Braiding Sweetgrass

I love to come across books that make me stop me in my tracks, make my jaw drop, and make me realize they have something profound to say. Braiding Sweetgrass is such a book. Originally published in 2013, it was republished in 2020 in a beautiful hardcover version by Milkweed Editions, an independent publisher. I learned about it only recently, but once I cracked its cover, it kept me enthralled, speaking to my brain and heart in equal measure.

The author, Robin Wall Kimmerer, is a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. As an Indigenous individual and biologist, she has unique insights into the interconnectedness of all beings, which she shares in her writing and teaching as SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor of Environmental Biology.

Her seamless interweaving of Native thoughts and wisdom, biological concepts, and environmental concerns are presented in the most readable yet eloquent prose and make me want to copy page after page (I keep stacks of notebooks with literary quotes). If you have not yet read this gem of a volume, please do. If you are among those lucky enough to have discovered it already, please share your thoughts.

No summary of mine will do her writing justice, which is why I will let her words speak for themselves. Of note, all these quotes stem from the introduction, preface, and first chapter alone. The first, my favorite, has me in tears each time I read it. It isn’t the only one.

Everyone has a secret yearning I suppose, a latent desire for some kind of superpower or another life that might have been theirs. I know thou shalt not covet they neighbor’s chloroplasts—and yet I must confess to full-blown chlorophyll envy. . . ‘What I wrote years ago remains true: Sometimes I wish I could photosynthesize so that just by being, just by shimmering at the meadow’ edge of floating lazily on a pond, I could be doing the work of the world while standing silent in the sun.’ . . . One day, after I’m a daffodil, I will be able to photosynthesize. It’s something I look forward to.

On occasions such as this, writers are invariably asked, Why did you write this book?           . . . the truth is I wrote it because I couldn’t help myself. There were plant stories wanting to be told and they forced their way up through the ground and down into my arm with the motive force of Trillium pushing through soil. I had the honor and responsibility of holding the pen. I’m profoundly grateful for the privilege of carrying a message from the plants, so that they can do their work. I wrote from the belief that since plants are medicines, so too could their stories be healing.

I wrote Braiding Sweetgrass in response to longing in Indigenous communities that our philosophy and practices be recognized as guidance to set us back on the path of life. I wrote in response to longing from colonizers, beset with the aftermath of injustice and living on stolen land, to find a path of belonging. I heard longing from the trampled Earth herself to be loved and honored again. Longing from Sandhill cranes and wood thrushes and wild iris just to live.

I wrote from a sense of reciprocity, that in return for the privilege of spending my personal and professional life listening to plants, that I might share their teachings with those who didn’t even know that they had something to say.

Our stories say that of all the plants, wiingaashk, or sweetgrass, was the very first to grow on earth. . . Accordingly, it is honored as one of the four sacred plants of my people. Sweetgrass is a powerful ceremonial plant cherished by many Indigenous nations. It is also used to make beautiful baskets. . . . There is such tenderness in braiding the hair of someone you love. Kindness and something more flow between the braider and the braided, the two connected by the cord of the plait. Wiingaashk waves in strands, long and shining like a woman’s freshly washed hair. And so we say it is the flowing hair of Mother Earth. When we braid sweetgrass, we are braiding the hair of Mother Earth, showing her our loving attention, our care for her beauty and well-being, in gratitude for all she has given us.

I could hand you a braid of sweetgrass, as thick and shining as the plait that hung down my grandmother’s back. But it is not mine to give, nor yours to take. Wiingaashk belongs to herself. So I offer, in its place, a braid of stories meant to heal our relationship with the world. This braid is woven from three strands: Indigenous ways of knowing, scientific knowledge, and the story of an Anishinabekwe scientist trying to bring them together in the service of what matters most. It is an intertwining of science, spirit, and story—old stories and new ones that can be medicine for our broken relationship with earth, a pharmacopoeia of healing stories to allow us to imagine a different relationship, in which people and land are good medicine for each other.

As a society we stand at the brink, we know we do. Though the hole that opens at our feet, we can look down and see a glittering blue and green planet, as if from the vantage point of space, vibrating with birdsong and toad and tigers. We could close our eyes, keep breathing poison air, witness the extinction of our relatives and continue to measure our own worth by how much we take. . . . Or perhaps we look down, drawn toward the glittering green, hear the birdsong, smell the Sweetgrass and yearn to be part of a different story.

In the Western tradition there is a recognized hierarchy of beings, with, of course, the human being on top—and the plants at the bottom. But in Native ways of knowing, human people are often referred to as “the younger brothers of Creation.” We say that humans have the least experience with how to live and thus the most to learn—we must look to our teachers among the other species for guidance. Their wisdom is apparent in the way that they live. They teach us by example. They’ve been on the earth far longer than we have been, and have had time to figure things out. . . . Plants know how to make food and medicine from light and water, and then they give it away.

34 thoughts on “Braiding Sweetgrass

  1. Wow, thanks for sharing a post about ‘Braiding Sweetgrass,’ it’s not something I would’ve ever heard of I think, and I’m definitely interested. I’ll add it to my shopping list.

    Do you have a top 5 reads for the first half of 2021- I’d love to hear your recommendations.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’m glad my post sparked your interest in this remarkable book.

      As far as (two, not five) other books I have enjoyed reading this year:
      “The Lacuna” by Barbara Kingsolver (about Trotsky’s murder in Mexico, but I recommend all her books)
      “An American Princess” by Annjet van der Zijl (about a woman living in the Gilded Age)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Author Kimmerer (with Tanja as a conduit) has now provided quotes for my own notebook, labeled “wordsIwish.” In addition to being words I wish I could write, “I wish” I had had this perspective on sweetgrass when I watched it being woven into baskets on a visit to Charleston, SC, this spring. Thank you for sharing your joy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your comment, Doug. I completely relate to the sentiment behind your “wordsIwish” notebook. But in order to write as beautifully as this author, we would have to think and feel as beautifully as she. Something to aspire to!
      I’m so glad you got to watch sweetgrass being woven into baskets, even if you didn’t know then what you know now.
      Best wishes,
      Tanja

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  3. Thanks for the introduction. I’ve heard of the Potawatomi but had to check to find out where their territory had been. According to Wikipedia, the “Potawatomi are first mentioned in French records, which suggests that in the early 17th century, they lived in what is now southwestern Michigan.”

    I also had to look up sweetgrass, and learned that “in North America Hierochloe odorata occurs in southern Canada, northern Great Plains/Rocky Mountains and northwest of U.S., and New England.” To my surprise, I also found that “in continental Europe it occurs north from Switzerland. There is only one site in Ireland, and it is recorded in four counties of Scotland and one in north-eastern England.” That leaves open the possibility that you knew it as part of your native flora in Germany. It would be interesting to compare European folklore about sweetgrass with that of the Potawatomi and other North American tribes.

    A portion of your first quoted passage caught my attention: “just by being, just by shimmering at the meadow’s edge or floating lazily on a pond, I could be doing the work of the world while standing silent in the sun.” It reminded me of Milton’s sonnet, “On His Blindness,” with its famous last line: “They also serve who only stand and wait.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your interest, Steve. I also looked up the distribution of sweetgrass and was surprised to learn of its existence in Europe. I never encountered it knowingly while I still lived there. It is called Duftendes Mariengras in German, which is not that different from Hierochloe odorata (freely, odorous holy grass), which suggests that it is considered at the very least special, though I don’t know of any particular folklore.

      I think that particular line that also caught your attention is one of the simplest yet most meaningful sentences I have ever read.

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  4. Fascinating, and moving too. Also, strong echoes of Buddhist philosophy here. The Buddha said “As a net is made up of a series of ties, so everything in this world is connected by a series of ties. If anyone thinks that the mesh of a net is an independent, isolated thing, he is mistaken. It is called a net because it is made up of a series of interconnected meshes, and each mesh has its place and responsibility in relation to other meshes.” Very humbling, I think.

    And I love Kimmerer’s image of a “glittering blue and green planet … vibrating with birdsong and toad and tigers.” Thank you, Tanja, for bringing her to my attention.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Wow, I have heard of this book before as I am interested in Native peoples of New England. I see by your comments that sweetgrass grows in New England. Well, I’m all over that. 😉 Ordering the book from the library today. Thanks so much!
    Julie

    Liked by 1 person

  6. This is a book I heard mentioned so often I finally bought it. I’ve not read it from front to back yet, but I’ve dipped into it. Even a single paragraph can offer enough for extended thought.

    It’s interesting that the author belongs to the Potawatomi Nation. I grew up in Iowa, and one of that state’s counties is named Pottawatomi, after the tribe. (I’m not sure how or when the doubled consonant showed up.) When I was taking Iowa history in junior high, we made various field trips: one was to Pottawatomi county, where we learned some of the history of the peoples there, and one was to Tama, home of the Meskwaki, an Algonquian people. An interesting sidelight is that the Iowa Meskwaki own their own land, and have since 1857. They have a wonderful PowWow every year — after a brief pause for you-know-what, it’s back on for 2021.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree with you, Linda. Whenever and wherever I open the book, it always expands my horizon and makes me think (and long for another way of being part of nature).

      I’m glad the Meskwaki’s PowWow is back and hope that it can be held safely! I have only attended one in Colorado Springs and the equivalent of one in Alaska, and both fascinating.

      Liked by 1 person

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