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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The Overstory – Book Review

People and trees and wonder.

Regardless of whether you are a tree hugger or not The Overstory is a gripping tale worth reading.

Near the end of November, I found a key labeled 2P inside of our mailbox that resides in a cluster of mailboxes at the top of our street. When anyone receives a package, the mail carrier places it in one of the two parcel lockers and leaves the key in that person’s mailbox. I opened locker 2P and discovered a package inside addressed to me from my brother.

My brother and I stopped exchanging birthday and Christmas gifts ages ago. What could it be? At home, I opened the box. Inside was a copy of The Overstory and card from my brother saying he hoped I would enjoy reading it.

I was delighted!

After sending my brother a thank-you text, I walked upstairs to our home office, logged onto our library’s online portal, and gleefully canceled my request for the book. Our library system has 38 copies and I had been 97th on the waitlist.

Book Review

Brace yourself. The Overstory is both brutal and beautiful. I know that sounds weird. Read the book and you will see what I mean.

When I opened the book to read it, I did glance at the “Table of Contents” and noticed the four main sections are called “Roots,” “Trunk,” “Crown,” and “Seeds.” But I did not understand the structure of the book until I got to the “Trunk” part. Then I realized it is a cross between a collection of short stories and a novel.

You will meet the main people characters in “Roots” and then follow them on a series of converging journeys through the rest of the book. Along the way, you will meet many, many trees.

The narrative in the book is complex so pay attention.

The Overstory Book Cover

On the pages of The Overstory, Powers interlaces observations about what is happening in the world with stories about people and trees. The commentary is subtle but you may run across sentences or paragraphs that make you stop and reread them because they are both eloquent and stark.

Here are a few examples that hopefully will spark your interest in reading the book

After a court hearing, there is a protest demonstration with lumberjacks on one side and tree huggers on the other.

“Enemies shout at each other across the gap, stoked by triumph and humiliation. Decent people loving the land in irreconcilable ways.”

One night a man and a woman are sitting in an ancient tree called Mimas trying to prevent it from being cut down.

“Yet on such a night as this, as the forest pumps out its million-part symphonies and the fat, blazing moon gets shredded in Mimas’s branches, it’s easy for even Nick to believe that green has a plan that will make the age of mammals seem like a minor detour.”

As arson flames race across a construction site a psychologist studying activists has a terrifying epiphany.

“The clarity of recent weeks, the sudden waking from sleepwalk, his certainty that the world has been stolen and the atmosphere trashed for the shortest of short-term gains, the sense that he must do all he can to fight for the living world’s most wondrous creatures: all these abandon Adam, and he’s left in the insanity of denying the bedrock of human existence. Property and mastery: nothing else counts. Earth will be monetized until all the trees grow in straight lines, three people own all seven continents, and every large organism is bred to be slaughtered.”

During a strategy meeting, a game programmer responds to a request from his boss to build a game about the natural world.

“Not more plants, boss. You can’t make a game out of plants. Unless you give them bazookas.”

A botanist turns the page in a book and sees this.

“No one sees trees. We see fruit, we see nuts, we see wood, we see shade. We see ornaments or pretty fall foliage. Obstacles blocking the road or wrecking the ski slope. Dark, threatening places that must be cleared. We see branches about to crush our roof. We see a cash crop. But trees—trees are invisible.”

The Bottom Line

Richard Powers entered college as a physics major and left with an M.A. in Literature. He is an accomplished musician and an avid reader with a curious mind. Powers wrote his first book Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance while working as a computer programmer. Since then he has written eleven more novels and has won numerous awards. His twelfth book The Overstory was the winner of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction.

Have you ever read a book that made you feel dismayed and uplifted at the same time? That is how reading The Overstory was for me. The histories of the main characters are mostly tragic yet they are all touched by trees in poignant and sometimes magical ways.

The underlying thread woven into this magnificent narrative is that we humans are destroying the natural world and other beings that have inhabited Earth far longer than we have.

Each reader will take away something different from reading the book. The message I received is that we can turn back and take a different path. If we don’t, Mother Nature will not care she will just carry on.

There is a reason that the library waitlist for this book is so long. Buy it or borrow it, read it, and then you will know, too.

“The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.”

Featured Image at Top

This photo shows someone’s daughter touching a tree and looking up at this magnificent being – photo iStock/stockstudioX.

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