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Learning from Asters and Goldenrod

July 25, 2021

By Hiromi Kondo, 2021 Summer Intern

Over the past few months, I was an intern for the Aspen Global Change Institute. I worked on a variety of different projects from field work to data management. However, what really stood out to me was the portion of my time I spent considering perspectives outside of Western science. Specifically, reading the “Asters and Goldenrod” chapter from Braiding Sweetgrass by Dr. Robin W. Kimmerer is something that will stick with me.

This chapter details Dr. Kimmerer’s experience as an Indigenous woman pursuing an education in botany. When she goes to college, she explains to her advisor that she wants to study botany because she “[wants] to learn about why asters and goldenrod [look] so beautiful together.” In response, her advisor told her that “that is not science” and to consider art school for that question. This interaction reminds me of the sometimes close-minded nature of Western science in which we often distinguish science from art rather than allowing them to coexist as they do naturally. Every day here, I see beautiful wildflowers, but I also see the ecological interactions between them and their surroundings. I see their lifecycle, and I see colors that develop from nutrients in the soil. We distinguish between science and art in both our approach to science as well as within individuals. Western society often says that we don’t see science when we see beauty and vice versa, that we can’t be artistic scientists or scientific artists. Western society places those concepts in contention with each other, even though they aren’t. This notion is something we should deeply consider because of the inherit limitations it creates.

While the modular Western science thought process has its place, Indigenous science has equal and complimentary value. In the chapter from Braiding Sweetgrass, Dr. Kimmerer initially adopts Western science in order to pursue her education within the university system. However, she eventually rediscovers Indigenous science and sees how it doesn’t impede her understanding of botany, but rather enhances it. Dr. Kimmerer realizes how this approach offers the space to consider her original question: “why asters and goldenrod [look] so beautiful together.” The answer lies in complimentary colors and the colored afterimage phenomenon, but the purpose behind it lies in the attraction of pollinators, specifically bees. The beauty of the flowers is what first leads her to engage with this question, and the answer then broadens our understanding of plant reproduction. Although this question may not be on the top priority list of most people, Dr. Kimmerer’s story conveys the benefit of accepting other scientific cultures alongside that of Western science or as she put it: “We see the world more fully when we use both.”


Author takes notes on an iRON site visit in Glenwood Springs.

Personally, I would consider my thought process to be fairly straightforward and modular. However, “Asters and Goldenrod” leads me to seek out these alternative approaches that fill in the blind spots of Western science. Ultimately, Dr. Kimmerer’s experience results in a more profound connection with her discipline—something that I would like to develop throughout my career in environmental science. Dr. Kimmerer’s connection clearly allows her to draw from multiple sources of information and therefore provides her with a greater perspective on questions she looks to answer. Moreover, this relationship allows her to consider her field of study with a greater appreciation for the systems at work. In turn, I believe this relationship fuels her passion for science and promotes an understanding that reflects the intersectionality of science and society. Reading this excerpt provided me with a clear example of science outside of the Western science I grew up with and learned from. Before, I think I understood why diversifying science is beneficial, but now, I think “Asters and Goldenrod” has shown me what utilizing varied lenses might look like. As a result, I hope to nurture a holistic perspective in my own attempts to better understand the interactions and global change that surround us. I hope that this outlook will allow me to clearly grasp the issues we are facing and address them in a way that considers all stakeholders and values. Overall, I intend to reflect on Dr. Kimmerer’s “Asters and Goldenrods” chapter throughout my career in science in order to remind myself of these notions.