Braiding Sweetgrass

Robin Wall Kimmerer
- Reviewed by
Marilyn Freeman

Some years ago I had the great privilege of auditing a Trent U course called Anishnaabemowin on the Land. Camping for a week at Bon Echo Provincial Park, elders and not-so-elders had us look at the world through a different lens, a way expressed through a language so completely different from English. It was here that I learned of Braiding Sweetgrass, often referred to as the “bible” of the Indigenous students in this course.

Braiding Sweetgrass was published in 2013 and through word of mouth, made it to the NYT bestseller list after selling 500,000 in 9 languages. Sales are continuing because Kimmerer is telling a timely and timeless story in language that is accessible to all readers.

She succeeds in combining economics, natural science, history, philosophy and the culture of gratitude, reciprocity and responsibility with a long series of stories, both personal and traditionally indigenous that teach the reader to observe, learn and act.

Kimmerer lives rurally in upstate New York near Lake Onondaga. Behind her house is an algae-filled pond. In deciding to clear the pond and turn it into a swimming hole for her daughters, she encompasses a whole world of give and take. The raked and dried cladophora and spirogyra become compost that turns into garden carrots. The pruned willow branches at the edge become browse for the cottontails and get redistributed far and wide as rabbit droppings. Mint harvested from the edge becomes a cup of mint tea. But finding a yellow warbler nest with eggs in the willows makes her realize that “restoring” a habitat produces casualties – especially when we humans are the sole arbiters what is good.

Balance is a moving target. It takes work balancing the giving and the taking. She worked on the pond, the pond worked on her in ways material and spiritual. “The outlet from my pond runs downhill to my good neighbor’s pond. What I do here matters. Everybody lives downstream.”

In Braiding Sweetgrass we read of Kimmerer’s own stories and we read of Indigenous history through her own family’s stories involving residential schools and its destruction of language and culture. Balancing this are stories of present-day renewal through language learning, traditional teachings and knowledge.

As she says, “Science can be a language of distance which reduces a being to its working parts; it is a language of objects. The language scientists speak, however precise, is based on a profound error in grammar, an omission, a grave loss in translation from the native languages of these shores.” She uses the Anishnaabemowin word Puhpowee as an example. It’s translated as “the force which causes mushrooms to push up from the earth overnight”. As a biologist, Kimmerer was stunned to learn this word because “in all its technical vocabulary, Western science has no such term, no words to hold this mystery…in scientific language our terminology is used to define the boundaries of our knowing. What lies beyond our grasp remains unnamed.”

This book is so rich in stories and facts. All the nature observations and appreciations are beautifully tied together at the end in a story of how to defeat the overconsuming, selfish Wendigo evil of rampant capitalism. It’s poetry. It’s a book to be savoured and returned to over and over again.

In a recent interview with the Guardian during the Covid-19 lockdown (May 23/20), Kimmerer reflects on what is necessary to regain a balanced world. “A contagion of gratitude,” she marvels, speaking the words slowly. “I’m just trying to think about what that would be like. Acting out of gratitude, as a pandemic. I can see it.”