It’s been awhile since I have posted here. Graduate school has not left much time for writing extra posts for blog spaces, or I’ve been too exhausted to reformat them for other spaces here.
However, this book report turned out exceptionally well and I would love to share it with you. This was part of my Social and Environmental Justice in Education class. I hope you enjoy it, and please check out the Thanksgiving Address below and consider using it as part of your Thanksgiving grace and gratitude.
By Robin Wall Kimmerer (2013)
Robin Wall Kimmerer is a Ph.D botanist (currently a SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor of Environmental Biology), a mother of two, and a member of the Potowatomi Nation. One of the important points of this book is that she uses these diverse perspectives simultaneously in presenting a worldview that integrates and draws from each one of them. I would argue that this book exactly is the identities that Kimmerer is, and therefore becomes a profound meditation on identity. In truly being herself, she presents a version and vision of seeing that benefits all of them and the reader alike.
This is a wonderful book. For me, at least, it inspires a kind of wonder that I am yet fully able to articulate. And this does not necessarily come easily for me. If I had to put my sense to it, this book accomplishes many of the aims I have with my own career; integration of wisdom traditions, the blending of science with traditional knowledges, the creative writing of personal experience, and a pedagogy of resilience.
I find myself deliberately avoiding the assignment prompts of this book report to try and capture and emulate even a shred of the creative narrative that Robin Wall Kimmerer accomplishes with almost every chapter. Each one, starting in such an easy and ordinary experience, soon blending into something between personal narrative, ecology lecture, Native story or tradition, slice-of-life on the farm, the toils of academics, and often all in the same breath. Where one direction belies the title of each section, “The Gift of Strawberries,” “A Mother’s Work,” “The Three Sisters,” the almost innocence of their starting leads trails and paths, a weaving of such amazing intricacy, depth and meaning that when those trails become clear and meet with the questions of life, animacy, and the necessity of reciprocity, she crafts a different kind of knowledge than you could expect from any one of them alone.
In “The Gift of Strawberries,” for example, we are introduced to Kimmerer’s father’s love of strawberries, stories of her harvesting them as a child to give to him on Father’s Day. It becomes soon a meditation on the ownership of plants and land, how to understand the gifts of Mother Earth, how the author feels when she sees these gifts in the supermarket, plastic wrapped and monetized. Wild strawberries can fit the definition of gift, but store-bought cannot. The nature of gift-giving changes how we understand the objects exchanged, and this realized reciprocity (or not) influences our understanding and cognizance of that reciprocity, and has effects in the real world. In the gift economy or in tending of sweet grass, the Native view of how to treat the world and the gifts of the land, we understand that the reciprocity attached to gifts is different than merely getting something for free. Responsibility for the gifts of the earth is the biggest message of Braiding Sweetgrass.
Kimmerer’s ecological knowledge, both from her training as a botanist in academia and the Native knowledges passed to her from her tribal peoples comes through in important ways. In “A Mother’s Work,” we are given her memoiric tales of wanting to be a good mother to her two daughters, and, as a recent single parent, decides to reclaim the pond in their new home to a swimming hole when they move. Her exuberance to give her daughters this gift turns quickly to environmental perspectives of what makes ecological restoration possible—the knowledge of Cladophora algae, eutrophication and nutrient enrichment cycles, tadpoles and pollywogs, and the scientific web of life that existed in her pond. If that weren’t enough, the natural cycles (phosphate cycling to pond succession) are mirrored in herself and her daughters as she tries to reclaim a potential of water quality that would benefit swimming in clear waters as much as her aging. But to do so, Kimmerer must confront how her own actions jeopardize the life that was in the pond, the webs of Hydrodictyon, the birds nesting in willow by its banks—she had become the destruction of other mothers’ hard-won life in pursuit of her own. With tending these waters, she invokes the interplay of ecologies, the webs and mothers at every stage, and even in that destruction, there is also new life, and new sweetgrass planted at the banks to teach children how to grow and tend the waters. And the algae grew back all the same the next year. The task, she claims, is to find out what the gifts of age bring rather than trying to turn back the succession of time, but what gets done matters, and tending to the water is both important to women’s work (explained not as gender role but as respected mantle) in the tribe and to teaching children that in death and upheaval, there are new gifts.
In “The Three Sisters” she explains the traditional native guild of Corn, Bean and Squash (capitalized, for all beings in the web of life attend recognition and respect as such). With botanist detail of growth cycles and nitrogen fixation, we learn too of the mythology of the Three Sisters that each of these plants exemplifies. How each role they play is important to that family of plants, a family that grows from the earth to completely feed and give life to its people. In understanding these gifts of Mother Earth, there is the embedded reminder that each person also must find the gift that they have to strengthen the family; that being a viny bean plant depending on Corn’s tall uprightness might just mean you have rhizomatic gifts that feed others’ deeper growth from your hidden nitrogen fixing. That being a roly-poly, vitamin-filled pumpkin means your broad, spiny leaves preserve soil moisture and deter hungry caterpillars, your flesh the balance of protein and starch. These are the stories of the tribal ancestors, the reason we pay respect and reciprocity to all our relations in the great web of life.
In the story of “Wendigo,” we have what might be called a cautionary faerytale (the old, gory, Grimm kind), warning of the dangers of thinking only of one’s self, only of fattening and excess (the root of Wendigo). This becomes the same cautionary tale of environmental exploitation and extractivism, the savageness of mountaintop removal, diamond mines in Rwanda, the complicity to market economies, the savageness of the Wendigo’s horror of consumption—and the imperative not to feed it.
When her daughters are caught silently protesting the pledge of allegiance in school, we are given the story of how Kimmerer too, as a kindergartener, felt part of something bigger through these group participations. But as she grew older, the justice implied by the pledge was questioned, and lacked; further too because such recitation rarely leads to adult allegiance, and less so too for Native children learning of that hypocrisy. We understand the importance of an “Allegiance to Gratitude” and the Thanksgiving Address (PDF) of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. This is how we can live and love our country, but recognize that our gratitude is bigger than political boundaries can hold. Our thanks to the land must also be included for all Creation.
I would love to go on and on about each chapter, but the original is far better and I think you get the sense. Others continue on the theme of gifts, reciprocity, and how to practice gratitude. How the patience to get through her writing (and perhaps even this essay) is a part of the process of learning how to understand that gratitude. Other meanderings end up being metaphorays, walks wherein the author, like a forager for new plants and foods, finds new connections and stories, some new, with Latin roots, some old, with ancient roots. Some are stories of her students, forays into botany classes—both from her harrowing, amateur time as a new teacher, and later as she spoke her truth, brought students to her world, as she does in this book. Some are stories of her ancestors, grandfathers that had to survive through Indian boarding schools, their language purged, their hair cut like their identities and stories cut from their lives. If there is any aspect of her speaking truth to power in this book, it is so utterly hidden behind every moss and meadow, and yet present in a truly alive and numinous way.
This is the way to walk with the ancestors, healing colonization and invasive species with First Man Nanabozho, the way of observing and changing that can be both Native and Western science, and how to learn to stay in this land we have called home; how to embrace indigenization, truly make it and respect it as a home, recognize the gifts around us, and be thankful.
Personally, I can find myself (if it wasn’t obvious) agreeing wholeheartedly with the author. The weaving of creative nonfiction with the storied life, the story of science, the story of activity in all the Relations, and the stories of the Native peoples of this land, are utterly compelling. In my own research and drive, this is demonstrative of that middle key, the tones and singing of spheres that transcend disciplinary boundaries and blinders to other ways of being in the world. It may be a pedagogy for a post-industrial, post-modern world.
That said, I also find myself leaving the animus of Native traditions to my agnosticism. I know how to give thanks to those stories, to see their usefulness and appreciate the mythology, but I also know how my own metaphysics must leave some of that mythology to useful stories and not fully reified. I’m also a chemist by training, and while I know that the disenchantment of the world has been shown in my research to be one of the primary problems with our current environmental predicament, I know too that over-animating and relying on any unknown Providence may be unwise. I’m arguing for a living world, not a new god or Gaia of totality, but one that recognizes the animation, the activity in everything. This is the Latourian Gaia I look forward to understanding more, and this is the Mother Earth that I can support and give my thanks to—and see Kimmerer having written here.
I find it difficult to ask questions of an audience so seemingly distant behind screens, but I have also embraced my technopaganism—and you have read thus far some small shred of this dense book. If this prose has been any use to you, I would wonder how. How can a book like this be transformative as we understand how to become more rooted in place, how to be at home on the Earth, and the implications for all of our actions and beliefs? Does gratitude fill the gap and satisfy the relentless hunger of our supposed consumerist society? How long would that take, to see the land and our brother Squash and sister Moon as a relation? Will that make our minds one, or are there other, important perspectives that need to be voiced, hurdles to the story? What voices do you hear, or more mundanely, from what modes of existence do you see that challenge the importance of gratitude and some greater sense of reciprocity?
A quick postscript in that Kimmerer also acknowledges importantly the work of many of our OSU elders and associates: Kathleen Dean Moore, Charles Goodrich (both having worked extensively to form the program I’m currently in), Michael Nelson, Robert Michael Pyle, and many others. My thanks to them also, again, as well.