Book review: Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer

I hope it’s not just me, but I have really been enjoying sourcing and finding great books that relate to sustainability, compassion and community. And as soon as I read this book, I knew I had to talk about it.

Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer is one of those books you come across only a few times in a lifetime. I found it on audiobook, and I must say, the added bonus of getting the author herself reading her book to you adds another level of personal that I wholeheartedly recommend.

Categorising this book is a challenge. It is listed as a collection of essays, but it is so much more than that. The stories are told with such care and attention to detail, I sometimes forget that this is not a carefully planned piece of fiction, but someone telling me stories of their life and history with usually subtle lessons interspersed throughout. It never hits you over the head with those lessons, but tells you a story about why they are important instead.

As activists, we are learning more and more that people are moved by story, and much less by facts. And Robin is a masterful storyteller.

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Robbed of their history

Robin is a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, but like so many indigenous inhabitants of America, she did not grow up immersed in her own culture. Her grandfather was forcibly sent to boarding school in order to “kill the Indian, save the man“. And while I can’t speak with authority on Native Americans, I am ashamed to admit that the same thing was done to our Scandinavian indigenous people, the Sami, here in Norway around the same time. And while we recognize now how horrible this treatment was, there is no denying the damage it did to the cultures it affected.

Again, pulling similarities to a culture I know a little more about, the Sami who were assimilated in these horrible boarding schools often ended up so ashamed of being Sami that they did not speak the language or share their culture with their children and grandchildren. Some relatives have been shocked to know only recently that their beloved grandmother is actually Sami. So much beautiful culture has been silenced to death.

It is something I, as a person raised in the dominant culture, white, blond and blue-eyed, cannot possibly even begin to imagine.

Masterful storyteller

This book gives me a tiny window into a different world-view, and it is so, so beautiful. It could have been angry, it could have pointed fingers, and it would have been dead-right in doing so.

But instead, the author leads with compassion and empathy. She shares her story, and several stories of her people. Of how they think and see the world differently. Of how maybe, the bounty of America was not a stroke of luck as the settlers assumed because the ways of the Natives were so different to their own, but perhaps a result of generations of careful and very different management of their land and resources.

Of how she was laughed at in college because what she wanted to research was why some flowers look so beautiful together.

Beauty? PAH! The European-centric scientifically trained professors scoffed at her. We are scientists. Beauty has no room here!

Opposites and side by side. Robin trained in the way the European mindset teaches science and worldview. But as she rose in the ranks of university and brought her garden with her, she started asking those initial, innocent questions again. She manages to combine western science with native ways of thinking, and we absolutely need more of that. About beauty in biology, and about sweetgrass, and how management can enhance biology, not destroy it.

Never take more than half

She imparts wisdom on us too. Old wisdom, that now that I have learned it, I cannot unlearn it.

Simple concepts such as “never take the first” of any plant if you are out foraging, because it may well be the last. But also, “never take more than half”. Not just to give the plant a chance to regrow so that it may provide you in the future, but also because you are not the only creature dependent upon it.

Some books are larger than life

I must admit, there are so many more stories I want to pull forth as short summaries and examples of great storytelling. But to be honest, I also want to hold back. I really, really want as many people as possible to read this book. It is beautiful, it is curious, and it is never judgemental.

It is one of those books that, as soon as I finished it, I knew it was a book I wanted not only in digital format, but physically on my bookshelf too. To be shared and shown to visitors and friends. It is one of those books you want to get dog-eared and wonky with age, because so many people have read, shared and appreciated it. It is not a book to just sit around and look pretty.

Want something to challenge a worldview you are so steeped in that you take it for granted? Read this book.

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