Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweet Grass.

Robin Wall Kimmerer. Braiding Sweet Grass. Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants. London: Penguin, Random House, 2013

‘We may not have wings or leaves, but we humans do have words. Language is our gift and our responsibility’ writes Kimmerer. Braiding Sweet Grass is an excellent example of what words can tell us and how they can both challenge and comfort us. While not all of us need to write, we must all be able to read and understand what Nature is telling us about our climate and our world. It is in our best interests to listen and to learn. It is also for our own pleasure. The stories Kimmerer tells us are based on traditional indigenous wisdom. We must understand these stories and, equally importantly, tell new ones about our planet if it is to survive.

Like Gary Nabhan (author of Jesus for Farmers and Fishers, 2021, and The Nature of Desert Nature, 2020), Kimmerer draws a parallel between ‘restoration’ and ‘re-story-ation’. Our relationship with the land will not heal until we hear its stories. The land provides us with all we need and gives us happiness and satisfaction. But first, we must differentiate between indigenous knowing, which involves the mind, body, emotion and spirit – and scientific knowing, which focuses on the mind and body only.

As an ecologist, Kimmerer sees the Earth as our home. Indeed, the word ‘ecology’, she reminds us, is derived from oikos, the Greek word for home. The Earth is our home and the home of all living organisms. We have no other.

Giving back to the land results in abundance, Kimmerer demonstrates. Taking from it without giving anything in return can only result in poverty and depletion. ‘Taking’ is indeed the path to destruction. For this reason, Kimmerer emphasises the importance of gratitude – gratitude for all we receive, for all that the Earth produces. Gratitude is, she emphasises, the means of survival. We must love the Earth and create a sacred bond with it by taking care of it, by giving back, and by never taking more than we actually need.

Not only shall we take what we need and no more, but we should take only what is given. Modern farming methods exploit the land. Indigenous people, on the other hand, know that we must have a loving and caring relationship with it. A relationship built on respect and love. We must form a bond with the Earth, re-stabilise it, remove contaminants, and restore our earlier, caring relationship with the Earth and all that grows there. ‘Gratitude’ and ‘reciprocity’ are key themes in Braiding Sweetgrass.

Kimmerer takes us on a mythic and scientific journey that is both sacred and historical. Filled with wisdom and love for the Earth, Braiding Sweetgrass tells a story that we not only need to read but also make our own. Braiding Sweetgrass comprises a range of stories based on both myth and science. Together, they tell a story – our story. Our broken relationship with the Earth must be mended by healing stories like Braiding Sweetgrass, and by our developing a new relationship whereby ‘people and land are good medicine for each other’. As one reviewer writes, Kimmerer’s story is ‘a hymn of love to the world’. We are all invited – indeed encouraged, to sing the hymn, braid the sweetgrass, and join what Ursula K. Le Guin calls ‘the dance of renewal, the dance that made the world’. We are now ‘at the edge of things, on the brink, on the foggy coast’, tottering between survival and destruction. Like sweetgrass, we can survive – but only if we help our increasingly degraded but also beautiful and vibrant planet before it is too late. The alternative is unthinkable.

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