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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Voice of the River – Book Review

You can be an activist at any age.

Voice of the River is a fascinating tale about Marjory Stoneman Douglas the “Grandmother of the Everglades.” This book is her autobiography created by author John Rothchild from numerous visits with her and over 200 hours of recordings.

Ever since 2013, each March I make a point of reading at least one book by or about a woman environmentalist in honor of Women’s History Month. Throughout the year, I add books to my running “to read” list and then in February I decide which book to read for March.

One year I discovered Marjory Stoneman Douglas and her now famous 1947 book The Everglades: River of Grass and intended to read it. However, our local library system did not have the book so I left it on my “to read” list hoping to find a used copy at some point in the future.

Voice of the River Book Cover

Last September, far from the Florida Everglades, I stumbled across Marjory Stoneman Douglas: Voice of the River in a used bookstore located in downtown Omaha, Nebraska. At first, I thought it was the book on my list but when I realized it was Marjory Stoneman Douglas’ autobiography, I instantly knew that I wanted to read the book for Women’s History Month 2019.

It turned out to be one of those books that you cannot put down.

Book Review

Although neither Marjory Stoneman Douglas or John Rothchild knew it at the time, their joint book project Voice of the River was initiated at a 1973 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers public hearing about a proposed suburb on the edges of the Everglades National Park. They were both opposed to the development.

In the book’s introduction, Rothchild describes getting to know Douglas and gives you a preview of the woman you are about to meet. Make sure you wear cool clothes because as you take a seat in the main room of her tiny home in Coconut Grove, Florida you will notice she does not have air conditioning. Prepare to be entertained and surprised by her story.

This excerpt sets the stage.

“The hardest thing is to tell the truth about oneself. One doesn’t like to remember unpleasant details, but forgetting them makes one’s life seem disorganized. I’m not at all sure how to go along but I’ll begin at the beginning.”

The first section of the book covers Marjory Stoneman Douglas’ early years from her birth on April 7, 1890, in Minneapolis, Minnesota through her tumultuous childhood, the years she spent earning her degree at Wellesley College, and what turned out to be a strange and short marriage. If you are paying attention, you will get a glimpse of the environmentalist she will later become as she recalls her father reading to her from the Song of Hiawatha.

Next, Douglas recounts moving to Florida in 1915 to live with her father and stepmother. This is where she launched her life as a writer by accepting a temporary assignment as the Miami Herald’s society editor. After a short stint overseas in 1918 with the American Red Cross near the end of World War I, she returned home and expanded her role at the newspaper. She also got involved with a group of people advocating for an Everglades National Park.

Moving on, Douglas talks about deciding in 1924 to focus on her freelance writing and how she made her living writing articles and short stories for the next 15 years. She became a homeowner in 1926 and she was still living in the same house during the writing of this book. She often said that projects just sort of fell into her lap and that was the case with her most famous book.

The Everglades-River of Grass Book Cover

Early in the 1940s, Hervey Allen asked her to write a book about the Miami River for a Rivers of America series. She recalls responding by saying, “Hervey, you can’t write a book about the Miami River. It’s only about an inch long.” She thought the Miami River and the Everglades were connected and she suggested writing a book about that. He agreed.

After several years of research and writing, The Everglades: River of Grass hit the bookstores in November 1947. All 7,500 copies of that first edition were sold by Christmas that year.

20 years after the publication of The Everglades: River of Grass Marjory Stoneman Douglas became an environmental activist. She founded the Friends of the Everglades when Michael Chenoweth handed her a dollar and became its first member. She was 78 at the time. Over the next twenty years or so, she became a staunch advocate for protecting the Everglades.

At the end of the book, Douglas shares her thoughts on politics, old age, and faith.

The Bottom Line

Marjory Stoneman Douglas epitomizes the proverbial woman ahead of her time. An independent and outspoken woman, she was a suffragist, journalist, civil rights supporter, author, environmentalist, speaker, and an activist. She continued working into her second century and lived to 108.

John Rothchild is an author who had the distinct honor of helping Marjory Stoneman Douglas with her autobiography. I think he did a masterful job of creating a book that brings her to life for readers in the 21st century and beyond.

Reading Voice of the River I could imagine myself sitting and talking with Marjory Stoneman Douglas. She was both lyrical and forthright. I was amazed at some of the things I learned about her. I hope you will read the book to discover this remarkable woman for yourself.

Blue Heron and Alligator at Everglades National Park
A blue heron and an alligator hanging out in Everglades National Park. Photo credit – D. Harris/Everglades National Park Service. Click here to open the photo.

In 1993, when she was 103, President Bill Clinton awarded Marjory Stoneman Douglas the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor granted by the U.S. The medal citation reads:

“Marjory Stoneman Douglas personifies passionate commitment. Her crusade to preserve and restore the Everglades has enhanced our Nation’s respect for our precious environment, reminding all of us of nature’s delicate balance. Grateful Americans honor the ‘Grandmother of the Glades’ by following her splendid example in safeguarding America’s beauty and splendor for generations to come.”

I am still interested in reading The Everglades: River of Grass. Perhaps someday I will find a copy in another bookstore far from Everglades.

Featured Image at Top: Sawgrass prairie at the Everglades National Park – photo credit G. Gardner/Everglades National Park Service. Click here to open the photo.

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