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Book Review
Braiding Sweetgrass : Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants

Braiding Sweetgrass

by Robin Wall Kimmerer


In a series of exquisite and moving essays, Robin Wall Kimmerer, a botanist and a member of the Potawatomi Nation, explores ideas of nature and the natural world through a wholly unique, groundbreaking and well overdue perspective.

Kimmerer opens with the Iroquois or Hudonoshone creation story. Skywoman falls to the earth, caught along the way by birds, brought to rest on the back of a turtle, and muskrats dredge mug from the lakebed on which they float so she may make land. For their kindness she plants seeds, the very first to sprout being sweetgrass. This story provides the running theme, the backbone of the book: gift giving or reciprocity.

Like the opening, each essay is both story and lesson. The Grammar of Animacy reveals the ways that language can form the foundation of our view of the world. In The Three Sisters, Kimmerer explores the ecological symbiosis, the dance that takes place when corn, beans and squash are planted in harmony. The Honorable Harvest reminds the reader, reminds us, that giving back is just as important as taking, and how we take.

Much like the three sisters themselves there are three aspects to Kimmerer’s style that makes her writing so resonant. The application of her professional academic education in botany, environment and ecology to a non-western, non-colonial perspective, her Potawatomi heritage and culture. The final piece of this triumvirate is an unapologetically maternal take, resulting in writing that is a feast for the senses, palpable, rich and warm.

Most importantly, it offers an alternative lens through which to view the natural world. One that sees the environment as a network, a community in which everything, from stones, to lichen, strawberries and trees are gifts meant to be shared and cherished. It is a step away from the conventional, the dominant mindset of viewing the world, where hope and action, however it comes, are not an afterthought but a part of our mindset and values.

Kimmerer offers up an alternative to western and colonial thought, imbuing the spiritual thinking of Native American, particularly Potawatomi and Hudonoshone ways of looking at land and environment, with numbers driven by hard science.

Braiding Sweetgrass a book intended to be read slowly, to be savoured, felt and heard. Deeply moving, powerful and so vivid I could taste the maple, feel ferns and leeks on my fingertips and smell the sweetgrass on the wind. Her passion, her love, hums from the pages, bringing to tears and back again.

Reviewed by Kelsey Ward

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