Nature / Natural Resources

Braiding Sweetgrass - A Book Review

This book review was originally published in Vermont SWEEP newsletter, Fall/Winter 2017

Braiding Sweetgrass
Every great once in a while, I find a new trail to walk or a beautiful piece of art that stokes the fire of my passion for my work as an environmental educator. After years of folks recommending the book Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer to me, I finally bought the audio book version and settled in. Before I finished the first chapter, I knew this book would be of those rare things that can help combat the hopelessness and exhaustion that sometimes comes along with this work.

Braiding Sweetgrass is a delight of a book on many levels. Kimmerer expertly weaves together substantial and fascinating botanical knowledge, storytelling, and philosophy. I often was so absorbed in the story that I would forget I was learning new, relevant information about, for example, pecans. And at the end of a section or chapter I would be bowled over with a connection or analogy that Kimmerer made between the plant world and human culture. As an environmental educator, I tell myself and my students all the time that we are part of nature; we come from it, and we can use it as a model for how systems function together well. It is one thing to say this and to understand it intellectually, and another thing entirely to feel the wonder of truly feeling this revelation and connectedness again.

I recommend Braiding Sweetgrass to anyone who enjoys a good story- Kimmerer's narrative is approachable, potent, funny, and she is simply a great storyteller. But it feels like a delight particularly tailored for those of us who are naturalists, teachers, and revelers in natural beauty. As a member of the Potawatomi Nation, Kimmerer is able to offer and give voice to a perspective on the natural world all too often forgotten or over-romanticized in American today. As a Distinguished Teaching Professor of Environmental Biology at SUNY, she is able to satisfy my geekiest urges for understanding the particulars of the plant biology without being too dry.

I remember reading the chapter on the Three Sisters: corn, bean and squash. I have planted three sisters gardens many times, told the story to my students and taught on farms for a decade now. Surely, I thought, this chapter would just be review. A pleasant review, but I expected no new understanding to come from it. The corn provides a natural trellis for the bean, which is also a nitrogen fixer and so replenishes the soil. The squash shades the ground and suppresses weed growth. Got it. I was delighted to find out how wrong I was to think I knew so much.
"The three sisters offer us a new metaphor for an emerging relationship between indigenous knowledge and Western science, both of which are rooted in the earth. I think of the corn as traditional ecological knowledge, the physical and spiritual framework that can guide the curious been of science, which twines like a double helix, the squash creates the ethical habitat for coexistence and mutual flourishing. I envision a time when the intellectual monoculture of science will be replaced with a polyculture of complementary knowledge. And so all may be fed." (pg. 139)
As a mother, I most connected with her chapter A Mother's Work, in which she describes the process of transforming a pond with a "very high nutrient content" (read: full of sludge) into something swimmable over the course of her daughters' childhoods. As her eldest daughter prepares to leave for college, her work is still not done. She describes a surprise she came across one day while working on the water:
"This is Hydrodictyon. I stretch it between my fingers and it glistens, almost weightless after the water has drained away. As orderly as a honeycomb, Hyrdrodictyon, is a geometrical surprise in a seemingly random stew of a murky pond. It hangs in the water, a colony of tiny nets all fused together. Under the microscope, the fabric of Hydrodictyon is made up a six-sided polygons, a mesh of linked green cells that surround the holes of the net. It multiplies quickly because of a unique means of clonal reproduction. Inside each of the net cells, daughter cells are born. They arrange themselves into hexagons, neat replicas of the mother net. In order to disperse her young, the mother cell must disintegrate, freeing the daughter cells into the water. The floating newborn hexagons fuse with others, forging new connections and weaving a new net.

I look out at the expanse of Hydrodictyon visible just below the surface. I imagine a liberation of new cells, the daughters spinning off on their own. What does a good mother do when the mothering time is done? As I stand in the water, my eyes brim and drop salt tears into the freshwater at my feet. Fortunately, my daughters are not clones of their mother, nor must I disintegrate to set them free, but I wonder how that fabric is changed when the release of daughter tears a hole. Does it heal over quickly, or does empty space remain? And how do the daughter cells make new connections? How is the fabric rewoven?" (pg. 93)
She describes paddling through water lilies directly after dropping her youngest daughter off at college, feeling the sadness of a huge life change and marveling at the water lilies and their aerenchyma (air filled cells in aquatic plant's leaves) that make it possible for the plants to grow in the water:
"The new leaves take up oxygen into the tightly packed air spaces of their young, developing tissues, who's density creates a pressure gradient. The older leaves, with looser air spaces created by the tatters and tears that open the leaf, create a low-pressure region where oxygen can be released in to the atmosphere. This gradient exerts a pull on the air taken in by the young leaf. Since they are connected by air-filled capillary networks, the oxygen moves by mass flow from the young leaves to the old, passing through and oxygenating the rhizome in the process. The young and the old are linked in one long breath, an inhalation that calls for reciprocal exhalation, nourishing the common root form which they both arose. New leaf to old, old to new, mother to daughter- mutuality endures. I am consoled by the lesson of lilies.

The earth, that first among good mothers, gives us the gift that we cannot provide ourselves. I hadn't realized that I had come to the lake and said feed me, but my empty heart was fed. I had a good mother. She gives what we need without being asked. I wonder if she gets tired, old Mother Earth. Or if she too is fed by the giving. 'Thanks,' I whispered, 'for all of this.'" (pg. 103)

Braiding Sweetgrass helps me remember that even though we can feel isolated and overwhelmed by the world, we are not alone. We are part of the natural world and, if we care to listen and notice, the plants can be our teachers just as readily as we are for our students. Kimmerer's work reminds me not just to approach teaching and my subject matter with my head, but also with my heart. That is it possible to do so without being overly sentimental or skirting around some of the more devastating realities of our past and present situation. Her work helps me feel it is safe to love this world still, again and always.


Submitted by Elizabeth Nuckols on Fri , 10/27/2017 - 12:43 PM

I love this review Kestrel. Thank you! I have added Braiding Sweetgrass to my list of must reads.

Submitted by Eleanor on Tue , 09/27/2022 - 05:55 PM

Why - do you think- that this work (of art & science) took almost a decade to reach NY Times’ bestseller list? Is the recent post a re-visit? Thanks

Submitted by Mitch D. on Sat , 09/16/2023 - 03:27 PM

Having first heard of this book, today, and reading the review, I will be reading it soon. If it is not in my county library, I will submit a "purchase request" for it. I have done that with good success for other books. This needs to be read widely!

Submitted by rick rappaport on Wed , 04/17/2024 - 04:48 PM

Such a sweet review and profound and vulnerable. I'm reading the book but not quite finished with the book club meeting in a few hours (we had 3 sessions because it is a long one.). So I started reading reviews like Cliff Notes so I wouldn't be too blindsided by the upcoming discussion.

What I found from reading a number of reviews is while I need to finish the book I've read enough to have the message now part of my own DNA. I'm forever grateful for what we have and this will not change--I'm forever changed by it.

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