Our selection for November, Braiding Sweetgrass, coincided with the COP26 Climate Summit in Scotland. Following the pattern of most of the previous twenty-five summits, this year’s summit ended with yet more pledges and promises to address the climate crisis. For twenty-six summits, the member nations’ promises have amounted to checks in the mail. If only they would listen to Robin Wall Kimmerer’s advice in her 2013 publication of Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teaching of Plants.
Kimmerer, a member of the Potawatomi Nation as well as a professor at SUNY’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry, writes passionately about how humans can get more from nature’s bounty by doing less. Well poised with both a scientific and indigenous background, she insists that wisdom is not solely available through traditional Native American harvesting practice and that demonstrable facts and results are not exclusive to science.
In this book Kimerer attempts to gently but thoroughly remind members of our consumerist society that the source of all of the goods we enjoy, want, and need is the earth itself. More importantly, it points out that the earth’s resources are gifts and that a gift taker has an obligation of gratitude and respect for the giver. Our current attempts, Kimmerer feels, to regulate and oversee natural resources is disrespectful and dysfunctional and has led to a mismanagement of natural resources. Instead of trying to maximize nature as a utility, we must recognize our role within it, not separate from it. We need to reconnect, the book says, with nature and by extension with each other. Kimerer muses on a better world and asks, “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?”
Kimmerer points out that as the recipients of these gifts freely given, we have the responsibility to show some gratitude. We are caught in a bind, however, because “Gratitude cultivates an ethic of fullness, but the economy needs emptiness.” Our consumerist society shouts that we always need more things and insists our ‘wants’ are ‘needs.’ She shows through scientific evidence that ever increasing demand for goods, the consumerist dogma, is not sustainable, and she proves with evidence that the indigenous approach to cultivation will yield more product in the long run. She is saying that we are killing the goose that laid the golden egg.
Besides science and indiginous knowledge, the third strand of Kimerer’s braid lies in the elements of memoir. Recollections of her educational experience, her journey as a parent, her learning alongside her students, and her commitment to her Potawatomi heritage all enrich and expand her point “…to live as if your children’s future matters….”
This book had a marked effect on several in the group. Although none of us grew up in an indigenous culture, it did make some of us yearn to have had that as part of our own cultural heritage. One said that she “savored” the book and that it seemed almost like a meditation. Others said that it was like “reading the Psalms,” or that it was “like the way my parents lived.” It was neatly summed up with one comment—-that Kimmerer asks us not to live in the present, but in the “presence.”