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

6 Replies to “Reflections of Braiding Sweetgrass Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants-by Robin Wall Kimmerer”

  1. What a lovely post, Mo. This type of cultivation seems to be a mix of permaculture and forest gardening, which are similar but not identical methods. This way of growing plants, and the book itself, appear to highlight the interdependence of all living things and, as you say, this is sacred. I know that I will enjoy reading this book. Thank you so much telling us about it.
    1. Thank you Karen, It is interesting what you say about permaculture and forest gardening being similar but not identical and it will be good to explore those differences. I’m wondering how much energy is needed with each? As one grows older it would be good to find a method which does not involve too much heavy work. Knowing your interest in permaculture, I’m sure you will enjoy this book as much as I did.
  2. Thanks Mo, I have the book as a gift waiting to be read. Now it’s at head of line. Also, I found “The One Straw Revolution”) by Fukuoka a great entrance years ago, when I was gardening and estate garden manager in the Napa Valley, into a new way of seeing in the midst of the products of UC Davis running (un-)wild in the Viticulture business…
    1. Thank you Helmut. I have sent for a copy of ‘The One Straw Revolution’ it sounds a great book too and look forward to reading it.
  3. Thank you mo – I haven’t come across this book but will search it out now. These are the types of growing practices I adopt myself because they feel right, but it will be good to learn more about the historical cultural and social context. I always plant the three sisters – this season the weather has been weird and the corn is later developing, while the squash has swollen madly, last year the beans overran everything and had to be curbed a little to give the others a chance, of sharing the light, water and nutrients, but every year there is a good harvest as the plants support each other. A metaphor for our own human communities! We can learn a lot from plants if we’re willing…
    1. Thanks Coleen-good to hear you’re having success with these types of growing practices. It’s interesting how you are experienced with the ‘three sisters’ method and managed to adapt and help things along subject to the weather. I’ve only grown pumpkins this year but will attempt to try the corn and beans with them next year. As you say, how the plants support each other is indeed a metaphor for our human communities. Best wishes for a good harvest.

Leave a Reply