Commentary on the book by Robin Wall Kimmerer: BRAIDING SWEET GRASS – Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants

By Kathleen Livingston, Member of Cohousing Hamilton


Perhaps it is a result of my lifelong immersion in horticulture that a subtitle that includes “the Teachings of Plants” would hold the promise of a good read. Noted entomologist and author, Dr. Douglas Tallamy, has enthused me and so many of my ilk with his groundbreaking book “Bringing Nature Home – How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants”. Similarly, Peter Wohlleben’s research findings published in “The Hidden Life of Trees – What They Feel, How They Communicate” reveals a wonderland of soil-bound life heretofore largely unexplored.  So, it is hardly surprising that another science-based book about plants was as seductive to me as bloodroot blooms in spring!

In the preface of her book, Wall Kimmerer weaves a beguiling invitation to immerse yourself in her stories, with the invitation invoking the “…fragrance of honeyed vanilla over the scent of river water and black earth…”  – the olfactory experience of sweet grass. “Breathe it in”, she persuades, “and you start to remember things you didn’t know you’d forgotten.” The journey traced through her stories does more than spark lost memories, it evokes primal feelings of riches lost, of yearnings for a natural world that we may never even have experienced – of so much that is at stake through the developing climate crisis. It also traces a path for shared, interdependent living and the underpinnings for healthy community building.

book  (Robin Wall Kimmerer)

Wall Kimmerer is a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, a botanist, a SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor of Environmental Biology and the founder and director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment.  Lucky for us, she is also a talented and skillful storyteller, crafting her prose in a unique blending of science and the traditional knowledge of her people and American Indians more broadly. She plaits her prose with facts, native lore and inescapable truths both gentle and harsh. 

Each chapter of her book takes us deeper into the understanding of the reciprocity and gratitude that we all owe, not just to each other, but to Mother Earth most of all. In these values also lies the recipe for success in the community and symbiotic, living choices. 

Responsibility, respect, humility in our interactions with each other as well as the natural world – all these themes are brought to life throughout the book and are deeply grounded in First Peoples’ culture. In describing the fully tactile experience of discovering a field of lush wild strawberries, she teaches us how gratitude for the Earth’s blessings might inform our respect for them. How giving back to the earth, feeds into Earth’s capacity to continue providing us with its bounty. Indeed, gratitude and reciprocity must enrich our interactions with all – humans and “more-than-human” beings alike.  Certainly, illustrations of these imperatives weave through every story Wall Kimmerer shares.

In the absence of these cultural practices, modern society and industrialization operate within a culture of entitlement – that everything the earth has to offer is for taking and exploiting. Again and again, Wall Kimmerer contrasts the Native culture of using respectfully only what is needed and expressing gratitude for the earth’s riches against today’s global culture of wanton appropriation and greed. She makes a specific note of “An economy that grants personhood to corporations but denies it to the more-than-human beings….”, referencing the US Court’s 1886 decision to grant personhood to corporations. 

Describing a long, long list of the wonderful natural gifts Mother Earth provides, Wall Kimmerer cautions: “The moral covenant of reciprocity calls us to honour our responsibilities for all we have been given, for all that we have taken. It’s our turn now, long overdue.” 

Unquestionably, her focus is on our interactions with the natural world. The sooner we all accept that responsibility and acknowledge the “personhood” of all of Earth’s beings, the sooner we will see hope for building a world that can sustain future generations. However, equally clear is that adopting this moral covenant is vital in choosing to live interdependently, in choosing to be our best selves with each other, and in creating cohesive, healthy communities.


Links to Cited Works

BRAIDING SWEETGRASS – Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, by Robin Wall Kimmerer

 Bringing Nature Home, by Doug Tallamy

 The Hidden Life of Trees, by Peter Wohlleben