Book Review: Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer

“In winter, when the green earth lies resting beneath a blanket of snow, this is the time for storytelling. The storytellers begin by calling upon those who came before who passed the stories down to us, for we are only messengers.
In the beginning there was only the Skyworld.
She fell like a maple seed, pirouetting on an autumn breeze. A column of light streamed from a hole in the Skyworld, marking her path where only darkness had been before. It took her a long time to fall. In fear, or maybe hope, she clutched a bundle tightly in her hand…”

Thus begins Braiding Sweetgrass, providing us the hint that this meandering river of a book is not only about the priceless origin stories Kimmerer grew up to hear, hunt and retrieve from darkness, but also about the heuristic wisdom of those tales that her people lived by, mirroring in their lives the perfect flow of Nature. The falling Skywoman was the first human, the Mother of her people, and the bundle in her hand, a bunch of Sweetgrass. And quite like the strands of a braid of Sweetgrass, Kimmerer’s own vision crisscrosses ardently and lovingly between traditional knowledge and science, and beyond both into an overarching reverence for every species on this planet. An expansive way of being which is the only true way there ever was.

“Our stories say that of all plants, Wiingasshk, or Sweetgrass, was the very first to grow on the earth, its fragrance a sweet memory of Skywoman’s hand. Accordingly, it is honoured as one of the four sacred plants of my people. Breathe in its scent and you start to remember things you didn’t know you’d forgotten. Our elders say that ceremonies are the way we “remember to remember”…”

What is it to “remember to remember”? All indigenous stories or myths anywhere in the world serve as reminders of our relationship with the environment. Kimmerer, an eminent botanist, professor, mother and a citizen of the Potawatomi Nation, brings us to the true purpose behind the handing down of these indigenous stories. She places the story of the falling Skywoman, “who created a garden for the well-being of all”, alongside the story of the other woman who “…for tasting its fruit, she was banished from the garden and the gates clanged shut behind her.” Where Skywoman stories are stories of co-creation, empowerment and reciprocity, the stories of Eve are tales of banishment, guilt, alienation and scorn. They become stories of either orientation or disorientation, upon which, then, we base our worldview.

“In Western tradition there is a recognized hierarchy of beings, with, of course, the human being on top–the pinnacle of evolution, the darling of Creation–and the plants at the bottom. But in Native ways of knowing, human people are often referred to as “the younger brothers of Creation”.”

Sweetgrass/Hierochloe Odorata (Shambhavi Singh, 2021)

From Sweetgrass to Pecans, Black Ash to Maples, to Salmon, Fungus and Lichen, to the shape and size of raindrops falling on different parts of the forest, to pre-glacial granite and the moss that clings to them, Kimmerer visits each of these members of our extended family of species on this planet, culling out the stories of their creation, the processes of their cooperation and existence, as well as what they offer to us not only in the form of fruits or food, or fuel or shelter, but in the shape of knowledge so essential to our living. The ecological cycle of food is a cycle of balance, where the compassionate rule is to “take only what you need” and never take the first thing that you find, for who knows it may be the last. In the fruiting of trees is a lesson of unity, “…there are no soloists.” They fruit together, declaring “a unity of purpose that transcends individual trees”. The mycorrhizae forming “fungal bridges” under the forest floor, acting as a mechanism for synchrony, is a lesson in quiet cooperation and a conversation in a ‘different kind’ of language.

Slowly, as one reads on, all the different lessons blend into one rousing song of a shared existence, of reciprocity, of gratitude and responsibility. Like the sound of a  forest of different kinds of trees.

“Remember to remember…” appears as a constant refrain in the book, cautioning us against a darkness born of forgetfulness. Why and how did we forget our beginnings? Kimmerer gazes long into the brutal dislocation and disempowerment of the Native Indians, unquestionably one the darkest stories of subjugation in our shared human history, which finds echoes in many other parts of the world. It is not just the tremendous loss of life that causes discontinuance, but the loss of language, which is a way to comprehend and keep stories. The loss of cultural practices, which are active ways to honour and celebrate our life-givers. The loss of names that mean more than words for calling out. The loss of a collective way of being, which transcends individual need, individual property, individual greed. There was a time when all beings belonged to land. It wasn’t man that owned land.

Kimmerer throws light once again on that painful memory in the attic, of being invaded by those who believe they are superior but take away as those who are inferior and have nothing:

“Children, language, lands: almost everything was stripped away, stolen when you were not looking because you were trying to stay alive. In the face of such loss, one thing our people could not surrender was the meaning of land. In the settler mind, land was property, real estate, capital or natural resources. But to our people, it was everything: identity, the connection to our ancestors, the home of our nonhuman kinfolk, our pharmacy, our library, the source of all that sustained us. Our land was where our responsibility to the world was enacted, sacred ground. It belonged to itself; it was a gift, not a commodity, so it could never be bought or sold. These are the meanings people took with them when they were forced from their ancient home-lands into new places.”

Thus, Braiding Sweetgrass continues to bring forth knowledge lost in those ancient forests plundered by market economy, development, reclamation and such insistent ideas of man’s supremacy and survival. It reintroduces the magic of a gift economy, where a “gift is something for nothing”, where gratitude and reciprocity is the currency. Wiingaashk or Sweetgrass cannot be bought or sold without changing its essence forever. It must be ‘asked’ for, Kimmerer tells us, repeating an age-old lesson that the more something is shared, the greater becomes its value.

“Gifts from the earth or from each other establish a particular relationship, an obligation of sorts to give, to receive and to reciprocate. The field gave us, we gave to my dad, and we tried to give back to the strawberries. When the berry season was done, the plants would send out slender red runners to make new plants. Because I was fascinated by the way they would travel over the ground looking for good places to take root, I would weed out little patches of bare ground where the runners touched down. Sure enough, tiny little roots would emerge from the runner and by the end of the season there were even more plants ready to bloom under the next Strawberry Moon. No person taught us this–the strawberry showed us. Because they had given us a gift, an ongoing relationship opened between us.”

She asks: Is it possible to make the earth a gift again?

Red’s World (Raghu Soman, 2016)

It is a bright dialogue Kimmerer opens through mothering her daughters in the Earth-honest way, by urging her students to use Botany as a means to looking deeper, by combining her efforts with members of other Nations to replant and recover lost bounties of Sweetgrass, and by telling her stories to her readers so that they may become conscious of the presence of this last way toward making a better world. It is the only conversation that can bring true meaning to all our efforts at conservation today. Every science within the umbrella of environment, ecology, rewilding, reforestation and sustainability hinges upon that one ability to receive something as a ‘gift’, not property, and returning the honour with honouring the Earth. Like her people who offered a sprinkle of tobacco as thanks in anticipation before they took from a tree, or like her father who offered coffee to the running stream each morning, she reminds us to return to our ceremonies and rituals with greater awareness, so that we may understand that rituals connect deeply the mundane to the sacred. That they are a path to the invisible heart of visible things.

Laden with rich experiences and timeless characters, whether the human people or “the Standing people”, or “the Bear people” and “the Beaver people”, Kimmerer brings us to the truth that our peace lies bound together, inseparably, with the heart of all these ‘people’. With their ‘being’, which is “Yawe” in her verb-centric language. Every member of every species, even a stone, even a log of wood, even a fungus, even a basket is a being, a person. It is not a privilege exclusive to man. It is this “animacy” in our ‘looking’ that we need to awaken, and turn from the noun centric English language to the language of aliveness of all things.

Braiding Sweetgrass is a journal of profound searching and deep living in this faultless matrix of our world. It makes you want to join your voice in the Thanksgiving Address of the Onondaga Nation, Kimmerer tell us about, where they thank the Earth and all her gifts one by one in a long and contemplative prayer. This address is known in their language as “Words That Come Before All Else”. Words that thank, untiringly, the Waters of the world, Fish Life, Plant Life, Food Plants, Medicine Herbs, Animal Life, Birds, the Four Winds, the Four Directions, Brother Sun, Grandmother Moon, the Stars, the Teachers, and finally, the Creator or the Great Spirit. At the end of each part of this giving of gratitude, there’s an agreement of sense and purpose. “And now our minds are one,” they repeat together. It is to say that we are one in our understanding, in our efforts and in our commitment to revere this endless wealth. What other allegiance need we hold? What other political pledge does one need to open one’s heart to in order to create harmony and stability across the world?

We leave you with the vastness of Kimmerer’s connection with this wealth:

“I close my eyes and listen to the voices of the rain. The reflecting surface of the pool is textured with their signatures, each one different in pace and resonance. Every drip it seems is changed by its relationship with life, whether it encounters moss or maple or fir bark or my hair. And we think of it as simply rain, as if it were one thing, as if we understood it. I think that moss knows rain better than we do, and so do maples. Maybe there is no such thing as rain; there are only raindrops, each with its own story. Listening to rain time disappears. If time is measured by the period between events, alder drip time is different from maple drip. This forest is textured with different kinds of time, as the surface of the pool is dimpled with different kinds of rain. …I can see my face reflected in a dangling drop. The fish-eye lens give me a giant forehead and tiny ears. I suppose that’s the way we humans are, thinking too much and listening too little. Paying attention acknowledges that we have something to learn from intelligences other than our own. Listening, standing witness, creates an openness to the world in which the boundaries between us can dissolve in a raindrop. The drop swells on the tip of a cedar and I catch it on my tongue like a blessing.”

And now our minds are one. We kneel and kiss the ground.

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