Book Report: Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer

Braiding Sweetgrass, Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer (Milkweed Editions, 2013) has been on my “To Be Read” (TBR) list for a long time. Robin Wall Kimmerer is an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, and she is a distinguished scientist and professor. She is also storyteller, a writer of lyrical prose. She is a truthteller.

I not sure why I finally took the plunge; why this was the right time for me to read this book, but perhaps it was because my husband has been reading David Treuer’s monumental The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present (Riverhead Books, 2019).

I am also aware of how one book leads to another. Another book by the same author or another book set in the same place or time period. Or another book on the same topic. In October I read Poet Warrior, A Memoir by Poet Laureate Joy Harjo, (Norton, 2021) and I felt immersed in the stories and poetry of native peoples and the need to unearth the truth and move towards healing.

What I know for sure is that I need to continue my education. I need to reframe and reform what I thought I knew—the incorrect and the missing.

I loved this book. I savored this book. I felt drawn into the depths of this book, but I need to be honest about my experience of the book. I did not read every word. At times I got lost in the biology, the botany of her descriptions.

Perhaps a story from my own background would be helpful here. When I was a freshman in college, I took an intro biology class in order to fulfill a distribution requirement. I was quite certain Biology 101 would be easier for me than any math course that would meet the requirement. Well, one day during lab time, we were all diligently dissecting and probing some poor specimen. Truth be told, I was poking more than probing. The professor, a kindly, grandfatherly-looking man, peered over my shoulder and then he said, “Ms. Jensen, what is your major?” “English,” I replied, and he said, “Good.” I got the message!

Frankly, I was proud of myself for delving into material out of my comfort zone, but Kimmerer’s writing about nature and our connection to the earth and the depth of her wisdom is what carried me along. In the Preface, she says the book is an “intertwining of science, spirit, and story.” So true.

She begins by telling the creation story of Skywoman. At the beginning there was only Skyworld, and much of the book explores the constellation of teachings called “Original Instructions.”

These are not “instructions” like commandments, though, or rules; rather, they are like a compass: they provide an orientation but not a map. The work of living is creating that map for yourself. How to follow the Original Instructions will be different for each us and different for every era. p. 7

The book explores how she has done that in her own life–as a mother, a teacher, a scientist, a resident of this earth.

One of the original instructions she refers to frequently is the notion of reciprocity. We give and we are given. We receive and we return. How important that is to remember as privileged white people who often feel good about our giving to less fortunate. We forget we are in relationship, and in relationship we receive, as well. She writes, “Doing science with awe and humility is a powerful act of reciprocity with the more-than-human world.” (p. 252)

I was also very moved by the ways she asked a tree or a plant for permission to harvest, to use and to receive as a gift, rather than feeling entitled to the corn, the sweetgrass, or herbs. She never assumes she is owed something or owns something. When approaching a plant for her own purpose, she leaves a gift of tobacco, a traditional native gift. I confess I have not done that when I have cut basil to make pesto or in years past, lavender to bundle into sachets.

Recently, when we were in Door County I found a birch bark limb the perfect length and size for a walking stick. I have always loved birch trees–the startling white trunks in contrast to the darkness of oaks, maples, elms, and others. My eyes are drawn to the white birch in the winter when branches are bare and the landscape lacks obvious color. I have learned that birch represent the qualities of gentleness and sweetness, reminding us that life is not only struggle and suffering, but gifts are everywhere. Seeing that fallen branch on the side of the path where I was walking felt like a gift. However, I didn’t ask the branch or the trees around me or the earth where I paused, if the gift was for me. I apologize.

In return for that gift I have written this book report not only to attract new readers, but also to honor the earth and all its gifts.

An Invitation: What have you read that opens you to what you did not know? I would love to know.

6 thoughts on “Book Report: Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer

  1. This book has been a beacon of hope for me during these times of challenge in so many areas of life. I appreciated your book report and having been doing a once a month retreat in the mornings in Mass. with volunteers who were inspired to create an ongoing program drawing from themes in this book. I feel Robin inspires hope by sharing indigenous wisdom which if followed would go a long way to healing our earth 🌎.  Thank you for your writings. Take Care, MindySent from my Verizon, Samsung Galaxy smartphone

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  2. Nancy,
    Thanks so much for your beautifully written book report . You enfolded the indigenous wisdom in your arms, and then offered to your readers, through example, the indigenous practice of braiding ourselves with earth, trees , and plants as we go about our living ways.

    I have loved this book since it was first published and given to me by our veterinarian of 41 years. Robin chose the most poignant title in “Braiding Sweetgrass.” These are words for us, rooted in both directive and glory !
    Thank you, Nancy .
    Respectfully ,
    Sandy

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  3. This sounds like a great book!
    A book that opened me to something I did not know was In the Country of the Young by John W. Aldridge, written in 1969 when “the young” meant Baby Boomers. I am toward the young end of Generation X myself, and I was fascinated by this analysis of how the Boomers’ parents’ decisions about parenting, housing, consumerism, and civic life were shaped by their Depression/World War II experiences and how those decisions shaped “the young”–and also, reading this for the first time in 2001, I was stunned by how well it held up in explaining the logic and values of the generation that was just then really coming into control of our society. Although it’s true that Boomers’ expressed opinions have changed a lot since 1969, the underlying assumptions and ideals are kind of the same, and the fact that they’re no longer young is now everybody’s problem.

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