Hold out your hands and let me lay upon them a sheaf of freshly picked sweetgrass, loose and flowing, like newly washed hair... Hold the bundle up to your nose. Find the fragrance of honeyed vanilla over the scent of river water and black earth and you understand its scientific name: Hierochloe odorata, meaning the fragrant, holy grass. In our language it is called wiingaashk, the sweet-smelling hair of Mother Earth. Breathe it in and you start to remember things you didn't know you had forgotten.
Robin Wall Kimmerer opens Braiding Sweetgrass with this loving invitation to join her circle, to hear her stories and the wisdom she has learned from studying and teaching botany, from being a mother and from her Anishinabekwe (Potawatomi) people. Her stories weave a course in humanity we badly need right now.
I could hand you a braid of sweetgrass, as thick and shining as the plait that hung down my grandmother's back. But it is not mine to give, nor yours to take. Wiingaashk belongs to herself. So I offer, in its place, a braid of stories meant to heal our relationship with this world. This braid... is an intertwining of science, spirit, and story—old stories and new ones that can be medicine for our broken relationship with earth, a pharmacopoeia of healing stories that allow us to imagine a different relationship, in which people and land are good medicine for each other.
The braid of stories in Braiding Sweetgrass ranges widely, from the haunting opening tale of how Skywoman fell from above "like a maple seed, pirouetting on an autumn breeze," fell "clutching a bundle tightly in her hand" that she would use to plant the earth which did not yet exist, to the final story, "Epilogue: Returning the Gift," about the Native custom of giveaways as a way to redistribute wealth—generosity as a moral and material imperative.
Along the way, Wall Kimmerer considers land ownership, agriculture, growing food, capitalism, names, hunting, industrial wastes, greed, and a host of other issues related to being human today. Her stories center on plants and what these living, breathing, photosynthesizing beings can teach us about ourselves and our culture.
The theme throughout Braiding Sweetgrass is reciprocity: The earth gives us so much—food, shelter, materials on which we have grown our culture and technology, whether the rare minerals required for the chips in our devices or the oil we consume. What then, she asks, do we give the earth in return?
Each story offers a different answer to that question, beginning with this passage at the end of the Skywoman story in the first chapter: "For all of us, becoming indigenous to a place means living as if your children's future mattered, to take care of the land as if our lives, both material and spiritual, depended on it."
Which they do.
The books I love most, the ones I read again and again, are not those I necessarily agree with or ones that are comforting. They're the books that make me think, make me nod my head in recognition of something learned new or anew, make me laugh out loud or cry; that make dream. They're books that enlarge the way I see the world, and inspire me to grow as a person.
Braiding Sweetgrass is one of those books. My copy is dog-eared already from being toted across the country and back, read until past dark as I camped on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, while I sat on a cliff above the Pacific Ocean at Big Sur, savored on my couch at home, in an Adirondack chair surrounded by the wild and cultivated plants in my garden wall. Kimmerer's words give me hope for our future on this extraordinary blue planet—our home, battered as it may be. They make me believe that we humans can indeed learn to live here as if we all belong.
Robin Wall Kimmerer is a mother, scientist, decorated professor, and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. Her first book, Gathering Moss, was awarded the John Burroughs Medal for outstanding nature writing. Her writings have appeared in Orion, O Magazine, and numerous scientific journals. She lives in Fabius, New York, where she is SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor of Environmental Biology, and the founder and director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment.
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