Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants
by Robin Wall Kimmerer
An inspired weaving of indigenous knowledge, plant science, and personal narrative from a distinguished professor of science and a Native American whose previous book, Gathering Moss, was awarded the John Burroughs Medal for outstanding nature writing.
As a botanist and professor of plant ecology, Robin Wall Kimmerer has spent a career learning how to ask questions of nature using the tools of science. As a Potawatomi woman, she learned from elders, family, and history that the Potawatomi, as well as a majority of other cultures indigenous to this land, consider plants and animals to be our oldest teachers. In Braiding Sweetgrass, Kimmerer brings these two lenses of knowing together to reveal what it means to see humans as “the younger brothers of creation.” As she explores these themes she circles toward a central argument: the awakening of a wider ecological consciousness requires the acknowledgment and celebration of our reciprocal relationship with the world. Once we begin to listen for the languages of other beings, we can begin to understand the innumerable life-giving gifts the world provides us and learn to offer our thanks, our care, and our own gifts in return.
—Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love and Committed: A Love Story
“Robin Wall Kimmerer has written an extraordinary book, showing how the factual, objective approach of science can be enriched by the ancient knowledge of the indigenous people. It is the way she captures the beauty that I love the most–the images of giant cedars and wild strawberries, a forest in the rain and a meadow of fragrant sweetgrass will stay with you long after you read the last page.”
—Jane Goodall, author of Seeds of Hope and My Life with the Chimpanzees
“This is a Native American woman speaking. This is a mother’s story. This is science revealed through the human psyche. Robin Kimmerer is a scientist who combines empiricism with all other forms of knowing. Hers is a spectacularly different view of the world, and her true voice needs to be heard.”
—Janisse Ray author of Ecology of a Cracker Childhood
“Everyone who cares about the environment—and everyone else, period—should have Braiding Sweetgrass on their table. We need it. It captures the true reverence between Native Americans and the earth, the relationship that we need to survive. It is great writing and beautiful work.”
—Oren Lyons, Onondaga Nation Faithkeeper
“Beautifully written…. Anyone who enjoys reading about natural history, botany, protecting nature, or Native American culture will love this book.”
“There are times when a simple category doesn’t do a book justice. Saying that Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass is nature writing doesn’t quite capture what she does in this treasure of a book. It’s rare to find a book that teaches you scientifically and also nurtures you philosophically—but that’s what this is. Upon finishing I read the epilogue twice just to allow her wisdom and kindness and care for this world to soak in a little more.”
—Hans Weyandt, Micawber Books
“I am very, very impressed with Robin Kimmerer’s style and substance—a great balance of personal memoir, scientific knowledge, Native American wisdom, and storytelling. I love how she shares her respect for the plant world and its the chain of relationships which reaches out in all directions. I’ll be recommending it.”
—Paul Jaffe, Copperfield’s Books Inc
“This is prose written with the heart of a poet, and it shows. We are treated to an intriguing mix of scientific matter-of-factness and spirituality drawn from an indigenous background. Though Ms. Kimmer does not shy from pointing out where things have been and continue to go wrong, she addresses them all with compassion, hope, and an empowering language I have never encountered before… A beautiful important work.”
—Jack Hannert, Brilliant Books
Summer mornings, I often walk along the two-track unpaved driveway that leads from my family’s secluded cottage on Lake Superior to the paved road. I pass under mature birches and weedy Manitoba maples, my flip-flops treading an old dirt-and-stone path. In the 1920s, my grandfather carved it through the forest with a handsaw and built it up along a cliff, moving boulders using a block and tackle.
For more than fifty years, I’ve crawled, toddled, and run along this path. I know the plateau where a windstorm in the ’90s blew down a stand of balsam that still needs to be cleaned up, and where over-exuberant alder has blocked views of the lake.
Ten years ago, I left the US to settle in Canada, because I’d always loved my summer visits and never wanted to leave. Learning to love winter in northwestern Ontario has been a challenge. But summer—well, I thought I knew this place in summer. Yet lately I look at that familiar path with new eyes, all because of Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer.
I picked up this book in part to learn about the natural world, and in part to learn from models of successful individual essays.
I expected lessons, but what I found were teachings—knowledge that’s offered, instead of information and dogma.
Yes, Kimmerer is a botanist, who speaks about the natural world with a scientist’s authority. She’s also a Potawatomi woman, who are dedicated to traditional ways of knowing and sharing her knowledge. This book braids these multiple perspectives into a series of essays that’s coherent and compelling.
In indigenous stories, sweetgrass was one of the first plants to grow on the earth. The chapters in this book fall into sections based on the ways indigenous people interact with sweetgrass: planting, tending, picking, braiding, and burning. Individual chapters combine stories and ruminations that wander through myriad subjects (wild strawberries, mast fruiting, water lilies) and settings (a weed-choked pond, a superfund site, the Kentucky mountains, a forest research station).
Language-lovers may find “Learning the Grammar of Animacy” particularly interesting. In it, Kimmerer describes learning, as an adult, the Potawatomi language. In contrast to noun-intensive English, Potawatomi relies on verbs that grant living status to just “things” in English, such as the “days of the week” or “a bay.” She writes, “‘To be a bay’ holds the wonder that, for this moment, the living water has decided to shelter itself between these shores, conversing with cedar roots and a flock of baby mergansers. Because it could do otherwise—become a stream or an ocean or a waterfall, and there are verbs for that, too.”
Kimmerer communicates with insight: “To be heard, you must speak the language of the one you want to listen.” That is written in an essay that appears to be a scientific paper about the growth habits of sweetgrass. In fact, it ponders points of friction between academic science and under-represented perspectives. She speaks frankly of the difficulties facing women in science, and the disdain academic scientists have for indigenous knowledge.
In these essays, Kimmerer sends out a gentle, affirming call to act on behalf of our world, using our creative gifts: “books, paintings, poems, the clever machines, the compassionate acts, the transcendent ideas, the perfect tools.” Being grateful is important, Kimmerer says, but not enough. Everyone must act.
Since reading Braiding Sweetgrass, I’ve turned my walks into “compassionate acts.” Instead of eyeing spots to apply my chainsaw, I notice the woodpeckers have been at that dead spruce, deer have created a new path around the brush pile, and the eagle seems fond of the birch snag. Instead of imposing my will, I try to support these creatures and write with more freedom and passion.
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