Book Review: BRAIDING SWEETGRASS draws you in and inspires

I recently listened to Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer. This is another book I happened across while browsing Goodreads, and I gave it a shot to broaden my reading list a bit.

I can’t remember the last time I have been so completely inspired by a book — inspired to take action, but also emotionally.

Kimmerer’s book is a wonderfully woven selection of stories from her personal life, her career as an ecologist, and her own rediscovery of her Potawatomi heritage.

She cleverly leads the reader on a wandering journey as she tells of her own experiences as a student, a teacher, a mother, a scientist, an Indigenous woman, and a being with personhood (other beings with personhood include trees, plants, animals, rivers, basically everything in the natural world), to discuss the damage we have done and are doing to indigenous culture, to the natural world, and by extension, to each other.

I must admit that I found this book hard to follow during the early chapters. Kimmerer seemed to be telling random stories with no clear direction. But this series of vignettes begins to paint a larger picture as she describes a project she worked on with a fellow grad student to prove her hypothesis that sweetgrass would grow better with a human caregiver selectively harvesting it — a notion that goes against traditional Western science’s insistence that humans are separate from the environment, rather than an integral part of it.

In their experiment, Kimmerer, her colleague, and their team demarcate plots of sweetgrass and treat each one according to several variables. There were those they did not harvest at all, those they harvested by snipping at the stem, and those they harvested by pulling entire clumps of sweetgrass from the dirt. Over the course of two years, they consistently found that the plots where they were actively harvesting sweetgrass grew back better the next season. They did not wipe out an entire plot by harvesting, but instead let the sweetgrass regrow on its own terms. And they were right. This technique showed that the plots which were untouched did not regrow well at all — the older taller stalks of sweetgrass went untouched and prevented new growth, eventually choking out younger stems until their plots suffered.

There are almost too many lessons to try to take away from this book in one reading. From sustainable gardening and agriculture to on-the-ground conservation efforts to throwing support to indigenous communities’ efforts to reclaim their language and traditions, this book highlights a long list of efforts we need to make to provide a more sustainable future.

I came away from this reading both angered and inspired, frustrated and hopeful. Kimmerer does not offer hard and fast solutions — there are too many, and too complex, to enumerate in a single volume — but she does present the reader with a call-to-action, to begin pushing for change, or at least enacting change in our daily lives.

I like the idea of a larger, more sustainable garden that we can harvest vegetables from, and allowing sections of our yard to grow “wild” with shrubs and bushes native to our area and beneficial to the other fauna and flora. I also know that I need to identify local organizations focused on ecological restoration and sustainability, but finding these can be tough, at least at first.

It’s still difficult to pin down specific steps I can take as an individual towards a more sustainable future, but this book has laid the path. We just have to follow it.

Steve D

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