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  • Matt Breton

Book Review: Braiding Sweetgrass

Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer

A former co-worker stopped by the office during the holiday week when he was back in town and, because we often discussed books during our winter morning lifts, he asked me, "What book am I reading this summer?"

Without hesitation, I answered, "Braiding Sweetgrass."

I gave him a quick rundown, he wrote the info down, and our conversation turned to other matters. My summary included who Robin Wall Kimmerer was, a botanist and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, and a brief description of how she marries these two aspects of her life.

With the subtitle; Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants, it became obvious that she matches old knowledge and modern science in the book. She does this through beautiful prose and stories, some of them traditional and others from her own life.

In Planting Sweetgrass, the first section (my favorite) the focus was on themes of reciprocity, the spirit of community, a gift economy versus a market economy, gratitude, and of how the language of animacy applies beyond just humans. These thoughts begin to ask us how we relate to the world around us and can perhaps change and challenge the industrial world's view of maximizing extraction to one of receiving gifts.

The following sections- Tending Sweetgrass, Picking Sweetgrass, Braiding Sweetgrass, Burning Sweetgrass continue along these themes and weave in more stories, both from her Nation's oral tradition as well as the author's personal stories.

While I generally have some issues with the often-harsh and distinct separation of North America's 'indigenous' people from those of us with European ancestry. With an acknowledgement of how poorly the people of these nation's were treated over the last several centuries, I do wonder where, exactly, am I indigenous to, if not here? Does an ancestor crossing the Bering Land Bridge count differently than landing in a boat? It is as if those of us who can trace our lineage here for multiple generations are still incapable of caring for a place in these discussions; thankfully the finger pointing in the book is minimized. I felt Kimmerer did a good job of recognizing that the view of the land and the creatures upon it is an inclusive one, accessible to all of us, without cultural appropriation.

The big takeaways for me were around understanding that all things on Earth have agency- the rocks, plants, and animals, in a way that our industrial society and academics seem to have lost, and that the modern view of Nature is often incomplete and reductionist. I also pulled a lot from the idea of treating the things we receive from the Earth as gifts and how that would have ripple effects if everyone acted in that way. The gratitude for these gifts would also impact our culture in a way that we sorely need right now.

Ultimately there are a lot of lessons in this book that we, as a modern society, need to learn, and some hopefulness for a new way of interacting with the Earth that feels right. I highly recommend this book and will be handing it out to friends regularly, as well as reading it again soon.

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