Book Review: Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer (2013)

Finished May 2021

North American indigeneity, TEK (traditional ecological knowledge), memoir, postcolonialism, history, storytelling, botany, ecosystems thinking, sustainability, land theft

I found Braiding Sweetgrass to be something of a struggle to get my head around, but once I did, I really connected with Kimmerer’s style and message, and indeed found the book quite impactful. It empowered me to feel less self conscious about the bonds I experience with the non-human world, and less cowed into silence about the nature of that experience.

Basically, this book is in many ways a memoir and love letter, neither of which were things I expected. I expected to be told in a more structured and systematic way about various North American Indigenous land management practices, and then to be told about how non-Indigenous/Western/angloamerican communities can apply those teachings to their own clumsy attempts to build a more holistic relationship between human and non-human earthlings. This, I clearly see now, was a rather extractive and flat perspective, and one which repressed a significant part of my own connection with the non-human world. But none of that was clear to me a few chapters in.

At first, I frequently balked at passages like the following:

I come here to listen, to nestle in the curve of the roots in a soft hollow of pine needles, to lean my bones against the column of white pine, to turn off the voice in my head until I can hear the voices outside it: the shhh of wind in needles, water trickling over rock, nuthatch tapping, chipmunks digging, beechnut falling, mosquito in my ear, and something more – something that is not me, for which we have no language, the wordless being of others in which never alone. After the drum beat of my mother’s heart, this was my first language.

What place did this tone have in a non-fiction book about plants? I found it sentimental, romantic, performative and almost embarrassing to read. She wants me to be awestruck with how connected she is to nature, I thought unkindly. The strange thing, however, was that if I’d encountered that passage in the form of a poem, it would have resonated with me profoundly and I likely would have tenderly copied it out into my journal:

I come here to listen,

to nestle in the curve of the roots

in a soft hollow of pine needles,

to lean my bones

against the column of white pine,

to turn off the voice in my head

until I can hear the voices

outside it :

etc…

And the reason that it would have resonated with me so profoundly is that that is exactly what my thoughts sound and feel like. I nestle into hollows, and lean my bones against tree trunks, and listen out for the tapping of birds, and also feel that this is a language I learned before I could speak to humans with my tongue. I also know that not only my thoughts but my writing resemble Kimmerer’s quite significantly. So actually, in rejecting as anthropomorphising and flowery a tone which merely embraced the entirety of living beings, I was rejecting the part of myself that I have often felt I needed to separate out when writing and speaking in an academic setting. The challenge of reading Braiding Sweetgrass was encountering a voice that felt like my own, but without the crisis of legitimacy that haunts my own writing. Here is another woman who can be moved to tears by the loss of a patch of wild leeks, a woman who has also built a career in a hard science while maintaining a soft heart, a woman who navigates anger towards those who stole her land, her people, her language and her access to all three while also keeping an eye out for opportunities to be empathetic, patient and kind, here is a woman who does not compromise on her love for the plants she works with even as she publishes academic papers and makes strides in a rational, objectivity-obsessed field. Why did I disavow her? I was disavowing myself.

But thankfully, I read on. Pages of history, of mythology, of botany and of memory came together in a narrative that never itself came together in a linear way, but by the time that that became clear, I was no longer yearning for it to do so. Perhaps it was the humble reflection on the self that infuses every element of the book which made me relax and soften to the point where I was able to listen to Kimmerer and learn from her.

She opens with the idea that we are stuck in a mentality where the best way for humans to interact with non-humans is not at all; that a forest flourishes most when left alone; that humans are but a blight on the planet; and then she effectively spends the rest of the book dismantling that thought. By dismantling it, she urges the reader into action. By recounting how sweetgrass meadows grow best when tended by human hands, she demonstrates that we have something more than gratitude to offer and that the relationship between humans and the land can indeed be reciprocal. By sharing Indigenous wisdoms about harvesting wild plants (“never taking the first plant you find, nor the last”, “never take more than half”), teaching the reader how to ask permission from the plants (hard soil, tough roots and closed buds are good signs that permission is not being given), and instructing on how to give thanks (a prayer, a blessing, a handful of tobacco), she demonstrates that there is a space for emotion and relationship in land management. Not just a space, in fact, but a mandate.

Almost everything in this book interested me, and so it’s almost all covered in pencil scribbles. Lichens are a symbiotic marriage of alga and fungus. Skywoman fell to Earth with a daughter in her belly and a bundle of sweetgrass in her hand. American sable trappers know and care more about the environment in which they trap their prey than many scientists who decry that practice as cruel. Native people in the Americas planted corn, beans and rice together in what appeared to the settlers as a chaotic, uncultivated patch of weeds but was truthfully an incredibly attuned response to the mutually beneficial growth patterns of these plants. Ducks are dogfood-eating deliquents. But the most important thing I learned was to not just hold but make space in myself for the sometimes embarrassing softness and admiration I have regarding plants and other non-humans. Perhaps I don’t have to relegate that to poems I whisper to myself when alone in a meadow, to trite captions on Instagram posts, to spirals of thought in the midst of an acid trip.

I love trees, and animals, and grasses and rocks so much that it sometimes overwhelms me. It certainly overwhelms the people I speak to about it, and when I allow that love to appear in my writing I’m told it’s pretty but not academic. Robin Wall Kimmer has given me permission and courage to be open and embarrassing, to be ‘unscientific’ in my pursuit of science, to believe that having a relationship with, listening to, befriending, caring for plants is not a fantasy but a critical reality we must embrace.

Parts of this book made me angry, especially as I read about the theft and rape of a land that had once been loved, the forced removal of Indigenous folkx from their lands and the strategic institutionalisation and linguicide that followed, and the passages about the footprints of the Windigo (an evil spirit in North American Indigenous stories):

The footprints of the Windigo. They’re everywhere you look. They stomp in the industrial sludge of Onondaga Lake. And over savagely clear-cut slopes in the Oregon Coast Range where the earth is slumping into the river. You can see them where coal mines rip off mountaintops in West Virginia and in oil-slick footprints on the beaches of the Gulf of Mexico. A square mile of industrial soy beans. A diamond mine in Rwanda. A closet stuffed with clothes. Windigo footprints all, they are the tracks of insatiable consumption. So many have been bitten. You can see them walking the malls, eyeing your farm for a housing development, running for Congress. We are all complicit. We’ve allowed the “market” to define what we value so that the redefined common goods seems to depend on profligate lifestyles that enrich the sellers while impoverishing the soul and the earth.

But this is not an angry book. There is anger in it, and sadness, but also hope, and humour, and honestly just so much love that it flows out of the pages as part of the anger and sadness and hope. Some of my favourite chapters were the one in which Kimmerer mocks the traditional format of an academic paper while telling the story of her PhD student who struggled against the constraints of academia to carry out meaningful research, the ones in which Kimmerer brings her students to the forest, and the one in which she comes to terms with her daughters leaving home by going canoeing. I know my mother would do that. I know my mother has done that.

There are some queries that remain for me in this book, chief among them a curious concern that indigeneity ends up being flattened in some way, as although Kimmerer takes great care to give credit to the nations which produced certain practices and ideas, she does often speak of an ‘Indigenous’ way of being, living or thinking which elides these differences. More critically, it overlooks the Indigeneities outside the Americas. But on the whole, I found reading the book transformative. While the first few pages had me rolling my eyes, the last few had me feeling as though I’d just left a religious ceremony and had been given an incredibly precious, beautiful and valuable gift: a reinvigorated connection to my mother and other ancestors, to humanity at large, to all the organisms we share this world with and perhaps most importantly to myself.

I say that not because I am the most important, but because I won’t be much use to the world of plants, animals and people if I continue to suppress the parts of me that feel love in service of the parts of me that research, learn, synthesise, analyse, read, write, speak and know.

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