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.

Related Posts

Resources

4th of July – Patriotism and the Environment

Protect the people and the land that you love.

As 4th of July Independence Day celebrations draw near, I find myself contemplating the intersection between patriotism and environmentalism.

At its most basic patriotism is love for one’s country.

What patriotism means to you, me, and every other American is deeply personal. To me, patriotism and environmentalism are complementary isms. I feel there is a strong connection between loving my country and protecting its people, land, water, air, and non-human denizens.

This post probably has its roots in 2012. I do not remember specifically what set me off (probably 4th of July sales), but I had reached a point where I could no longer stand being referred to as a consumer by the media and my own government. That year, I wrote a post entitled I am an American Citizen not just an American Consumer.

That post has led to other 4th of July posts exploring the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the Statue of Liberty. By combining ideas from these three posts, I hope to illustrate my point that patriotism and environmentalism do intersect.

Declaration of Independence with a Green Twist

Every kid who goes to school in the United States studies the Declaration of Independence. I did, but it was a long time ago.

In honor of the 4th of July in 2013, I decided to reintroduce myself to the Declaration of Independence. After researching its history and reading the original Declaration of Independence, I created the green version below.

Declaration of Independence of 2013

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve corporations and laws that enable special interests to control our government and destroy our planet, we should declare the causes.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all people are created equal with certain unalienable Rights that among these are Life, Liberty, the pursuit of Happiness, and a Habitable Planet.

We are not disposed to suffer evils any longer and require corporations and our government to change and serve the greater good or face extinction. We submit these reasons.

  • Corporations are allowed to pollute our land, air, and water.
  • Corporations make and sell products that harm people and the planet.
  • Corporations enable the wealthy few to become wealthier at our expense.
  • Corporations waste Earth’s resources and generate mountains of trash.
  • Corporations spend millions of dollars to finance political campaigns and elect politicians that will serve their interests, not ours.

We have appealed to our government to seek redress for our grievances but the government continues to allow these injustices to occur and in some cases actually abets them.

We mutually pledge to current and future Americans and other citizens of the world, that we’re not going to take it anymore.

We will use the freedom hard won by our nation’s founders to fight our oppressors with our actions, our voices, our smartphones, our wallets, and hopefully not our lives.

If you are interested, you can read a brief history of the Declaration of Independence in the post 4th of July – Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.

11th Amendment to the Bill of Rights

Another year, I refreshed my knowledge of the Constitution of the United States and the events leading up to the Bill of Rights.

During my research, I discovered that 12 amendments had been proposed but the states only ratified 10. Therefore, the third amendment on the list became the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights guaranteeing the personal freedoms and rights of individual American citizens.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution

In the post 4th of July – Be a Green Citizen, I provided a historical overview of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights as well as proposed an 11th amendment to the Bill of Rights (it would be the twenty-eight amendment to the Constitution).

Group of Kids Playing at a Park

The people have the right to a habitable planet with clean air, clean water, fresh food, and nontoxic places to live, study, work, explore, and play.

The Statue of Liberty and Diversity

In 2017, I was reflecting on what it means to be an American and urging readers to do the same.

That year, I looked into the history of the Statue of Liberty, which is recognized around the world as a symbol, perhaps the symbol, of freedom and democracy.

Statue of Liberty Holding Torch and Tablet of Law
The Statue of Liberty holding a torch and tablet of law – Photo Credit iStock/EG-Keith.

You can read about the Statue of Liberty in the post entitled 4th of July – What Does it Mean to be an American?

The beautiful and powerful sonnet below is engraved on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty.

The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Emma Lazarus

Today, the United States of America is home to a wondrous mix of people all seeking freedom, opportunity, equality, liberty, independence, democracy, and a chance for happiness.

Diversity is strength.

Mother Nature believes this, too. The healthiest ecosystems are those with the most biodiversity where different plants and animals live together, sometimes competing, sometimes collaborating, but somehow managing to find a balance for the good of the overall community.

I believe it is going to take the entire kaleidoscope of American people all working together with other people around the world to grapple with the climate crisis and to learn how to live sustainably on Earth.

Let us live joyfully and in harmony with other people and the balance of nature, so that we can all flourish on Earth now and in the future.

Happy 4th of July!

Featured Image at Top: A pile of buttons with a U.S. flag background with the saying “Planet Earth First” – photo credit iStock/cbies

Related Posts