Book Review: Braiding Sweetgrass

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Author: Robin Wall Kimmerer
Publisher: Milkweed Editions
Book Publication: 2013

Braiding Sweetgrass, the latest offering by author Robin Wall Kimmerer, is a gem. Mother, scientist, decorated professor, botanist, and recipient of the John Burroughs Medal for outstanding nature writing – a short list of accolades, Kimmerer comes well qualified to turn out this impressive work. While passionate about her subject, the author’s botanist background challenges her to look to science for questions regarding the natural world. We are reminded that everything in nature is constantly providing us with lessons and wisdom, if we are willing to learn again how to listen and learn.

As a member of the Potawatomi Nation, Kimmerer embraces indigenous teachings that consider animals and plants to be our oldest guides. In Braiding Sweetgrass, this framework of understanding is woven in a highly original manner that takes us “on a journey that is every bit as mythic as it is scientific, as sacred as it is historical, as clever as it is wise.” (Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love). Indeed, every chapter educates and inspires the reader to experience sweetgrass – a flowing, honey/vanilla scented gift from the earth. Hierochloe odorata is its scientific name and it means fragrant, holy grass. In the Potawatomi language it is called wiingaashk, which translates to the sweet-smelling hair of Mother Earth. “Breathe it in and you start to remember things you didn’t know you’d forgotten.”

Kimmerer is a beautiful story teller. In ‘Skywoman Falling’ we learn that, of all the plants, sweetgrass was the very first to grow on the earth. The legend further teaches that, when Skywoman arrived here, she did not come alone. She was pregnant. Understanding that her grandchildren would inherit the world she left behind, her thoughts and efforts were not focused solely on the present, “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.”

Science is now proving what Indigenous elders have always taught: the plants and trees talk to each other. We now know they communicate via pheromones, hormone-like compounds that are carried on the breeze, laden with messages. A tree sends out a distress call: ‘Hey you guys over there – I’m under attack here. You might want to arm yourselves in case it’s headed your way.’ Those forewarned then have time to manufacture defensive chemicals and the invaders are repelled, sparing the remainder of the grove. “There is so much we cannot yet sense with our limited human capacity. Tree conversations are still far above our heads.”

I’ve always wondered why sweetgrass is braided. As the hair of Mother Earth, it’s traditionally braided to demonstrate a loving care for her well-being. The braids are given as tokens of kindness and gratitude, they offer protection to a traveler, and sweetgrass teaches the ways of compassion, kindness and healing – “even for those who have made bad mistakes, for who has not?”
With rampant deforestation, wetland draining, mining, and the converting of wild places to agriculture and pavement, sweetgrass no longer flourishes. However, it can sometimes be found in undisturbed places. It loves full sun and moist, open soil. Once the seeds are planted (and you need to plant about a hundred to get one plant), sweetgrass has its own unique way of multiplying. After a lengthy search to find a grower, the author started a nursery and has been growing up a stock of sweetgrass herself ever since.

Indigenous peoples have always revered sweetgrass as one of the four sacred plants and understand it as a living, breathing entity that embodies the concept of gratitude and reciprocity. Case in point: After a day spent planting sweetgrass by the riverside, the author’s trowel hits upon a hard object. Upon closer inspection, the object turns out to be a diamond. As elder Tom explains to her,  “This is the way the world works…in reciprocity. We gave sweetgrass and the land gave a diamond.”

On another occasion, Kimmerer found sweetgrass growing in the most unlikely place imaginable – on the shore of a sludge lake undergoing restoration efforts by some devoted environmentalists. She describes the discovery: “…smiling up at me like a long lost friend. There she was – sweetgrass – growing in one of the last places I might ever have expected … she reminded me that it is not the land that has been broken, but our relationship to it.”

Could it be that giving thanks to the earth through the burning of sweetgrass is a good place to start to heal that relationship – and ourselves?

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