From indigenous American botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass is absolutely beautiful in concept and execution. It’s the perfect antidote and balm for the world of 2020. Kimmerer takes indigenous wisdom and marries it with both science and social commentary. The combination of ancient ideas and present moments brought me a measure of peace.
The essays in this book are a joy. They talk about the history of the land and its people. Some topics are tough, because Kimmerer doesn’t shy away from the injustice wrought upon America’s indigenous tribes by the white settlers. She talks about how hard it is to maintain and rebuild the knowledge and connectedness of the native cultures. There are plenty of sad moments, but she balances them with stories of resilience.
Most of all, Kimmerer focuses on the relationship between all beings. Her theme is reciprocity—the idea that we all can and should give freely and receive freely from each other. It’s a timely theme, as we Americans can’t agree on much these days, much less actually do simple things for another.
As I’ve talked with friends about this book, I tell the same story repeatedly. One of the author’s graduate students was studying sweetgrass, particularly whether one harvesting method was better than another. As they designed the study, the student created three plots of the indigenous plant. One was harvested with one method, the second with another. They didn’t harvest the third plot at all. Instead, it was the control subject. The student found that the first two plots thrived, and the control plot didn’t. The sweetgrass needed the human interaction of harvesting—no matter the method—to be healthy. And Kimmerer explains how vital sweetgrass was and still is to indigenous communities.
Braiding Sweetgrass is full of essays like this. Kimmerer teaches by storytelling, and I was captivated over and over.
Kimmerer writes, “This is really why I made my daughters learn to garden—so they would always have a mother to love them, long after I am gone.” As the daughter of a gardener, this is just one quote that touched my heart.
I listened to much of this book while gardening. It’s near the end of the growing season here, which always feels sad to me. But there’s still color in my garden. I want to keep things looking pretty as long as possible, of course. But as I was listening to these ideas, I realized that the birds and butterflies in my garden might need the dying flowers I was cutting away. They alight on them and eat the seeds, which could end up sprouting next year in my neighbor’s garden, thanks to bird poop. So, I stopped clipping those dead blooms, at least for now.
For me, a book is most meaningful when it both moves me and changes how I see the world. Braiding Sweetgrass did both. Kimmerer has a unique perspective on many aspects of life. I cherish the time I spent with her (especially since she narrates the audiobook). This could easily become a yearly read for me.
I recommend this book to people wishing to better understand how Native American cultures and beliefs can integrate with the modern world. And also, to people who appreciate nature in all its beauty.
Pair with Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. I’m glad I read the Carson first because it was the more depressing of the two. Braiding Sweetgrass will inspire you and restore your faith in the reciprocity of relationships.