Braiding Sweetgrass

by Robin Wall Kimmerer

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!


A Sand County Almanac

by Aldo Leopold

A Sand County Almanac, by Aldo Leopold, is a moving book of essays about Leopold’s experiences with the natural world, on his family’s weekend getaways to their “sand farm” in Wisconsin (as well as elsewhere in the United States of America). The essays both celebrate the wonders of nature, and provide a philosophical analysis of modern man’s relationship with nature – or lack thereof.

Leopold offers several critical insights on the problem of mankind’s misguided relationship with the natural world, beautifully illustrating the reality that our modern lives often make it impossible for people to even see, let alone interpret the world beyond their noses. He does this repeatedly throughout the book, in lyrical passages such as these:

“There are two spiritual dangers of not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.” (p. 6)

“…To steal a hunt, either go far into the wilderness where no one has been, or else find some undiscovered place under everybody’s nose. Few hunters know that grouse exist in Adams County for when they drive through it, they see only a waste of jack-pines and scrub oaks. This is because the highway intersects a series of west-running creeks, each of which heads in a swamp, but drops to the river through dry sand-barrens. Naturally, the highway intersects these swampless barrens, but just above the highway, and behind the screen of dry scrub, every creeklet expands into a broad ribbon of swamp, a sure haven for grouse.” (p. 55-56)

Then, throughout his writing, Aldo Leopold tacitly encourages us to look, to reflect, and to really see the wild world, and to learn from our personal observations the true nature of life, in its many forms, and to do so from the perspective of the wild, itself.

He offers up the essay, “Good Oak,” suggesting a new perspective on history, from the point-of-view of an oak tree that has lived through many ages. It encouraged me to try to take the long view on events, and not become distressed and distracted by things that will simply pass with time. In addition, considering the life of that good oak as an actor, rather than as an object, enabled me to see it anew, as a harvester of sunlight, which the tree sequesters as wood for later use. How many other quiet, motionless actors are at work, giving masterful performances in their God-given roles? The question, alone, demands attention, reflection, and reverence for things so often overlooked.

In “A Mighty Fortress” (pg. 73-77), Leopold offers an new perspective on trees and tree diseases. When considering only the life and health of an individual tree, I often have strong opinions regarding what should be done to help that one tree thrive. When considering the ecosystem that offers context to the life of that tree, however, my opinions change. The cycles of Nature require the decline of some organisms, in order to support the health of others. This is a truth that I have long understood, intellectually, as a student of ecology. However, Leopold’s encouragement to think like a raccoon, or grouse, or wild bee, left me with a deep spiritual knowing of the importance of disease and decay in a forest.

A similar perspective shift was suggested in “Thinking Like a Mountain” (pg. 129-133), in which Leopold considered the perspective of a mountain on the relative value of deer and wolves. His observation of the role-relationships between humans, the wolf, the deer, and the flora of a mountainside forces one to consider that a single thriving species may endanger the well-being of an overall ecosystem. Trades and balances are always in play, many of them deeply and darkly occult — until it is far too late. The flora of a mountain are laid to waste by an overabundance of deer. Recovery may come only after decades, or never. And all for the want of a hungry wolf.

For a purely academic exercise in perspective shifting, I also very much enjoyed “Odyssey” (pg. 104-108), which followed the travels of an endlessly recycled atom, in nature, in the wild, and then in man-damaged land.

This practice of carefully observing, and constantly changing perspective in this manner, has much to teach us about ourselves and our biases, as well as teaching us about the other manifestations of the Great Miracle of Life, and its needs, preferences, hopes, and fears.  Furthermore, Leopold speaks of even greater gifts of wisdom to be gleaned by watching for signs of the numenous aspects of nature, of which he says:

“…the significance of which is inexpressible in terms of contermporary science.  A philosopher has called this imponderable essence the numenon of material things.  It stands in contradistinction to phenomenon, which is ponderable and predictable, even to the tossings and turnings of the remotest star.”  (p. 138)

It is this focus on seeking out and attempting to connect with the “numenon of material things” that ties ecological study (for a deep intellectual understanding of the worlds at our fingertips), to reverent observation and perspective shifting (for an empathic understanding of the world that we study), and finally, to the act of forging a spiritual connection with the living essence of the world itself.  The reward for this effort is described beautifully in this passage of A Sand County Almanac:

This song of the waters is audible to every ear, but there is other music in these hills, by no means audible to all.  To hear even a few notes of it, you must first live here for a long time, and you must know the speech of hills and rivers. Then on a still night, when the campfire is low and the Pleiades have climbed over rimrocks, sit quietly and listen for a wolf to howl, and think hard of everything you have seen and tried to understand. Then you may hear it — a vast pulsing harmony — its score inscribed on a thousand hills, its notes the lives and deaths of plants and animals, its rhythms spanning the seconds and the centuries.”  (p. 149)

I highly recommend this book to anyone wishing to connect more deeply with nature, or wanting to learn how to listen for that magical music of the hills.