lessons in the plants: ‘braiding sweetgrass,’ with robin wall kimmerer
IT WAS FOR ME A SERENDIPITY that an acquaintance recommended the book “Braiding Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer at this particular moment in time, as one year closes and another opens. The book’s subtitle is “Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants.” Its author describes herself as a mother, a scientist, a professor, and a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation.
I will let her tell you more about herself and about the plant called sweetgrass from which we can all learn so much–and about the generosity of all plants, and coming to know them using not just our intellect, scientifically, but to fully know them using mind, body, emotion, and spirit. “Braiding Sweetgrass” are helping me shape my intentions for the year ahead–and perhaps it will likewise for you.
Read along as you listen to the Dec. 25, 2017 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
q&a with robin wall kimmerer
Q. You write in “Braiding Sweetgrass:” “I’m a plant scientist, and I want to be clear, but I am also a poet and the world speaks to me in metaphor.” Can you tell me a little bit about your perspective in seeing the world?
A. Yes. I sometimes feel as if I really have feet in different places, looking at the world through multiple lenses, and I am. I’m a botanist. I’m a trained plant biologist, plant ecologist, and those tools of science are so powerful for us, not only for interpreting the world, but for seeing the world clearly.
But we’re sometimes, in the scientific ways, we privilege the knowledge of the mind and the intellect and that which we can measure. But the voice of the poet, and speaking in metaphors, is how we feel–what are our relationships to that which we observe and those who we observe? So, it’s really important to me to have both of those lenses so that when we engage with the world, we do it with all of the gifts of the human, not just our intellect, but with mind, body, emotion, and spirit. And in Indigenous ways of knowing, we are often reminded that we need to use all of those gifts in order to really understand our relationship to the world.
Q. In the book, you tell … and I think I’ve also heard you lecture; it’s something that I watched online I believe, a lecture you gave earlier this year, at Yale. You tell a story, as you write it in the book, about your first encounter at college and meeting who would be maybe your advisor or something, a scientist, and a discussion you had [laughter] in that first sort of interview moment about kind of what you were just talking about, about beauty. He asked you maybe what you wanted to learn. Is that what happened?
A. Yes. I came from a childhood growing up out on the land, where plants were my companions and my friends and my teachers. They really were my elders. And so then when I chose to study botany in college, I thought I was coming with an orientation to an appreciation and understanding of plants.
But that first encounter with my freshman advisor let me know otherwise, because when I was asked, “So, why do you want to study botany?” And I answered, “Because goldenrod and asters are so beautiful together, and I want to know why. I want to know why these stand together. Why do they grow together and look so beautiful when they could grow apart?” [Laughter.]
Q. Uh-oh. [Laughter.]
A. And so I just think of the dismay with which my advisor looked at me like, “That’s not science.” And he said, “You should go to art school if you want to study beauty.”
I was just a kid. I didn’t have any resistance to that way of thinking. I didn’t have the vocabulary to be able to say, “Well, actually that’s a really important question, which is not only aesthetic, but ecological as well and perhaps physiological.”
But that was my first encounter into the scientific worldview and the quite large gulf between ways of thinking and scientific ways of thinking, where plants, my companions, and teachers were suddenly in the scientific worldview, they were no longer subject, but they became objects, kind of little green machines instead of my relatives. [Read more about Robin’s aster and goldenrod question in this essay, excerpted from “Braiding Sweetgrass.”.]
Q. [Laughter.] Yes. One of the plants that of course is the overarching subject metaphor of this book—and by the way, the book, Elizabeth Gilbert calls it, “A hymn of love to the world,” which is just perfect—it’s the plant called sweetgrass. So, introduce sweetgrass to us a little bit.
A. Oh, it’s such an amazing plant. Sweetgrass is a really good name for it, and in our language, her name is wiingaashk. In the Potawatomi language, wiingaashk refers to that sweet fragrance for sure, that wonderful vanilla-like fragrance. But it also refers to the fact that it is a ceremonial, sacred plant for us, and a teacher.
It’s also a healing plant, and the way that it heals is so interesting. Ecologically, it is a healer of broken, open land. It’s a pioneer species that comes and binds up the soil with its rhizomes. But it’s also a cultural healer, a spiritual healing plant as well. When Linnaeus named that plant, he called it the Hierochloe odorata, which means “the sacred, fragrant holy-grass.” So oftentimes, our scientific names are kind of empty and mechanical, but he really got it right.
We revere that plant. We revere sweetgrass, or wiingaashk, for a number of reasons, but one of which is in our oldest stories. Sweetgrass is understood as the hair of Mother Earth—that sweet, shining long hair. And just as we braid the hair of someone that we love to enhance their beauty, to care for them, as a real tangible sign of our loving and caring relationship with one another, our people braid sweetgrass. It is a metaphor and a pragmatic representation of our care for Mother Earth. [Photo of sweetgrass, Hierochloe odorata, from Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, by Andy and Sally Wasowski.]
And so I used that plant as the dominant metaphor for the book, which is a braid of stories, which are made up really of three strands—two of which we’ve kind of talked about already. One of those strands is Indigenous knowledge and traditional environmental thinking about plants from the Native perspective.
Another one of the strands of that braid of stories is scientific knowledge about plants, and then there’s that third strand that makes up the beautiful braid. The way that I think of that third strand is the knowledge that the plants themselves hold, that not what we can learn about plants, but what we can learn from plants. So, the book is this braid of stories that use those three different ways of knowing to reawaken our relationship with plants and to fully engage with all of our human ways of knowing the gifts that plants hold for us.
Q. Well, the book is vast, and I keep doubling back again and again to certain places, but I want to try to home in on a few of the learnings. They’re starting to come clear a little bit in my head as I read and reread. This is a time of year in our modern economy that’s often about commercial gifting, you know? But you write of an entirely different kind of gift economy. You say in the book, “Plants know how to make food from light and water, and then they give it away.” So, tell me about the gift economy.
A. You know, again, within my scientific community, what sometimes we call “natural resources” are what Native people call gifts.
A. These are the creative products of other beings, just as we as individuals have our own particular gifts that we can give to the world. We view the plants and animals that way as well. And so plants, as these immensely creative beings, certainly do make food and medicines and dyes and materials and they hold knowledge for us in so many different ways that we think of those as gifts.
And that language of thinking about them as gifts rather than natural resources is really, I think, very important because they … When we are given a gift, we know what to do about that, right? When we take natural resources, we take them without consequences when we call them natural resources. Well, they’re ours; they’re our property. We can do with them as we wish. But when we think about what the world gives us as gifts, not as stuff that we’re taking, but as gifts that are given, that engenders a whole different relationship to the living world, doesn’t it?
Suddenly, it invites gratitude, not expectation that I’ll get more and more and more, but gratitude for what I have been given. It generates a kind of self-restraint in return for that gift. When you know it’s a gift, it somehow makes you less greedy and more satisfied and appreciative of what you have.
The other way in which we know when we’re given a gift—yes, we want to be thankful; we want to be respectful to that gift. But when we’re given a gift, it also opens the door to reciprocity, to say, “In return for this gift, I want to give something back,” and that’s the gift-giving economy. It’s based not on an exchange of property, but an exchange based on reciprocity, so that in return for what’s given we want to give something back in return, which means we need to engage one another not anonymously, but as individual beings to consider what it is that we have to give to each other.
Q. One of the other things that really appealed to me, and again that I keep dipping back to certain parts of the book, is the importance of naming. You sort of alluded to this a little bit earlier when you talked about things are relegated to being things. It’s a thing. So, naming being important both about plants and other creatures and also about a place.
You say in the book, “When we call a place by its name, it is transformed from wilderness to homeland.” I thought that was a really powerful thought. Also, just talk about that and also about the names—I guess the animacy, right, the “grammar of animacy,” you call it.
A. Oh, I’d love to. Yes. Naming has so much deep meaning beyond just the words that we stick onto something, right, because naming is a way, I think, that we form relationship. Very active learning somebody’s name. If you have a neighbor whose name that you’ve chosen not to learn, right, that’s a sign of disrespect or, “I don’t expect to be engaged with you. I don’t need to know your name because we have no relationship.”
But when you learn someone’s name, it’s an invitation. It’s an invitation to know one another, and to help each other, to celebrate together, to have a real exchange, right? So, the very act of learning plant names is an invitation into relationship with them, and even though I’m a scientific botanist, I’m not talking about learning all the Latin names. Although…
Q. I know you’re not. [Laughter.]
A. The names even that we create are perfectly fine because they’re markers of respect and relationship with one another. It’s so important because, as you know, the conservation-biology community identified that in the United States we suffer from what they are calling “plant blindness,” that we don’t even really see or consider the well-being of plants or the gifts that they share with us. Learning names is an antidote to plant blindness. So I really think that coming to know individual plants well enough to call them by name, either their official name or the name that works for you, is a marker of relationship.
Q. Their personhood, yes? They have personhood.
A. Their personhood. Right, exactly. And you asked about the grammar of animacy. Now, what do we do if we don’t know a being’s name? In English, we have the fallback of calling it “it,” right?
A. And, in fact, when we look at the English language, there’s a peculiarity in the grammar. Grammar is a way we chart relationships both in language and with nature, and in English we have no way to refer to living beings except as “it.” That sugar maple outside your window, we say, “It’s growing.” We would never say “it” about other human beings because it’s disrespectful. It robs them of personhood, and dignity, and agency. And yet the English language is constructed in such a way that that’s the only way we have to speak about the living world.
I think the ramifications of that are profound because the way we speak colors how we think. The way we think colors how we speak, and so it means that we’re thinking about the rest of the living world, plants in particular, as objects. Once we think of it as an object, they’re outside of our circle of ecological responsibility or ecological compassion because they’re “it’s.”
But in the Potawatomi language, as well as many other Indigenous languages, that’s not how the grammar works. It would be impossible in Potawatomi to refer to that same sugar maple or the squirrel sitting in its branches as “it”. It’s not possible. We refer to them with the same grammar that we do our family members because they are regarded as our family members.
Q. It’s funny with … I come at all this as a plant person for maybe 30 or 35 years, and I’ve only maybe in the process of gardening all these years in a rural place, I’ve met the other creatures and more so, as I’ve gotten older and more patient and able to sit still and watch and not be rushing off to the next chore. But even at that, with that experience, I do use personal pronouns always for other living things, but with plants I still think of “it,” so I was very struck by this.
How could I even, a person whom plants have transformed—they’re my constant companions of a lifetime. They’ve transformed everything I’ve ever done and they mean so much to me and are my great delight, and yet I still say “it.” I think “it.” Whether I say “it” or not, but I’m thinking “it.” Do you know what I mean?
A. Yes. We’ve been conditioned to think that way. And, Margaret, just as you said a lifetime with them, my gosh, we shouldn’t be speaking of them as “it,” right? And that was just my dilemma, and so I began thinking and talking to other language experts to think about, is there a way that, inspired by this grammar of animacy that we know of in Indigenous languages, might we think of ways to animate English? Could we have a new pronoun that allows us to speak of the living world in a respectful way, not as an object? And I’ve recently been writing and thinking about this, and the proposal for another pronoun is to use the pronoun “ki,” pronounced “key.”
It comes from a word that means an Earth-being in our language, bmaadiziaki. “Aki” means the Earth, so might we use he, she, ki and it? So, we can save “it” for truly inanimate things and use “ki” for both the squirrel and the sugar maple. And then when we have to speak in plural, we already have a beautiful word in English that if we take that word “ki” and just add an “N” to it, we have kin. We can then speak of the geese flying overhead as, “Kin are flying South for the winter.” “The kin are in our garden.”
So, rather than speaking of the natural world as an object, we can speak of it as kinfolk, and that changes everything. When we start to think about the world as our relatives, as our providers, as our companions, as you know, it transforms how we are in the world.
Q. I loved also the idea about the power of the collective. You say, “The trees act not as individuals, but somehow as a collective, and we don’t know how they do this, but they do,” and that all flourishing is mutual, the idea of a community of trees. There’s so much power in that, and we see it in nature, of course.
A. And I hope that we can be inspired by that as human individuals facing the uncertain future of climate change, that collective action taught to us by the trees can be a guide for us. The plants know what to do about climate change. They are taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and storing it.
We as gardeners, as lovers of plants, as students of plants, could really follow that collective example and set our intentions toward more and more carbon sequestration, right, of letting the plants do what they do best. Plant more trees; plant more native species. Restore, reclaim, really work as gardeners are so gifted to be able to do, to restore the green. It is our collective responsibility. In return for everything that the plants have given us, we can do that.
Q. You say it beautifully … just then you said it beautifully, and you say it beautifully in the book: “From the very beginning of the world, the other species were a lifeboat for the people. Now we must be theirs.” It’s very well put, and I think a great way to think about winding down a year and starting a fresh year, again with the intention of maybe being more tuned into that, yes?
A. Absolutely. Tuned into this, and I like how you think of that as setting intention. That we as gardeners, as plant lovers, have this capacity that we really need to step up to the plate and use on behalf of all the living world.
enter to win ‘braiding sweetgrass’
I’LL BUY A COPY of “Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants” by Robin Wall Kimmerer for one lucky reader. All you have to do to enter is comment in the box at the very bottom of the page, answering this question:
Is there a native plant in your garden or the surrounding area that you might feel a kinship with or special appreciation for, or strongly associate with the place you live? (I suppose mine would be the little bluestem grass, Schizachyrium scoparium, which provides so much beauty when many other plants here are leafless or dormant, plus support native skippers and even overwintering bumblebee queens. Or maybe the many towering native oaks that make the garden so attractive to a diversity of wildlife.)
No answer, or feeling shy? Just say something like “count me in” and I will, but an answer is ever better. I’ll pick a random winner after entries close at midnight Tuesday, January 2. Good luck to all. US and Canada only.
prefer the podcast version of the show?
MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its seventh year in March 2016. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the Dec. 25, 2017 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
(Photo of Robin Wall Kimmerer by Dale Kakkak. Disclosure: Purchases from Amazon affiliate links yield a small commission.)