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April book of the month: Braiding Sweetgrass

In honor of Earth Day, the book of the month for April is Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer (Milkweed Editions, 2013). Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer is “a mother, scientist, decorated professor, and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation.” In 2022, she was awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant.


You may have seen this quote from Braiding Sweetgrass at the bottom of my email signature:


Despair is paralysis. It robs us of agency. It blinds us to our own power and the power of the earth. Restoration is a powerful antidote to despair. It is not enough to grieve. It's not enough to just stop doing bad things.


I need to see these words every day. It would be so easy to let the enormity of the climate crisis send me spiraling into paralysis and despair. But that is a dark, dark place that ultimately does me and everyone around me no good at all. That passage from Braiding Sweetgrass is like a firm but gentle shake of the shoulders, a splash of cold water on my face, a reminder to embrace humility and step into action. Giving up is selfish.  


I had the pleasure of hearing Dr. Kimmerer speak at UW in the winter of 2019. The city was emerging from a polar vortex so severe even the university shut down for a couple of days, reopening just in time for her talk at the Dejope dormitory on campus.  Her words were both urgent and comforting. Her kindness filled the room.


Braiding Sweetgrass is a beautiful collection of stories. There are indigenous legends of the creation story, and of Nanbozho and Windigo. There are brief insights into her childhood as well as her experience raising two daughters, mostly as a single mother. And there are many stories of her teachers, including Potawatomi and Anishinaabe experts and elders, her friends and neighbors, as well as plants and her own relationship to the natural world. It’s not all feel-good love and nature, though. There are also tales of environmental destruction, superfund sites, and a strong sense of responsibility we all share to solve the climate crisis.


I see Braiding Sweetgrass referenced quite often by advocates for climate justice, in particular the chapters “The Gift of Strawberries” and “Allegiance to Gratitude.” Having read the book several times now, my favorite parts are “A Mother’s Work” - her story of restoring a pond on her property so her daughters would have a place to swim - and the tender way she writes about her students. She tells stories of taking young pre med college students on a hiking trip deep in the Bible Belt of Kentucky (my home state!), of leading botany students out of the lecture hall to plant a garden with them, of advising and supporting a female doctoral candidate whose proposal to study sweetgrass was dismissed by the male faculty members on her committee. 


As a scientist and teacher, Kimmerer describes the natural world with sharpness and clarity. In her depictions, science is beautiful, even the muck and weeds of her backyard pond. She reminds the reader that the natural world around us is our best teacher, even as she folds her own expertise into the narrative. Kimmerer says it best at the conclusion of the chapter “The Sound of Silverbells”: 


As an enthusiastic young PhD, colonized by the arrogance of science, I had been fooling myself that I was the only teacher. The land is the real teacher. All we need as students is mindfulness. Paying attention is a form of reciprocity with the living world, receiving the gifts with open eyes and open heart…A teacher comes, they say, when you are ready. And if you ignore its presence, it will speak to you more loudly. But you have to be quiet to hear.


 

Susan Gaeddert is Community Programs Director at 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, where she runs Active Wisconsin, facilitates the Community Transportation Academy, and coordinates the Wisconsin Climate Table. Have you read any good books lately that I should add to the list? Send an email to: susan@1kfriends.org 



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