march book

Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer

memoir · nature · science · Indigenous wisdom | 408 pages

As a botanist, Robin Wall Kimmerer has been trained to ask questions of nature with the tools of science. As a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, she embraces the notion that plants and animals are our oldest teachers. In Braiding Sweetgrass, Kimmerer brings these lenses of knowledge together to show that the awakening of a wider ecological consciousness requires the acknowledgment and celebration of our reciprocal relationship with the rest of the living world. For only when we can hear the languages of other beings are we capable of understanding the generosity of the earth, and learning to give our own gifts in return.


next club meeting date: Thursday, March 31 @ 7:30pm

discussion questions (spoilers):
  1. “Plants tell their stories not by what they say, but by what they do.” What was your favorite plant story in Braiding Sweetgrass and what lesson did you learn from it?
  2. Is there a plant like the fragrant “wiingashk” that is as special to you or holds value for you? Why?
  3. Throughout Braiding Sweetgrass, Kimmerer writes about how her experiences in traditional academic settings has been influenced by her knowledge and Potawatomi heritage. Have you had similar experiences where your background and way of seeing the world clashes with the mainstream way of seeing and thinking?
  4. “The more something is shared, the greater the value,” Kimmerer believes. Reciprocity is heavily mentioned in the book, exchanging things with others or nature for mutual benefit. In what ways can we incorporate gift economy in our jobs or personal lives? How would this practice shift our thinking?
  5. Kimmerer challenges us to see a more positive relationship between people and the environment, like the generosity of geese or the gift of strawberries or pecans that nourished her and her family in time of need. We can shift our focus on the negative impacts of people on the land like “brownfields, factory farms, suburban sprawl” to opportunities for reciprocity and renewal. What is your knowledge of positive interactions between people and land?
  6. Scientific knowledge and indigenous ways of knowing are complimentary, just like goldenrod and New England asters, do you think there’s a need for objectivity (science) and subjectivity to mesh together for there to be a fuller appreciation of plants, animals and the natural world?
  7. In “The Grammar of Animacy,” Kimmerer posits that the word it “robs a person of selfhood and kinship, reducing a person to a mere thing.” What would change if the English language reflected the animacy of plants and animals?
  8. The Three Sisters—corn, beans and squash—grow and flourish together in harmony and the “gifts of each are more fully expressed when they are nurtured together rather than alone.” How can we combine our individual strengths to build community and reciprocal relationships?
  9. How can people living in less proximity to nature practice concepts that Kimmerer introduces like the Honorable Harvest or reciprocity? What might you incorporate into your life?
  10. In “People of Corn, People of Light,” Kimmerer writes about the chasm between Western science and “ecological compassion” and her dream of a world where “revelations of science” are “framed with an Indigenous worldview—stories in which matter and spirit are both given voice.” Do you think this is possible, and how could it come about?

questions borrowed from USFWS Library.

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My fave quote is "if grief can be a doorway to love, then let us all weep for the world we are breaking apart so we can love it back to wholeness again." because JEESH, and also because it makes me think about how breaking things apart is learned behaviour. I love reading Indigenous stories because that connection to land is so deeply instilled in their values and it allows me to understand, in little ways, how I can try and connect in the same way. But again I wonder if to understand something, you have to see it as small first. What Robin Wall Kimmerer preaches and what Indigenous wisdom lends is the idea of belonging to something both limitless and whole, a world that exists before and beyond, and I think that would be a way less intimidating prospect if it were not a complete reversal of how we're expected to learn. We have to break things down to understand them. You have to look at an equation in parts in order to solve it. And in our efforts to understand all that the Earth can provide for us, we have no other course of action but to break her apart. And so while I don't think every analogy or metaphor is strong in the book, and I think sometimes Kimmerer's tone can be condescending when she talks about her students, the book excels at driving home that there are other paths for us to take.

I think a lot about Kimmerer's story about trying to clean the pond in the backyard for her daughters, and about how the more she tried to clean it the more organisms she found, an entire ecosystem existing beyond visible means. And how by the end of it, she had to stop and never got the perfect swimmable pond for her daughters. It doesn't sound like a story of defeat, though, it's just acceptance. Maybe that's the first step into loving something back to wholeness again. The pond was supposed to be gross and I, with deep gratitude, accept that.