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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Native Plants Add Beauty and Habitat to Your Yard

“There are no gardening mistakes, only experiments.” —Janet Kilburn Phillips

This spring give the birds, bees, and butterflies places to live, dine, and hang out by adding native plants to your garden and making it a pesticide-free zone.

About two weeks ago, a newsletter from the California Native Plant Society (CNPS) arrived in my email inbox informing me that April 13-21 is Native Plant Week here in California.

I decided to use Native Plant Week as an opportunity to encourage other native plant novices, like me, to embrace native plants. When you give native plants a place in your yard or garden, you will attract native wildlife and signal to those who are just passing through that this is a good place to pause and take a break.

Ever since my spouse and I moved from Southern California to the Monterey pine forest of the California Central Coast about twelve years ago, we have been on a mission to restore our tiny piece of land. After years of invasive plant removal and spreading literally tons of wood chips to revive the parched soil, I realized I needed to learn about native plants.

I joined the CNPS chapter in San Luis Obispo. At my first meeting in October 2017, I met Marti and became interested in trying to grow native plants from seeds. You can meet the first plant I ever grew from a seed in the post, entitled Growing Native Plants from Seeds is Fun and if you are interested in the environmental benefits of native plants, I covered that topic in Native Plants are Good for the Environment.

6 Pots with Seedlings Grown from Native Plant Seeds - Apr 2019
Seedlings sprouted from seeds I obtained at the CNPS San Luis Obispo seed in exchange in October 2018 shown in April 2019 (left to right) – thrift seapink, coast bush lupine, coyote mint, purple needlegrass, purple sage, arroyo lupine.

The joy of growing native plants mostly occurs during the journey from seed to mature plant, but even the mishaps can be fun. My yard is mostly wild and your yard will be different from mine anyway, but perhaps you have had some similar experiences.

Native Plant Novice

To keep things simple I opted to experiment with growing native plant seeds using the tools and resources a non-expert might have on hand like a garden trowel, plastic pots from nursery plants, potting soil, a watering can, and something to use for plant markers. I planted my second batch of seeds in November 2018 without any special preparation.

This year I have been keeping a handwritten journal of what I observe happening with the seeds and a few small plants, we planted in our yard.

Becky the Buckwheat has a Birthday

I am one of those people who anthropomorphize animals and trees. It helps me connect with my non-human neighbors, but if you do not like it, I understand.

The very first plant I ever grew from seed was California buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum). Out of a handful of seeds, it was the only one that germinated. After about nine months in a pot on the deck outside of our dining room, I decided that Becky was ready for the yard. Mindful of the deer that frequent our yard, I planted Becky in a small fenced-in section.

I do not know Becky’s exact age, but I planted the seeds in January 2018 and the tiny seedling popped its head above the soil in March or April of that year. Becky went to live in the yard during October 2018 and now in April 2019, Becky is at least a year old and thriving.

Someone Stole My Daisies

For years, I have been admiring the lavender flowered seaside daisies (Erigeron glaucus) that grow on the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve near my house. Last November, when I spotted a variety of seaside daisies at the CNPS San Luis Obispo plant sale, I bought six small plants.

Because the daisies looked like potential deer food to me, they became Becky’s neighbors. The plants seemed happy and I could see them from a window in our stairwell. One day I looked out and sensed something was wrong so I went outside to investigate.

Four of the six plants were completely gone (not eaten) disappeared. It was the voles. I could tell by the little holes backfilled with loose dirt. The voles would not come out to discuss the situation so I can only surmise that seaside daisies are much sought after as bedding material or food for voles.

That afternoon I dashed over to the local nursery to purchase some flexible mesh gopher cages. My spouse helped me dig up the two remaining plants and replant their roots inside the cages. That ended the carnage. The plants made it through the winter but I would say they look more as if they are just surviving versus thriving.

Plant Hide-and-Seek

In November 2018, feeling extra ambitious I expanded the number of varieties of seeds I would attempt to grow and decided to carefully plant a few in my yard along with a couple of plants that I had purchased at the San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden plant sale in October.

I carefully weeded a five-foot circle, planted a small Hearst ceanothus (Ceanothus hearstiorum) and three groupings of seeds marked with plant markers I made from an old sign.

The deer or someone was probably laughing as I did this. Within days, the ceanothus had been eaten down to a nub, so we fenced in the area. Months later, the wild grasses took over and any tiny seedlings trying to make a go of it have either been outcompeted, eaten as soon as they popped up their heads, or are in there somewhere that I just cannot see.

Group Insurance

In the past, I have often purchased one plant to try out in a particular area. Last fall, I thought maybe it would be helpful to plant two or three of the same type of plant in the same area.

At the November CNPS plant sale, along with the ill-fated seaside daisies, I purchased six tiny California fuchsia (Epilobium canum) seedlings grown by Clearwater Color Wholesale Nursery in Los Osos. The plants were about 3” tall when I planted them in pots and set them outside our dining room window.

They seemed happy and grew steadily. After the seedlings reached about 6” tall, I decided they might enjoy going to live in the yard.

Unsure about whether deer have a taste for California fuchsia or not, I decided to plant one plant and see what happened. The deer completely ignored it for a couple of weeks so I decided it was safe to plant the others.

Outside our office window, we have a grouping of three and a grouping of two. I planted the remaining plant near the seaside daisies as an insurance measure in case the deer suddenly develop a taste for California fuchsia.

Getting a Grip

The native plant enthusiasts I meet in our county seem enamored with dudleyas so I purchased three chalk dudleya (Dudleya pulverulenta) at the October Botanical Garden Sale.

I read up about them on Calscape, an online California native plant resource guide, and learned that dudleyas like to be planted at an angle so moisture does not pool around them and they enjoy living with rocks.

We have a small rocky section next to our driveway so I planted the three dudleyas in a triangle and hoped for the best. Periodically, I hand weed around them and they seem to be well established now.

My action for California Native Plant Week was to write this post. I hope you enjoyed the above plant stories and laughed at least once. Now, it is your turn to take action.

California Native Plant Week Actions

  • Share your own native plant stories and/or expertise.
  • Learn about native plants by going on a native plant garden tour or visiting a botanical garden.
  • Sign up for a native plant walk in your area.
  • Locate a nursery that sells native plants, pick one to try, and plant three of them in your yard or garden.
  • Join your local native plant society. The American Horticulture Society lists every state on their website.

“Native plants are the foundation of ecosystems, supporting pollinators, birds, and the natural resources we all need for survival.”

Liv O’Keeffe, California Native Plant Society

Featured Image at Top: I think these are elegant clarkias (Clarkia unguiculata) plants that sprouted from seeds I scattered in the yard.

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