I found Braiding Sweetgrass – Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowlege, and the Teachings of Plants at my local library. I knew it was going to be a good one because unlike so many environmental books I have checked out over the years, this one had a 59 hold wait.
I can safely say that this book is mostly worth the wait. The book challenged many of the things I know about the world, and answered a lot of deep questions about life in fresh ways that felt right. If you’ve ever struggled with how to think or feel about the natural world, this book will certainly help you. Here’s a few of the highlights, as well as some answers to the concerns I noted while looking at the reviews of others.
Skywoman vs. Eve
The book opens comparing the Indigenous creation story of Skywoman, to the Christian creation story of Eve. Although the stories have many similarities, the key difference is that Skywoman was welcomed by nature and became part of it, while Eve was essentially thrown out of it.
As a Christian, this comparison did not particularly offend me. Rather, it made me think about what a creation story is meant to convey. I believe if we listen to the heart of the story, we can find the value in it, and both stories have value that tell us something about life.
We know from Eve that Western cultures feel torn apart from nature, while Indigenous folks less so. We know that both creation stories show the value of Creation, how amazing it is, and that it needs cared for. These are all values we can and should take with us into daily living.
The question isn’t so much which one is better, but what can we do about it.
Acknowledging Lives Lost
It’s hard to be ethical in a world where living means killing something else. Even if you choose to be a strict vegan, and live your life as lightly and minimally as possible, the fact remains you must kill to stay alive. Every day your body kills microorganisms on your behalf, whether you ask it to or not. If it doesn’t, you die.
Every day, the foods you ate came from something once alive. Whether plant or animal, something died or was hurt for you to live. Plus the collateral damage of animals getting killed by plows, fertilizer run off, and habitat loss in the name of agriculture.
This book has some great incites on the circle of life, and while I do admit to raising my eyebrow about deer presenting themselves to be shot, I feel that acknowledging life lost is an important part of living.
Whether you eat meat or plants, there’s nothing wrong with taking a moment to acknowledge the life taken, and also to respect it by not wasting food, not taking more than you need, and through reciprocity.
Becoming reciprocal with nature
One of the best parts of the book in my opinion, is talking about reciprocity. The simple truth is, all life takes from others to live. That carrot grows fat because it is taking soil (essentially a big pile of dead things) and turning it into starchy, sweet stores.
Everything takes, but what makes humans different is reciprocity. Buffalo eat grass, but they also fertilize it, clear brush, and prune back the forest so the grassland can thrive. A wolf may eat a deer, but by keeping the population in check they make sure the ecosystem stays healthy, so those that remain benefit.
We feel bad for what we take because, as the book puts it, we’re essentially shoplifting from nature. We take, but don’t give back.
I find this useful, because when ever I am confronted with the damage I’m doing, I can ask myself how I can give back. If I can’t avoid plastic entirely, I can go out and pick litter from the ecosystem to try and balance that. I can eat as much as possible from a garden where I know the wildlife is taken care of, and choose local farmers nearby where I can judge for myself how the land is cared for.
By using this as a measuring stick, we can greatly reduce our impact, and it makes daily decisions so much easier (and less guilty.)
On being content
The Thanksgiving address is another great one, but also made me feel a little bit sad. Pilgrims were clearly impressed by Thanksgiving, such that it remains one of the most popular celebrations today. Yet, reading the Thanksgiving address, we largely missed the point.
One of my biggest critiques of Western culture is that in many ways, it is a culture without values. Your tools can’t have value when they’re purchased but never used. Your furniture can’t have value when one wobbly leg means throwing the whole thing into the dump and getting a new one.
Throw away lifestyle demands that I be looking, ever more impatiently, to the next big thing so that I can keep up appearances. I’m never reminded that I have all I need—unless it’s on a cute cursive sign at a boutique for $29.95.
When I read through the Thanksgiving Address, I went out into my backyard to dangle my feet over the edge of my deck, listen to the birds, and think about these things. This book is rich with things to think about.
Combing snakes from your hair
Throughout most of this book, I felt like I was sitting at the feet of a wise old grandmother, learning a new way of looking at life. About three quarters of the way through the book however, the book stumbled so hard it made the valuable lessons from earlier hard to digest.
I believe it must have been very difficult for the author to discuss the painful ecological loss of a polluted lake, the loss of wildlife, and other issues directly related to the “business as usual” approach the Western world has.
Her final essays were very emotional, but also filled with mixed and often hurtful messaging. After speaking so eloquently about thanking trees and reciprocity, she sneered at oak trees, calling them “miserly” for no other reason than that they were not maples.
In any other book this would just be great description, but earlier we learned that trees are people. Imagine calling your grandpa miserly because he wasn’t pretty enough for you.
Although I found some parts of the book personally hurtful, overall the book was wonderful. I still recommend it, and think that there is great value in it. If you’re one of the 95% of the world that is not Indigenous, learning to become ‘naturalized’ to your area is a great ideal, and this book provides useful stories and wisdom that leads toward that path.