Last year, I received a copy of Robin Wall Kimmerer’s “Braiding Sweetgrass; Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants” as a gift. My aunt, who loves to read, sent me the book after I read some good reviews about it.
What a gift it was.
Over the last year, I have poured over every page. Color-coded sticky notes poke out from the pages where something was just too good not to remember. Slowly, chapter by chapter, I have read and pondered. Often, finishing a chapter meant calling my parents to tell them about some new way my mind had been blown.
According to her website, Robin Wall Kimmerer is a “mother, scientist, decorated professor, and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation.” Her upbringing, education and life experiences inform her work, creating a deeply personal, impactful experience in each of her books, articles and talks.
Kimmerer’s writing has changed me for the better; by changing my perspective of the world around me, improving and broadening my definition of sustainability and giving me hope for the future. The environment is in urgent need of this change, and Kimmerer’s work is the textbook that will teach you where to start – so long as you are willing to let it change you, too.
“Braiding Sweetgrass” is structured in five central parts: Planting, tending, picking, braiding and burning sweetgrass. Across 389 pages, Kimmerer uses plants, language, science, history and personal experience to redefine sustainability. She illustrates how each part of braiding sweetgrass is essential to understanding the whole – and all in the context of what people are given, and what we can give. For sweetgrass to succeed, it needs people; the world needs us.
Every step of the way, Kimmerer challenges the subconscious divide we have built between ourselves and our environment. Indigenous ways of knowing reject this separation – something I think is utterly essential to furthering our understanding of sustainability.
On Nov. 8, the Center for Sustainability and the Environment and the Office of Belonging collaborated to bring interested students to Grand Valley State University (GVSU) to hear Kimmerer speak on the question: “What Does the Earth Ask of Us?”
I was lucky enough to be a part of that group.
After some introductions by GVSU, including a land acknowledgment, Kimmerer interrogated the definition of sustainability. She spoke on western perspectives of land as property, capital, natural resources and as a source for ecosystem services. To me, this list feels like skills on a resume – competent, but devoid of meaning.
In contrast, Kimmerer said indigenous perspectives see land as identity, ancestral connection, a sustainer, a healer, a home, a moral responsibility and more.
One of these lists is much longer than the other – and, as Kimmerer put it, “feels more at home.”
In short, Kimmer asked: is land “belongings, or belonging?”
These comparisons continued. Speaking on ecology, Kimmerer referenced her introduction to academia, mentioned in “Braiding Sweetgrass.” On her first day as a student, Kimmerer says an adviser asked her why she wanted to study botany. She said she wanted to know why goldenrod and asters looked so beautiful together.
The adviser told her that if she wanted to study beauty, she should have gone to art school – because beauty is not science.
Kimmerer then showed the university ID photo she had taken after the aforementioned meeting at the talk; she looked utterly miserable, and for good reason. The detachment of science from beauty is heartbreaking.
In our first interactions with science, we are taught about the scientific method. We are taught to ask questions, be curious and get outside. As we get older and our curiosity grows, we learn real science. Hard science.
Biology students know the routine – if you’ve taken BIO 195, you will too: Photosynthesis, the Krebs cycle, the phylogenetic trees, the inside of an animal cell versus a plant cell; the difference between a population and an ecosystem. The list goes on; the diagrams, the chemicals, the vocabulary – it’s the first thing we learn. Kimmerer notes that this perspective widens the divide between people and the environment.
“The dominant metaphor is not family, but machine,” Kimmerer said.
This is the value of indigenous ways of knowing. In supplementing our western, empirical ways of knowing, we are made better scientists, better scholars and better neighbors to the species we share this world with. We are in the midst of the sixth extinction, on land managed by a western understanding of humanity’s place in nature. But on land managed by Indigenous peoples – 20% of the land on Earth – 80% of the world’s biodiversity remains, Kimmerer said.
This is not to say that Indigenous peoples are magic – the myth of the ecologically noble savage is dangerous and should be avoided – but it still stands that indigenous definitions and practices of sustainability are the oldest out there, even if the term has only recently gained popularity in mainstream western culture.
The sustainability we learn first is often in an economic context. According to the UN, sustainability is defined as “Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
Economic sustainability is important, but by relegating sustainability to what we can take for as long as we can take it, we do ourselves a disservice. Kimmerer interrogated this definition – and said that sustainability should be about what we can give: What does the Earth ask of us?
“In your sustainability classes, students, you learn this first,” Kimmerer said.
To this, the audience, many of whom were students studying sustainability, laughed. Kimmerer agreed: The omission of our relationship and responsibility to our world is “stunning.”
In the question and answer portion of the talk, Kimmerer was asked why she thought her teachings and writings resonated so well with non-native people. Kimmerer responded by saying she thought this was a very natural response, that it “inspires a kind of remembering – remembering what it would be like.”
An example of this – and my favorite part of Kimmerer’s talk – was when she spoke about language, both as a mechanism of colonialism and as a tool for healing. Kimmerer focused on the term “it” in the English language and the way the term objectifies the world. You would never call another person an “it” – such a thing is demeaning, dehumanizing.
“But we say ‘it’ to everyone else,” Kimmerer said.
Every other species, just because they are not human, we call “it.” So what is the solution? To replace “it,” Kimmerer offers what she calls the “pronouns of the revolution.”
“Aki,” means “a good being of the Earth,” Kimmerer said.
To make it an even better, quicker term, she shortens the term: “Ki,” meaning, “of the Earth.” Even better, Kimmerer explains that in Anishinaabe, pluralizing a word is often accomplished by adding an “n” to the end. So the plural pronoun for our worldly neighbors is “kin.” To this, the audience made a sound I can only liken to a sigh of relief, like recognizing a familiar face.
This is the effect of Kimmerer’s words – and of a definition of sustainability that goes beyond the economic and the empirical.
In answering the central question of her talk, “what does the Earth ask of us,” Kimmerer mentioned two things: Gratitude and reciprocity.
Gratitude we can show for the world around us, that which feeds, entertains, shelters, teaches and takes care of us. Reciprocity, in the ways that we live, so that we can use the gifts we have been given to give back – and fundamentally, to reject a capitalist society which only teaches us to ask, “what more can we take?”
How would we live if the world was a neighborhood of our relatives, rather than a warehouse of products? How would we teach if science was about what we can learn, rather than what we can memorize?
If you know me, then you know I talk about this book a lot. It’s hard not to, once you’ve read it.
This article has no hope of mentioning or doing justice to all of the teachings of “Braiding Sweetgrass,” or even of Kimmerer’s talk. You’ll have to read it yourself – in fact, this is me telling you to go read it. Go read it!
Redefining sustainability is hard work – especially when you care a lot about it. It’s a huge concept. But it’s crucial that we change our perspective. We must live our lives thinking of the Earth and its inhabitants as our neighbors. We must learn and we must take action. To quote Kimmerer as she closed the talk:
“Raise a garden, raise good children and raise a ruckus.”