“Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants,” by Robin Wall Kimmerer, is an inspiring book of essays exploring various ways of understanding and interacting with the natural world around us. In its pages, I learned an enormous amount about the flora, fauna, microorganisms, and ecology of the the North Eastern/Mid-Atlantic/Great Lake regions of the United States, based purely on the modern, scientific perspective of the field of botany. But Kimmerer also shared some of the myths and traditions of the indigenous peoples of that land, which offer another, and perhaps a wiser, approach to interacting with nature than does the scientific method, alone – an approach grounded in the dual themes of gratitude and reciprocity.
The book begins with the creation myth of the indigenous peoples of the Great Lakes region of the United States: Skywoman Falling. In that story, Skywoman falls from Skyworld to Earth (a water world), bearing a bundle of seeds from the Tree of Life. The animals already present on Earth risk their lives to save her from drowning, and pile some mud on Turtle’s back, to give her a safe place to rest and recover. In an act of gratitude, and reciprocity for their kindness, Skywoman dances to extend the reach of the new land, and scatters the seeds of all the plants of the world, introducing all the plant teachers, food plants, and medicine plants of the world. And her gifts to the world continue to care for us, even to this day. With this simple tale, Kimmerer launches her argument that nature works as a gift economy, which can only survive so long as all participants harvest wisely, nurture the givers, and reciprocate rather than greedily grabbing for all they can get away with in the present moment.
An interesting point she raises is that this focus on gratitude and reciprocity becomes easier when the language people use to refer to it speaks of the world in terms of living beings, rather than as a conglomeration of soul-less “its” to be used or ignored, as a mere, inanimate resource. This also makes it easier to remember the difference between times when profiting from the fruits of your own labor is appropriate, and times when your receipt of an unbidden blessing or bounty, freely given you by Nature, is meant to be freely shared with your neighbors.
The essays she uses to illustrate and support these thematic points are all so rich in fascinating detail, that the book bears many repeated readings, and each time I pick it up, I learn or relearn something wonderful. My words can not possibly do it justice. I highly recommend that you read this book – or better yet, buy three copies, and give two away. I know I will!