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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Environmental Impact of Cooking Oils

What do you know about your cooking oil?

Have you ever considered the environmental impact of the cooking oil you routinely buy to stock your pantry? Maybe you should.

Take a moment to picture the cooking oils you have in your home right now. Some of you may have visualized one bottle while others saw a collection of bottles.

The thing is every household in the world probably holds at least one container of cooking oil. It is inconceivable that those hundreds of millions of bottles, jars, and cans of cooking oil do not cause environmental harm. The questions roaming about in my head were how much and does it matter.

I decided to try to find out and share what I learned in this post.

What is Cooking Oil?

Cooking oil is used to transfer heat from a pan to food, keep food from sticking to the pan, and in some cases to impart flavor. Oils do not mix with the water contained in food which is why French fries maintain a crusty exterior as long as you do not cook them long enough to cook all the water out of the potatoes. If you do, your fries will be soft and oily.

Before embarking on this project, I needed to rope in (persuade) my spouse to participate because as the family chef my spouse would be the one cooking with a variety of different oils. I would be fulfilling the role of taste tester and researcher.

At our local grocery market, I selected seven different oils using the totally non-scientific method of picking bottles that I thought would make an attractive photo.

Back at home, I placed the bottles of oil in our pantry and we proceeded to put away the rest of our groceries. When I opened the refrigerator, I was confronted with a covered dish containing half of a stick of butter and a jar of coconut oil. Hmm, were these cooking oils, too?

That led to the question “What constitutes cooking oil?”

I did not find a definitive answer. Generally cooking oil is a fat derived from a plant that is liquid at room temperature such as olive, canola, and peanut oil.

Terrific that seemed straightforward except…

Coconut oil is plant-based oil but it is solid at room temperature. Is it still oil? What about butter? Butter is derived from an animal and is used for cooking, but is solid at room temperature. Oh, and what exactly makes something a fat?

I wanted answers so I approached my son who is a physicist and is skilled at explaining science to non-scientists like me. He gave me the French fries example above.

From my son, I learned about fatty acids, lipids, and glycerol, which you can read about using the links at the left.

One thing that I found fascinating is that edible fat molecules and inedible petroleum molecules are more similar than you might think. They are both slippery meaning good at lubricating stuff. However, edible fat molecules also have a molecular handle that allows other molecules in your body to grab onto them to run your biological machinery and keep you healthy.

Model of a Triglyceride (Fat) Molecule

This is a molecular model of a fat or triglyceride. Note the three fatty acid chains attached to the central glycerol (red) portion of the molecule. Image – Wikipedia.

To summarize cooking oils are fats that your body needs to function. These fats come from plants, animals, and are sometimes synthesized in laboratories. Cooking oils are generally liquid at room temperature but not always.

Growing Oil Crops

In this post, we are discussing plant-based cooking oils that are derived from tree fruits (e.g., avocado and olive), nuts (e.g., walnut and peanut), and seeds (e.g., canola [rapeseed] and sunflower).

Oil crops can be grown in harmony with nature intermixing with other plants and animals and growing up without synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. Cooking oils that meet certain environmental standards and are certified by an independent third party can be marketed as USDA organic.

On industrial-scale farms, trees and plants are often grown as monocrops which is the practice of growing a single crop on the same section of land year after year. This type of agriculture kills the soil so synthetic fertilizers must be applied to provide nutrients for the plants. In addition, monocrops are susceptible to being wiped out by insect pests and taken over by plant pests (weeds) so massive amounts of pesticides are used in an attempt to prevent these problems.

Blooming Canola Field in Saskatchewan, Canada with Storm Clouds
This is an industrial-scale monocrop canola field in Saskatchewan, Canada – photo credit Nas2/Wikipedia.

To combat the monocrop pest problem some growers use GMO (genetically modified organism) seeds that have been genetically engineered to withstand the application of ever more powerful pesticides. Nowadays, in the U.S., most soybeans and canola plants are grown from GMO seeds.

Oil trees and crops grow in a variety of climates and some are thirstier than others.

Problems for people and other members of nature arise when huge swaths of land are cleared to make way for monocrop tree plantations and agricultural fields. The repercussions are significant and cumulative meaning they get worse over time. Habitat loss, soil erosion, sedimentation in streams, air and water pollution, and the destruction of biodiversity endanger the health of ecosystems all over the world that support life on Earth.

Of course, the environmental damage caused by growing monocrops on an industrial scale is universal and not just confined to oil crops.

Making Cooking Oil

Peanuts in Shells in a Bag

Plant-derived oils are made by squeezing the oil out of the flesh of fruits like avocados and olives, from nuts such as peanuts and almonds, and from seeds like sesame and safflower. Photo credit – American Peanut Council.

Some oils are then refined, bleached, and deodorized to change their color and to remove the flavor of the source plant. Extraction and processing methods affect the look, taste, and sales price of cooking oils.

Cold-Press – in this process, the fruit is ground into a paste and then pressed through a series of disks using hydraulic pressure without producing heat. Sometimes the paste is pressed multiple times to extract every last bit of oil. Extra virgin olive oil is produced from the first press.

Expeller Pressing Machine

Expeller Press – is a machine used to extract oil from nuts and seeds by squeezing them under continuous high pressure. The friction created by this process heats the oil which may affect the nutrient content and taste of the oil. Photo credit – Matthewsr2000/Wikipedia.

Decanter Centrifuge – uses high rotational speed to separate fruit, nut, and seed pulp from the oil contained within them. Edible oils like olive oil may use a 3-phase separation process that makes it possible to separate the oil, water, and solids in one step.

Solvent Extraction – involves using a substance that can dissolve other substances to extract oil from oil crops. Hexane is a highly flammable chemical made from crude oil that is used as a solvent to extract vegetable oils from crops such as soybeans and canola.

Cooking Oil Tests

Seven Cooking Oils for Testing
These are the oils we used for our cooking oil tests (left to right) – sunflower, olive, hemp, canola, safflower, grapeseed, and avocad0.

Over a period of several months, our family taste-tested six of the seven cooking oils I had selected at the grocery market. Some oils like olive oil imparted more flavor than others such as sunflower oil but none of the oils interfered with the deliciousness of any of the dishes my spouse prepared using them.

The hemp oil is still sitting in the cupboard unopened. That is because when I actually read the label I discovered that its low smoke point makes it unsuitable for cooking. We do not make a lot of salad dressings or often sprinkle oil on food so we have not had a reason to try the hemp oil.

What is the Most Eco-Friendly Cooking Oil?

After reading dozens of articles and blog posts and a couple of research reports, I had learned about cooking with various oils, land use issues, oil extraction methods, GMO seeds, unintended consequences, different types of fat, and fake olive oil.

It was time to go back to the questions that I had been attempting to answer. What is the environmental impact of cooking oil? Does it matter?

You guessed it. The answer to the first question is it depends. Small-scale farms using organic and/or regenerative agriculture practices probably create significantly less harm than huge monocrop operations that gobble up forests and encourage the proliferation of pesticide use.

Other factors to consider are the amount of water, land, and energy required to grow and process the oil. The source of the energy affects the carbon footprint of the oil (e.g., coal versus sun).

The number of miles your cooking oil travels from the field to the processing facility to the store to your home is important, too. For instance, consider a bottle of artisanal olive oil sitting on a California grocery market shelf that was produced by a small organic outfit in Spain. The product itself may be eco-friendly but the fact that it has traveled thousands of miles to get to your pantry is not.

That brings us to the other question. Does the environmental impact of cooking oil matter?

Well, there are many things that are much worse like fracking for natural gas or raising livestock animals for meat. It would be easy to say that the environmental footprint of cooking oils is not something to be concerned about. However, the sheer volume of something small like cooking oil when taken collectively can indeed make a significant impact so it is probably worth at least a little consideration.

Which Cooking Oil is Right for You?

As it turned out, for our family, the most eco-friendly cooking oil we can buy is the organic extra virgin olive oil we purchase by the gallon at our local farmers market from Mt. Olive Organic Farm. There are so many reasons this is a good choice for us.

Mt. Olive Organic Farm Booth at Farmers Market in Cambria, CA on February 7, 2020
Kaylee and James at the Mt. Olive Organic Farm booth during the farmers market in Cambria, CA on February 7, 2020.

The Mediterranean climate in our region is good for growing olive trees. Mt. Olive Organic Farm uses organic farming and processing practices. The olive oil travels less than 35 miles between the farm and the farmers market which is about a quarter of a mile from our house. At home, we pour the olive oil from the one-gallon jug into a smaller bottle and put it in our cupboard. When the original bottle is empty we return it, buy a new bottle, and the old bottle gets reused.

Equally important to us is that by buying this and other locally grown and made products we are supporting the livelihoods of the people who live here not in some distant place hundreds or thousands of miles away. Plus we have the opportunity to meet and talk with the people who are growing our food.

We keep organic canola oil and sesame oil on hand, too.

There are so many different plants that can be used to make cooking oil it seems likely that locally grown and produced oil is probably available to almost anyone. You just have to look for it.

Now, I hope you feel at least a little informed about the environmental impact of cooking oil. Please take a few minutes to consider your own cooking oil choices and decide whether you want to try something new.

Featured Image at Top

These bottles of six different plant-derived cooking oils are shown with their corresponding seed, fruit, or nut – photo credit iStock/AlexPro9500.

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