"Braiding Sweetgrass," | Reviewed by Bill Schwab
Nature is full of mystery and prompts curiosity. “Braiding Sweetgrass,” by indigenous American botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer, quickly piques the reader’s curiosity with essays that answer questions about the habits of plants. How do trees communicate? Why do some fungi grow only under certain conditions?
Throughout this brilliantly narrated book, the author’s love for nature is palpable. One of her guiding principles is that plants and animals are the oldest teachers—we have much to learn from them—and her book reveals and expounds on their lessons.
Kimmerer presents scientific information about the natural world, lessons about ecology and biodiversity, and includes a measure of Potawatomi teachings and reflections about motherhood. Her essays and stories express the interdependence of science and spirituality. She urges readers to welcome both in order to make our planet and ourselves whole. Here is an example of her sensitive, sensible prose:
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 hearing 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.”
There is another delightful chapter about the three sisters: corn, beans, and squash. The corn provides a natural trellis for the beans, a nitrogen rebuilder that replenishes the soil. The squash shades the ground and restrains weed growth. I thought I was familiar with the benefits of corn, beans, and squash growing together. But then I read her amazing metaphorical description and found my understanding of the three sisters immeasurably enriched:
The three sisters offer us a new metaphor for an emerging relationship between indigenous knowledge and Western science, both of which are rooted in the earth. I think of the corn as traditional ecological knowledge, the physical and spiritual framework that can guide the curious bean of science, which twines like a double helix, the squash creates the ethical habitat for coexistence and mutual flourishing. I envision a time when the intellectual monoculture of science will be replaced with a polyculture of complementary knowledge. And so all may be fed.
This book is an essential invitation to the reader to imagine humankind's reciprocal relationship with nature and to envision a world where people are grateful and conscious of all Earth provides. The author urges readers “…to take only what is given, to use it well, to be grateful for the gift, and to reciprocate the gift.”
The distinguished botanist connects personal life stories and relates legends passed down to her by Potawatomi ancestors to validate the ethos of gratitude she encourages everyone to live. “Everyone knows that gifts will follow the circle of reciprocity and flow back to you again...the grass in the ring is trodden down in a path from gratitude to reciprocity. We dance in a circle, not in a line.”
Only when humans hear the language of other creatures, the peep of the peepers, the rustling of the leaves, she says, are we able to grasp the generosity of Earth. “We are showered every day with gifts, but they are not meant for us to keep ... our work and our joy is to pass along the gift and a trust that what we put into the universe will always come back.”
Since 2015, “Braiding Sweetgrass” has enjoyed 18 printings and appears in nine languages. The current edition includes a new introduction and additional photographs.
About the Author:
Robin Wall Kimmerer is an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and State University of New York Distinguished Teaching Professor of Environmental Biology. Her first book, “Gathering Moss,” was awarded the John Burroughs Medal for outstanding nature writing. Her writings have appeared in “Orion,” “Whole Terrain,” and numerous scientific journals and she is the founder and director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment.