Braiding Sweetgrass: Finding a way through environmental despair

At the ASLE conference earlier this summer I heard this book referenced in a number of sessions.

And now, having read it, I realize why.

Braiding Sweetgrass is a rich collection of essays about plants and animals, indigenous and scientific awareness, and our tenuous relationship with nature. But more than that, it is the story of one woman’s journey, from a childhood of conflicting cultures to a scientific career of conflicting world views.

Along the way, Kimmerer, teaches us about how native cultures understood and interacted with nature and one another, contrasted against our current society, and its shortsightedness and recklessness.

She contrasts the Pledge of Allegiance her children were compelled to recite with the Onondoga Nation Thanksgiving Address and finds the Pledge of Allegiance sadly lacking:

As I grew to understand the gifts of the earth, I couldn’t understand how “love of country” could omit recognition of the actual country itself. The only promise it requires is to the flag. What of the promises to each other and to the land? What would it be like to be raised on gratitude, to speak to the natural world as a member of the democracy of species, to raise a pledge of interdependence?” And, later: “In the Thanksgiving Address, I hear respect respect toward all our nonhuman relatives, not on political entity, but to all of life. What happens to nationalism, to political boundaries, when allegiance lies with winds and waters that know no boundaries, that cannot be bought or sold?

My favorite essay is titled Learning the Grammar of Animacy and it concerns languages and how languages both reflect culture and reinforce it. In the essay, she is struggling to learn the Potawatomi language. She writes:

English is a noun-based language, somehow appropriate to a culture so obsessed with things. Only 30 percent of English words are verbs, but in Potawatomi that proportion is 70 percent. Which means that 70 percent of the words have to be conjugated, and 70 percent have different tenses and cases to be mastered. European languages often assign gender to nouns, but Potawatomi does not divide the world into masculine and feminine. Nouns and verbs are both animate and inanimate.

And despite the immense challenge of keeping this language alive (there are only 9 speakers left) the effort is well worth it. For the language has much to teach us about how we (Western language speakers) have grown up seeing and interacting with the world.

In English, we never refer to a member of our family, or indeed to any person, as it. That would be a profound act of disrespect. It robs a person of selfhood and kingship, reducing a person to a mere thing. So it is that in Potawatomi and most other indigenous languages, we use the same words to address the living world as we use for our family. Because they are family.

And this applies not just to nonhuman animals but any living thing.

When we tell them that the tree is not a who, but an it, we make that maple an object; we put a barrier between us, absolving ourselves of moral responsibility and opening the door to exploitation. Saying it makes a living land into “natural resources.” If a maple is an it, we can take up the chain saw. if a maple is a her, we think twice.

Kimmerer writes that “English doesn’t give us many tools for incorporating respect for animacy.” Indeed.

In an essay about her adventures as an instructor, it’s fascinating and frustrating to follow her field trip with a group of students (some of whom do not believe in global warming, let alone evolution) and her efforts to open their eyes to nature. She is the sort of hands-on, passionate and playful teacher that every student should have the benefit of knowing.

There is also great sadness in this book, in remembering the violence done to people and land, in our society’s seeming indifference to the mistakes we could so easily learn from. And yet she documents example upon example of people who are doing their very best, against great odds, to right the wrongs, to turn this sinking old ship around.

I did find one essay, titled The Honorable Harvest, curiously inconsistent. In it, Kimmerer profiles an animal trapper and fishing guide who is (to be fair) more humane and conservation-minded that most anyone around. But to call what he does honorable is a disservice to animals. True, he (and others) do protect land and animals, but must we sacrifice a portion of animals in return? I don’t see honor in killing animals, no matter what emotional or philosophical counterbalance is employed. Kimmerer is an excellent wordsmith which is why I find it odd to see “honorable harvest” used in place of a more accurate phrase, “sustainable slaughter.”

But I must admit that if most people were to read and embrace the lessons of this book that this planet and its creatures would be so much better off.

I can see why this book came up in so many ASLE sessions, because it touches on so many issues — family, native peoples, land stewardship, our conflicted relationships with animals and one another.

While so many nonfiction books I read these days lead me from one bleak conclusion to another, this book left me feeling hopeful. Because the author is hopeful, and stubborn, and smart and one hell of writer. Robin Wall Kimmerer doesn’t just point out the many challenges we face as a planet but she points a way forward.

Braiding Sweetgrass
Milkweed Press