Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer

Review by Peter Reason

There has been a lot of interest recently in the idea of ‘rewilding’, expressed for example in Isabella Tree’s Wilding: The return of nature to a British Farm, and George Monbiot’s Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding. The acclaimed scientist Edward O Wilson has called for setting aside 50% of the earth’s surface for other species to thrive in. These books argue that human intervention in the natural world has been excessive and harmful for both humans and other creatures; that the more than human world should be more left to its own self-willed, self-maintaining processes in order to return to a healthy state.

These arguments carry a lot of merit. It is clear that the modern human agriculture and industry have impoverished the more-than-human world to an alarming degree. But the perspective of rewilding can also imply that human influence is necessarily bad; at an extreme that humans have no place legitimate place in the world. This is not the position of most of the advocates: Monbiot, for example, sees rewilding as a way for humans to once again find their place in nature. But just what is that place?

Robin Wall Kimmerer is a scientifically trained botanist and a Native American, a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. As a university teacher she is shocked when, asking her undergraduate students about human interactions with nature, she discovers that nearly every one ‘said confidently that humans and nature were a bad mix’ and that they could not even imagine what beneficial relations between their species and others might look like’. Her book, drawing on both scientific and indigenous traditions, makes a sustained case for reciprocity between humans and the land, for relationships based on mutual respect, care, and gratitude. It is worth noting that novelist Richard Powers says in an interview that Kimmerer is one of three woman scientists on whom the character Patricia Westerford in his acclaimed The Overstory is based.

Kimmerer begins her book with the story of Skywoman, the foundation story of the original people of the Great Lakes. When Skywoman falls to Earth, clutching a bundle for fruits and seeds in her hand, there was nothing but deep, dark water for her landing. The geese broke her fall; but they could not support her for long, so they called a council of animals. All contributed: Turtle agreed to hold her on his great back; other animals, at great cost to themselves, dived into the depths to bring up mud from the bottom of the water to make land for her home. But the water was too deep, their work was in vain. Eventually, Muskrat, at the cost of his life, managed to bring one dab of mud to the surface. “Spread it on my back,” said Turtle. Skywoman did so and the began to dance, her feet caressing the earth. As she did the speck of mud grew and grew until the whole Earth was made: Turtle Island, as the land of North America is called by indigenous people. In a memorable phrase, Kimmerer points out that is was made in reciprocity: ‘Not by Skywoman alone, but from the alchemy of all the animals’ gifts coupled with her deep gratitude’.

Through the book, Kimmerer gives us stories of this practice of reciprocity. There is an account of the complex relations that lead to the ‘mast fruiting’ of nuts from pecan trees—the boom and bust cycle in which many the trees produce many nuts some years and few the next. These relations include the soil, the trees themselves, the fungal networks through which they communicate and share nutrients; the squirrels that hide the nuts when there are plenty so some germinate and produce new trees; and potentially humans who can protect the pecan groves and plant new trees. Together ‘They weave a web of reciprocity, of giving and taking… All flourishing is mutual’. We make a grave error if we try to separate individual well being from the health of the whole.

Another story tells of the gift of strawberries, which Kimmerer remembers from her childhood. She writes of the fragrance of strawberries on damp ground that you can smell before you see them; how she learned not to eat them too soon, but to watch the berries grown and colour up ready to eat. And the sensation that, surely, we can all share, that the strawberry is a gift that ‘comes to you through no action of your own… not a reward, you cannot earn it… or even deserve it… Your only role is to be open-eyed and present.’ In Christian theology such ‘random acts of kindness’ might be termed ‘grace’.

This emphasis on reciprocity goes beyond practical give and take; beyond protecting and caring for the nut tree groves and the strawberry plants—although that is an essential aspect of it. It is also about the feeling bond that exists with the plants once they are seen as gift givers: and it is our choice of perspective that makes the world a gift, as opposed, for example, to a resource to be exploited. It is very much a Western, and dare I say, male, response to see the natural world as full of competition, as ‘nature red in tooth and claw’ leading to the ‘survival of the fittest’ as Darwin’s apologists (and mis-interpreters) would have it. Kimmerer suggests, rather, that the ‘relationship of gratitude and reciprocity can increase evolutionary fitness if both plant and animal’. Here she is in harmony with another great woman scientist, Lynn Margulis, who has shown how evolution is rooted in symbiosis rather than competition.[i]

A significant context for this book is the relationship between mainstream America and Native Americans; and between mainstream science and ‘native’ science, which holds that plants are our oldest teachers. Kimmerer tells shocking stories about the wanton and cruel destruction of her Potawatomi people, of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and other ancient nations, by colonial and racist mainstream America; of the forced removals, the schooling that forbad the use of original languages, the exploitation of sacred land. The origins of the ecological crisis are closely bound up with exploitation of people of colour and their cultures worldwide, and of the failure of colonial powers to appreciate the knowledge embedded in native practices. She also tells of how she found her way back in, recovered some of the old teachings—the ‘Grammar of Animacy’—so her ways of understanding of the world lies at the intersection of what she calls in her Ted talk ‘two great ways of knowing’—science and indigenous knowledge.

This confluence is the focus on a chapter on the Teachings of Grass—of sweetgrass, the sacred plant that threads through the book. Written tongue-in-cheek in the style of an academic paper, with ‘Literature Review’, ‘Hypothesis’, ‘Methods’ and so on, the story starts with an old grandmother collecting sweetgrass in a traditional manner. She wanders through the meadow following the ancient teachings: not taking the first plant she sees, leaving a gift and thanks for those she takes, harvesting only what she needs. But sweetgrass is disappearing and the basket makers who use it ask the botanists if different ways of harvesting might be the cause of its leaving. So Kimmerer proposes to one of her graduate students, Laurie, that she design a research experiment to test this hypothesis. This is, as might be expected, initially ridiculed by the white and male professoriate, but nevertheless Laurie and Kimmerer persist. Laurie is able to design a rigorous field experiment which also respects the ancient teachings. She shows that the failed plots were the unharvested controls, and that picking sweetgrass did stimulate growth as the old teachings told. The professors were satisfied; they gave Laurie a round of applause at her results.

This is a serious book about knowledge and worldviews and the destructive impact of modern ways of life. It is also a charming book—charming in every sense of that word. First, it is full of wonderful, engaging stories about Kimmerer’s family, her people and their history, her life with her daughters as they grow up, collecting maple sugar, growing beans, clearing ponds. It is charming also in the sense of casting a spell: reading, one is drawn into Kimmerer’s worldview where reciprocity is at the heart of life and it is good manners to introduce yourself to plants. Why was Turtle Island so bounteous when the first white colonists arrived? Not least, because of the attitude and practices of the people in respecting their land, the plants and animals, even as they harvested them for their own use.

This book is among the finest I have read for a long time. Please put it on your list. But it does present us with a major challenge: How do we modern humans, city dwellers in a globalized market economy, learn to see a world of gifts rather than resources? One way might be to put into practice the ancient teachings of the Honourable Harvest, including: See the plants in your garden, the trees you encounter when out for a walk as living persons; see their fruit and flowers, even if in the supermarket, as gifts. Take only what you need. Ask permission before you harvest or prune or take anything. Always give a gift in return, maybe simply of gratitude. All these are ways of treating other beings as ‘nonhuman persons vested with awareness, intelligence, spirit’; all are tiny but essential steps toward imaging a reciprocal relationship with our living world.

[i] Margulis, Lynn. The Symbiotic Planet: A New Look at Evolution. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1998.

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Peter Reason is a writer who links the tradition of travel and nature writing with the ecological predicament of our time. He writes a regular column in Resurgence & Ecologist, and has contributed to EarthLines, GreenSpirit, Zoomorphic, LossLit, The Island Review, and The Clearing. His book In Search of Grace was published in 2017 by Earth Books. His previous book Spindrift: A wilderness pilgrimage at sea is published by Jessica Kingsley. Find Peter at peterreason.net, and on Twitter @peterreason.

Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants (Penguin 2020) ISBN: 9780141991955, paperback, 400 pages.

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