Book notes | Braiding Sweetgrass

Author Robin Wall Kimmerer is a trained botanist who is able to view nature with the tools of science learned in graduate school. As a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, she also embraces the notion that nature can be viewed from an indigenous perspective that includes the mind, body, emotions, and spirit.

For Kimmerer, plants and animals are our oldest teachers. In Braiding Sweetgrass, she shows how other living things like plants offer us gifts and lessons to live by. The book is organized into sections based on the growth and death cycle of sweetgrass: planting, tending, picking, braiding, and burning. 

Braiding Sweetgrass resonated with me as a retired wetlands scientist and concerned lover of aquatic life. Kimmerer affirms “heart-driven science” and translating “reverence into action.” Doing science with awe and humility is a powerful act of reciprocity; this means making deep connections with other species, not just humans. She takes us deep into the ecology and spirit of trees and their roots, of terrestrial and wetland plants.

A culture of gratitude and reciprocity
The culture of gratitude is a key theme, plus a culture of reciprocity where we leave a gift in return. To native people, the “honorable harvest” means “take only what you need and use everything you take.” The contamination of Onondaga Lake in New York and the widespread, earth-killing, toxic emissions from Sudbury's major metal mines in Ontario, Canada, are examples of the dishonorable harvest. "When does taking become outright theft?” asks Kimmerer.

Members of UMRA Book Club I universally enjoyed the book. We shared personal connections, such as working in a community garden of native plants; visiting Bdote, the junction of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers at Fort Snelling, where Dakota lived for 10,000 years; planting sweetgrass (from Bachmann's!); and making a dreamcatcher after asking the ash tree if it is ok to remove a few branches. 

Braiding Sweetgrass is deep and inspiring. It is a book to read slowly. It is a book to relish and read again.

Additional readings were recommended during the book club’s discussion on October 15: A Natural History of the Senses by Diane Ackerman and The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben.

—Judy Helgen, UMRA Book Club I member

Publication date: 
October 23, 2021
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