Braiding Sweetgrass

I was thankful reading 'Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teaching of Plants' that, in fact, I have planted a tree or two - in Devon on the land of a friend - amongst the three thousand or so he planted in the last decade of his life. I could tell myself that, at least, I had made one act of reciprocity towards the non-human world that sustains and cares for us, as we, more often than not, ignore or even disdain it (if not always in our thoughts, often in our actions, conscious and unconscious).

It is to raising our awareness of the responsibilities we owe that Robin Wall Kimmerer turns her considerable gifts - as a poetic writer, an indigenous Native American and a distinguished botanist - in this marvelous series of essays.

In the way that sweetgrass to be braided requires reciprocity -one to braid and one to hold - so to all our actions, in the world, need to be conducted into and out of a web of holding relationships, of a wider community, ever particular, that contains human and non-human members. We can chose always to ignore (or repress) the reality of those relationships but to do so is an abiding impoverishment, one whose shadow grows ever darker.

Like a braid too, in order to see the world aright requires acts that enfold body, emotion, mind and spirit, and that draws on cumulative wisdom as well as the understandings of science.

There is a wonderful essay about a young woman's master's thesis. She wants to see whether there is any difference in care of sweetgrass depending on the techniques of its harvesting. Why, ask her examiners? We all know that harvesting, whatever the method, causes disturbance, where is the science in confirming what we already know? The woman persists - the basket weavers who use the sweetgrass are concerned about its depletion and want to know whether adopting a different harvesting technique will make a difference. The examiners shrug their shoulders and the young woman proceeds. What they find in the end, after careful study, is that neither of the techniques is causing depletion, indeed, pace the examiners, it is where the sweetgrass is not being used that precipitates its decline. Human and plant have a reciprocal, mutually informing relationship, not all disturbance is depleting (or indeed disturbing). A portion of ecological science is nudged forward (which the examiners, finally, gracefully agree). We, humans, are young members of the same created order that makes and sustains all things - still very much working it out but, at our best, as necessary and fruitful as any other creature.

It is to the possibilities of this best that Wall Kimmerer keeps focused on, mostly, recognizing that what we do not need is another book of ecological despair. Here is a collection of resources - myth, story, poem, plants and scientific insight - that are grounds for abiding hope.

She must be a gifted teacher - certainly her scientific descriptions are beautifully lucid - I know how a tree gets its rings and understand the subtle interaction of fungi and algae that go to make lichen etc - and, most importantly, have been encouraged, once more, to fall in love with the more than human world. It is in that loving being deepened that our hope lies.



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