'Braiding Sweetgrass': Reinforcing our ties to the natural world

Wednesday, July 1, 2020 - 6:25pm

NOSELL

Matt Lavin

Every time I see someone tread off a beaten trail, crushing plants in their wake, my heart crumples inside. “They’re just plants,” is the usual response I’m met with, words that cut inside me further. Plants may seem insignificant, partly due to their size and their position below our eye level. Humans are fascinated with animals larger than themselves — elephants or killer whales, for example — but aren’t thrilled by a small shrub. 

But have we forgotten that plants give us life? Plants are the reason we can roam this Earth. Or, in the words of Robin Wall Kimmerer, plants give us “the privilege of breath.”

I wonder how often we think of plants and trees in this way, how regularly we view the world as animate and directly responsible for our own lives. How different would our world look if we saw the non-animal lives around us as our greatest teachers? In her book “Braiding Sweetgrass,” Robin Wall Kimmerer shows us just how beautiful that planet could be. 

“Braiding Sweetgrass” focuses on the space between indigenous knowledge and scientific thought, where both thrive and complement each other. Kimmerer belongs to the Citizen Potawatomi nation, but is also a distinguished botanist. Lending her voice to both the scientific and indigenous perspective, Kimmerer reconciles two worlds drifting apart, and uses her knowledge of both to envision a more sustainable future.

When I picked up “Braiding Sweetgrass,” spring was knocking on my door. Lime-green shoots were beginning to peek out of the earth, the endless winter finally ceasing. I remember walking through the forest and seeing right through it — the towering trees weren’t yet filled with leaves, but buds were starting to sparkle in the dim sunlight. I read as the world was waking from its slumber, and Kimmerer’s words provided the perfect commentary. Kimmerer’s intricate understanding of the natural world isn’t intimidating, but rather comforting and gentle. You don’t have to be an ecologist to understand her writing and take something from it. Chapters are told as first person narratives, but by the end you’ve inadvertently learned enough about pond eutrophication or the utility of wetland cattails to confidently explain it to someone else.

Early on, Kimmerer challenges our private, capitalist worldview, and instead urges us to think communally. The world isn’t rich for individual taking, but instead generous with resources that sustain lives and communities. As is the tragedy of the commons, our species often ends up taking more than our share, and as a result we see whole ecosystems — rainforests, wetlands, tundras — disappear. Kimmerer gives a good reason for why we do this: The Western world still fails to recognize the world as animate. Indigenous languages such as Potawatomi are about 70 percent verbs, while English is only 30 percent. The verb “to be” applies to much more than just humans in Potawatomi, and thus many more things are considered alive. 

“When bay is a noun, it is defined by humans, trapped between its shores and contained by the world. But the verb wiikwegamaa — to be a bay — releases the water from bondage and lets it live,” Kimmerer writes. If we saw the world as living instead of dead, would we be as eager to take from it without return?

Kimmerer shows us that gratitude is the antidote to many evils, particularly those which we have wreaked, knowingly and unknowingly, on the world. She envisions a time when schoolchildren will start the day with the Onondaga Thanksgiving Address instead of the Pledge of Allegiance, giving thanks to the Earth instead of to nations defined by political boundaries. She dreams of a time when we see the Earth as a gift instead of a commodity and give something to it in return. “Gifts from the Earth or from each other establish a particular relationship, an obligation of sorts to give, to receive, and to reciprocate,” Kimmerer writes. Every time we take, shouldn’t we be thinking of how we can give back?

If we greet the Earth each morning, listen to its calls and give it thanks, it’s hard not to feel gratitude. “Listening, standing witness, creates an openness to the world in which the boundaries between us can dissolve in a raindrop,” Kimmerer writes. If we go as far as to love the planet that sustains us, we unlock an even more precious world of knowledge. “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,” Kimmerer writes. Once we love the world, we can work to save it.

Reading “Braiding Sweetgrass” makes me want to trace my hands along the bark of a hickory, watch asters and goldenrods sway with the breeze, gently dig up the soft humus of the forest floor to reveal the tangled network of roots below. The book is an ecological awakening for anyone disconnected with the Earth. It tugs at our conscience and calls on us to give something in return for everything we have received. So how do we show our gratitude?

We can start by thanking the Earth each morning and night. Taking time to breathe in the fresh air of a new day is a lovely way to show our appreciation. I like to use the world around me to inspire my art, focusing on a new specimen every time I open my sketchbook. Buying locally and reducing our personal food waste follows the philosophy of taking only what we need to sustain ourselves. Above all else, Kimmerer recommends planting a garden. Being close to the Earth and feeling the soil underneath your fingers reinforces the bond between us and the Earth, a bond weakened in recent years but not beyond repair. We can still delve into the world and start listening again. 

“We spill over into the world and the world spills over into us,” Kimmerer writes. The words bring tears to my eyes and blur the ink on the page. I feel like I’ve been waiting my whole life to hear something that so closely mirrors my own thoughts. The Earth has so often healed my wounds and given me a shoulder to rest on. If we’re brave enough to cross the bridge into the world of plants, we could heal more than the Earth. Gratitude for the world is our missing piece. Once we hold it, we become more compassionate and generous beings. The Earth can complete our puzzle.