By: Kaylee Salazar
For the honors book club course at the University of New Haven, I recently got the opportunity to read “Braiding Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer. While fiction is usually my genre of choice, Kimmerer’s non-fiction book and exploration into “Indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge, and the teachings of plants” has quickly earned a place on my shelf and in my daily conversations. I did not think that I would love this book as much as I do, but since reading it, I have been finding excuses to bring it up in any way that I can. While it may have been published a decade ago, I feel like the topics and lessons discussed are still relevant and of paramount importance.
One of Kimmerer’s major focuses is the idea of colonization and how much it has impacted our perspectives and the way we interact with the world. Early on, Kimmerer introduces readers to the story of Sky Woman, which is to Indigenous people what Adam and Eve’s story is to those who follow Christian Teachings. However, rather than outright telling readers what they should or should not believe, Kimmerer instead writes about how Indigenous people view the world without further applying pressure on readers by making them feel at fault for their beliefs. Kimmerer writes that Sky Woman is the origin of the world, and after seeing her fall from the sky, the Earth’s inhabitants worked together to not only give her a soft landing, but to also help her thrive. Kimmerer explains that this origin story which promotes reciprocity and gratitude was erased from indigenous culture and histories because of colonization. Luckily, by understanding Sky Woman’s teachings and what she stands for—that we should work alongside each other and give back to those who give to us— we can relearn to be gentle and at peace with the rest of the world.
Following the teachings of Indigenous people, Kimmerer uses refreshing vocabulary to talk about nature. She does not see plants and animals as things, but rather “someones,” and as fellow living beings that we share our planet with. As such, full respect is to be given to nature and nothing less. Through her essays, Kimmerer provides anecdotes of times where nature taught her life lessons. She shares parallels, bits of wisdom and facts that entice you to look at the world differently. The common thread that weaves everything together is the idea that nature is a living, breathing thing that we must relearn to appreciate and give thanks to. Through her vibrant stories and evocative language, Kimmerer makes it easy to see trees the way she does, to understand the significance of sweetgrass and to learn to notice when a creature is lurking nearby. Kimmerer’s love for nature is potent on the page and it is difficult to read her book and not want to experience life in the way that she does.
For people ingrained in the colonial teachings of America, “Braiding Sweetgrass” provides a peaceful respite and showcases what could have been. Throughout the book, Kimmerer weaves the themes of colonization and cultural erasure within her lurid stories of reciprocity and gratuity toward nature and others. These two themes, of what was erased and what is currently present, juxtapose each other perfectly to not only reflect the differences between cultural outlooks, but remind readers of what was stolen and erased. Where we could live in an America full of Honorable Harvests and conscientious living, we instead live under a “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” mentality where individuals are deemed to be at fault, rather than the larger players on the field. By showing readers the stark differences between Indigenous and modern American cultures and beliefs, Kimmerer aims to reteach, or at the very least, make her readers aware about what could be possible if only we were all a bit gentler and more purposeful with our actions.
Reading Robin Wall Kimmerer’s “Braiding Sweetgrass” for the first time was an experience I wish I could relive . I repeatedly had to stop reading the book down and put it down because of the emotional impact of Kimmerer’s message. This is a book that feels like wiping at a foggy mirror, giving us a chance to think critically about what we have been taught and to reflect. Kimmerer does a fantastic job of bringing pertinent issues to readers in an innocuous way. This book does not feel like an attack on certain beliefs; rather, it is a soft reminder that things can be different if we only choose to think in a different way. After reading, I can confidently say that I am a changed person and I view the world through a kinder and more appreciative perspective. “Braiding Sweetgrass” is one of those books that I will think of fondly and hold its lessons close. I can only hope that more people get their hands on it and feel the same way as I do.