NONFICTION: Uncommon observations on the relationship between humans and nature.
The title of the book is “Braiding Sweetgrass,” and braiding is what Robin Wall Kimmerer does, weaving her strands of biology professor, mother and Potawatomi woman. Her book of wisdom, knowledge and teachings celebrates life that is both ordinary — her simple days as a working parent — and magical, filled with many gifts from good-hearted communities. Her interactions, however, are not solely with human groups but are equally and necessarily with the natural world. She introduces readers to a language of flora and fauna that is readably right in front of them, and nudges — at times, urges — her readers to recognize an inclusive reciprocity with our environment.
The gift of Kimmerer’s book is that she provides readers the ability to see a very common world in uncommon ways, or, rather, in ways that have been commonly held but have recently been largely discarded. She puts forth the notion that we ought to be interacting in such a way that the land should be thankful for the people.
As even the casual gardener knows, harvesting promotes new growth. Kimmerer’s focus is interdependence: Plants that are loved and used form a reciprocal relationship with human communities. In an example, she relates a study by one of her graduate students who finds that sweetgrass grown near basket-makers, who harvested in skillful moderation, grew in a more healthy and prolific manner than sweetgrass left to multiply without interference.
Kimmerer’s smart comparisons work to reorder her readers’ thoughts and observations. The symbiosis of lichen mirrors her parents’ 60-year marriage, both strengthening community. In a chapter titled “Collateral Damage,” the homing migration of salamanders to their ponds to reproduce is paralleled with the technological homing device of “smart bombs” used in the Gulf War. Without explicitly stating it, Kimmerer makes readers uncomfortably conscious of the difference: the one following a predetermined path in order to create offspring, the other following a man-made path to inflict “acceptable” collateral damage.
While she lovingly weaves a braid of literary sweetgrass, as her narrative develops she reminds that, like the actual braiding, there has to be someone on the other end holding the strands taut. She slowly, patiently builds the case for “cultures of regenerative reciprocity” because, as she says, “it makes us happy.” She asks readers “to demand an economy that is aligned with life, not stacked against it,” but acknowledges, “It’s easy to write that, harder to do.”
Elizabeth Wilkinson is an assistant professor of English at the University of St. Thomas, where she teaches American Indian, women’s and sports literature courses.