Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer

Robin Wall Kimmerer wrote Braiding Sweetgrass with the head of a scientist and the heart of a First Nations woman. She celebrates diverse native plants in different parts of North America: the Maple trees of upstate New York and their generous provision of sap, maple syrup; the Sitka Spruce of the Pacific Northwest and its many resources used by the Haida and other original coastal people of that region, and the squash, beans and corn known as the Three Sisters, a staple of agriculture.

She takes a close-up look at pond ecology and cattails. She gives examples of the interconnection between basket weavers and the plant material they have traditionally harvested, black ash, sweetgrass and white spruce roots. Her team’s research has shown the importance of basketmakers harvesting a portion of the material to ensure survival of the plants’ populations. In her essays she provides vivid examples of the Honourable Harvest, where native Americans traditionally hunt and gather but always express their gratitude and are always aware of taking only a portion of the overall resource.

Whether it’s trees or lichen, she shows her deep knowledge of plants and other living organisms. These stories are told in a spirit of inquiry, leaving aside judgments as much as possible and asking how we modern humans could bring disparate worlds together and create a new ethic for how we treat the earth. The modern industrial systems of production and selling have disconnected us from where our consumable goods come from and Kimmerer reflects on how we could re-instil appreciation for what we are taking and even set up systems of reciprocity.

As a professor, Kimmerer has taken many student field trips. Her colourful descriptions of these educational excursions give the reader a glimpse into how she connects her university students to these inquiries about caring for the earth. She wants the students to discover ways to relate to the natural world. Sometimes they collect bulrushes and eat parts of them and create shelter with other parts. By wading in marshes she introduce them to edible and useful parts of the cattails growing there. She walks other students up mountainsides to show them how and why plant communities change over the landscape.

Kimmerer tells stories about the university system as a scientist and academic and she relates anecdotes from indigenous elders. This depth and richness reveals pathways for bringing together divergent ways of seeing the world. These perspectives parallel our search for including Aboriginal understanding of Country and Western Science as a two-way knowledge sharing in Australia.

In a personal family story, Kimmerer ties together the masting of pecans and her father’s journey as a child from his homeland to a “native school” hundreds of miles away where he was sent and was not allowed to use his ”mother tongue” language. Throughout her book she uses bits of the remembered, nearly lost words from her father’s people. This also resonates with our local process of reconciliation.

Review by Amrit Kendrick

Amrit Kendrick is a champion for nature conservation across cultures and countries. She is at work to create a world where all humans respect other species, humans meet their basic needs without greed, and ecological sustainability is a top priority at highest levels of government. Living in Western Australia, she has worked with educational institutions, businesses, government and not-for-profit institutions to enhance communication through workshops, youth programs, festivals and symposia that celebrate our relationship to nature.

Her company is Sustain Nature Communication.