Reflections of Braiding Sweetgrass Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants-by Robin Wall Kimmerer

Braiding Sweetgrass
Braiding Sweetgrass

I loved this book and would like to share with you some thoughts and points which jumped out of the pages and inspired me greatly. Robin Wall Kimmerer is a Teaching Professor of Environmental Biology and also the founder of the Centre for Native Peoples and the Environment in Syracuse, New York. It is a beautiful book that illustrates a synergy of survival, a reciprocal relationship between the earth and its peoples. Kimmerer offers a unique blend of her factual scientific training and her knowledge and experience of indigenous people.

I felt a sense of reverence and humility after reading this book and it sparked a heartfelt wish to understand more about the natural relationships between plants, animals, people, and the earth. Scientific evidence and the events happening on our planet today are at a ‘tipping point’ towards climate change. With fossil fuels diminishing, it is the beginning of resource depletion, this book points to ways of living more harmoniously with nature.

The author illustrates a number of ways learned from native people about reciprocal relationships between plants, animals, and people. I will start with the ‘three sisters’ a way of reciprocity between growing plants. This was a result of their observations and respect towards plants and what they can teach us. The ‘three sisters’ are corn, beans, and pumpkin or squash, the corn is planted first and grows to knee-high becoming strong and stiff. The second sister, climbing beans, are planted to grow and entwine with the corn and spiral upwards. The third sister, pumpkin or squash, steadily grows at the base of the corn and beans, sheltering the soil, keeping moisture in and other plants out, each giving and receiving in mutual support.

Another example from this book of how plants teach is the bitter taste of sour wild strawberries sampled before they ripen (often by impatient children), a lesson of patience and a capacity for self-restraint, an important lesson for us all in these days of short resources.

Research by settlers into traditional harvesting methods revealed natives had guidelines and protocols aimed at maintaining the health and vigour of plants and other species. The long-term observations of native people harvesting wild rice shows they spend 4 days filling their canoes with rice, then they stopped gathering long before all the rice was harvested. At first, the settlers thought this was due to laziness or lack of industrial machinery. Later they understood this was a land-care practice, the natives knew they weren’t the only ones who ate rice, what they left behind was not wasted. Ducks and other birds would not have stopped there if there was no rice left and seeds were spread by the birds to other areas. Similarly, berries spread their fruits on the earth for birds, animals, and humans and the seeds were spread by all to flourish in other areas. This reciprocal life sows richness for all, today, this kind of mutual support is rare with our modern farming methods.

Ceremonies of gratitude after harvesting were a part of life in indigenous communities. In a culture of gratitude, there is a deeper meaning for this gratitude, it is knowing that gifts follow a circle of reciprocity and flow back to you again. The act of generous giving and the humility of receiving are necessary halves of the equation. During the thanksgiving ceremony, the natives always dance in a circle in gratitude for this way of reciprocity, as I understand this, the circle gives us a metaphor for everyone and everything. After the dance one big wooden bowl of berries is passed around with one big spoon, so everyone can taste the sweetness, remember the gifts and say thank you. The author explains how the natives ‘know’ everyone is fed from the same bowl Mother Earth has filled for us and it’s not just about the berries, but about the bowl. How do we refill the empty bowl? Robin Wall Kimmerer offers this lovely poem in her book, it embraces ways of life towards enriching and sustaining our planet.

Know the ways of the ones who take care of you, so that you may take care of them.
Introduce yourself. Be accountable as the one who comes asking for life.
Ask permission before taking. Abide by the answer.
Never take the first. Never take the last.
Take only what you need.
Take only that which is given.
Never take more than half. Leave some for others.
Harvest in a way that minimises harm.
Use it respectfully. Never waste what you have taken.
Share.
Give thanks for what you have been given.
Give a gift, in reciprocity for what you have taken.
Sustain the ones who sustain you and the earth will last forever.

– Robin Wall Kimmerer.

As I read Braiding Sweetgrass familiar quotes and verses from Soto Zen training came to mind, especially these two:

The Five Thoughts
We must think deeply of the ways and means by which this food has come.
We must consider our merit when accepting it.
We must protect ourselves from error by excluding greed from our minds.
We will eat lest we become lean and die.
We accept this food so that we may become enlightened.

– The Mealtime Ceremony in Scriptures and Ceremonies at Throssel Hole Buddhist Abbey

And

When we try to teach and enlighten all things by ourselves, we are deluded. When all things teach and enlighten us, we are enlightened.
– Kendo Chisan Koho Zenji

Braiding Sweetgrass is sacred, full of enriching and inspiring wisdom, I feel blessed a friend recommended it to me and to pass this on to you.

Mo Henderson

A Favourite Book: Kinship With All Life by J. Allen Boone


Had this book just been published today I would highly recommend you buy it. But it wasn’t, written in 1954, it tells the story of ‘Strongheart’ a famous actor-dog and his relationship with the person looking after him. It tells of a bond of friendship which formed between them, an extraordinary ménage of curiosity, observation and study by the carer which was quickly mutually reciprocated by Strongheart. An attitude of curiosity, openness, patience and humility became a catalyst to forming a connective bridge between the human and the animal, a universal ability many ‘modern humans’ have lost.

The author describes receiving a lesson on how humans connect with dogs by an American Indian Mojave Dan:

‘There’s facts about dogs and there’s opinions about them. The dogs have the facts and the humans have the opinions. Get the facts straight from the dog, opinions from the humans’. 1.

This information was invaluable to him and led to the ability to detect motives and intentions, a sense of ‘mind reading’ between Strongheart and himself, a synergy, bridging silent questions towards an intuitive ‘knowing’. This Indian philosophy of recognising mental and physical communication as universal and natural between humans and animals is expressed in the book with this quote:

Ask the very beasts, and they will teach you;

ask the wild birds-they will tell you;

crawling creatures will instruct you,

fish in the sea will inform you:

for which of them all knows not that this is

the Eternal’s way,

in whose control lies every living soul,

and the whole life of man. 2.

Job 12:7-10

From his friendship with Strongheart he goes on to describe his relationship with other sentient beings, including ants, earthworms and his fascinating relationship with ‘Freddie the fly’. The latter by changing his attitude, from finding flies irritable and wanting to swat them, to ‘right see’ with an ‘all good heart’.  His practice of a loving attitude towards even a small fly resulted in a sense of friendship. Freddie the fly used to sit on his typewriter as he worked, follow him from room to room, until eventually he sat on on the palm of his hand getting his wings stroked. Freddie was transformed from a ‘worthless little bum’, a nuisance who deserved swatting, into an intelligent lively companion. All this happened with the offering of a loving attitude.

For anyone who has the opportunity to live or work with animals this book is a must for understanding the principles a loving connection with others. It illustrates how fellow members of nature’s own family communicate with others who understand them, whether a person, dog, earthworm, ant or fly. 

‘To behold all beings with the eye of compassion, and to speak kindly to them, is the meaning of tenderness. One must speak to others whilst thinking that one loves all living things as if they were one’s own children.’ 3.

Mo Henderson

  1. Kinship With All Life (page 47)
  2. Kinship With All Life (page 108)
  3. Shobogenzo: Shushogi-What is truly meant by training and enlightenment, from Zen is Eternal Life by Rev Master Jiyu Kennett (page 160)

Note: 

For those who wish to read this book it is still possible to buy on Amazon or Waterstones.