Nature. Sociology. Nonfiction. As a botanist and professor of plant ecology, Robin Wall Kimmerer has spent a career learning how to ask questions of nature using the tools of science. As a Potawatomi woman, she learned from elders, family, and history that the Potawatomi, as well as a majority of other cultures indigenous to this land, consider plants and animals to be our oldest teachers. In Braiding Sweetgrass, Kimmerer brings these two lenses of knowing together to reveal what it means to see humans as "the younger brothers of creation." As she explores these themes, she circles toward a central argument: The awakening of a wider ecological consciousness requires the acknowledgement and celebration of our reciprocal relationship with the world. Once we begin to listen for the languages of other beings, we can begin to understand the innumerable life-giving gifts the world provides us and learn to offer our thanks, our care, and our own gifts in return.
Braiding Sweetgrass is a collection of essays exploring Indigenous relationships with plants and the earth. Kimmerer is a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and also a botanist who teaches at traditional American universities. She explores the
I highlighted hundreds of passages in this book. Some books change your point of view and thinking for the better and this one definitely verbalized a perspective that I was ready to hear. I loved Kimmerer's sentiment that everyone is Indigenous to some land. As a nation of immigrants in the U.S. and Canada (her focus areas) we should strive to create an indigenous mindset to our current land by learning about our national landscape and how we can live in a reciprocal relationship with the mutual environment that we share with plants and animals.
Certainly, there aren't easy answers here. We are a transient population. It's hard to connect with the land when you move through multiple diverse regions. It's hard to connect with the environment when you live removed from green spaces. It's hard to connect with plants when they are endangered from our actions. I think it's best to look at this book as a way to inspire a desire to connect with our environment. By spending time in it, I think most people will naturally want to protect it. I will say that one of the few highlights of this pandemic has been the incredible amount of time I've spent in our local woods behind our house with my two young boys. We've spent countless hours hiking through barely navigable paths, splashing in our creek, scrambling over rocks, looking at mushrooms and weird bugs. And they've spent countless more hours playing - masked :-) - with a small group of friends creating a whole world back in the woods. I feel lucky that we ended up living in an area that is both incredibly suburban and beautifully wooded.
I highly recommend reading this book. It's a slow book, a challenging book, and an uncomfortable book at times, but it really challenged my perspective in a good way and the ideas will definitely now make up a part of my worldview.
Original publication date: 2015
Author’s nationality: Citizen Potawatami Nation
Original language: English
Length: 385 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars
Format/where I acquired the book: library kindle
Why I read this: came up in searching for books on Indigenous culture
The best one of all came right in the introduction:
"Sometimes I wish I could photosynthesize so that just by being, just by shimmering at the meadow's edge or floating lazily on a pond, I could be doing the work of the world by standing silent in the sun." Such a beautiful thought! In snow-covered February in particular.
Here is another: what the earth gives to us is a gift, and consider how differently we often feel about an object when we have received it as a gift. Kimmerer tells of a dream where she walked through a vivid Andean outdoor market, and picked up a fresh bunch of cilantro. When she went to pay, she was gestured away. It turned out everything in the market was being given away as a gift. She found herself being careful not to take too much; and she found herself wondering what presents she might bring to give to the (non-)vendors the next day. We should view the earth that way.
Then there is the chapter "Learning the Grammar of Animacy". Her ancestral language, Potawatomi, uses "he/she" pronouns for almost everything, certainly all plant and animal life; the "it" pronoun is reserved for things that truly and beyond a doubt have no life, like a piece of plastic. How might we feel differently if we called the trees "he" or "she" instead of "it"? She asked how one would feel if someone referred to her grandmother as "it". "It is making soup. It has gray hair." It would be kind of funny, and definitely disrespectful. It certainly makes me feel funny just to think about it. It's wrong. She feels it is just as wrong to call a tree an "it"! Try thinking about it next time you wander and ponder outdoors. How might we be treating the earth differently if our language called the trees and plants and all growing things "he" or "she"?
The Potawatomi language is also very heavy on verbs. There's a verb for "to be red." "To be a hill." And her favorite, "To be a bay." Very frustrating to learn! But notice how it animates everything.
It may seem off topic, but things are converging to bring me closer and closer to a vegetarian lifestyle. I ponder her sentence, "I wish I could photosynthesize... doing the work of the world." Plants do the work of the world. What parasites on them the rest of us are - without plants, we are doomed! What a gift to have so many plants to eat. To eat any higher on the food chain, to eat not the plants but the things that eat the plants... seems very, I don't know, out of tune and needlessly complicated and far removed from the "work of the world."
I find myself taking this to heart, the 'gift economy' that is the bounty of the earth, the animation of all things, and I find myself nightly thinking back over the day and, silly as it sounds, saying thank you, oats and banana... thank you, apple and grapes... And with 32 days till spring equinox, I long to see the plants return and do the work of the world; I'm sure I will see them with new eyes.
The subtitle "Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants" made me imagine a science-y book that explained how indigenous folklore meshed with how plants worked. That's not at all what this book is. Don't get me wrong, there is science (the essay on lichens especially taught me a lot), and perhaps because it was the antithesis of an academic paper I probably learned more than I realize. What Kimmerer does is gently challenge us to reevaluate our relationship with the natural world. In one essay, she discusses the differences in creation narratives and its effect on how we treat the earth. In another, she talks about how she cleaned out a pond, restoring an ecosystem but also making trade-offs, knowing that she was killing organisms to get there. There's a lot to mull over or discuss with a book club.
The writing was very personal and personable, both accessible and engaging. And after finishing it, I had an epiphany. I live in the land where Aldo Leopold is revered, and his A Sand County Almanac introducing his land ethic is celebrated. Of course, it is exactly the same philosophy that is central to many indigenous cultures as exemplified in this book, but of course once it's been repackaged and introduced as an original concept by a white man, well then, whole different story. I guess that makes Aldo Leopold the Elvis of environmental writing. My understanding is that similarly, the founding of the democracy of the United States of America was cribbed pretty heavily from the model of the Haudenosee Confederacy, but somehow we don't acknowledge the Native American source for the great American political experiment.
This book doesn't dwell on any of that. Instead it introduces us to many key species in American ecosystems, including pecans, strawberries, asters, goldenrods, maples, witch hazel, water lilies, black ash, lichens, and of course sweetgrass, plus key species of Indian agriculture, especially the famous three sisters of corn, beans, and squash. Each essay shares something ecological and then uses it as a metaphor to explore social, historical, cultural, economic aspects of life. The book also shares various aspects of indigenous ethics.
I think what struck me most was comparing the Skywoman creation myth to the Garden of Eden creation myth. "Can they, can we all, understand the Skywoman story not as an artifact from the past but as instructions for the future? Can a nation of immigrants once again follow her example to become native, to make a home?" versus "Look at the legacy of poor Eve's exile from Eden: the land shows the bruises of an abusive relationship. It's not just the land that is broken, but more importantly, our relationship to land." That's really something to think about--how our stories both show and shape our perceptions and values and priorities. This book has a lot to teach us.
This initial reading I was deliberately sensitive to affinities for Batesonian cybernetics: there were multiple points of resonance, and though RWK never mentioned Bateson by
It is an odd dichotomy we have set for ourselves, between loving people and loving land. We know that loving a person has agency and power -- we know it can change everything. Yet we act as if loving the land is an internal affair that has no energy outside the confines of our head and heart. 
RWK raises the principles of Original Instructions, an indigenous understanding of how living things should live on Earth; of the Onandaga Thanksgiving Address ; of the gardening style "Three Sisters" ; of the Honorable Harvest ; of Old Growth Cultures, living alongside old growth forests .
Braiding Sweetgrass turns out to be one of those books I take months to read, but never give up on, and really never "tune out" from. I did not anticipate this, given what I knew of it before reading, but my unhurried passage through the various essays fits both the substance and the outlook.
I fear that a world made of gifts cannot coexist with a world made of commodities. 
A handsome Milkweed Edition: hardbound, with a muted design both in palette and selected line drawings.
As an ecologist and member of the Potawatomi Nation, Kimmerer balances the native science she has learned from her ancestors’ stories with the science she researches and teaches. This book is full of short stories and essays examining
This book is not a panacea, however. It has lots of big ideas that are worth consideration but provides only individual solutions to what are societal problems (climate change, human/animal conflict, poverty, etc.) I enjoyed it most when I was listening to the audiobook and could just enjoy the stories instead of scrutinizing the larger implications of every idea.
The author read her own book, and her voice is gentle and quite effective, not something all authors can do. She is a Potawatomi woman, and brings her culture and the culture she's learned from others to the book. She is an observer and a teacher, a scientist and a poet, with all the attendant dichotomies of those combinations. Yes, this book is romanticized. Yes, it strives for the idealistic. And yes, it is a beautiful story that I recommend to anyone who cares about the earth, our indigenous people, and our future.
In these stories, she gently leads us to consider reciprocity, and to learn a way of thinking and being that was almost lost as the missionaries and settlers vigorously attempted to stamp out indigenous language and culture. Each of the stories here gives us a challenge, and a chance, to reconsider, to appreciate, to act and to lovingly braid the sweet-smelling hair of Skywoman.
1. Treat natural resources as a gift
2. Be thankful for all gifts
3. Don't take more
4. Native American knew a lot more about plants and ecology than people give credit for
5. humans and nature can exist in reciprocity and be beneficial to one another
6. Capitalism is bad and unsustainable
The book is basically just saying these 6 things, over and over again, with really flowery and poetic prose, and some interesting anecdotes.
This is a beautiful book. It combines memoir, history, botany, ethnography, and spirituality to describe a very different way of thinking about the world. The Native American relationship to nature is one of reciprocity, not dominance, of working with nature to achieve common goals instead of subverting it to our needs. Kimmerer celebrates the beauty and utility of nature, and sees plants as teachers and guardians. If we all thought about nature this way, the world would be a very different place.
It's worth reading this book slowly, and taking time to think about what she has to say. Now that I have read it once, I would like to re-read individual essays on a regular basis because there is so much to think about and absorb.
The author is an Indigenous woman who studied botany, so she learned our white scientific ways to study and research. But she combines that with everything she learned while growing up Indigenous – the traditional “ways of knowing”, specifically with regards to trees, plants,
I love the philosophy that nature is so much more than white people (and scientists) give it credit for. I can’t even explain, but I really did agree with most of what she described. I listened to the audio (read by the author) and I did lose focus at various parts, so I did miss some of it. But there were plenty of other interesting things mentioned/explained that I enjoyed listening to.