Book Review: Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer
Do you think of the land as property, or as identity, a gift, a connection to your ancestors?
How attached are you to your land?
What do you know of your ancestors—what stories, customs, and culture do you have?
These questions, and the question of how we relate to the land and nature, are central to Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. My book club read and enjoyed this book immensely. I read the hard copy, but several other women listened to the audiobook, and said it was beautiful to hear the author read her words to them.
Who should read this book? If you enjoy nature, if you want to learn about indigenous knowledge, if you love plants, if you want to consider place attachment, if you've read Wendell Berry, if you are thinking about the importance of the land, if you wish you had a stronger heritage, if you're trying to figure out how to raise your children, if you're interested in conservation—if you're human—then the book may appeal to you!
A gift economy
Kimmerer, a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, begins the book with her people's Skywoman creation story (here is one version). This story frames her people's understanding of nature. To them, nature is a gift. We must treat it appropriately. She differentiates her people's view of nature and the land from the settlers who later came to America:
"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 non-human can folk, our pharmacy, our library, the source of all that sustained us. Our lands were 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." —Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass, p17
The relationship with the land, with nature, is integral to a gift economy. When you are given a gift, it creates a sense of obligation, of responsibility, a sense that perhaps you should give a gift in return. It creates a relationship.
In contrast, consider the money economy. You hand over the money, they hand over the goods, and the transaction is done. There is no ongoing relationship. Money equates things that may not otherwise be equated; it creates a sense of knowing a thing's value.
My husband and I have been listening to the New Polity Good Money podcast, in which Marc Barnes and Jacob Imam explain Catholic teaching about money and its uses. Reading about the Native American gift economies, I was struck by the similarities between their philosophy of money and how Kimmerer discusses money. The modern way we use and interact with money is not how things should be!
I was also reminded of Wendell Berry's writing about our relationship with the land. When you properly love the land you live on, you have the kind of relationship Kimmerer describes. The relationship builds responsibility; it builds connection; you take care of your land because it is taking care of you.
(Read: Recovering Beauty in Modern Life)
Why place attachment matters
In her discussion of Skywoman, Kimmerer writes:
"Knowing her grandchildren would inherit the world she left behind, she did not work for flourishing in her time only. It was through her actions of reciprocity, the give and take with the land, that the original immigrant became indigenous. 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." —Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass, p9
I spent a lot of this book reflecting on place attachment—i.e., the emotional bond you have with places, the feeling of belonging in a place. Wendell Berry has written a lot about that, too, and argues that to truly belong to a place, you need to be in communion with the land.
Kimmerer tells a story about an old woman named Hazel who lived near her in Kentucky. The woman hadn't been to her old home ever since moving to care for her son. Kimmerer became Hazel's friend, and began to drive her back to her old home now and then. The chapter had a melancholy feel—how many of us have homes, or had homes, that now we will never return to? How many of us no longer live where so many of our memories are?
Melody Warnick wrote a book called This Is Where You Belong: The Art and Science of Loving the Place You Live (my book club read it—read my review). In the book, she shares her journey of trying to develop place attachment. She had moved many times. She finally wanted to settle—but it's a challenge. A big part of the solution was doing things that created memories attached to the place.
I want my children to develop strong place attachment. Perhaps I want that because of the rootlessness I experienced as a young adult, with college, internships, short-term jobs all taking me from state to state, none of them "home". Perhaps I don't have to worry—we live in a beautiful area, we're outside in nature all the time, they garden with me and take care of our little piece of land, they're learning the names and uses of as many native plants and trees as I can learn, and we do many of the things Warnick suggests increase place attachment. I didn't grow up here in Idaho, but I do have some childhood memories here, since my grandparents (who were born and raised here) moved back after they retired, and we visited them. I can take my kids to a beach where I remember swimming. I can show them the forest I remember walking through.
Kimmerer's stories also made me think about the epidemic of short-termism that has snagged our culture. And while that's a future blog post all its own, the gist is, most people focus on short-term gains (more yields, more profits, more stuff), no matter the future cost to you or later generations. Borrow from the future to fund the now. Build cheap and fast, don't worry whether it will last. Just add pesticides. It's a mindset that ignores future generations instead of considering what the earth will be like when they inherit it. In Kimmerer's mind, I think, it's a mindset that ignores the gift of nature. She writes,
"Being naturalized to place means to live as if this is the land that feeds you, as if these are the streams from which you drink, that build your body and fill your spirit. To become naturalized is to know that your ancestors lie in this ground. Here you will give your gifts and meet your responsibilities. To become naturalized is to live as if your children's future matters, to take care of the land as of our lives and the lives of all our relatives depend on it. Because they do." —Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass, p215
Why community and heritage are important
Kimmerer also discusses what was lost to present-day Native Americans when their grandparents were taken from their families, placed in boarding schools, and Westernized. Her stories were sad ones: heritage and transition lost, ceremonies lost, languages lost. She talks of learning the Potawatomi language, and how one day, she sat in the same room as the remaining native speakers. Only a handful were left.
I wondered at what all of us have lost. People leaping to join the train of progress leave the old ways and old places behind. So many have lost touch with our ancestors and the land they lived on. We have little connection to the past or old stories. Maybe a few traditions or recipes were passed down, but often, not many.
How do we rebuild connection? How do we rediscover or recreate traditions?
Why separation from the land harms us
Kimmerer compares the Skywoman creation story to Eve in Christianity. Eve, she says, was exiled from a garden, instead of working with nature to create an environment where her people could flourish. I think she was trying to pin the exploitation of settlers on their religion. But like many today, I think Kimmerer misunderstood both the Eve story (it's not about our relationship to the land) and Christianity in general.
Kimmerer is correct that the Europeans who settled in America generally had a very different relationship to the land than the indigenous people who were in America already. I suspect the difference is more related to views of industry and progress than about Christianity. Wendell Berry, for instance, writes of a Christian worldview based in love (as it should be), in which care of people and care of land are intertwined.
Integration and interconnectedness
Another theme in Braiding Sweetgrass was the interconnectedness of people and nature—and how modern science likes to ignore that in favor of a clean, siloed, objective worldview. Science, as Kimmerer encountered it in college and grad school, had no room for a relationship with nature. She recounts a professor telling her,
"He told me science was not about beauty, not about the embrace between plants and humans." —Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass, p41
The science she was taught in classrooms didn't jibe with the knowledge of the world that she gained elsewhere. Plants as objects, not subjects; each plant an individual; each human an individual; all these individuals separated from the whole, as if studying them outside their context could help us make sense of them.
I think this neat packing of subjects into their own boxes is a major problem in academia. People in one discipline don't often learn from other disciplines. It makes us less creative. I understand the desire to color within the lines, but the world is messier than that—more interdependent and interconnected. Classical mathematics taught arithmetic, music, and astronomy together, reminding us that there are fundamental connections between things that, on the surface, might seem unrelated.
And I understand the pressure in science toward making replicable observations and running controlled, objective experiments, because as soon as you enter the subjective, interactive realms, everything's messier. How can you find the Laws of the Universe if things are messy? In grad school, I read several interesting papers (and ran a study or two based on them) about how our experience of others and relationship to them changes drastically when we move from first person experience to second person interaction to third person observation. Kimmerer is right: we gain different knowledge—complementary knowledge—by being in relationship with plants, as well as observing them.
One woman in my book club told us the book really resonated for her. Everything about Native American culture, the mindset toward the earth, all of it. She said, only half joking, that maybe she was native in a past life. But I think part of what drew her in—what drew all of us in—was that all our ancestors lived and knew the world in ways far closer to indigenous ways of living and knowing than anything we have in modern life.
What do we do now?
The final section of Braiding Sweetgrass asks how we move forward from the place we are at to a place where people and the land are in reciprocal relationships again. Kimmerer argues that we need to remember the reciprocal relationships—how plants and the land feed and sustain us, and how we have to help them in return. Wendell Berry has argued similarly: we need to live with the land, to know and care for our own place. Kimmerer tells stories of land restoration projects and how both her parents were active in the community, feeling a responsibility to continue what is good. She argues for bringing back the Commons:
"This is the vision of the economy of the Commons, wherein resources fundamental to our well-being, like water and land and forests, are commonly held rather than commodified. Properly managed, the commons approach maintains abundance, not scarcity." —Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass, p376
But for the Commons to work, we also need responsibility toward nature. We have to see it as a gift, feel gratitude toward it, and develop a sense of responsibility toward it. My book club spent a long time discussing how to raise our children so they develop a relationship with the natural world and a sense of responsibility; we had more questions than answers. Kimmerer writes,
"We may not have wings or leaves, but we humans do have words. Language is our gift and a responsibility. I've come to think of writing as an active reciprocity with the living land. Words to remember old stories, words to tell new ones, stories that bring science and spirit back together to nurture our becoming people made of corn." —Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass, p347