Matt Parilla.


Happy New Year readers!

Delight to announce the publication of my essay “Thinking Like a Watershed” in our local newspaper, the Burlington Free Press.





Published: My Review of “Braiding Sweetgrass”


Delighted to say I had the following book review published in the summer issue of Camas Magazine.



Knowing That the Earth Loves You Back

a review of Robin Kimmerer’s “Braiding Sweetgrass”

by Trevien Stanger

Working with a graduate student one year at SUNY Sycracuse, the professor of botany, citizen of the Potowatami Nation, and author Robin Kimmerer helped create an experiment that confirmed what many indigenous people have known for millennia– that the human hand can be a healing force in an ecosystem.  Looking closely at the traditional use of sweetgrass, a plant rich in story, science, and sanctity for many tribes throughout the continent, the experiment revealed that when using the indigenous method of honorably harvesting only small sections of the plant, humans were emulating the work of wild ruminants, with whom sweetgrass had coevolved for millennia.  With this technique, the health of a sweetgrass patch benefits immensely from the presence of humans, whereas many other sweetgrass populations in her area that go untended are are experiencing decline.  This story, and others like it, demonstrate a central thread of reciprocity between humans and nature that is woven throughout Kimmerer’s book “Braiding Sweetgrass,” and it is an inspiring thread to follow. 

Once harvested, sweetgrass has traditionally been braided into long, fragrant strands for use in ceremony and celebration.  Using the weaving of sweetgrass as a central metaphor,  Kimmerer threads her essays into an evocative and gorgeous braid.  In some stories, Kimmerer shines as a scientist-writer, eloquently describing how the Maple tree gives us sap each spring, or how the Three Sisters crops of corn, beans, and squash form a mutualistic relationship both above and below the soil.  Her writing in these instances is as crisp as summer corn and as sweet as syrup, and it seems she could easily have written a new naturalist’s classic that celebrates Earth through the revelations of the scientific gaze. 

Instead, Kimmerer also leans into all of her topics with the weight of her thousand-year-old traditions.  Using indigenous science, often called “Traditional Ecological Knowledge” or TEK, Kimmerer illustrates how ethnobotanical relationships between people and plants to help us create symbiotic relationships within a place.  She knows she’s on to something, as TEK “is increasingly being sought by academics, agency scientists, and policymakers as a potential source of ideas for emerging models of ecosystem management, conservation biology, and ecological restoration.”  As a student and practitioner of TEK, Kimmerer has decades of experience observing how TEK generates not only ecological benefits, but how it also engenders an intensity of gratitude and a sense of humanity’s unique responsibilities to care for creation.  Think of it as a practical, ecologically-informed and spiritually-inflected set of instructions for  living within the gift-economy of Earth.  A way to see and treat the Earth, with reverence and respect, as a Gift.

But make no mistake– as gentle and kind a guide that Kimmerer may be, this book is most certainly a polemic.  Again and again we are asked to examine what happens when a people no longer perceive the world as a Gift, but rather only as a collection of commodities whose value is determined by a consumer marketplace.  Setting her older, traditional set of stories against the modern story in which the majority of us live today, she throws down the challenge most eloquently:  “One of these stories sustains the living earth on which we depend. One of these stories opens the way to living in gratitude and amazement at the richness and generosity of the world.  One of these stories asks us to bestow our gifts in kind, to celebrate our kinship with the world.  We can choose.  If all the world is a commodity, how poor we grow.  When all the world is a gift in motion, how wealthy we become.”

But how to remember, reimagine, and reconfigure ourselves within these stories she’s offering?  One way, Kimmerer believes, is for us to engage in restorative practices, such as those offered by the field of ecological restoration.  But even this act is worthy of imbuing with cultural significance, as she encourages us to see beyond physical work at hand–  “We need acts of restoration, not only for polluted waters and degraded lands, but also for our relationship to the world.  We need to restore honor to the way we live, so that when we walk through the world we don’t have to avert our eyes with shame, so that we can hold our heads high and receive the respectful acknowledgment of the rest of earth’s beings.” 

Restoring honor to our words, our actions, and our relationships is serious business, but for those who read Kimmerer’s book, it is clear that this restorative work need not be dull or overly serious.  Through such concepts as the “Honorable Harvest,” and then walking alongside Kimmerer as she navigates its precepts in superfund sites in New York (“The Sacred and the Superfund”), within public schools whilst reciting the Pledge (“Allegiance to Gratitude”), or while restoring her back-yard pond with her daughters (“A Mother’s Work”), we get a sense that Kimmerer is by no means urging us toward a doom-and-gloom environmentalism.  Rather, this book points toward practices that are at once playful, loving, invigorating, challenging, and altogether radical, in that they ask us to inspect the very roots of our  responsibilities as Earth’s people.  Perhaps to find, deep within us, a sense of sacredness based not on mere belief, but by direct experience.

Because, as Kimmerer points out, the ecological restoration going on around us really can nourish us in critical, holy, and healing ways– “What if we could fashion a restoration plan that grew from multiple understandings of Land?  Land as sustainer.  Land as identity.  Land as grocery store and pharmacy.  Land as connection to our ancestors.  Land as moral obligation.  Land as sacred.  Land as self.”

And perhaps, through some serious contemplation and action, we might work toward the ultimate challenge that Kimmerer lays at our feet like a braid of fragrant sweetgrass– the challenge to once again become indigenous to place.  To no longer act as immigrants in a strange land– but rather as citizens of a land that you love, and that a land loves you back.   For as Kimmerer suggests, this reciprocity is utterly transformative– “Knowing that you love the earth changes you, activates you to defend and protect and celebrate.   But when you feel the earth loves you in return, that feeling transforms the relationship from a one-way street into a sacred bond.”  Yes, to circle that line.  And this book, read with both head and heart, might well help weave us into that sacred bond, one braid at a time.    









Published: Awaken the Basin

Buddy Jeremy, relaxing on a ship-wreck, contemplating the health of Lake Champlain.
Good friend Jeremy, relaxing on a ship-wreck, contemplating the health of Lake Champlain, amongst other things.

The following appeared in the Burlington Free Press in November:


“My Turn: Awaken to Our Basin”


 Dear Fellow Denizens of the Lake Champlain Basin,

Lake Champlain is still severely impaired.

The seasons can have a comforting effect on us.  When the world news portrays turmoil and turbidity in the streams of humanity, we take comfort in the peace we enjoy in this land of changing leaves and harvest moons.  It seems we’re immune to the worries of the world.  We don’t have oil rigs, and hence no oil spills.  We don’t have mining, so we don’t have toxic tailing ponds.  We don’t have a dominating timber industry, so we don’t have clear-cuts.  We don’t have political instability, so we don’t have riots and food-shortages.  And autumn is just gorgeous.  We seem to be sitting pretty.


And yet, Lake Champlain is still severely degraded.


One reason we’re able to live this well on this land is because we’ve outsourced all the nasty processes.  Our cars, phones, computers, clothes, and most of our food is produced elsewhere.  After three centuries of heavy use, much of this basin is being allowed to rest, and to recover.  Other places aren’t so lucky– they’re ramping up production to meet the desires of modernity’s decadence.  We’re fortunate to not be dealing with any of these big-time problems affecting us locally.


And yet, Lake Champlain is still severely polluted.


Here’s the harsh news: we’re still participating in a cultural life-style that is destroying our water.  Let’s not get used to this.  It’s a tragedy that the lake is often closed to swimming. It’s a tragedy that we shouldn’t eat more than two fish a month.  It’s a tragedy that our drinking water needs to be shocked with chlorine to make it safe to drink.  Consider this from the arc of human history, and how unfortunate it is–  we can’t eat and drink from the natural bounty we live upon.  Let’s not be lulled into thinking this is normal, or okay.


Because Lake Champlain is still severely impaired.


But here’s the positive news: we’re capable of restoring this entire basin, one watershed at a time, and we can restore our relationship to this place in the process.  The future will likely require us to meet more of our needs on this land base again, and we’re going to need clean water to do it.  To get there, it’s going to take a lot of work, but I reckon we’ve never been afraid of that.  It’s going to take a lot of time, but it will be time spent together. We’ll have to realize that this modern life will never be satisfying if we aren’t all feeling healthy, vibrant, and inter-connected with one another and the water and land.

Here’s a few questions we must ask ourselves.  1) What watershed do we live in?  When water flows off our yard, toward what stream does it flow?  Where does that stream go?  2) What’s the water do when it runs off of our farm, land, or street?  Is it gathering chemicals and fertilizers? Could we slow it, spread it, sink it?  3) What long-term affects will gas pipelines have on our water? 4) What projects are going on in our watershed?  Lake Champlain is fed by rivers, and many rivers are damaged.  Seek out watershed groups or businesses dedicated to helping organize projects– Friends of the Winooski River and Intervale Conservation Nursery, for example.

Try volunteering a Saturday to restore a riparian corridor, or attend a city-council meeting.  Advocate for better storm-water management.  Encourage youth to become ecological restorationists!

We know future generations will swim in this lake, drink this water, eat these fish, watch these sunsets, and marvel at these seasons.   Will they look back on us and our efforts with thankfulness or despair?  The answer’s up to us, flowing by us and through us everyday, in the water and air.