I’ve always been comfortable with the alive-ness of inanimate things and the spirits of animals, plants and elements. I’ve always sensed that there are energies I can’t see or even feel flitting around me, bouncing around in the atmosphere, stopping to engage with me if I am only willing to take the time to notice them.
I vividly remember sitting on my grandma’s kitchen counter when I was little, talking to the raw turkey defrosting next to me. I would kind of pat it as if to say, “I appreciate your sacrifice. Thank you.” even though I didn’t fully understand the enormity of its sacrifice.
In some (often) unconscious way, I have always tried to honor the spirit of animals, vegetables, grains, elements and more. I talk to flowers in my pollinator garden as if we are intimate friends. I encourage the potato plants to thrive, despite the weeds that inevitably crop up around them. I stop to say hello to every bunny in the neighborhood on our daily walks.
I thank the clouds for being so artistically beautiful; I bless my back yard swing for being a restorative place for me to contemplate. I stop to let the wind flow prepositionally above, through, around, under and over me.
I can’t throw out healthy segments of plants after I have split and repotted them, and I am a terrible thinner of tiny vegetables. I have an absolutely pro-life approach to the beet and carrot greens that spring up, millimeters from each other. In fact, I’m so bad at selective reduction, I have stopped planting them so as to avoid the pencil-thin beets that routinely grow crammed together in my garden. How can I sacrifice one healthy little sprout for another? Why does one have to perish so that another can thrive? It’s all too much for me, and I never feel as if I have said the right thing to help them understand my choice.
I cheer on the yeast as it bubbles in my grandma’s green bowl that I lovingly use to make bread. I suppose it would activate on its own, but doesn’t everything appreciate a little extra support when it’s working so hard?
So when two women whom I admire recently recommended Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer for its beauty and wisdom, I borrowed a copy from one of them right away. And I can’t put it down.
It’s important for me to also own right now that I am not in the least interested in science. That makes for some challenging conversations with my plant cell wall biochemist husband who happens to find plants infinitely interesting. Poor Dr Marry!
But today, I spent our entire dog walk talking about how I learned that maple trees turn the carbohydrates they store in their roots into sugars that rush up the tree to give life to the buds yearning to be leaves every spring and that is how we have the drip, drip, drip that eventually becomes maple syrup.
I shared how some Latin word in the stems of water lilies is like big styrofoam discs, and that is how they float while tethered to the soil on the bottom.
I regaled Dr Marry with the incredible value of the Three Sisters: corn, beans and squash. The trifecta foods that were the foundational staple of Native tribes all across North America and perhaps beyond. Their reciprocal relationship astounded me. When I said it, Dr Marry told me everything I was going to say about how the corn provides a trellis for the beans, the beans provides the deep roots to attract and collect nitrogen and the squash provides ground cover to keep the weeds at bay.
We were having a real conversation about science…and the kind that Dr Marry even really cares about, and I was excited and moved and engaged!
But this book far transcends science.
Birchbark Books (owned by acclaimed writer and Wahpeton native Louise Erdrich) notes:
As a botanist and professor of plant ecology, Robin Wall Kimmerer has spent a career learning how to ask questions of nature using the tools of science. As a Potawatomi woman, she learned from elders, family, and history that the Potawatomi, as well as a majority of other cultures indigenous to this land, consider plants and animals to be our oldest teachers. In Braiding Sweetgrass, Kimmerer brings these two lenses of knowing together to reveal what it means to see humans as “the younger brothers of creation.” As she explores these themes she circles toward a central argument: the awakening of a wider ecological consciousness requires the acknowledgement and celebration of our reciprocal relationship with the world. Once we begin to listen for the languages of other beings, we can begin to understand the innumerable life-giving gifts the world provides us and learn to offer our thanks, our care, and our own gifts in return.
Braiding Sweetgrass does something I have never experienced. It recognizes my (to many) somewhat odd proclivity to speak to inanimate objects and things that can’t possibly answer me back in a language I can technically understand. It explains why it’s not only ok to talk to a frozen turkey but actually a way to honor the life of the bird who sacrificed itself for my family (since I don’t eat meat).
This book has helped me make sense of nature in a way that no science class ever has. Dr Kimmerer has given me a most astonishing gift by normalizing my insistence in seeing nature, even the parts I don’t like (bugs, reptiles, fish…), as something to communicate with and on behalf of.
I planted my pollinator garden for selfless and selfish reasons: I wanted to provide a small haven for bees, butterflies and more, but I also wanted to have something of beauty that I didn’t have to “manage.” And it has accomplished both of my desires exquisitely. And nearly every morning, I walk out and talk to that little plot of beauty. I welcome the chubby bees and tell the butterflies how gorgeous they are. I marvel that the poppies have no problem being a good head taller than the rest and tell them how much I admire their confidence. I breathe in deeply the incredible scents of the various flowers and applaud their riotous colors.
We have lost so much of our humanity and of our place in the much larger ecosystem that we often, at best, take for granted and, at worst, abuse horrifically. Braiding Sweetgrass is a love story to nature, to our relationship in and with it and to the sacred obligation we have to see that all we “own” is ours to hold precious, to honor and to thank for providing all that we need. And finally, perhaps it’s a wakeup call to become conscious once again of our significant, but not more important than any other, role in the greater whole.