In the Library: ‘Braiding Sweetgrass’ by Robin Wall Kimmerer


Florence Robson


Copyright: John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Books, like many other aspects of life, tend to be forced into categories. Fiction or nonfiction. Mythic or scientific. Current or historical. It’s noteworthy, then, that Braiding Sweetgrass, the 2013 New York Times bestselling book by Robin Wall Kimmerer, refuses to fit neatly into one particular box. In fact, the writer’s insistence on bringing together seemingly oppositional forces might be what gives the book its remarkable power.

In her daily life, Kimmerer straddles worlds that are traditionally kept separate. Living in Syracuse, New York, she is a botanist and decorated professor, and also a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and founder and director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment. In Braiding Sweetgrass she brings together her scientific and Indigenous knowledge to share powerful ideas about the lessons we can glean from other living beings. 

Kimmerer’s writing style is gentle and compassionate and she effortlessly winds together legends from her Potawatomi ancestors with reflections gleaned from her present-day interactions with the natural world.

What plants and animals can teach us

Each chapter in Braiding Sweetgrass shares a lesson we can learn by connecting with the natural world, with Kimmerer supporting her reflections and anecdotes with indigenous wisdom and culture. Cedars can teach us generosity. Asters and Goldenrod flowers show us the beauty that occurs when seeming opposites peacefully coexist. The sweetgrass of the title teaches the value of sustainable harvesting, ceremony and the interconnection of mind, body and spirit. As a sacred, healing plant to the Potawatomi people, Kimmerer describes how the sweetgrass is braided “as if it were our mother’s hair, to show our loving care for her.”

It is not just sweetgrass that Kimmerer connects to family lineage. She talks about the “grammar of animacy”: the practice of viewing nature as an elder with deep wisdom to share, one with whom we have a long-standing connection. In fact, as Kimmerer points out, in indigenous language a natural being isn’t regarded as “it” but as kin.

The power of reciprocity

At the heart of the book is the idea of “restorative reciprocity”: an appreciation and celebration of nature’s abundance and an acknowledgement of our responsibility to use our own gifts to nurture the world in return. 

In the story of the Skywoman, Kimmerer connects this concept with the importance of being a good ancestor. “Knowing her grandchildren would inherit the world she left behind, she did not work for flourishing in her time only”, she writes of the Skywoman. “It was through her actions of reciprocity, the give and take with the land, that the original immigrant became indigenous. For all of us, becoming indigenous to a place means living as if our lives, both material and spiritual, depended on it.”

There are a number of ways we can demonstrate reciprocity in our own lives, she writes, whether through gratitude, ceremony, land stewardship, science, art or everyday acts of “practical reverence”. 

Kimmerer’s own act of reciprocity is to grow our collective awareness of the power and importance of plants and the natural world, not only through her scientific work but also through her storytelling. “We may not have wings or leaves, but we humans do have words”, she says. “Language is our gift and our responsibility.”

How repairing relationships can save the planet

Unsurprisingly, a strong thread of climate activism runs throughout Braiding Sweetgrass. Kimmerer shares examples of the devastating impact (on a micro and macro scale) of humans focusing only on our own needs to the detriment of the land and the rest of its inhabitants. She also writes of the dangers of overconsumption; according to Kimmerer, there are many cautionary stories of the consequences of taking too much in Native cultures, while none in English spring to mind — perhaps indicative of where we have gone wrong.

However, her writing never becomes lecturing or depressing. In fact, inspired by the philosophy of reciprocity, Kimmerer champions joy and gratitude over despair and argues that our relationship to the earth is as important to preventing climate disaster as technological developments and financial investment. “Restoring land without restoring relationship is an empty exercise”, she says. “It is relationship that will endure and relationship that will sustain the restored land… It is medicine for the earth.”

As to what we can all do now to rebuild our relationship with the land? 

“My answer is almost always, “Plant a garden”,” says Kimmerer. “It’s good for the health of the earth and it’s good for the health of people.”

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