Colorado State University Center for Literary Publishing

Book Review

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

By Robin Wall Kimmerer

Reviewed By Aurora D. Bonner

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“We spill over into the world and the world spills over into us.”

Robin Wall Kimmerer published Braiding Sweetgrass eight years ago, yet this past year the essay collection has topped charts across the country. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants is a call to action that combines memoir, Indigenous storytelling, and scientific writing. Kimmerer, a botanist and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, examines the relationships people have with the land from a traditional and scientific view, prompting us to do the same.

As soon as I opened Braiding Sweetgrass and read the essay “Skywoman Falling,” I understood why Kimmerer’s book has risen to fame now, of all times. The effect of the past year has been twofold: intense tragedy coupled with an overwhelming appreciation for what we have in life—relationships, health, and our environment. Life in the time of a pandemic, with thousands working from home or quarantining, has forced our society to take a collective breath and turn our attention outward. Skywoman, the creation story, mirrors this upheaval and transformation, and brings hope in a time of uncertainty.

Through this book, Kimmerer teaches us that our relationship to our living environment is a “web of reciprocity, of giving and taking.” Powerfully illustrated in “The Honorable Harvest,” we walk with her as she forages for wild leeks in preparation for a dinner to celebrate her daughters’ return home. “I ask the leeks to renew the bonds between this ground and my children,” she writes, “so that they will always carry the substance of home in the mineral of their body.”

However, when she finds “ragged papery sheaths” where “fat white bulbs” should be, she tucks them back in the ground and returns home empty-handed. “If you ask permission, you have to listen to the answer.”

Later, Kimmerer heads to her local grocery store to conduct an experiment “to see if one can subsist in this market economy and still practice the rules of the Honorable Harvest.” However, her experiment has an unexpected variable:

I am stopped in my tracks in the produce section. There on a Styrofoam tray, sheathed in plastic and tagged at the princely sum of $15.50 per pound, are Wild Leeks. The plastic presses down on them: they look trapped and suffocated. Alarm bells go off in my head, alarms of commoditization of what should be regarded as a gift and all the dangers that follow from that kind of thinking. Selling leeks makes them mere objects and cheapens them, even at $15.50 per pound. Wild things should not be for sale.

Kimmerer could have focused on the fear and foreboding of our dwindling wilderness, as we often see in eco-lit, but instead Kimmerer’s call to action comes in the accessible form of appreciation and love. By focusing on gratitude—of nurturing and embracing our living environments—she speaks directly to our larger, deeper symbiotic connection to the earth, as is evident when she writes:

We are showered every day with gifts, but they are not meant for us to keep. Their life is that in their movement, the inhale and exhale of our shared breath. Our work and our joy is to pass along the gift and to trust that what we put out into the universe will always come back.

 This sense of reciprocity, of recognizing and nurturing the gifts in the world, is personalized in “The Consolation of Water Lilies,” where Kimmerer speaks about honoring and letting go of her most precious gifts—her children. In reference to her eldest daughter leaving home, she says, “I had known it would happen from the first time I held her—from that moment on, all of her growing would be away from me.” One of the most intimate views into the author’s life, this essay is lyrical and moving. In her most vulnerable moment, as her identity shifts from being her daughters’ mother into uncharted territory, Kimmerer turns to the natural world in order to help her work through the feelings of loss and uncertainty. After helping her youngest daughter move away, she goes kayaking to “celebrate (her) freedom rather than mourn (her) loss.” Paddling until fatigued, she floats in lake water, among the water lilies, to “let the sadness come adrift.” But what she finds instead is comfort. She writes:

The earth, that first among good mothers, gives us the gift that we cannot provide ourselves. I hadn’t realized that I had come to the lake and said feed me, but my empty heart was fed. I had a good mother. She gives what we need without being asked. I wonder if she gets tired, old Mother Earth. Or if she too is fed by the giving. “Thanks,” I whispered. “for all of this.”

This past year, as we’ve experienced a collective loss, bird-watching has become popular; we’ve grown curious about the parks and natural areas near where we live; and we’re planting seeds and growing plants—even foraging is on the uptrend. Through our circumstances, many of us are really noticing our natural environments for the first time and feeling a sense of gratitude from deep within, the reciprocity of the “ancient relationship” Kimmerer conveys. Braiding Sweetgrass is the answer to what we’ve been experiencing, a guidebook to help us understand this pull to the wilder places in our world. Kimmerer’s words are the motherly insight we need to tame our collective uncertainty. “Respect one another, support one another, bring your gift to the world and receive the gifts of others,” she writes, “and there will be enough for all.”

Aurora Bonner is an environmentally-inspired writer and teacher. Her work has been published through national and regional publications, including Under the Gum Tree, Colorado Review, Assay, Brevity, and in the anthology Dine published by Books by Hippocampus. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing.