I so very much enjoyed Braiding Sweetgrass : Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer. It’s one of those nebulous genre books, nonfiction to be sure, but it is nature writing, science, botany, Native American history and stories, and memoir and it all flows together so smoothly like a braid of sweetgrass. What the book is really about at its heart though is storytelling: the story of plants, the story of a people, the story of a person, the story of how we treat the environment, the story of origins and the stories of possible futures. And beyond that is how these stories make their way out into the world and affect how individuals and groups see themselves and their environment.
Kimmerer is a citizen of the Potawatami Nation. She is also a professor of environmental biology at the University of New York at Syracuse. She has a really interesting way of looking at the environment through a blended lens of science and indigenous American teachings and beliefs which can be surprisingly complimentary.
Braiding Sweetgrass begins with the story of Skywoman, a creation story. In it Skywoman fell from a hole in the Skyworld and below her was a place of dark water. But the Geese saw her falling and flew up to catch her but they could not hold her forever. A council was held and a great Turtle volunteered to hold Skywoman on his back. They all knew she needed land. So Otter, Beaver and Sturgeon volunteered to swim to the depths of the water to bring back mud, but none of them could do it. Things were looking dire until little Muskrat volunteered. He was gone for a very long time and then his limp body rose to the surface. In Muskrat’s paw was a small handful of mud. He had given his life for Skywoman. Skywoman spread the mud on Turtle’s back and began to dance and sing in thanksgiving for all the gifts the animals had given her. As she danced the land became larger and larger and that is why the world is called Turtle Island.
Skywoman also brought gifts with her. When she fell she had reached out and grabbed a branch of the Tree of Life and so came with fruits and seeds which she planted and tended. Soon the land was abundant with food and medicine for both Skywoman and the animals.
There is more to the story but you get the idea. Now, Kimmerer says, compare this story to that of Adam and Eve exiled from the garden. In the western tradition there is a hierarchy of beings and humans are at the top, we are in charge and we have the right to do whatever we want to the earth. In indigenous teachings, humans are the younger brothers of Creation, we are the ones who have the most to learn and so need to pay attention to what animals and plants have to teach us.
Throughout the book Kimmerer asks us to consider how these stories encourage us and teach us to look at the world and our relationship to it. But she is also careful to say that she does not want everyone following indigenous teachings, that would not be right. What she believes needs to happen is new stories need to be told that encourage healing, gratitude and reciprocity with nature and the world. What those stories are she cannot say, they are ones we have to create together.
There are stories in the book that made my heart hurt. Stories of her grandfather being taken away from his family when he was a boy and put in a boarding school where he was not allowed to speak his native language or follow his people’s teachings. Stories about environmental destruction and how the law seems to have its hands tied in making companies clean up their poison. But there are also stories that made me laugh, inspired me and gave me hope.
Braiding Sweetgrass is a lovely book suffused with Kimmerer’s patient, gentle voice. If you are looking for something a little different that focuses on the environment, then I can’t recommend it enough.