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

December Write Day: Rounding Out

Ah, the optimism of the pre-holiday season, doomed to be crushed under the weight of festive preparations. November was such a weird month, but not really because of the holidays, like at all.

I mentioned in my post two weeks ago that I had a rough bout with some kind of illness around the middle of the month. Well, just a week later, our toddler caught hand foot and mouth disease, which is basically a beefed up cold with a rash. The boys were both home the entire week leading up to Thanksgiving, and I took a day off work to stay home with them. We flipped our Thanksgiving plans around and were basically on constant guard for any sign of the virus in our 3-month-old, or ourselves. Somehow, we have as yet escaped unscathed, and the toddler is just about healed.

So, yeah, November was a weird month. As you might imagine, my NaNoWriMo progress was greatly interrupted by these happenings.

Last Month’s Goals

  1. Complete NaNoWriMo! This 50,000-word challenge is the perfect opportunity for me to rewrite New Earth, The Herb Witch Tales #2. I’m aiming for about 45k words for this story, to keep it in line with Uprooted, so as long as I finish the story, I’ll call this a success.
  2. Keep reading through Uprooted. This is a stretch goal for me. I don’t want to be too distracted from NaNoWriMo, but reading through my first story could help me be productive when I hit a block on New Earth.
  3. Keep reading in general. While I’m not committing to reading a certain amount this month, I’d like to read something other than my own work. Again, this can serve as a bit of a mental break from writing/revising when I need it, and that’s just as important as the writing itself.

Complete NaNoWriMo?

Not even close. I started out slowly and fell behind within the first few days, but at the midway point I thought I could at least hit 15,000 words or so and get a good head start on New Earth, The Herb Witch Tales #2.

I wrote 8,500 words total in November, and almost nothing during the final week. Oh well. 8k is a solid total any other month, so I’m glad I at least hit my average.

I like where New Earth is going, as well. It started out slowly because I realized I needed a bit more set-up at the start, and the plot is changing more than I had anticipated. Still, it’s given me an opportunity to rethink how this story fits in with part 1. Speaking of which…

Keep reading through Uprooted?

Not really. I was hyper-focused on writing during the first part of the month, and then the wheels fell off during the second part. This will be one of my goals this month, when I’ll have some real time off around the holidays.

Keep reading in general?

Yes! I happened to finish two books in November, one of which I’ve already reviewed. I’ll likely review the other one next week.

I’ve gotten my hands on The Gathering Storm, book 12 of The Wheel of Time, and I’m already excited for it. Barely a chapter in, this book carries the weight of an epic finale on its shoulders. It’s also the first book in this series co-authored by Brandon Sanderson after Robert Jordan’s death. Sanderson’s writing style is definitely different from Jordan’s, but what I’ve seen of the main characters so far, he stays true to their spirits. I’ll have a tough time putting this one down.

Goals for December

  1. Write 8,000 words for New Earth. This feels like a small goal, but we’re quickly approaching the holidays, and I’m still trying to figure out my writing schedule now that I’m picking up the boys from daycare in the afternoons. I think I’m starting to get the hang of it, but this month will hopefully be a bit more normal than last month.
  2. Read through Uprooted. This is no longer a stretch goal. I need to spend some quality time with this draft before I forget everything about it. I want to allow myself to be more multi-faceted in my writing projects. In the absence of writing for NaNoWriMo last month, I managed to take some quality notes for other projects I’ve been mulling over for some time. It felt good to make progress on something, even if it wasn’t on my primary thing, so I want to be more flexible when the mood to think about something else strikes me.
  3. Read 3 books. At least one of these will be The Gathering Storm. I was stuck on a couple of longer reads through October and November, so I want to finish out my Goodreads goal strong. I’ve read 21 of 24 books so far, and I’m well within range of achieving that goal.

Steve D

NaNoWriMo Progress: Halfway Point

Every year, I seem to forget that by the time we get halfway through November, it’s a week before Thanksgiving, and the month is effectively over. National Novel Writing Month started off pretty well for me, and then took a nose-dive. I will be revising my goal for this month at the end.

While I wasn’t churning out 2,000 words per day, I was making solid progress on my draft of New Earth, The Herb Witch Tales #2 for the first ten days or so of the month. I saw early on that the 50,000-word pinnacle was slipping from my grasp even as I continued writing, but I didn’t let that discourage me. I was still writing every day, sometimes multiple times per day.

Then, two things derailed me simultaneously:

  1. My writing schedule got thrown off
  2. and I got sick

No writing schedule?!

Up until this month, I had been pretty diligent about logging off from my work laptop (working from home) and logging on to my home computer to write for short sessions in the evenings. This worked well, because my wife would pick up our toddler from daycare and start getting dinner ready while I had 20-30 minutes to write before spending the evening with them.

Then, our youngest son, the three-month-old, started daycare, and we flipped our schedules. Because my work schedule tends to be top-heavy with meetings each morning, we agreed that I would pick the kids up from daycare. It didn’t occur to me that this would erase that precious, if short, writing session I could lean on at the end of my work day.

Now, I logoff from work and pretty much immediately have to run out to get the kids.

I try to write at night after dinner, with some success, but I’ll need to find a new way to carve out time from my day. I’m considering writing early in the morning before I logon to work…

…but early mornings have never been easy for me.

The sickness

I caught a stomach bug over the weekend from my toddler that sapped my energy and basically took away 3.5 days of writing time. I’m still recovering, although doing much better.

It’s completely out of my own or anyone else’s control, but it was frustrating to lose a weekend to being sick — not just because of writing. I missed a family birthday celebration and basically didn’t move for three days.

NaNoWriMo the Second Half

So, here I am just over halfway through the month having written 7,000 words. There is no way I’m hitting 50,000 at this point, and I had accepted that even before I got sick. 7,000 would still rank in the top half of my monthly word count totals for this year, so it’s definitely not nothing.

However, I still want to finish strong. With Thanksgiving being my favorite holiday of feasting and family, I’m not going to have the pressure of writing over that weekend hanging over me. So I’m already cutting four more days of writing time in favor of other priorities.

That gives me about 10 days to eke out a writing schedule and make some more progress on this story.

Revised NaNo Goal: 15,000 words total

NaNo Stretch Goal: 20,000 words total

It’s always good to have a realistic goal and a stretch goal, just to motivate a bit more, so there it is. 15k feels doable to me, and if I’m really disciplined, 20k might be, too.

Steve D

Book Review: KNIFE OF DREAMS sets up an epic final act for THE WHEEL OF TIME

I recently finished reading Knife of Dreams, The Wheel of Time #11. You may remember that in my previous entries about some of the books in this series, I have lamented the plodding pace of the narrative, especially for particular point-of-view characters.

After a few books’ worth of dragging plotlines, Knife of Dreams finally brings some real momentum to this series, and ties off a few narrative threads in the process.

For the most part, the reader spends several chapters with a particular character at a time, watching their narrative unfold in more depth. Unlike in previous books, however, there is actually forward progress with the main characters, and Jordan even returns to each character towards the end of the book to see where they’ve landed.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and was glad to find it spent the most time with only three of the primary characters: Mat, Perrin, and Elayne. There are check-in sections with Rand, Egwene, and others, mostly serving as compelling placeholders for things to come in the next book(s).

The three or four smaller plot lines that are all tied off in this momentous installment is clearly guiding the reader and each of the characters towards one thing: the Last Battle. With only three books left in the series — I say that as if each book wasn’t more than 600 pages — Knife of Dreams is definitely setting up the end game for the series.

I’m not ready to forgive the narrative slog that was books 7 through 10 (especially 10). I can see that groundwork that Jordan was laying for the mini-climaxes in previous books. I’m just not convinced that it needed to take as long as it did to get to this point.

Anyway, I feel like I’m over the hump of the middle part of this series, and I’m ready to jump into the final three books, which were completed by Brandon Sanderson after Robert Jordan’s death. The Gathering Storm (book 12) will be my first introduction to Sanderson’s writing, so I’m excited to see how he adapts Jordan’s story and narrative style. Then I can start reading Sanderson’s own work!

Steve D