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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Civil Rights and the Climate Crisis

All of our fates are intertwined.

If he were alive today, I can imagine Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. declaring that everyone deserves a habitable planet to live on and demanding action, now.

It was with trepidation that I approached writing a post that would be published on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Dr. King was an amazing human being. What could I write about that would be appropriate? There was no way I was going to write a post entitled 10 Ways to Green Your MLK Day Celebration or to put an environmental spin on Dr. King’s life.

So, I did what I often do when I do not know what I am writing about and conducted some research. I refreshed myself on Dr. King’s history, read several articles, and reread his “I Have a Dream…” speech that he delivered to a crowd of 250,000 people surrounding the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. on August 28, 1963.

The excerpt below is from that speech.

“We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy…Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.”

Dr. King embodied justice and a sense of urgency. Of course, I cannot say for certain but it seems to me that he believed all people are connected. I do, too.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Portrait - 1964

I decided to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. today by sharing my belief that we are all connected and why this is important. Perhaps you believe this, too, or will at least be willing to give it some thought.

Dr. King won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. This is his portrait taken by an unknown photographer. Click here for the Wikipedia image page.

We are All Connected

Now, at the beginning of 2020, you and I plus billions of other people and non-human beings are living on Earth an amazing and ailing sphere spinning in the middle of nowhere. This is our home, our only home. There is no planet B.

The climate crisis crosses every boundary—real or imagined. We are all connected. Our fates are intertwined.

Therefore, we need to drop everything we are doing and focus on climate solutions, right? I hope you are shaking your head and thinking “I completely disagree with that statement.” because I do, too.

It is ridiculous (in my view) to think we can solve the climate crisis first and then worry about addressing other crises such as racism, discrimination, homelessness, hunger, and income inequality. Only a society of people who respect, value, and care for each other will be able to accomplish what we need to do. Hate, anger, and fear will not get the job done.

We need to transform our society. Social healing and ecological healing are the same work. One cannot succeed without the other.

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Fortunately, many, if not most, of the people leading the climate movement get it or at least they are starting to get it. Environmentalists are acknowledging that they need to meet people where they are, to listen to their ideas and concerns, and to support what other people feel is important, too. The smart organizations are asking themselves, “Who are we missing?” and are trying to find out.

After thinking about it for a couple of years, this past year I finally took action to expand my own horizons beyond environmental issues by doing things that I would not normally do.

This included activities like participating in the Women’s March to seek out and talk with people from organizations that have other concerns than the environment.

It involved doing things like standing up for the human rights of immigrants at a Lights for Liberty Rally and then contacting my elected officials to ask them what they are doing about the inhumane treatment of people at U.S. immigration detention centers.

Sometimes it meant going way outside of my comfort zone. For instance, I attended a workshop hosted by R.A.C.E. Matters SLO County where I was asked to confront my own white privilege and consider how I could use it to help build a more just and equitable community.

Are you interested in broadening your own horizons? If you are, where do you start? It does not matter just start. Surely there are issues or causes that interest you. Find something to do (no matter how small) and then do it.

What Can You Do Today?

For practice how about doing something today? Below are five of many possible ways to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the day we celebrate his birthday in the United States.

  • Read Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1963 “I Have a Dream…” speech.
  • At dinner tonight, talk with whoever is sharing your meal about racism. If you are dining alone, then call someone this evening.
  • Watch the film 13th by director Ava DuVernay, 2016 (it’s available on Netflix).
  • Read the article The history white people need to learn by Mary-Alice Daniel, Salon, 02/07/14.
  • Today, sign up to participate in a meeting, event, or workshop about racism.

“I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality…I believe the unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Featured Image at Top

Circle of hands resting on top of the sand – photo credit iStock/kycstudio.

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