Braiding Sweetgrass

I’m not traditionally into nature writing (The New Wilderness and Where the Crawdads Sing were good, but like, not something I would search out really). But this one has had a waitlist at the library literally since I started here over a year ago. That’s the kind of thing that really catches one’s attention, especially for a backlist title. After reading The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee a few weeks ago, it seemed like the right time, so I went ahead and added myself onto said waitlist. And I managed to time it so I got the physical and audiobook at the same time, which was ideal. I knew I was going to need a little push to keep going, since (as I mentioned) I’m not so much into nature writing – and I was right, that was a game-changer. And it was a bonus for this book as well because Kimmerer read it herself and her voice is the perfect soothing and meditative tone for the writing and content.   

Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer

“I maintain that the destructive lens of the people made of wood is not science itself, but the lens of the scientific world-view, the illusion of dominance and control, the separation of knowledge from responsibility.”

To start, I have to just say that I’ve never enjoyed as much, or been as compelled by, writing about nature as I was throughout this book. It was meandering, focally, and felt a bit long at times, but it fit the overall vibe pretty well. Kimmerer’s reverence for the majesty and ingenuity of the plants she writes about is incredibly captivating. And she weaves it so naturally with a reverence for indigenous culture, the connections of those traditions and mythologies with the land, and educating the reader on what we can and should take and apply from those teachings for the mutual benefit of humans and the earth. She does a fantastic job describing the way that, as the land was stolen from the original peoples, so too were their worldviews co-opted and overridden through colonization, and how that has so deeply contributed to the unhealthy consumerist lifestyle we’re all currently living (as well as the way that has ruined our natural world). However, she balances that with interspersed stories showcasing the ways we could reintegrate with nature, to help both it and ourselves recover, both in theory and through real-life examples. I also want to highlight the phenomenal way Kimmerer recognizes both traditional and “modern” science perspectives and ways of learning. She definitely points out the shortcomings of what modern science allows, re: what counts as scientific knowledge and learning. But with her background in both, she straddles the line with finesse. 

I jotted down quite a few notes while reading this, most of which fall under the overarching thematic areas that I mentioned above, but honestly, I am missing the brainpower to combine them all into paragraph-like compilations right now. But since this was one of those books that I really felt while reading, I don’t want to lose all these in-the-moment reactions that I had. I feel like I was really affected by a number of the concepts Kimmerer highlights (some right away and some over time, as there was definitely an aspect of repeatability to this reading experience) and perhaps getting to see them all listed out will help you get a more accurate feel for my “review” thoughts as well. So, without further ado, here they all are:

  • In the very first chapter, Skywoman Falling, I was struck by the opposition stories of world-beginning mythology (Skywoman vs Eve) and the way those differing world views so clearly inform the relationship between the land and the people, whether it be home/sustenance/cooperation or a fight to use/pull from it however necessary for survival. Fascinating and affecting, to think how deeply, and for how long, these viewpoints have been ingrained.
  • The deep connection of individual well being and the health of the whole that nature can teach us. The idea that what’s good for the land is good for the people (re: consumer culture). Whoa. 
  • The in-practice reality of gift versus commodity/market (common vs private) economy, what it looked like/could look like and the way reciprocity works in each, was so interesting. Not at all a concept I have ever considered, as ingrained in the commodity market as my life has always been (as all our lives are), but it makes so much sense (mentally, societally). 
  • I am a language person, so I loved the chapters where Kimmerer focused on or referenced language. Loved. Like, the cultural implications in language: not having a word for “please” because sharing was meant to happen and respect was implied in each request without the extra word. What?! And the way language/grammar boxes us in – inherent respect for persons vs being open for exploitation because humans are considered the only “beings,” while rocks/water/trees, etc. are “things.”
  • On that same note: what. a. perspective. shift. Nature as citizens/denizens of this world on equal footing as humans. There’s no way for me to describe the concept as well or fully as Kimmerer, but it’s one of the biggest internal shifts I’ve ever been compelled to make while reading. 
  • The continued demonstrations of how we are the products of our worldviews, even when we think we are being objective – just…damn.
  • I was so into the creation mythologies and prophetic stories (Seventh Fire Prophecy) and traditional beliefs (men caring for fire and women for water, etc.) – reading about those was fascinating. One of my favorite parts.

This book is a call to action for policy and the heart, in government and gratitude, to turn around and re-find our relationship to the earth with indigenous teachings as a guideline to create our own new immigrant-indigeneity to the land…before it’s too late. I experienced deep-seeded feelings of nostalgia for a life and tradition I know I’ve never experienced and I couldn’t help but wonder what that means about the truths of humanity in these pages? But anyways honestly, overall, reading about the reciprocity of love and gratitude and sustenance/support with the land that Kimmerer sets forth as possible [again] in these pages was spectacular. A stunning and profoundly interesting work of nonfiction.

Many passages stuck out to me – here are a few:

“The trees act not as individuals, but somehow as a collective. Exactly how they do this, we don’t yet know. But what we see is the power of unity. What happens to one happens to us all. We can starve together or feast together. All flourishing is mutual.”

“In the settler mind, land was property, real estate, capital, or natural resources. But to our people, it was everything: identity, the connection to our ancestors, the home of our nonhuman kinfolk, our pharmacy, our library, the source of all that sustained us.”

“Transformation is not accomplished by tentative wading at the edge.”

“What I’m looking for, I suppose, is balance, and that is a moving target. Balance is not a passive resting place – it takes work, balancing the giving and the taking, the raking out and the putting in.”

“Imagine raising children in a culture in which gratitude is the first priority. […] And, while expressing gratitude seems innocent enough, it is a revolutionary idea. In a consumer society, contentment is a radical proposition. Recognizing abundance rather than scarcity undermines an economy that thrives by creating unmet desires. Gratitude cultivates an ethic of fullness, but the economy needs emptiness. […] Gratitude doesn’t send you out shopping to find satisfaction; it comes as a git rather than a commodity, subverting the foundation of the whole economy. That’s good medicine for land and people alike.”

“Reciprocity is an investment in abundance for both the eater and the eaten.”

“…how do we consume in a way that does justice to the lives that we take?”

“By honoring the knowledge in the land, and caring for its keepers, we start to become indigenous to place.”

“The parallels between the adaptations evolved by the plants and the needs of the people are indeed striking.”

“This is our work, to discover what we can give. Isn’t this the purpose of education, to learn the nature of your own gifts and how to use them for good in the world?”

“Restoring land for production of natural resources is not the same as renewal of land as cultural identity.”

“Restoration is imperative for healing the earth, but reciprocity is imperative for long-lasting, successful restoration.”

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