Tag Archives: Sue Ellis

Sue Ellis, review of Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass

Braiding SweetgrassBraiding Sweetgrass:
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.

Sue Ellis

Sue EllisSue Ellis is a sock knitter, soapmaker, gardener and retired postal worker who lives near Mt. Spokane in Washington State. Her short stories, poetry,
essays and book reviews have appeared in various publications including Christian Science Monitor, Prick of the Spindle, Wild Violet, Blueprint Review, Fiction 365 and the Internet Review of Books.



Living on the Edge

We might have grown wise with age—failed to succumb to the isolation or the heady view from the canyon’s rim. Instead, that first glimpse of the cabin in the foothills of Mt. Spokane impressed itself onto the backs of our retinas with the tenacity of an eclipse.

In the days and weeks following our move, giddy excitement gave way to the realization that we hadn’t reckoned with the inherent problems of living on steep terrain—hadn’t reckoned with the responsibility of being stewards of a wild place. Our harsh, Northeast Washington winter transformed the graveled drive into ice-encrusted folly, and the sun didn’t rise high enough to clear the surrounding peaks and shine on our small cabin.  In high wind, a towering fir outside the bedroom window leaned menacingly toward the house.

The to-do list was long after our first winter, and we were stiff-jointed and out of shape from sitting too long in front of the fire. It took weeks to search out and gather stones to fill ten gabion baskets, upright columns of fencing wire connected by swags of chains. The structure gives the comforting illusion of an impenetrable guardrail where the sharpest curve of the steep driveway crowds the drop-off into the canyon. We didn’t realize that its most important function would be in providing shelter to a collection of tiny creatures nesting in its crevices.

We hired a woodsman to cut down the giant fir in sections, and after he’d gone, turned a blind eye to the fifty others that could topple in our direction. A Cooper’s hawk preyed upon the songbirds that fed at an existing bird feeder, so we tore it down and learned to be content identifying their songs from a distance.

And there is a garden now, an oddly shaped affair—fenced, on a hard-to-come-by patch of level ground. We drag the watering hose uphill on summer mornings, reveling at the juxtaposition of zinnias, cucumbers, and pole beans arranged against a backdrop of tamarack, Douglas fir, and the meandering pattern of deer trails sectioning the mountain’s face.

I’m not certain when our presence here began to feel appropriate, when it occurred to me that the literal precipice matched the figurative one–two elderly people poised at the edge of decline. I simply woke up one morning and realized I was home.

Exploring, we have come across old campfires, evidenced by chunks of charred wood or a partially decomposed tin can. They are pieces of history that give us an excuse to pause, sit, and imagine the people who passed through before we came. It was at one of those rendezvous that we made an agreement, spoken as if God was within earshot: We’ll stay until we can no longer plow snow or manage the steep hike back from the mailbox.

In a thick stand of conifers, the lower branches of the crowded trees die from lack of sunlight. Brittle and gray, they curve toward the ground, like deformed notes amassed into sheet music for woodwinds. God’s whispered comment is in the breeze that wafts through their geriatric spines. It is open to interpretation.