Delighted to say I had the following book review published in the summer issue of Camas Magazine.
Knowing That the Earth Loves You Back
a review of Robin Kimmerer’s “Braiding Sweetgrass”
by Trevien Stanger
Working with a graduate student one year at SUNY Sycracuse, the professor of botany, citizen of the Potowatami Nation, and author Robin Kimmerer helped create an experiment that confirmed what many indigenous people have known for millennia– that the human hand can be a healing force in an ecosystem. Looking closely at the traditional use of sweetgrass, a plant rich in story, science, and sanctity for many tribes throughout the continent, the experiment revealed that when using the indigenous method of honorably harvesting only small sections of the plant, humans were emulating the work of wild ruminants, with whom sweetgrass had coevolved for millennia. With this technique, the health of a sweetgrass patch benefits immensely from the presence of humans, whereas many other sweetgrass populations in her area that go untended are are experiencing decline. This story, and others like it, demonstrate a central thread of reciprocity between humans and nature that is woven throughout Kimmerer’s book “Braiding Sweetgrass,” and it is an inspiring thread to follow.
Once harvested, sweetgrass has traditionally been braided into long, fragrant strands for use in ceremony and celebration. Using the weaving of sweetgrass as a central metaphor, Kimmerer threads her essays into an evocative and gorgeous braid. In some stories, Kimmerer shines as a scientist-writer, eloquently describing how the Maple tree gives us sap each spring, or how the Three Sisters crops of corn, beans, and squash form a mutualistic relationship both above and below the soil. Her writing in these instances is as crisp as summer corn and as sweet as syrup, and it seems she could easily have written a new naturalist’s classic that celebrates Earth through the revelations of the scientific gaze.
Instead, Kimmerer also leans into all of her topics with the weight of her thousand-year-old traditions. Using indigenous science, often called “Traditional Ecological Knowledge” or TEK, Kimmerer illustrates how ethnobotanical relationships between people and plants to help us create symbiotic relationships within a place. She knows she’s on to something, as TEK “is increasingly being sought by academics, agency scientists, and policymakers as a potential source of ideas for emerging models of ecosystem management, conservation biology, and ecological restoration.” As a student and practitioner of TEK, Kimmerer has decades of experience observing how TEK generates not only ecological benefits, but how it also engenders an intensity of gratitude and a sense of humanity’s unique responsibilities to care for creation. Think of it as a practical, ecologically-informed and spiritually-inflected set of instructions for living within the gift-economy of Earth. A way to see and treat the Earth, with reverence and respect, as a Gift.
But make no mistake– as gentle and kind a guide that Kimmerer may be, this book is most certainly a polemic. Again and again we are asked to examine what happens when a people no longer perceive the world as a Gift, but rather only as a collection of commodities whose value is determined by a consumer marketplace. Setting her older, traditional set of stories against the modern story in which the majority of us live today, she throws down the challenge most eloquently: “One of these stories sustains the living earth on which we depend. One of these stories opens the way to living in gratitude and amazement at the richness and generosity of the world. One of these stories asks us to bestow our gifts in kind, to celebrate our kinship with the world. We can choose. If all the world is a commodity, how poor we grow. When all the world is a gift in motion, how wealthy we become.”
But how to remember, reimagine, and reconfigure ourselves within these stories she’s offering? One way, Kimmerer believes, is for us to engage in restorative practices, such as those offered by the field of ecological restoration. But even this act is worthy of imbuing with cultural significance, as she encourages us to see beyond physical work at hand– “We need acts of restoration, not only for polluted waters and degraded lands, but also for our relationship to the world. We need to restore honor to the way we live, so that when we walk through the world we don’t have to avert our eyes with shame, so that we can hold our heads high and receive the respectful acknowledgment of the rest of earth’s beings.”
Restoring honor to our words, our actions, and our relationships is serious business, but for those who read Kimmerer’s book, it is clear that this restorative work need not be dull or overly serious. Through such concepts as the “Honorable Harvest,” and then walking alongside Kimmerer as she navigates its precepts in superfund sites in New York (“The Sacred and the Superfund”), within public schools whilst reciting the Pledge (“Allegiance to Gratitude”), or while restoring her back-yard pond with her daughters (“A Mother’s Work”), we get a sense that Kimmerer is by no means urging us toward a doom-and-gloom environmentalism. Rather, this book points toward practices that are at once playful, loving, invigorating, challenging, and altogether radical, in that they ask us to inspect the very roots of our responsibilities as Earth’s people. Perhaps to find, deep within us, a sense of sacredness based not on mere belief, but by direct experience.
Because, as Kimmerer points out, the ecological restoration going on around us really can nourish us in critical, holy, and healing ways– “What if we could fashion a restoration plan that grew from multiple understandings of Land? Land as sustainer. Land as identity. Land as grocery store and pharmacy. Land as connection to our ancestors. Land as moral obligation. Land as sacred. Land as self.”
And perhaps, through some serious contemplation and action, we might work toward the ultimate challenge that Kimmerer lays at our feet like a braid of fragrant sweetgrass– the challenge to once again become indigenous to place. To no longer act as immigrants in a strange land– but rather as citizens of a land that you love, and that a land loves you back. For as Kimmerer suggests, this reciprocity is utterly transformative– “Knowing that you love the earth changes you, activates you to defend and protect and celebrate. But when you feel the earth loves you in return, that feeling transforms the relationship from a one-way street into a sacred bond.” Yes, to circle that line. And this book, read with both head and heart, might well help weave us into that sacred bond, one braid at a time.