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.