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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Thanksgiving – Gratitude

Saying thank you is easy and free.

This Thanksgiving I am sending someone I love a handwritten thank-you note and doing something that you may find silly (or maybe not).

In years past, I used to write Thanksgiving posts about topics more easily tied to the environment like consumerism and green actions that you and I can do. Then there was the year my family saved me from writing about food waste.

Nowadays at Thanksgiving, I find myself pondering the interconnectedness of humans and the rest of nature or how I can put forth my kindest self every day. That is the person that I, you, and everyone else needs to bring to the table if we are to heal ourselves and Earth, the place we all call home.

This year gratitude is on my mind.

I believe everyone appreciates being appreciated. I know I do. Showing gratitude by saying “Thank you.” is easy and free. Yet, sometimes in our society, it seems like we are all so busy, rushed, and frazzled that we forget who and what we have to be grateful for or to thank the people in our lives.

Maybe all we need to get back on track is a friendly reminder and a little practice.

This year for my Thanksgiving post I knew I wanted to write about gratitude and to encourage readers to take a specific gratitude-related action. But what?

Then a few weeks ago, I was reading Elizabeth Kubey’s “Kids’ Corner” column in the fall issue of Flora, a quarterly magazine published by the California Native Plant Society (CNPS) of which I am a member. Even though my kids are grown, I always enjoy reading Elizabeth’s column. It is filled with educational and fun activities and she has a delightful kid-friendly writing style.

Flora-V3N1-Kids-Corner_Letter_Elizabeth-Kubey-LR-300x388

The “Kids’ Corner” fall column had several activities for kids to learn about chlorophyll and photosynthesis. The item that caught my eye was entitled Thank-you plants! It involved asking kids to write several thank-you notes. One thanking a native plant, one as if they were a native plant thanking a part of the ecosystem, and perhaps one to a family member. Photo —Elizabeth Kubey/CNPS.

I instantly thought, “That’s it. I want to share this idea in my Thanksgiving post.”

Since it was Elizabeth’s idea, I contacted her to thank her and ask her permission to share her idea and to use the thank-you note. She agreed.

I Used to Write Thank-You Notes

One of the many things that my mother taught me as a kid was how to write a handwritten thank-you note. My brother and sister learned, too. We were expected to write thank-you notes when someone had given us a gift even if we had thanked the gift giver in person. I do not remember if there was any wheedling involved, but she probably had to remind us to write them, at least sometimes.

I carried the thank-you note habit into adulthood writing thank-you notes for birthday, wedding, baby, and holiday gifts and occasionally for another reason like thanking an interviewer after a job interview.

There was always a box or two of thank-you note cards in a desk drawer at home.

Once, when I was preparing to leave a company that I had worked with for a long time, I wrote a thank-you note to every employee. That was over 300 thank-you notes.

Now, I have mostly fallen out of the habit of writing thank-you notes. The demise of my thank-you note writing may have coincided with the decision my spouse and I made in 2013 to stop the practice of obligatory gift-giving and receiving as part of our effort to live more lightly on the planet.

And yet, there are many, many people and things to be thankful for that do not involve exchanging gifts. Can my lapsed thank-you note habit be resuscitated and reimagined? I think it can.

Thank-You Note for a Person

To me, Thanksgiving seems like an ideal time to write a handwritten thank-you note.

My Thanksgiving Thank-You Note Card and Vase with Artificial Fall Flowers
I wrote my Thanksgiving thank-you note inside this card.

I hope you will join me in writing a thank-you note sometime during this week to a family member, friend, neighbor, co-worker, or anyone for that matter thanking them for, well, anything.

You and everyone else may have a lot going on this week such as preparing to host a Thanksgiving feast at your home, getting ready to travel, or cramming five days of work into three days. Some of you may be steeling yourself for working on Black Friday.

So, let’s keep it simple and agree that we will not agonize over writing a thank-you note. We will write from our hearts without worrying about spelling, grammar, and punctuation (at least not too much).

If you do not have a box of thank-you note cards stuck in the back of a drawer, no worries. Any kind of card will do and you can easily pick one up at almost any store including a grocery market.

The thank-you note that I wrote is winging its way to my mother; however, she will probably not have received it before reading this post.

Thank-You Note for a Plant or Animal

Now for the silly part that I mentioned earlier.

I am an enthusiastic native plant novice who enjoys growing native plants from seeds and giving native plants a place in our yard.

The first native plant I ever grew from a seed was a California Buckwheat which I named Becky. I am one of those people who anthropomorphize plants and animals. It helps me appreciate and connect with other parts of nature.

Even though Elizabeth’s Thank-you plants! is not related to Thanksgiving, I do not think she will mind if you and I appropriate her format to thank a fellow member of nature.

My native plant thank-you note is for Becky. As you can see I kept it short and sweet. Protected by a plastic bag it is mounted on a bamboo stick left from our Monterey pine seedling growing project. I placed it in the yard with Becky. This will remind me to thank the plant every time I pass by.

If you would like to join me in this endeavor, I feel certain there is a plant or animal living near you that would love to receive a thank-you note.

For good measure on Thanksgiving, I think I will go hug a few trees.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Featured Image at Top: Thanksgiving still life with thank-you note card – Photo credit iStock/CatLane.

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