Book of August: Braiding Sweetgrass


Book of August

Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer is a botanist by training. She’s a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation by birth. And she’s a gifted writer.

In her latest book, Braiding Sweetgrass, she once again interweaves her scientific knowledge with indigenous wisdom.

By design, Kimmerer has divided the book into sections, like one might divide a braid of hair, or in her case, sweetgrass, into different strands. Within a section, each chapter could be a stand-alone essay, but it is more than that. It’s part of the layering experience; the wisdom the reader gains from each intertwines with the teachings of the next.

As a storyteller at heart, Kimmerer wants us to listen—to understand the science; to respect the traditional ways; to pull the strands taut so they will remain strong. I smell the wild strawberries growing in the fields. I struggle with her to construct a basket from black ash. I kneel beside her graduate student, Laurie, as she labels and harvests sweetgrass, and ultimately produces a thesis based on scientific knowledge that honors what the basket makers knew from experience. I’m at first disappointed with her as she learns why her father poured the first sip of coffee on the ground in his daily thanksgiving offering. I’m frustrated with the work she does to clean a pond on her land. And through her, I gain a better understanding of and appreciation for the Ancients who were deeply connected to this land we call our own.

Through plant wisdom learned from her Native American heritage, scientific experiments and personal experience, she pulls us in—body, mind and spirit. Through her narrative voice, she plants the seed in hopes we will renew our relationship with nature and begin to develop a reciprocity with the land that sustains us. She reminds us that gifts are meant to be shared again and again.

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With each new chapter, I’m sure I’ve found my favorite. Sometimes I underline words or sentences in a book, or jot notes in the margin. But with this one, I find myself turning up the bottom corner of pages so I remember to go back and reread them—I don’t want my eyes to focus on only one thing, but rather to take it all in. If I discover something on the next page, I fold the corner back again.

Such is the case in “The Three Sisters,” where she describes the story of the small packet she received years ago from Awiakta, a Cherokee writer. Awiakta warned Kimmerer to not open the pouch until spring. “In May, I untie the packet and there is the gift: three seeds. One is a golden triangle, a kernel of corn with a broadly dimpled top that narrows to a hard white tip. The glossy bean is speckled brown, curved and sleek, its inner belly marked with a white eye—the hilum. It slides like a polished stone between my thumb and forefinger, but this is no stone. And there is a pumpkin seed like an oval china dish, its edge crimped shut like a piecrust bulging with filling. I hold in my hand the genius of indigenous agriculture, the Three Sisters. Together these plants—corn, beans and squash—feed the people, feed the land, and feed our imaginations, telling us how we might live.”

From a botanist’s point of view, Kimmerer describes how the plants grow together, supporting each other on several levels. And then she tugs on our hearts again. “It’s tempting to imagine that these three are deliberate in working together, and perhaps they are. But the beauty of this partnership is that each plant does what it does in order to increase its own growth. But as it happens, when the individuals flourish, so does the whole. The way of the Three Sisters reminds me of one of the basic teachings of our people. The most important thing each of us can know is our unique gift and how to use it in the world. Individuality is cherished and nurtured, because, in order for the whole to flourish, each of us has to be strong in who we are and carry our gifts with conviction, so they can be shared with others. Being among the sisters provides a visible manifestation of what a community can become when its members understand and share their gifts. In reciprocity, we fill our spirits, as well as our bellies.”

I am thankful for the gift of Kimmerer’s writing and teaching.

I’m thankful for each little nugget of information, observation and tradition that is woven together like a braid of sweetgrass.

I’m thankful for the opportunities I have to pay attention—the realization that place matters.

Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer, published 2013, Milkweed Editions

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