Creating a new relationship with the land
The perfect place to read Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants (Milkweed Editions 2014) by Robin Wall Kimmerer is anywhere one can be near nature, whether that’s on the shore of the lake or in a city park. Braiding Sweetgrass examines the human relationship to the earth through Kimmerer’s personal story as a botanist, mother, and indigenous person.
From the first line to the last, Kimmerer pulls the reader by the gut into the heart of the earth then back up through the shining waters of the Great Lakes. By the end of the book the reader feels reborn with the curious eyes of a baby experiencing the natural world for the first time.
Kimmerer came to Rochester in October for the Writers & Books Rochester Reads program. She graciously agreed to a Q&A with (585) magazine.
Each chapter of Braiding Sweetgrass is not only a lesson in ecology but is lovely, descriptive writing. Your story about wanting to know why goldenrods and asters look so beautiful together makes readers long for September just so they can really look at the combination with a new perspective. Tell us more about your journey as a creative writer for a popular audience.
I’ve come to understand my writing as an act of reciprocity with the plants and land, a way of returning a gift in return for all they have given me. I realized that writing strictly for a scientific audience in peer-reviewed journals was not serving the good of the land; for that I needed to touch hearts as well as minds. It was a challenge at first to reclaim my naturally lyrical way of writing from the formal scientific writing I had been doing. But it was wonderfully liberating, and I learned to trust the power of story. I am so grateful that people are listening.
Singing comes up in a couple of chapters when young people see or feel the sacredness in the land and the plants, when their love of the world bubbles up and comes out in song.Those chapters and the others where you work with students and help them find communion with Earth are so beautifully told. As a teacher and steward of the land, what does it mean to you to see students of any age find this type of connection while in the field?
To me, it means that the students have found something deep and meaningful; they’ve been changed by coming into relationship with the land. This connection derives from experience that touches mind, body, emotion, and spirit and therefore is long lasting. Once students feel this, they are activated, I think, to care actively for the land; you can’t be passive when you’ve been engaged in this way. It’s a reminder that what’s good for the land is good for people, too.
Braiding Sweetgrass has made an impact on people worldwide and is a New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post bestseller. Book groups, universities, and libraries have created programs around the book and sales are astounding (350,000 copies and counting). During all of your speaking engagements and talks, what is a common thread that you have noticed among readers and fans of the book?
In engaging with readers and listeners across this very diverse audience, I have sensed a deep longing for connection with the living world. There is a desire to know the plants well again, to feel part of the ecological community and to reclaim our role as givers to the land, not just takers. I can feel people longing for kinship with the land that the extractive economies have tried to erase. People are remembering what it might be to have an honorable relationship with land.
Photos by Dale Kakkak
The chapter about Onondaga Lake (once known as one of the most polluted lakes in the United States) hits close to home for those in Rochester, just down the road from Syracuse. Do you still go to the lake and find sweetgrass and feel like there might be some hope for restoration of the land and waters, not just here in Western/Central New York but everywhere where humans have hurt the earth?
I do visit the lake, to give my greetings and thanks, although I’ve not found sweetgrass growing there yet on its own. Restoration is imperative; we have to heal the damage that we’ve done. Onondaga Lake has a long way to go for true healing, but the lake is showing us that if we stop doing damage, the inherent healing capacity of the lake can exert its influence. But it’s not enough to just fix the symptoms; real restoration requires a biocultural approach, healing our relationship to land and water at the same time as we address ecological restoration. We should be following the guidance of the Onondaga Nation’s vision for a clean Onondaga Lake.
The book is a lesson not just in restoration and being a good steward of the land but in reciprocity with earth and water and plants and animals.Yet it is possible that many people may still feel paralyzed and scared when faced with the overwhelming prospect of reversing the damage humans have inflicted upon the Earth. What advice do you give readers when they say to you,“But how do I start a healthy relationship with the land?”
It starts with paying attention: Come to know the ones who sustain you, so that you can sustain them. Inevitably, deep attention brings you to a place of understanding the world as gift—not as commodity—and this realization incites a desire to give a gift in return. Giving back to the land, entering into reciprocity is a way of creating relationship with the earth. Humility is also a big part of knowing the land in this way, understanding that the land can be our teacher if we’re able to listen.
Kimmerer is an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, a SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor of Environmental Biology, and the founder and director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment.
Learn more about Robin Wall Kimmerer at robinwallkimmerer.com.