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!


Nature’s Temples

by Joan Maloof

“Nature’s Temples: The Complex World of Old-Growth Forests,” by Joan Maloof (with illustrations by Andrew Joslin), is a profoundly inspirational work of science writing that describes the structure and ecology of old-growth forests.

The book begins with an awe-inspiring overview of the history of forests on Earth, the earliest known from fossil-records dating from 383 million years ago! Maloof discusses the role of forests in removing carbon from the atmosphere, and the surprising discovery that the largest, oldest trees are far more effective at this task than a multitude of younger, smaller, fast-growing trees. She presents a convincing case for the preservation of old-growth forests, on the grounds that they are essential for the survival and well-being of all other life on Earth.

Maloof then goes on to make the reader fall in love with all the living beings found in old-growth forests, one short chapter at a time. She introduces us, first, to the trees themselves, then one at a time to the birds, amphibians, snails, insects, herb plants, mosses, fungi, lichens, worms and mammals that are resident in old-growth forests. And it is truly a book of wonders.

One of the things I had always wondered was how deer and elk could find sufficient food in an old-growth redwood forest, in which the browsable branch tips are hundreds of feet high. The answer: Although the herbaceous understory might be shaded out, a rain of lichen from the lofty canopy provides ample nitrogen-rich food for them. But what is a lichen? It is a magical symbiotic alliance between photosynthesizing algae and mineral-harvesting fungi! Mushroom salad. And I had no idea how amazingly diverse was the world population of lichens, especially within the remaining old-growth forests.

The most surprising thing I learned from this book was that the (mostly non-native) worms found in North American forests north of the ice-age moraines – areas that had once been covered in glacial ice – are in fact doing more harm than good to the forests in which they are found. In order to develop the rich biodiversity that enables a forest to thrive into grand old age, a thick layer of forest-floor duff must be allowed to accumulate. The moist, decaying duff at the surface of the forest floor supports diverse fungi, which in turn support diverse plant life, and allow for the germination of tree seeds, which might otherwise lie dormant. If too many worms begin churning under the duff, too quickly, that mechanism for growing diversity in the forest is disrupted, impeding the growth and healthy development of the forest! And I had always assumed that worms were good for the trees!

Live and learn.

In fact, there are so many new things to learn, in the pages of “Nature’s Temples,” that the book bears repeated readings. It is a definite must-have volume for the shelves of a Druid library.