9 October 2017

Braiding Sweetgrass, by Robin Wall Kimmerer

Posted by Callan Bentley

Braiding Sweetgrass is a collection of thematically-linked essays by Robin Wall Kimmerer, an environmentalist, academic, and Native American. The themes that unite them are plants, the human relationship to the natural world, and love.  I’ve read Kimmerer’s essays in Orion before, but there’s a sort of literary force multiplier when you get a whole book full of her thoughtful insights, story after story, back to back.  Braiding Sweetgrass is a work that reminds me of Annie Dillard’s or Barbara Kingsolver’s nonfiction, with the additional flavor of indigenous insight woven (or maybe “braided?”) in. The key aspect of this indigenous insight is a consciousness of the human role in a larger dynamic ecosystem – the valid and valued role that human beings can engage in if they choose to, to the benefit of both their own selves and the natural world as a whole. For instance, in a section about a basket-making lesson, Kimmerer recounts how the students had dropped scraps of ash wood (long fibers called “splints”). In describing her teacher John’s reaction, she says:

In a circle around each novice is a litter of scraps. [John says] “Stop and think what you’re holding. That ash tree was growing out there in that swamp for thirty years, putting out leaves, dropping them, putting out more. It got eaten by a deer, hit by a freeze, but it kept working year in and year out, laying down those rings of wood. A splint fallen on the ground is a whole year of that tree’s life and you’re about to step on it, bend it, grind it into the dirt? That tree honored you with its life. There’s no shame in messing up a splint; you’re just learning. But whatever you do, you owe that tree respect and should never waste it.” And so he guides us as we sort through the debris we’ve made. Short strips go into a pile for small baskets and decoration. The miscellaneous bits and shavings get tossed into a box to be dried and used for tinder. John keeps to the tradition of the Honorable Harvest: take only what you need and use everything you take.”

As with basket-making, this is excellent perspective to maintain in Life In General. But Kimmerer is a plant scientist too, and she shares fascinating research about how human harvest of black ash actually helps (rather than hurts) the trees’ population, one of those counter-intuitive revelations from ecology that remind us why we practice the scientific method instead of just assuming we know what’s going on with the world.

Kimmerer’s locations in the book are mainly centered in upstate New York, but there’s also time spent in the deep South, the Pacific Northwest, and other spots. Her career has had her travel, and she has relevant experiences accrued in each location, even if the woods and lakes of New York are her home.

The writing is eloquent and evocative. I was particularly taken with her description of Pacific salmon feeling the urge to quit the sea, head inland, and spawn:

Far out beyond the surf they felt it. Beyond the reach of any canoe, half a sea away, something stirred inside them, an ancient clock of bone and blood that said, “It’s time.” Silver-scaled body its own sort of compass needle spinning in the sea, the floating arrow turned toward home. From all directions they came, the sea a funnel of fish, narrowing their path as they gathered closer and closer, until their silver bodies lit up the water, redd-mates sent to sea, prodigal salmon returning home.

That’s just great description, but I feel Kimmerer really hits her stride when she’s make explicit connections between the natural and human worlds. (Of course, she sees these two as the same, or they should be the same, but she also knows she’s writing for an audience of humans who have been cut off from deep connection with the natural world through their own choices or Society’s.). Here’s Kimmerer on the Umbilicaria lichen, for instance:

The first drops [of rain] splatter hard against the rigid surface of rock tripe, which instantly changes color. The mud-brown thallus becomes sprinkled with clay-gray polka dots, the tracks of raindrops, which deepen over the next minute to sage green, like a magic picture developing before your eyes. And then, as the green spreads, the thallus begins to move as if animated by muscle, stretching and flexing as the water expands the tissue. In a matter of minutes it is transformed from a dry scab to tender green skin, as smooth as the inside of your arm. … Where the umbilicus anchors the thallus to the rock, the soft skin is dimpled, with little wrinkles radiating about its center. It looks to all the world like a belly button. Some are such perfect little navels that you want to kiss them like a little baby tummy. … As the lichen gets older, it becomes asymmetrical, the bottom half as much as 30 percent longer than the upper, a legacy of lingering moisture that permitted it to keep photosynthesizing and growing after the top half was dry and still. The trough can also collect debris, the lichen equivalent of belly-button lint. … Event the tiny thalli are dimpled with navels. How fitting that this ancient being, one of the first forms of life on the planet, should be connected to the earth by an umbilicus. The marriage of alga and fungus, Umbilicaria is the child of earth, life nourished by stone.

The book’s longest essay is on the legacy of pollution in Lake Onondaga, but others focus on harvesting maple sap for syrup, the different kinds of fire, teaching students in the Great Smoky Mountains, motherhood, rescuing salamanders, and climate change. There’s plenty of diversity of topical material, but her treatment is consistent – both the natural ecosystem and people do better when we cooperate. It behooves us to learn the ways of nature, and to envision a role for our own species to play in that larger system.