Braiding Sweetgrass – Book Review

Take a walk with a true daughter of Mother Nature.

After reading Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, your relationship with Earth will be changed forever.

During a break at the 2018 Central Coast Bioneers conference, I was standing at the book table perusing the titles on offer when I spotted Braiding Sweetgrass. The author’s name Robin Wall Kimmerer seemed familiar. I thought I remembered seeing a video of her speaking at a previous conference—something about learning from plants.

I picked up the book, read the text on the back, and looked at the table of contents. Intrigued I bought it.

Later, I found the 2014 video of her talk entitled Mishkos Kenomagwen: The Teachings of Grass.

Back in 2013, when I decided to read the 40th-anniversary edition of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, I did not know that I would be starting a new tradition for myself. Ever since then, for Women’s History Month in March, I read at least one book by or about a woman environmentalist. Last year I read Voice of the River an autobiography of Marjory Stoneman Douglas the “Grandmother of the Everglades.”

This year I chose Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. She is a true daughter of Mother Nature.

Book Review

Before you open Braiding Sweetgrass to begin reading it, take a deep breath and slowly let it out as you open your heart and your mind. Visualize yourself wearing a stout pair of waterproof boots because you will traipse through woods, fields, and streams as you explore with Robin Wall Kimmerer. Snowshoes and a rain slicker might come in handy, too.

Braiding Sweetgrass Book Cover

Readers, depending on your level of experience with indigenous teachings, you may or may not be surprised to discover how easily science and spirituality weave together to form a body of knowledge about Earth that makes sense.

As you wend your way through Braiding Sweetgrass you will be introduced to the concept of Earth as a gift, meet three sisters, learn about honorable harvesting, gain an understanding about lichens that you never knew you needed (but you do), and make the acquaintance of the Windigo.

My copy of the book has a colorful ruffle of sticky tabs marking my favorite passages. Choosing just a few to share with you was not an easy task. Below are glimpses into three of the chapters.

Allegiance to Gratitude

Imagine raising children in a society that teaches gratitude at school.

Stand quietly in the background as eleven third graders of the Onondaga Nation recite the Thanksgiving Address in their own language. This is how these kids begin their school week.

“Today we have gathered and when we look upon the faces around us we see that the cycles of life continue. We have been given the duty to live in balance and harmony with each other and all living things. So now let us bring our minds together as one as we give greetings and thanks to each other as People. Now our minds are one.”

Click here to read an English translation of the full Thanksgiving Address. It is beautiful.

Wisgaak Gokpenagen: A Black Ash Basket

Here, you will have an opportunity to observe how to make a basket, not of grass, but of wood. Kimmerer takes readers along as she learns from John Pigeon, a member of a renowned family of Potawatomi basket makers.

First, you will go into the forest to search for a black ash tree that is ready to be a basket. Preferably one with desirable attributes like being straight and healthy, with perhaps thirty to forty growth rings, each one about as wide as a nickel.

“Traditional harvesters recognize the individuality of each tree as a person, a nonhuman forest person. Trees are not taken, but requested. Respectfully, the cutter explains his purpose and the tree is asked permission for harvest. Sometimes the answer is no. It might be a cue in the surroundings—a vireo nest in the branches, or the bark’s adamant resistance to the questioning knife—that suggests a tree is not willing, or it might be the ineffable knowing that turns him away. If consent is granted, a prayer is made…”

You will discover that there is a lot more to basket weaving than you may have thought.

Collateral Damage

What came to mind when you read the words collateral damage? It probably was not salamanders.

Against the backdrop of an amphibian rescue mission, Kimmerer uses salamanders to illustrate the concepts of othering (viewing or treating others as different and alien to oneself) and xenophobia (fear and hatred of strangers or foreigners).

She talks with us about war and grief and love.

“If grief can be a doorway to love, then let us all weep for the world we are breaking apart so we can love it back to wholeness again.”

The Bottom Line

Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer is a mother, plant ecologist, and writer. She is a professor at the State University of New York in the College of Environmental Science and Forestry and the founding director of its Center for Native Peoples and the Environment. She is an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation.

When you read Braiding Sweetgrass, you will receive scientific information about the nonhuman natural world alongside lessons about ecology and biodiversity, Potawatomi teachings, and reflections about motherhood. But the best thing about this book is that it is an enchanting collection of stories masquerading as a nonfiction book.

Using some of the most beautiful prose I have ever read, Kimmerer shows us that science and spirituality are complementary and that we need to embrace both if we are to heal our planet…and ourselves.

Read the book.

Epilogue

The following paragraphs will make sense to you after you read Braiding Sweetgrass.

A couple of days ago, I was sitting on one of those foam pads for kneeling in the garden, in the midst of a patch of young native plants that I am attempting to nurture into adulthood. My mission was pulling out invasive plants, mostly oxalis, attempting to take over at the expense of some tiny California fuchsias.

Looking down to grasp the next clump, I noticed that some rather agitated ants were beginning to swarm near my feet. I looked down at them and said, “Hello, ant people, nobody is doing anything to you so there is no reason to begin a massive relocation.” They did not seem to be heeding me so I enlisted the help of some nearby pill bug people asking if they would deliver the message. Apparently, they did because a few minutes later the ants subsided.

Featured Image at Top

This is part of a living population of sweetgrass (Hierochloe odorata) – photo credit iStock/KatharinaRau.

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A Future Forest Resides within a Tiny Seed

Think globally, plant locally.

Growing a tree from a seed and then planting it is good for you and the planet. Try it and you will understand what I mean.

My tree planting experiences began after my spouse and I moved to the California Central Coast over a decade ago. We live in the midst of one of the few remaining native stands of Monterey pine trees in the world. This is a special place.

Drought, disease, and climate change are stressing our forest. Mother Nature needs assistance or our forest will die. This means we must help take care of the forest that remains and we need to plant trees to replace those that have died. We also need to plant trees to restore previously forested land that was cleared for some reason but is no longer being used for that purpose.

“When trees grow together, nutrients and water can be optimally divided among them all so that each tree can grow into the best tree it can be.”

Peter Wohlleben

Over the years, my spouse and I have planted trees in our yard for various reasons that include doing our part by attempting to restore our tiny patch of forest and to fulfill our commitment to plant at least two trees every year we buy a Christmas tree. In addition, we have planted Monterey pine tree seedlings during volunteer days on the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve near where we live.

But I had never grown a tree seedling from seed—until last year.

It gave me a new appreciation of how awesome Mother Nature is and that in my own small way I can give her a hand in keeping Earth beautiful and healthy. You can, too, and so can everyone else.

I have been recounting my tree seedling growing experience on Green Groundswell. This is the final chapter of the story that began on a cold January evening in 2019 when I met Rick Hawley from Greenspace at a Cambria Forest Committee meeting and began coveting his rack of 98 tiny Monterey pine tree seedlings.

A few months later, my spouse and I became the stewards of our own rack of newly planted seeds.

Monterey Pine Tree Seedlings on Our Deck - January 17, 2020
This is our Monterey pine tree seedling rack on January 17, 2020. The rack holds 100 seedlings (there are two tubes with two seedlings). We transplanted six seedlings that were doubled up. Four have been growing in 1-gallon pots and two went to live in our yard.

If you have not read the previous posts and want to find out what it was like trying to grow itty bitty tree seedlings from seed, then you might want to read Mother Nature Needs Our Help – Let’s Plant Trees, Arbor Day 2019 – Let’s Plant Trees, and Imagine if Everyone Planted One Tree. Otherwise, pick the story up here, put on a raincoat, and grab a shovel because it is time to plant tree seedlings.

This is Your New Home

Unlike their wild cousins who live their entire lives wherever their seeds land and find acceptable growing conditions, our tiny tree seedlings have grown up in yellow plastic tubes in a rack on the deck outside of our kitchen. I do not know if they have been conversing with the mature Monterey pine trees in our yard but if they have I can imagine a conversation going something like this.

Seedling: “Have you lived in that spot all your life?”

Tree: “Yes and do I have some great stories to tell.”

Tree: “What is that yellow thing around your roots and why are you living in that weird formation with your cousins?”

Seedling: “I don’t know, but I heard that we might be moving soon.”

Tree: “Really! I wonder what it would be like to live somewhere else.”

Before Moving Day

Since Earth Day in April 2019, my spouse and I and some thirty-odd other individuals and families have been growing Monterey pine seedlings at home. The local schools have been participating, too.

Rick and other Greenspace volunteers made it easy for us. They provided the seeds, potting soil, and rack of tubes. All we had to do was plant the seeds in the tubes, place the rack in a sunny location, and provide water.

The seedling growers had been informed that we would be planting our seedlings sometime during the winter after the rainy season began so the seedlings would have a chance to become established in their new homes before the dry summer weather set in.

Land owned by California State Parks was chosen for the planting location. The land had previously been deforested and grazed by livestock animals so at this point it is basically grassland near a Monterey pine forest.

Greenspace Monterey Pine Seedling Project Google Map Showing 30 Planting Plots
This is a Google map view of the planting area on California State Park land outside of Cambria, CA. My spouse and I planted our tree seedlings in plot 13 – image Greenspace.

Before we could plant seedlings, several things needed to occur.

The area was covered with 4-foot tall dead grasses and plants that would make trekking through it and digging holes very difficult. Cal Fire did a controlled burn to clear the land.

Then Rick and a small band of volunteers measured out thirty circular plots and placed 2,940 yellow flag markers to show us where to plant our seedlings. This is to ensure that the trees have adequate room to grow without crowding their neighbors.

Greenspace Monterey Pine Seedling Project Volunteer Plot Flag Setters
Greenspace flag setting volunteers – photo Greenspace.

The next thing was to set up a schedule and communicate it to the seedling growers. You can imagine how chaotic it might have been if we had all showed up on the same day at the same time to plant almost 3,000 tree seedlings. Again Greenspace made it easy. We received an email with a link to a list of available planting days and times and were asked to pick one. After conferring with my spouse, I signed us up for a 3-hour slot on Monday, January 20, 2019.

Moving Day

That afternoon my spouse loaded up the car with our seedling rack, four 1-gallon pots holding our overflow seedlings, and some shovels. I donned jeans, a California Native Plant Society t-shirt and hat, and my hiking tennis shoes. After filling up my reusable water bottle, I grabbed a jacket and a pair of elbow-length gardening gloves. I was ready to plant tree seedlings.

Almost the instant we got in the car it began to rain.

As we drove to the planting site a few miles north of town I wondered if the day’s planting would be canceled. As we turned the corner onto the state park road I could see cars parked ahead on the side of the road and a group of people milling around.

Greenspace Monterey Pine Seedling Project Volunteer Group on January 20, 2020
This is our group of Greenspace volunteer seedling growers and tree planters getting ready to plant tree seedlings on January 20, 2020. The photo was taken by Rick using Ron’s phone.

We joined the group and added our seedling rack to the staging area. I noticed that most of the other seedlings were taller and greener than ours and wondered if we had done something wrong. Rick assured me that maybe the parent trees from which the seeds were harvested were not as hardy as some of the other seeds. That was a nice thing for him to say.

Rick showed us how to dig a hole the right size for the seedling, get it out of the tube, and plant it correctly. He explained the flag system and pointed to a distant spot with a red flag marker in the center and 98 yellow flag markers radiating out from it. The group headed up the road behind Rick carrying shovels and lugging racks of seedlings.

My spouse and I spotted a red flag maker on a slight rise and peeled off from the group. It did not take long for me to realize that I was not going to excel at digging holes so my spouse agreed to do it. My job was to carry the rack around and plant seedlings. Rick came over at one point and helped us dig some of the holes. In between digging holes, my spouse planted some of the seedlings.

Greenspace Monterey Pine Seedling Project Plot 13 before Planting on January 20, 2020
This is plot 13 where my spouse and I planted our tree seedlings. You can see the post with the red flag in the upper-middle of the photo and some of the yellow flag markers surrounding it.

The rain continued to fall gently stopping periodically. Soon the knees of my pants and my gloves were smeared with mud. Later on, I noticed two guys wearing knee pads. Hmm, they must have done this before.

Slowly the rack became lighter and after a couple of hours, all of our seedlings were in the ground. I stood next to the pole with the red flag and surveyed the area that we had planted. In the distance, I could see the other groups planting their circles. I was wet and muddy—and exhilarated.

My spouse volunteered to carry our stuff back to the car while I hiked around the field asking the other tree planters if they would be willing to have their photo taken. Some were and some were not. I also asked them if they would mind sharing why they were planting tree seedlings.

The responses I received included several variations of “I love trees and/or forests.” and “I want to give back to the community.” One person expressed concern about the climate crisis. Someone else answered the question by saying “Two words, Australia and Amazon.” following up with the statement “Forests are the lungs of the planet.”

Greenspace Monterey Pine Seedling Project Leader Rick Hawley on January 20, 2020

As I headed back to the car, I spotted Rick Hawley digging holes with another group. I thanked him for all of his hard work putting this whole thing together, suggested we do it again this year, and told him I would love to learn about collecting seeds.

Later that night, I began feeling the effects of kneeling and getting up 60 or 70 times over the course of a couple of hours. My legs hurt so bad it was painful to go up and down the stairs in our house for a day or two. Still, it was totally worth it!

I am looking forward to visiting our trees and watching a forest reappear where once there was none.

You can grow tree seedlings and plant trees, too. There is sure to be a group in your community or region growing seedlings and planting trees. So look for them. Then join tens of millions of people all over the world who are growing and planting trees.

“There can be no purpose more enspiriting than to begin the age of restoration, reweaving the wondrous diversity of life that still surrounds us.”

E.O. Wilson
Featured Image at Top

I took this photo on January 28, 2020, while walking with my spouse through the Monterey pine forest on the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve in Cambria, CA.

Note for Readers

I was fortunate to be at the November 2019 meeting of the San Luis Obispo chapter of the California Native Plant Society when Nikki Nedeff gave a presentation about Monterey pine forests. At the meeting, I bought a copy of The Monterey Pine Forest: Coastal California’s Living Legacy, second edition published by The Monterey Pine Forest Watch in 2018. If you are interested in Monterey pine trees and forests, this is an excellent book chock full of information and wonderful images.

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