A December issue of The Boston Globe carried an interview with author Robin Wall Kimmerer, whose most recent book is “Braiding Sweetgrass.” In answer to the question of what’s a good read for the pandemic, she said, “I think what we need now is something that nurtures our values and gives us strength to hold them up as well as to remind us to have gratitude for what we have as opposed to what we don’t.”
By those criteria, her own collection of essays is the perfect read for this time. And her words in the article, though directed at another writer, could just as well apply to her: “[S]he fills you with this sense of the richness of the gifts around you, both spiritual and material.”
“Braiding Sweetgrass” is Arm in Arm’s selection for a townwide read and Zoom discussion at 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 28. The community organization Arm in Arm, going into its fifth year, is dedicated to cultural education to promote open discussion, raise awareness, and advocate for inclusion, equity, and justice.
Running through the collection of essays that make up “Braiding Sweetgrass” are references that remind the reader of what Kimmerer and her fellow Indigenous people no longer have—their lands and their culture. And yet each essay, complete within itself, is a reminder of the gifts of nature, no matter where we are, and of our responsibility to show gratitude in return.
Kimmerer notes how the words “Indian giver” carry the negative connotation of someone who takes back what they have given. But the true meaning is that an Indigenous person expects to be given something in return for a gift because that is the way their world works. They show gratitude for everything they receive by giving something—material or symbolic—in exchange. That way one flourishes because of the other, and the world is kept in balance.
Most of Kimmerer’s gratitude is for the plants of the earth, and her expressions of thanks are rooted deep in her heritage. When she picked wild strawberries as a child, she would later clear a patch of soil for the plant to spread its runners. When her family went camping, her father would walk to a high spot every morning and give the first splash of coffee to Mother Earth. She describes the Indigenous people’s three-sisters garden of corn, beans, and squash as an example of how plants illustrate the idea of interdependence, where each gives something the other needs to thrive. An act of kindness gives back the joy in another’s happiness. “A vegetable garden is a place where if you can’t say ‘I love you’ out loud, you can say it in seeds. And the land will reciprocate, in beans,” writes Kimmerer.
Author Robin Wall Kimmerer. (Courtesy photo)
The first essay in the book contrasts the Indigenous people’s understanding of their place in the world with that of the Judeo-Christian belief. For the former, life began when Skywoman fell “like a maple seed, pirouetting on an autumn breeze” and a great turtle gave her a place to land. Other animals gathered mud for the turtle’s back and as Skywoman danced her thanks, the land grew until the whole Earth was made. As she toppled from Skyworld, she had grabbed fruits and seeds from the Tree of Life, and these she planted. Plants flourished and animals had food. Sweetgrass was the very first to grow, and it is honored as a sacred plant of the Indigenous people. “When we braid sweetgrass, we are braiding the hair of Mother Earth, showing her our loving attention, our care for her beauty and well-being, in gratitude for all she has given us,” writes Kimmerer. There is a responsibility that flows between humans and earth.
In contrast to the myth of Skywoman is the story of Eve and her banishment from the garden. She was made to wander the wilderness, which she had to subdue in order to eat. The legacy of Eve’s exile is a “land that shows the bruises of an abusive relationship.” Further, in Western tradition, human beings are the pinnacle of evolution and the plants are at the bottom. “But in Native ways of knowing, human people are often referred to as ‘the younger brothers of Creation,’” says Kimmerer. Plants have been on Earth far longer and can teach us by example if we observe and listen to their stories.
The subtitle of “Braiding Sweetgrass” is “Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants.” Kimmerer has wed her experience of natural history to her scientific knowledge as a botanist. She says in the preface that sweetgrass is not hers to give nor ours to take. “So I offer, in its place, a braid of stories meant to heal our relationship with the world.” Although the essays work together to reinforce the central ideas, they can be read separately and in any order. Kimmerer calls her collection “a pharmacopoeia of healing stories that allow us to imagine a different relationship, in which people and land are good medicine for each other.”
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