Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer. Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2013.
Summary: A collection of essays centered around the culture of sweetgrass, combining indigenous wisdom and scientific knowledge.
Robin Wall Kimmerer is an environmental biologist teaching in the SUNY system. She is also an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. She has dedicated her career to the integration of scientific understanding of the environment with indigenous wisdom. The book is organized around the different aspects of sweetgrass culture: planting, tending, picking, braiding, and burning sweetgrass. The braiding of sweetgrass is a metaphor for the weaving of science and indigenous wisdom in understanding the gifts of the earth and how we give back–how humans and all living things sustain each other.
Listening to other living things, indeed all the elements of the earth and reciprocity are two themes that run through the quietly eloquent essays organized around these five aspects of sweetgrass culture. In “The Gift of Strawberries,” wild strawberries come as a gift, an early harvest, but gratitude and reciprocity involve clearing land for runners to establish new plants, resulting in an even greater gift of strawberries. Likewise with sweetgrass, which comes as a gift. One receives only what is needed, leaving half, which we learns results in sweetgrass flourishing more than if left alone. Usually some gift is left, perhaps a sprinkling of tobacco leaves. And these gifts in turn are braided, given to friends, and burned in ceremony. She reflects on the Thanksgiving address and the giving of thanks to all the living things from the Earth and the waters to the trees. In an essay titled “The Honorable Harvest” she brings together so much of this wisdom in a kind of credo:
Know the ways of the ones who take care of you, so that you may take care of them.
Introduce yourself. Be accountable as the one who comes asking for life.
Ask permission before taking. Abide by the answer.
Never take the first. Never take the last.
Take only what you need.
Take only that which is given.
Never take more than half. Leave some for others.
Harvest in a way that minimizes harm.
Use it respectfully. Never waste what you have taken.
Give thanks for what you have been given.
Give a gift, in reciprocity for what you have taken.
Sustain the ones who sustain you and the earth will last forever.
--Kimmerer, p. 183.
She writes of becoming indigenous to a place, one with its wisdom. This reminds me of the writings of Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson who pay attention to what the land is saying and farm in harmony with what they learn.
One of the most enjoyable essays was her narrative of taking students for what she calls “shopping” in a cattail marsh–“Wal-marsh.” Materials for clothes and sleeping mats, rhizomes with carbs, stalks of pith for vegetables–even toilet paper! They learn both about the biology of a cattail marsh, and lessons about the tremendous gifts bestowed upon us. We say “thanks,” we care, and yet the earth gives us so much greater abundance.
There is so much that is attractive in what one finds her, and I think much we might all learn from this indigenous wisdom. Where I respectfully part as a Christian is with her “language of animacy,” really a form of animism that assumes a spirit or soul not only in all living things but even rock, water, cloud, and fire. What I respect is the attentive care and mindful use of all things–what I think implied in the “tending and keeping of the garden” in the early chapters of Genesis, or the knowledge of place we see in Berry and Jackson.
I am also impressed with the ways this professor integrates indigenous wisdom and science in her research and work with students. I wonder how many from other faith traditions make the effort to braid the wisdom of their faith with their research. Whether we accept everything about indigenous religion or not, I believe there is much that can be learned, and crucial wisdom in the American context for the care and renewal of the land we often have pillaged. Kimmerer has shared a gift from her own people. Will we receive it and listen and say “thank you” and share what we can in response? What could be braided together?