Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants has so much to offer. And I believe other gardeners would especially appreciate this book, as I do. It’s also available in an audio version read by the author, and as a beautifully illustrated adaptation, Braiding Sweetgrass for Young Adults. Both make this book, a gift to the co-inhabitants of Mother Earth, even more accessible.
Dr. Kimmerer speaks from multiple perspectives as an Anishinabekwe, Potawatomi woman, a mother, a gardener, a philosopher, a botanist and professor of plant ecology, and from so many other aspects of herself. She beautifully integrates mind, body, emotion, and spirit as she shares “healing stories that allow us to imagine a different relationship, in which people and land are good medicine for each other”. This is a hugely important book for our times. I hope the lessons and wisdom of traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) within the stories will be incorporated into all of our lives, while avoiding cultural appropriation.
“I hold in my hand the genius of indigenous agriculture, the Three Sisters. Together these plants––corn, beans, and squash––feed the people, feed the land, and feed our imaginations, telling us how we might live. … a visible manifestation of what a community can become when its members understand and share their gifts.” For example, the corn stalks provide support for the beans, the bean roots house the Rhizobium bacteria that shares nitrogen with the plants, and the squash leaves keep moisture in the soil and other plants out. And Robin reminds us they “are fully domesticated; they rely on us to create the conditions under which they can grow. We too are part of the reciprocity. They can’t meet their responsibilities unless we meet ours.”
As one who loves her children, and also loves her garden, Robin lists some “loving behaviors”. And she makes the case that “The land loves us back. … She provides for us and teaches us to provide for ourselves. That is what good mothers do.” Robin taught her daughters to garden “so they would always have a mother to love them, long after I am gone.”
The author writes with a heartfelt, holistic perspective and explains complex scientific and indigenous knowledge, uniting them beautifully, in an easy-to-read style. As she says, “We see the world more fully when we use both.” Robin is an incredible observer and listener to nature and to other teachers, as well. She is a humble seeker and poetic sharer of knowledge and profound wisdom.
One of her many significant reflections is on how our thoughts and feelings are so greatly influenced by our language. She explains that English is a “noun-based language”, and that it leads to objectifying non-human life forms. “Only 30 percent of English words are verbs, but in Potawatomi that proportion is 70 percent.” And the language is “a mirror for seeing the animacy of the world, the life that pulses through all things”. … “So it is that in Potawatomi and most other indigenous languages, we use the same words to address the living world as we use for our family. Because they are our family.”
In explaining the tradition of the Honorable Harvest and the “inescapable tension” of “the exchange of a life for a life”, she asks the question, “How do we consume in a way that does justice to the lives that we take?”. In the edition for young adults, the answer is summarized as: “Never Take the First, Ask Permission, Listen for the Answer, Take Only What You Need, Minimize Harm, Use Everything You Take, Share, Be Grateful, Reciprocate the Gift.”
Robin addresses many of my own concerns, moral dilemmas, and feelings of guilt as a relatively ignorant and clumsy human on this Earth, trying to decide what to do –– or not do. “Something beyond gratitude is asked of us.” … “The most important thing each of us can know is our unique gift and how to use it in the world.” She inspires me to discover my own gift.
In talking about the berries and their place in ceremony she explains, “They carry the lesson, passed to us by our ancestors, that the generosity of the land comes to us as one bowl, one spoon. We are all fed from the same bowl that Mother Earth has filled for us. … We need the berries and the berries need us. Their gifts multiply by our care for them, and dwindle from our neglect. We are bound in a covenant of reciprocity, a pact of mutual responsibility to sustain those who sustain us. And so the empty bowl is filled.”
In each chapter the author shares metaphors and life lessons learned from plants, “our oldest teachers”, and from Indigenous interpreters. Robin shares her journey toward greater understanding of her place in the world and the roles of humans in the web of life. It feels like she has written to us with the informal intimacy of a caring friend. Writing with a respectful and generous spirit, she seems to be understood and appreciated by people coming from various perspectives and levels of knowledge and awareness.
In an online conversation, Robin Wall Kimmerer spoke with Daniel Wildcat about “Indigenuity” (Indigenous Ingenuity) solutions for the Earth. She reminds us that Indigenous people around the world “are still here” and many have the “knowledge that will bring us into the future”. She gives me hope.
Please read Braiding Sweetgrass and share it with others. It’s a great read, and offers lessons and perspectives that are much-needed in these challenging times.
—Donna Leveridge Campbell is an OSU Extension Master Gardener volunteer in Coos County and a member of the Statewide Growing & Belonging Committee