Book Review—Braiding Sweetgrass

St. Francis would love it. So do I. As I reject patriarchal, dualistic theologies and lean towards creation spirituality, I’m drawn to this book written by Robin Wall Kimmerer, an active member of the Potowatomi nation and a State University of New York Distinguished Professor of Environmental Biology. She braids together her indigenous knowledge, scientific background and stories “in service to what matters most:” healing humans’ broken relationship with the earth. 

She writes lyrically about a legacy of wild strawberries in her childhood, shaping her “view of a world full of gifts, simply scattered at your feet.” The only response? Eat them with a sense of mystery. Her story of strawberries is pivotal to “living in gratitude and amazement at the richness and generosity of the world… When all the world is a gift in motion, how wealthy we become.” (p. 31) Familiar echoes of “Canticle of the Sun” or the psalms?

As Fr. Richard Rohr explains in Yes, And… the human incarnation of God in Jesus happened 2000 years ago. But 13.8 billion years ago, the original incarnation occurred through sun, moon, stars, land, plants, trees, fruit, birds, etc. Do we ever wonder what God was doing 10 or 4 billion years ago? “Was God really waiting for the pope to appear and declare his infallibility?” (p. 131) Braiding Sweetgrass puts us in touch with that older, sacred, enchanted universe.

Family ceremonies of gratefulness so grounded Kimmerer that she wasn’t deterred by her college adviser’s dismissiveness when she first responded to the question “why do you want to major in botany?” She wanted to know why asters and goldenrod look so beautiful together. Much later, she knew all the scientific names but was humbled by an indigenous guide who understood the plants’ songs.

So she teaches her own ethnobotany students through experiential field trips. They first brainstorm a list of human needs, then are amazed to find many of these fulfilled when they go “shopping at Wal-Marsh.” (“Sitting in a Circle” chapter.) They eat rhizomes and pollen pancakes, soothe bug bites with cattail gel, make a wigwam, sleeping mats and baskets. After several days, they understand one native term for plants, which translates to “those who care for us.” It’s no surprise that breathing the smell of the earth stimulates the release of the hormone oxytocin, the chemical that promotes bonding between mother and child.

We name it “landscaping the religious imagination;” Kimmerer makes the mental map of pecan grove, river bend, rock pile, sweetgrass meadow and berry patch. We call it “contemplation;” she terms it “listening.” The nuthatch tapping, water trickling, wind in pine, beechnut falling are the wordless language of wild places. We sing hymns to the creator; natives chant and dance praise of creation, reverently using only the resources they need, replenishing those. Science can polish seeing, but its technical vocabulary has no terms to hold the mystery of the life force, which St. Hildegard of Bingen called “viriditas.” Puhpowee in Anishinaabe translates as the force which causes mushrooms to spring up overnight.

As I look at my nine-year old grandson, knees scratched from soccer, bubble gum blowing, brown eyes wide and innocent, I can’t imagine hiding him under a stream bank to escape the agents who’d take native children to boarding school. There, his language would be considered “dirty;” his customs, pagan; his culture, annihilated. In their zeal, the missionaries and US government asked the wrong question about native peoples: “Are they saved?” Instead they should’ve asked, “how do they see the world?” The chance to hear that answer might help rescue a planet in jeopardy … Start braiding.

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