Scientist, professor, and writer, Robin Wall Kimmerer merges indigenous culture, values, and ways of knowing with insights on the human experiment from the lessons of the natural world in Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. As she summarizes in the preface, “It is an intertwining of science, spirit, and story – old stories and new ones that can be medicine for our broken relationship with earth, a pharmacopoeia of healing stories that allow us to imagine a different relationship, in which people and land are good medicine for each other” (p. x).
The book is a series of essays you can read independently or together. Each chapter braids together indigenous wisdom, personal stories of her life, and insights from the natural world. “Plants know how to make food and medicine from the light and water, and then they give it away. I like to imagine that when Skywoman scattered her handful of seeds across Turtle Island, she was sowing sustenance for the body and also for the mind, emotion, and spirit: she was leaving us teachers. The plants can tell us her story; we need to learn to listen” (p. 10).
Kimmerer is a beautiful writer whose essays are prose bordering on poetry. A good friend who recommended the book suggested that even though I would listen to it, I should purchase a copy to highlight and flag stunning writing passages. I am glad I did.
For example, in describing the emerging science on the ways trees communicate with each other, she writes vividly, “There is so much we cannot yet sense with our limited human capacity. Tree conversations are still far above our heads” (p. 20). When writing about the tragic history of boarding schools used to colonize many Native communities and families, Kimmerer writes about the challenges of poverty, hunger, and desperation of her grandmother, ending the paragraph with the hauntingly simple, “…maybe that was the year Grammy signed the paper” (p. 17).
Reciprocity: All flourishing is mutual.
Reciprocity is the overarching lesson of the book. Kimmerer illustrates our interconnectedness on the grandest scales across geological time as well as in our day-to-day lives and relationships. She shares the lessons of interconnectedness from trees and plants, such as the three sisters of beans, corn, and squash. “Through unity, survival. All flourishing is mutual. Sod, fungus, tree, squirrel, boy – all are the beneficiaries of reciprocity” (p. 20).
She describes the reciprocity at the core of gift economies, indigenous ceremonies, and gratitude practices. I loved the reminder from many indigenous cultures to focus first on giving and then on receiving. This is a salient reminder in our communal life to focus first on our responsibilities and then on our rights. This reciprocity is the antidote to greed, not just money but also power, kindness, humanity, rights, space, and more. Despite all the brutal context, she remains hopeful. “As a nation we are beginning to follow the guidance of our elders the pecans [trees] by standing together for the benefit of all. We are remembering what they said, that all flourishing is mutual” (p. 21).
Indigenous Cultural Values
Beyond the thesis of reciprocity that binds each of these stories are insights into other themes, including the sacredness of land, power of language, a caring for the interconnectedness of all things that deepen some simple definitions of sustainability, and guidance from plants and animals for us humans. “We say that humans have the least experience with how to live and thus the most to learn – we must look to our teachers among the other species for guidance” (p. 9). She expands on indigenous history far beyond colonization and doesn’t dodge it either. “Whether it was their homeland or the new land forced upon them, land held in common gave people strength; it gave them something to fight for. And so – in the eyes of the federal government – that belief was a threat” (p. 17).
The book is also personal. Kimmerer details the joys, challenges, heartbreaks, and reciprocity of human relationships, especially as a parent. “I had known it would happen from the first time I held her – from that moment on, all her growing would be away from me. It is the fundamental unfairness of parenthood that if we do our jobs well, the deepest bond we are given will walk out the door with a wave over the shoulder” (p. 98).
She also connects parenthood back to the larger story of our interconnectedness on the grandest scale. “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, depend on it” (p. 9). And later, Kimmerer reminds us that even parenting is the most profound practice of reciprocity – focus on the giving before the receiving. “We are showered every day with gifts, but they are not meant for us to keep. Their life is in the movement, the inhale and the exhale of our shared breath. Our work and our joy is to pass along the gift and to trust that what we are put into the universe will always come back” (p. 104).