Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants

Braiding Sweetgrass Coverreview by Jack Kittredge

Kimmerer is a Native American Potawatomi, a professor with a PhD in botany, a single mother, a deep thinker and a very gifted writer. This book is composed of 30-some essays in which she reflects on the various truths she has come to know through those different lenses.

Her stories often start as simple memories, listening to a tribal myth or learning to make a woven basket from black ash. She writes about the memory — explaining it and how it fits into her Indigenous culture, talking about how it might be seen in the western scientific world, gently exploring the strengths and weaknesses of the various points of view, and ultimately drawing out of the whole narrative some very surprising insights about ourselves and our relationship to nature.

In “People of Corn, People of Light”, for instance, she begins with the Mayan story of Creation. The divine beings imagined a world into existence, populating it with a rich flora and fauna. But they were not satisfied and wanted a creature that could tell the story of creation, and praise it. So they made people of mud. But they were ugly and crumbly and melted away in the rain. Next the gods made good people, nurturers, the man of wood and the woman of the pith of a reed. They were beautiful and clever, and used and filled the world. But their hearts were empty of gratitude. So the gods destroyed them with floods and earthquakes and the wrath of the other species. Trees raged against them for their sharp axes, deer for their painful arrows. Once again the gods tried, this time with beings of sunlight. They were dazzling and bright, but so powerful they felt themselves like gods and had to be destroyed.

Finally the creators tried one last time to make creatures of respect and humility. They took two baskets of corn, one yellow, one white, ground them together, mixed the meal with water, and made a people of corn. These were good people, with hearts full of compassion and prayers and gratitude for the earth, which sustained them.

From this simple beginning, Kimmerer explores several directions in which we might seek for meaning. For starters, rather than being satisfied with ourselves she suggests that many indigenous peoples think of time not so much as a river with a beginning, middle and end, but as a lake with past, present, and future all immersed. So is this story history or prophecy? Are we still a people of wood, using and abusing? Or of light, in thrall to ourselves?

Consider that corn is the product of a long relationship between the precursor teosinte and our own human ancestors. Much more than mud, wood, or light, corn is joined in an obligate symbiosis with people. Does this build the capacity for respect and reciprocity?

Too, anthropologists see the Mayan sacred text, The Popul Vuh, as not so much a chronicle as an ilbal – a seeing instrument or lens through which we can view the sacred. And what else could you call a world where light is turned into sugar, salamanders find their way back to ancestral ponds following magnetic earth lines, the saliva of grazing buffalo causes grass to grow, and tobacco seeds germinate when they smell smoke? (All subjects the science of which is explained in previous essays.)

A continual thread passing through all of Kimmerer’s essays is the inadequacy of science or technology to fully comprehend the natural world. In its reductionist approach it can’t grasp ecosystems, complex symbiosis, the biota literally merging into higher organisms that Lynn Margulis has exposed as fueling the leaps of evolution. And this is what makes up the world – not the individual but the community.

The words “gifts” and “responsibility” are always in Kimmerer’s thoughts. The wondrous world we join at birth is totally unearned. We are here for a short time only, and our responsibility, borne out of gratitude, is to care for it. If you are not convinced yet, you will be when you finish this book. Kimmerer has a remarkable ability to bring you along, seeing as she does a world full of agency – generous plants bearing flowers, berries and sweetgrass to please our senses, elders to teach, children to learn, ceremonies to make us laugh, dance and sing. Please read this book. You will be glad you did.