How Do We Know?
Nurse log, Prairie Creek Redwood State Park, California, April 2021
What does it mean to know? Where does knowledge reside in the body? Who or what has knowledge? How is knowledge transmitted and received? The answers to these questions go to the root of relationships among humans and between humans and the more-than-human world.
Those of us who come out of the Western, European-descended , white-dominated world tend to think of knowledge as cerebral, logical, and exclusive to humans. In this framework, not all humans are viewed as equally knowledgeable or capable of knowledge. Here, as in other areas, white, cisgendered, heterosexual, economically privileged men are given precedence. Sensory and bodily knowledge is suspect. Intuition is suspect. Knowledge based on stories is suspect. Knowledge held by and transmitted among beings who are not human—trees, for example—must be impossible.
Humans’ ability to think logically and sequentially in a focused, goal-oriented way is critical to our survival. But this way of thinking is not separate from or superior to our ability to take in, process, and act on information in other ways. Logical thinking requires us to break things down, to separate them into parts. We also need to see the whole picture and experience ourselves as connected to all that exists. Human brains are exquisitely designed to do so. These ways of knowing, long disparaged as secondary, are what we now need to emphasize in the face of worldwide crises that threaten all beings.
Epistemicide is a word that refers to the killing of knowledge systems. It goes hand in hand with colonization. Indigenous ways of knowing that are more inclusive, balanced, and holistic, more grounded in connecting with and learning from the more-than-human world, have been the targets of systematic destruction for centuries. Our current political, social, economic, and climate instability is, in part, a direct result of the insistent favoring of a single way of knowing over all others.
I have extensive training and experience in Western scientific research. I don’t want anyone to make the mistake of thinking I am anti-science. I believe that the Western scientific model is useful but limited. In the past two years, Western science has saved countless lives during the COVID pandemic. It could have saved many more lives if extreme individualism, capitalistic profit-making, racism, and cruel, divisive political priorities did not prevail in the US and elsewhere.
For years I have looked to trees in forests as a model for human communities. The work of Robin Wall Kimmerer, Suzanne Simard, Paul Stamets, and many others reveals through Western science what indigenous peoples have known for millenia. Trees, in partnership with fungi, take in information from their environment, react to it in real time, and share it with other nearby trees and plants. They are aware of the needs of other trees and share nutrients and water within and across species. They emit and communicate through neurotransmitters similar to the ones in the human nervous system. They are intelligent in a different way than we are. They collaborate and help each other. They know, in their own way of knowing, that living in community nourishes them and protects them from harm.
Fall Equinox, a time when light and darkness come into balance, reminds us to seek balance in our own bodies, communities, and world. The dominant mode of thinking and knowing is way out of balance, and that affects everything. I encourage you to take some time this Equinox to pay attention to what and how you know what you know. How did/does that knowledge come to you? What forms of information do you take in, and what forms do you tend to discount? When you know something in your body, what do you notice about how that shows up? How does what you know through logical reasoning validate what you notice in your body, emotions, intuition, and spirit, and vice versa? What happens when these different ways of knowing give you messages that conflict?
“Yes, it goes back to the story of when I very proudly entered the forestry school as an 18-year-old and telling them that the reason that I wanted to study botany was because I wanted to know why asters and goldenrod looked so beautiful together. These are these amazing displays of this bright, chrome yellow and deep purple of New England aster, and they look stunning together. And the two plants so often intermingle rather than living apart from one another, and I wanted to know why that was. I thought that surely in the order and the harmony of the universe, there would be an explanation for why they looked so beautiful together. And I was told that that was not science, that if I was interested in beauty, I should go to art school.
“Which was really demoralizing as a freshman, but I came to understand that question wasn’t going to be answered by science, that science, as a way of knowing, explicitly sets aside our emotions, our aesthetic reactions to things. We have to analyze them as if they were just pure material, and not matter and spirit together. And, yes, as it turns out, there’s a very good biophysical explanation for why those plants grow together, so it’s a matter of aesthetics and it’s a matter of ecology. Those complimentary colors of purple and gold together, being opposites on the color wheel, they’re so vivid, they actually attract far more pollinators than if those two grew apart from one another.
“So each of those plants benefits by combining its beauty with the beauty of the other. And that’s a question that science can address, certainly, as well as artists. And I just think that ‘Why is the world so beautiful?’ is a question that we all ought to be embracing.”
—Robin Wall Kimmerer, “The Intelligence of Plants,” interview with Krista Tippett, “On Being,” Feb. 25, 2016