A lot of the conversation about people and the planet centers on how we’ve done the Earth wrong, how nature would be better off without humanity wrecking everything. And indeed we’ve done a lot of wrecking. But in Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer presents a vision of humanity as part of nature, a necessary part with a responsibility to play our own role in making Earth a better place for all forms of life, including human life.
The subtitle of the book — Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledges, and the Teachings of Plants — sums up her approach. Kimmerer is a botanist and a member of the Potawatomi nation, and she brings both the traditional knowledge passed down among various native communities and the scientific understandings to questions of how people and plants can live well together.
The book is made up of a series of essays, most of which look at a different aspect of nature — an overgrown pond; how the corn, beans, and squash grow together; the way lichen develop — and consider what we can learn from her observations about the interaction between species, including the human species. Sometimes she shares traditional stories, such as the fall of Skywoman to Turtle Island. Other times, she shares personal stories, such as her effort to make maple syrup with her daughters. And sometimes, she plays with form, as in her account of a student’s scientific study of the effects of harvesting on sweetgrass growth.
The lesson of this last piece, titled “Mishkos Kenomagwen: The Teachings of Grass,” is one that will stick to me, which I think shows my own bias toward the scientific method. In it, Kimmerer’s student, Lena, examines how two different indigenous methods of harvesting affect the growth of sweetgrass. What she learns is that it’s not the method that matters so much as the fact that the sweetgrass is harvested. Both plots are more healthy than the un-harvested control group. There is a place for us on the planet. But, both harvesting methods involve taking only half the grass, a practice that Kimmerer notes seemed wasteful to European colonizers when they encountered it. Yet, today, sweetgrass grows best in areas adjacent to indigenous communities that have maintained the practice of making sweetgrass baskets.
I found this message hopeful. We can find a way to coexist with plants and animals. However, I also found myself asking what that looks like for me, living in a condo outside a major city. I don’t have a place (not even a balcony) to plant my own garden and nurture my own plants. And, if I’m being honest, I wouldn’t want to if I did. When I lived on a farm, I rarely could maintain much interest in gardening. I’ll never say never — who knows what I might take an interest in in the future — but I don’t see myself spending large amounts of time digging in the dirt.
So what can I do? I think, for now, the answer lies making observations and asking questions, considering where what I buy and what I eat comes from. I’ve done this with meat for a long time, and to a lesser extent with fruits and vegetables. Not so much with other things. The world being as it is, I’m not sure it’s possible to consume perfectly, in a way that is perfectly respectful of the planet. But there’s something to be said for at least acknowledging where the things we consume come from. And I think that’s largely what Kimmerer is interested in — learning to pay attention, to be thoughtful, to engage in what Kimmerer calls the “Honorable Harvest”:
The Honorable Harvest asks us to give back, in reciprocity, for what we have been given. Reciprocity helps resolve the moral tension of taking a life by giving in return something that sustains the ones who sustain us. One of our responsibilities as human people is to find ways to enter into reciprocity with the more-than-human world. We can do it through gratitude, through ceremony, through land stewardship, science, art, and in everyday acts of practical reverence.