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 Fate of Food – Book Review

What’s for dinner?

The Fate of Food will give you a good overview of how tradition and technology might come together to feed the world in the future.

I guess you could say that my purchase of The Fate of Food was an impulse buy (a good one).

In early November last year, I went into a Barnes & Noble store in San Luis Obispo, CA to buy a 2020 mini wall calendar to put up on the tack board next to my desk. My plan had been to quickly find a calendar, buy it, and then move on to the next errand on my list.

The calendar with the words “Serenity quotes for a peaceful mind” superimposed over a photo of a lovely calm looking lake appealed to me. I took it off the rack and turned around intending to walk back to the checkout counter. On the way, I decided I would just pop over to the environment/nature section to scout for new books that I might want to read in the future.

Standing there clutching my calendar I avidly scanned the titles. The Fate of Food: What We’ll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World by Amanda Little caught my eye. I pulled the book off the shelf and flipped through it reading the book jacket and table of contents.

It looked interesting so I bought the book along with the calendar.

Book Review

The Fate of Food opens with Amanda Little recounting her tour of the Wise Company, a survival food maker in Salt Lake City, UT. This visit occurred after she had traveled to thirteen states in the U.S. and eleven countries pursuing an answer to the question “What will be for dinner in the future?”

I knew I was going to like the book when I read the following paragraph at the top of page 8.

“After my visit to the Wise factory, I whip up a bowl of rehydrated pot pie. In truth, I ask my kids to do it. They fire up the electric kettle, pour, stir, wait for the pebbly chunks to soften. To them, it’s a simple science experiment. To me, it’s confronting a future I don’t want to meet.”

It was heartening to discover that along with delivering facts, information, and stories about other people, Little was willing to share herself with me and you.

The Fate of Food Book Cover

Reading The Fate of Food you will learn a lot of things, sometimes fascinating things, about apple farming, robots, aeroponics and aquaculture, animal-free meat, food waste, water, cloud seeding, moringa trees, and 3-D printed food.

You will also have an opportunity to ponder ways that small-scale and industrial-scale farming could be transformed to feed the world in a way that is healthy for people and the planet.

Here are a few snapshots of what you will be reading.

Chapter 3 – Seeds of Drought

In this section, you will meet Kenyan Ruth Oniang’o the founder of Rural Outreach Program of Africa that focuses on improving agricultural productivity while protecting small farmers. GMOs (genetically modified organisms) and bioengineered food are covered here as well as the dilemma faced by countries who are struggling to grow their own food.

“I am talking about using technology—modern seeds, modern methods—to benefit humanity, to produce food that’s clean, abundant, and climate-smart, in a way that frees small-scale farmers from drudgery. We shall industrialize our food production while maintaining the core of who we are.”

Ruth Oniang’o
Chapter 7 – Tipping the Scales

Chances are you have heard the term aquaculture (think farm-raised salmon). This chapter explores the potential benefits and challenges associated with farming aquatic animals and plants in oceans, specialized ponds, and tanks. If you are not currently familiar with algal blooms, sea lice, or the resource efficiency of fish farming, you will be.

Chapter 10 – Pipe Dreams

Without water there is no food and agriculture is a thirsty business. This chapter provides a look at how Israel, a country with very little freshwater, handles its water supply. Other topics discussed here include desalination, closed-loop water recycling, and using cloud-based applications to detect leaks.

The book closes with Little’s visit to the farm of Chris and Annie Newman who are reimagining farming.

“I was taught early on that we live within the ecosystem, not on top of it.”

Chris Newman

The Bottom Line

Amanda Little is a journalist and a professor teaching investigative journalism and science writing at Vanderbilt University. She is also the author of Power Trip: The Story of America’s Love Affair with Energy.

The Fate of Food is a readable book that packs in a lot of material about many different food-related subjects. I think Little’s writing style and the way she conveys information in a story-like manner will appeal to a wide audience. What makes this book special to me is that Little relates to us, her readers, as fellow human beings.

After reading The Fate of Food, I hope you will feel optimistic and motivated to learn more about one or more of the topics covered in the book.

Featured Image at Top

A place setting sits on top of a green place mat – photo iStock/kyoshino.

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