Friday, September 22, 2023

Book Review: Braiding Sweetgrass

“As a botanist, Robin Wall Kimmerer has been trained to ask questions of nature with the tools of science. As a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, she embraces the notion that plants and animals are our oldest teachers. In Braiding Sweetgrass, Kimmerer brings these two ways of knowledge together”
, says the blurb of Braiding Sweetgrass, which is enough for me to want to read the book. There are three main strands in the book- the author’s exploration of Native American wisdom, her musings as a mother and the need to take action now- all three of which are braided together in much the same way as Sweetgrass.

According to Native American legend, Sweetgrass was the first plant to grow on earth. “Breathe in its scent and you start to remember things you didn’t know you had forgotten.” Sweetgrass is a powerful ceremonial plant and it is also used to weave baskets. Like Sweetgrass, the book describes indigenous wisdom and a world where each species lives in balance with the other. It is also extremely practical and draws attention to how urgently we need to heal the world.

The book is divided into five sections-

Planting Sweetgrass, where we are told stories from Native American folklore and of how it relates to us today. We learn about the gift of reciprocity and of how to communicate with the natural world. Tending Sweetgrass draws on the author’s experience as a mother and connects human mothers to Mother Nature. In Picking Sweetgrass, we learn about the Honourable Harvest- never take the first or the last, never take more than half, always seek permission before taking, take only as much as you need, take in a way that causes no harm, offer thanks for what you have been given, leave a gift of reciprocity. Braiding Sweetgrass talks of rediscovering nature, of learning to love the land instead of merely seeking to understand it. The last section, Burning Sweetgrass, is perhaps the darkest. It speaks of how human beings have destroyed nature and made it toxic for all living beings- but even here there is hope. Hope that someday soon, we will learn, and we will help nature heal.

At the core of the book is the difference in two ways of living, each described perfectly through their respective creation myths. The way of the Native Americans is the way of Skywoman, who fell to the earth, and with the help of all the creatures (including a few who sacrificed their life for her), planted the seeds she had brought with her, and created a world where all lived in harmony. The Western way is described by the story of Eve who was banished from Paradise and had to make her way in the world by fighting for what she needed- the consumeristic way. How much better is the way of giving with gratitude, where there is reciprocity between the giver and the receiver and each is responsible for the survival of the other. When Western colonisers first encountered Native Americans, they thought that they were lazy, but in reality the difference is simply that one set of people is driven by greed and the other by need.

The book is full of human and non-human teachers who have much to teach us- lessons on reciprocity, on giving, on helping each other and on living in harmony. The story of the Three Sisters in particular stands out. Corn, Beans and Squash are the Three Sisters who grow together, each providing what the other two need. Corn provides support for the beans, squash prevents attacks on the corn and the bean, bean fixes nitrogen for the corn and squash. Yellow, green and orange- the three plants have adapted so they grow together in a symbiotic relationship- together, each of them produces more than any of them would individually. But, adds the author, there is also a fourth sister- human beings. It is the human being who collects the seeds, protects them through winter and plants them at the right time. The human being benefits from the abundance of the Three Sisters, but the Three Sisters may not exist without the human being. This story tells so much, not only about the adaptations in nature, but also about the role of humans in the ecosystem. A role no more or no less than that played by any of the other species.

We tend to think of human beings as the apex of the evolutionary chain. We place our species on a special place in the ecosystem. In reality, though, we are just one more species among countless others. This realisation should make us feel insignificant, but it makes us feel magnificent to be an intrinsic part of such a complex whole.

We live in a consumeristic world. We think everything the earth has is ours for the taking. Some of us worry about the future of our species and advocate for reversing some of the damage we have done. This book is revolutionary. It urges us to put aside everything we have learnt and to understand that another world is possible- one where we respectfully take only as much as we need, and do so in a manner that doesn’t cause harm. It would call for a drastic rethinking of everything we know before such a world becomes possible, but it is something worth aiming for.

I summarise with an extract that shows how human intervention is often not just beneficial but necessary to the well being of other species. In a scientific experiment to determine which method of harvesting Sweetgrass was most beneficial, plots of land were monitored over several months. A few plots were left unharvested as a control-

“The surprise was that the failing plots were not the harvested ones, as predicted, but the unharvested controls. The sweetgrass that hadn’t been picked or disturbed in any way was choked with dead stems while the harvested plots were thriving. Even though half of all stems had been harvested each year, they quickly grew back, completely replacing everything that had been gathered. In fact producing more shoots than were present before harvest. Picking sweetgrass seemed to actually stimulate growth. In the first year’s harvest, the plants that grew the very best were the ones that had been yanked up in a handful. But, whether it was pinched singly or pulled in a clump, the end result was nearly the same: it didn’t seem to matter how the grass was harvested, only that it was.”

We speak of Climate Justice and Environmental Justice. While both are important, neither is sufficient. Till we understand the fundamental truth that each species is bound to the other with strands of reciprocity, and occupy our allotted place in the world knowing that truth, things look bleak for us as a species.

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