Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2013).
When I first read about its publication in 2013, I sensed right away that Braiding Sweetgrass would resonate positively with me. Now, having read the book after an inexplicable delay of over seven years, I find that my expectations have been surpassed. Seldom have I experienced a stronger sense of being in tune with the content and spirit of a book.
Much has been written about this compilation of essays and stories celebrating our interdependence with the natural world, and warning us about the dire consequences of not honoring it. The book has been called an “eco-bible” as well as “a hymn of love to the world,” deservedly so, I think, because it is grounded in a deep concern for sustaining the health of the untold number of relationships we participate in as people of planet earth.
In keeping with the wisdom of indigenous peoples, this book takes as a given that everyone and everything belongs to a universal family. But it also recognizes that, as a species, we humans do not always honor he fact that we share the abundance of our planet with a host of other beings, all with unique life-processes that are in some way interwoven with our own. Hence, our need to be continually reminded of our fundamental interconnectedness and the life-enhancing lessons to be learned from it—exactly what this book focuses on.
Robin Wall Kimmerer is obviously a multi-talented scientist and teacher, as well as a captivating story-teller. These personal gifts allow her to make every chapter of her book a way of integrating what she has to say with issues and concerns that arise in our everyday lives. For instance, she draws attention to the problems associated with various kinds of non-acceptance of “others”—from overt racism and xenophobia to various forms of social intolerance and inequality—in a chapter that describes helping salamanders cross a road at night (so they can safely make their way to the pool where they were born and, therefore, reproduce successfully). “Each time we rescue slippery, spotted beings,” she observes, “we attest to their right to be, to live in the sovereign territory of their own lives.” (p.358)
Another example of the author’s ability to mingle story-telling, scientific exploration, and philosophical insight occurs in a fascinating chapter about “witnessing” the rain (set in the Oregon rain forest). Here, Kimmerer links a description of “paying attention” to the distinctive characteristics of individual raindrops to a beautiful reflection on the nature of time and the efficacy of living as fully as possible in the present moment. She writes: "Paying attention acknowledges that we have something to learn from intelligences other than our own. Listening, standing witness, creates an openness to the world in which the boundaries between us can dissolve in a raindrop." (p.300)
Braiding Sweetgrass is a book overflowing with information and inspiration, often capsulized in beautifully succinct and memorable phrases. One such phrase, which has garnered a lot of attention, is this: “All flourishing in mutual” (p. 15, also, pp. 166 & 382). For me, this little phrase epitomizes the book’s central thesis and message as well as any. Not only does it underscore our basic interdependence, it also points to the importance of nurturing cultures of “gratitude and reciprocity” as a means of alleviating the debilitating epidemic of individualistic, me-first or us-first behaviors at work around the globe. Surely, responding to this insight is something that most thoughtful observers of contemporary life can agree is urgently needed.
Braiding Sweetgrass tells us that sweetgrass is nurtured best, not by existing on its own, but when humans create the optimal conditions for its growth by harvesting it (see p. 164). In a similar way, our lives unfold in ways that are most beneficial for ourselves and our world when they unfold in the context of meaningful, symbiotic relationships. Just imagine what our world would be like if we truly believed that everyone and everything we are involved with has something significant to say to us!
"I envision a time when the intellectual monoculture of science will be
replaced with a polyculture of complementary knowledges."
Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass, p. 139.
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