Being Good for the Earth: A Review of Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass
Have you ever found yourself feeling a twinge of guilt or shame for being part of the human race? Simple observation has taught many of us that humans are not exactly great for the planet. We pollute, we pave, we kill, we acidify the oceans. It can be tough to come to terms with, unless you’re able to consider our place from a different angle. The 2013 book Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer presents just that, an ancient, generally forgotten view of how to see ourselves, how to see our world, and with which to see our place in the world. Wall Kimmerer is a mother, a botanist (Distinguished Teaching Professor of Environmental Biology at the State University of New York), and a member of the Potawatomi Nation.
The book braids together her deep Native American reverence for the earth with her focused scientific lens and her hope for the future every parent holds dear. Each of the thirty-two chapters is beautifully written and conveys a piece of her message that we are of the earth, how we can access that knowledge, appreciate the amazing world to which we belong, and what defines our part in the reciprocity of living life on earth. While most of us are not Native American, Wall Kimmerer encourages each of us to become naturalized Americans and to embrace this place where we live as our own.
I would like to summarize a few chapters to whet your appetite.
“Allegiance to Gratitude” – Imagine starting each day expressing gratitude, contentment. An important part of living in harmony with our environment is feeling wealthy, and not feeling the need to grab and take and hoard. It is said that the people (the Onandaga) were instructed to offer words of gratitude whenever they gathered. Begin every day, the teachers say, sending greeting and thanks to all members of the natural world. Before beginning negotiations, offer thanks for those things we can all agree we are grateful for: the sun rising every day to warm us, water quenching our thirst, plants healing and feeding us, birds providing song, the earth, our mother, who gives us everything we need for life. When we recognize this abundance it is harder to fall prey to insatiable consumption. Insatiable consumption of the consumer lifestyle destroys the harmony of life on earth. When we feel grateful and content we can more easily enjoy our lives and where we live and have the capacity for reciprocity… giving instead of taking.
“Learning the Grammar of Animacy”- To understand a person, we have to listen to them. The same is true of the places we live, and we may need to learn some new vocabulary to listen to a place. The author describes taking a class in the Anishinaabe language, from the few remaining speakers. A great-grandmother spoke, explaining that it is not just words that get lost when a language dies, but a way of thinking and of seeing the world. Wall Kimmerer learned a few words easily enough – fox, bed, sink, thank you. Verbs were harder, there were many more of them. And the nouns and verbs have animate and inanimate forms, for example you “hear” a person with a word that is completely different than you “hear” an airplane. Plus there are verbs for all kinds of things we think of as nouns: “to be a bay”, “to be a stretch of beach”, “to be red”. Ridiculous she thought, why make this so complicated? Then something clicked and she explains when bay is a noun, the water is dead and trapped between the shores. But the verb bay expresses animacy and life of the living water that is sheltering between the shores. Life pulses through all things and is more visible with the language of animacy; rocks, fire, songs, apples, stories; beings imbued with spirit. In English you are either a human or a thing – an it. Some argue it is anthropomorphism, or simply awkward, but if you would like to get a taste, next time you see a set of deer tracks, you might say “someone has been here today”, or describe the dogwood as “gorgeous when she blooms”. Imagine if we could learn from and be guided by the birch people, the rock people, the beaver people, who have wisdom from much more time spent here than we newcomers. The native languages give us a view into this rich world.
“The Honorable Harvest” – This chapter describes the life view that recognizes everything as a gift, and of only taking what is offered. In return for the gifts we are offered we in turn give the gifts that are uniquely ours, such as offering thanks. There is recognition that for us to live, others must die, be they animals or plants. But they do not have to suffer. It is also important not to waste gifts. Wall Kimmerer talks about sustainable harvesting of wild plants, which encourages them to grow by reducing overcrowding. If you take too much, there is too little left, but also if you take too little, many plants that have evolved with people, like sweetgrass, will become overcrowded and fail to thrive. Humans have coexisted with the “others” and we benefit each other by reciprocity. That said, we humans are the newcomers and have a lot to learn, which we can do if we listen, and are grateful.
Braiding Sweetgrass includes many more chapters with delightful stories on how we can use our heads and our hearts to take our place as part of this planet, defeating the insatiable cannibal Windigo (you’ll have to read the book!). Humans can be hard on the planet but we can also help by planting seeds, harvesting honorably, listening to the gift of birdsong, restoring prairies, saving turtles, picking up garbage, listening to all our neighbors, and taking plenty of time to be grateful so we can learn to live joyfully in reciprocity. I really can’t recommend reading Braiding Sweetgrass enough; it offers an incredible way to consider our place in the world.