Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants
by Robin Wall Kimmerer
Milkweed Editions, 2013
ISBN 10: 1571313354; ISBN 13: 978-1571313355
390 pages, paper
Review by Sue Ellis
Braiding Sweetgrass has the feel of a bible, and the essays that make up the chapters are like sweet psalms that gently admonish and instruct with practical advise to help us save our environment. That a good many of us haven’t made the connection between the earth’s health and our own is at the heart of the problem Robin Wall Kimmerer addresses. And it becomes clear within a few chapters that she’s uniquely qualified for the job, writing from the perspective of botanist and professor of plant ecology, and an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation.
She begins with the Native American perspective on creation, how Skywoman fell from the heavens like a maple seed, and finding earth covered with water, stepped onto the back of a turtle. Soon aquatic birds and other water creatures began to dive below the surface, searching out mud for the woman to build upon. Skywoman spread a precious handful of their gift across the back of the turtle, and then began to dance in celebration, causing the earth to grow and grow. It was then that she shared the gifts she had brought with her – plants and seeds to provide food and shelter for all who lived upon Turtle Island. The exchange of gifts was an act of reciprocity, the importance of which is stressed throughout the book: people must learn to give back rather than always taking from the earth.
The essays are too numerous to list, each filled with both Native American folklore and scientific facts that pertain to the natural world. They cover such topics as the making of maple syrup, the preservation and harvest of black ash trees for basket making, and the many uses for cattails.
There is an essay about Lake Onondaga in New York State, the most polluted lake in the United States. It describes the industry whose lack of consideration for the environment led to the lake’s pollution. It also tells the story of a man who planted patches of grass in the shape of letters spelling H E L P upon a section of the lake’s ruined shoreline. And help did begin to arrive in the form of concerned citizens, scientists and ecologists who made headlines by banding together to find a solution for the lake’s distress. Meanwhile, unlauded, Mother Earth works to renew herself.
My favorite essay is about the Pacific Northwest’s Nechesne people. Their management of wild salmon runs in the glory days before wetlands were leveled out and filled to make more pasture for cows is a masterpiece of lyrical prose, and a human history deserving of Kimmerer’s eloquent telling.
Toward the end of the book, Kimmerer describes Windigo, the Native American version of the devil, who seeks to destroy all that he touches. Here’s an excerpt describing her fantasy about curing Windigo of his evil ways by making him drink her handmade, medicine – after she’s rendered him manageable with a kettleful of poisonous buckthorn tea:
He lies spent in the snow, a stinking carcass, but still dangerous when the hunger rises to fill the new emptiness. I run back in the house for the second pot and carry it to his side, where the snow has melted around him. His eyes are glazed over but I hear his stomach rumble so I hold the cup to his lips. He turns his head away as if it were poison. I take a sip, to reassure him and because he is not the only one who needs it. I feel the medicines standing beside me. And then he drinks, just a sip at a time of the golden pink tea, tea of willow to quell the fever of want and strawberries to mend his heart. With the nourishing broth of the Three Sisters and infused with savory wild leeks, the medicines enter his bloodstream: white pine for unity, justice from pecans, the humility of spruce roots. He drinks down the compassion of witch hazel, the respect of cedars, a blessing of silverbells, all sweetened with the maple of gratitude. You can’t know reciprocity until you know the gift. He is helpless before their power.
His head falls back, leaving the cup still full. He closes his eyes. There is just one more part of the medicine. I am no longer afraid. I sit down beside him on the newly greening grass. “Let me tell you a story,” I say as the ice melts away. “She fell like a maple seed, pirouetting from the autumn sky.”
I was impressed enough by this beautifully written book to hope it will become required reading in schools, serving as a guide for environmental awareness and the conservation of natural resources. Braiding Sweetgrass shines a light down a narrowing path, if only we are wise enough to follow.
Sue Ellis is a sock knitter, soap maker, gardener, and retired postmaster who lives near Mt. Spokane in Washington State. Some writing credits include Christian Science Monitor, Prick of the Spindle, Wild Violet, The Cynic Online Magazine and BluePrint Review.