Sarah Lonelodge reviews Robin Wall Kimmer’s BRAIDING SWEETGRASS

October 23, 2014 0 Comments Book Review 3727 Views
Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. Milkweed Editions, 2014. 408 pp. Hardback $22.82.

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A beautifully tantalizing meld of botany, history, and memoir, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer speaks directly to the soul of the reader—that part of our humanity closest to nature.

Humanity is often deemed a destructive force upon the natural world with no hope of reform or even remorse. But Kimmerer presents, through near-poetic non-fiction, a new possibility for earth and its inhabitants. Stories of hope and possibility for earth’s environment dance across the pages, intertwining into a hearty meal of truth as Kimmerer imparts the lessons passed down to her by Native American ancestors and by the plants themselves.

She begins with the Native American origin story of Skywoman who fell to earth as the first human, showing that we are all “immigrants” of some kind, and, as such, there is still much we do not understand: “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. Their wisdom is apparent in the way that they live. They teach us by example” (9). And these examples are plentiful throughout and by no means do they disappoint. Kimmerer discusses strawberries, flowers, grass, corn husks, medicines, and more in a way that deeply and profoundly calls her readers to action. She imparts the lessons of these plants while seamlessly, picturesquely giving meaning to even the smallest of seeds and the frailest of stems, for just as Skywoman reciprocated the love of the plants and animals, we, too, must cherish and nurture and take care of the earth and honor where it leads us: “Whether we jump or are pushed, or the edge of the known world just crumbles at our feet, we fall, spinning into someplace new and unexpected. Despite our fears of falling, the gifts of the world stand by to catch us” (8-9).

But more than implicit hopefulness, Kimmerer offers practical advice for the necessary connection between the earth and its people: “Plant a garden,” she says, “Put roots in the ground,” she implores; “once you develop a relationship with a little patch of earth, it becomes a seed itself.” Beyond advice for healthy earth and healthy living, Kimmerer also ensures that her readers understand and appreciate the lessons to be learned from our plant breathren—even those whose existence we hardly notice: “I’m told that [the lichen] is known in Asia by another name: the ear of the stone. In this almost silent place I imagine them listening. To the wind, to a hermit thrush, to thunder. To our wildly growing hunger. Ear of stone, will you hear our anguish when we understand what we have done? The harsh post-glacial world in which you began may well become our own unless we listen to the wisdom carried in the mutualistic marriage of your bodies. Redemption lives in knowing that you might also hear our hymns of joy when we too marry ourselves to the earth” (276). And that marriage of man and nature, in so many ways, is the aim of Kimmerer in this writing. She yearns for the day when humans will understand that symbiosis and mutual respect with the earth is essential to our own survival, for as we destroy the earth, we destroy ourselves. Marriage, then, is the key. Just as the fungus and the alga unite in times of distress to form lichens, man must unite with nature if he hopes to endure.

Such a simplistic message would be just that were it not encased in Kimmerer’s impeccable language. With swift, poignant words, Kimmerer draws her reader near and whispers sweetness in the most casual language. Though she is a botanist and a professor, scientific jargon is completely absent. Only passion and wonderment and deep, real emotion are left as she explains what plants can only show: “What if you were a teacher but had no voice to speak your knowledge? What if you had no language at all and yet there was something you needed to say? Wouldn’t you dance it? Wouldn’t you act it out? Wouldn’t your every movement tell the story? In time you would become so eloquent that just to gaze upon you would reveal it all. And so it is with these silent green lives” (128-9). Readers will be drawn to her voice upon the pages and will surely and suddenly find themselves caring about the grass and moss and beans of which she writes. It may seem odd to find interest in—to invest in—such things, but Kimmerer forces her readers to care about the stories and songs of the plants, about the gardens she and her daughters grow which connect them and raise their spirits, about the necessity of the sweetgrass blanketing the ground, about the tragedy of even a single tree found uprooted.

Kimmerer ties all things together—braiding nature and humanity and stories as she braids the sweetgrass—until all are one, all are strong, all are connected.


About the Author

author photo

Author photo from Milkweed Editions website.

Robin Wall Kimmerer is a mother, scientist, decorated professor, and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. Her first book, Gathering Moss, was awarded the John Burroughs Medal for outstanding nature writing. Her writings have appeared in Orion,Whole Terrain, and numerous scientific journals. She lives in Fabius, New York, where she is a SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor of Environmental Biology, and the founder and director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment. Awards include the 2005 John Burroughs Medal, the John Burroughs Nature Essay Award, the Sigurd Olson Nature Writing Award, and 2014 Midwest Booksellers Choice Award.

[Bio from Milkweed Editions website]

Order your copy of Braiding Sweetgrass on the publisher’s website today!

About the Reviewer

Sarah Lonelodge is a part-time English professor and a full-time wife, mother, and writer. She received a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Oklahoma in Liberal Studies with an emphasis in Humanities and a Master of Arts with honors in English Composition and Rhetoric from the University of Central Oklahoma. Recently, she has segued into creative writing and poetry, though teaching remains a true and unending passion. Originally from the very small town of Bristow, Oklahoma, she currently resides in Shawnee, Oklahoma with her husband, son, and nephews. She enjoys reading, watching football, cooking, and (usually) beating her husband at Scrabble, in addition to reading and writing. Her first novel To the Everlasting was recently published, and she is currently working on the next.

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