Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer, a Review

Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer: Review

Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer, a Review.

Goosebumps. As I read the opening chapter of Braiding Sweetgrass, the myth of Skywoman falling, a creation story so different from our own, my body responded with an unconscious, kinetic shiver. It proved to be the first of many spontaneous physical reactions that interrupted my reading right through to the end. An audible sigh, tear filled eyes, a tight gut, an internal smile.

This is a remarkable book. A sacred text, a gentle teaching. It’s a reminder of who we are in relation to land, and an invocation to reconnect with country through both tangible relationships of regenerative reciprocity as well as through symbolic layering, ceremony and the personified recognition of all of creation.

While my body reacted spontaneously, on the conscious level I was stimulated in other ways. I read with a pencil in my hand, underlining sentences and highlighting paragraphs. I was swept along with the lush tenderness of Kimmerer’s language, her precise and poetic descriptions of equisite botanical details. I was astonished by glorious scientific phenomenon and humbled by the generosity of certain species. And while we need to know, and to know again, of the histories of indigenous peoples and the destruction of our environments – the brutal consequences of colonialism and capitilism – Robin Wall Kimmerer does not lead us down a tunnel of despair.

The wisdom contained in every page is a godsend. And the teachings are astoundingly beautiful. Through both the voices and stories of indigenous elders and her own experiences of teaching botany at universities, Kimmerer takes us into a world where the economy is based on the giving and receiving of gifts, where gratitude and responsibility are never taken for granted and where humans are indebted to strawberries, maples and reeds. She opens us to new perspectives of handcraft and camping, forest care and farming, and shares the frustration of trying to re-learn the  species-inclusive grammar of near extinct languages.

I could spend a whole day listening. And a whole night. And in the morning, without my hearing it, there might be a mushroom that was not there the night before, creamy white, pushed up from the pine needle duff, out of darkness to light, still glistening with the fluid of its passage. Puhpowee.

Listening in wild places, we are audience to conversations in a language not our own...

My first taste of the missing language was the word Puhpowee on my tongue. I stumbled upon it in a book by the Anishinaabe ethnobotanist Keewaydinoquay, in a treatise on the the traditional uses of funghi by our people. Puhpowee, she explained, translates as “the force which causes mushrooms to push up from the earth overnight.”. As a biologist, I was stunned that such a word existed. In all its technical vocabulary, Western science has no such term, no words to hold this mystery. … The language that holds Puhpowee is one that I wanted to speak.

- from the chapter “Learning the Grammar of Animacy”

Language, stories, myths and the reality of how our future will be blessed if we can only find a way to recognise and articulate the sanctity and equality of all of nature: animate and inanimate, human and the more than human. If we can find a way to return home.

Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer: Review

Hidden away in the notes at the very end, Kimmerer explains why the names of plants and natural phenomenon are often capitilised in her writing. Science in particular and culture in general has long adopted the protocol of only adding a capital letter to the names of humans. Inherent to this grammatical gesture is the belief that homo sapiens sits at the apex of a pyramid that denotes the importance of life. For all the other species on the planet, capitilisation occurs only when the name of a human has been attached.

“Thus, the first blossoms of the spring woods are written as bloodroot and the pink star of a Californian woodland is Kellogg’s tiger lily.” The significance of this is that non-human species are stripped of “personhood” and the consequences, both for the natural world and for our collective consciousness, are what Kimmerer asks us to explore.

The beauty of the end note, however, lies not in the explanation, but rather in the realisation that through the reading you’ve become so aligned with the indigenous appreciation of life in all forms that you’ve noticed nothing strange about her friendships with Spruce, White Willow and Fir. On the contrary, you want to emulate it.

Braiding Sweetgrass is transformative.  It’s medicine for our times. Long before the end, you’ll be observing nature in a different light. You’ll be wanting to cultivate relationships, personal and powerful, based on gratitude and reciprocity, with every living thing around you.

Read More

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Angelina Brazzale

Angelina Brazzale is the founding creative director of Empress and Sister. Like her chart ruler, Mercury, she travels between worlds. She has degrees in English Literature and in Fine Arts, Ceramics. She's a Primary Health Coach, having reversed autoimmune disease through the protocols of ancestral health. She spent over 10 years teaching yoga and meditation. She reads Tarot, writes and makes art, and is sensitive to the energy in crystals and trees. Visit her Page in the Empress and Sister Collective for information, products and services.

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