An extended Reading the Bestsellers review of this 2013 book still on the bestsellers lists
Milkweed Editions, 2013. 408 pages. $29 (e-book $13, audio $38)
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Braiding Sweetgrass includes a poignant story about a man who found his greatest sense of belonging in his car. “ ‘It provides me with everything I need. My favorite music. Two cup holders. I’m safe. And it always takes me where I want to go.’ Years later, he tried to kill himself. In his car.”
This is a book about relationship. The author is botanist, professor and the founder of the Center for Native People and the Environment. In this profoundly moving and lyrical work, she argues that the colonist’s attitude toward the earth has forgotten the loving relationship between the earth and its inhabitants.
She refers to the result as species loneliness – “a deep, unnamed sadness stemming from estrangement from the rest of Creation, from the loss of relationship.” She relates asking graduate students what might happen if people believed that the earth loved them. The response came, “You wouldn’t harm what gives you love.”
The themes of gift and reciprocity are woven throughout. In traditional Indigenous cultures nature is seen as generous with its gifts, but there is an understood obligation to care for it in return, with gratitude. “In Western thinking,” she writes, “private land is understood as a ‘bundle of rights,’ whereas in a gift economy property has a ‘bundle of responsibilities’ attached.”
Those responsibilities include never taking too much, leaving some for others, harvesting in a way that minimizes harm, never wasting what you have taken and sustaining the ones who sustain you – principles of the Honourable Harvest. Are there echoes of Old Testament instructions to leave behind some of the grain for the poor to glean? And Jesus’ cautionary parable of the man who “built bigger barns” to hoard his wealth?
She recalls a student from a poor village in Turkey who confessed that the college cafeteria made her sick because “ ‘What people throw away here after one lunch would supply my village for days.’ ”
In addition to being a distinguished biologist, Kimmerer is also a poet, and her metaphors for the lessons learned from the earth fuse Western science and Indigenous wisdom. In a chapter called Umbilicaria: The Belly Button of the World, she describes the symbiotic relationship between fungus and alga, forming lichen, as a metaphor of marriage, where each partner shares its gifts with the other, and where the result benefits the whole ecosystem, or “society.”
In the chapter Witness to the Rain, she describes seeing her face reflected in a rain drop. “The fish-eye lens gives me a giant forehead and tiny ears. I suppose that’s the way we humans are, thinking too much and listening too little.”
The most chilling chapter, Windigo Footprints, tells of what happens when humans become infected with the Windigo spirit. In Anishinaabe culture, the Windigo is a human being who has become a cannibal monster, “its essence a hunger that will never be sated. The more a Windigo eats, the more ravenous it becomes. …Consumed by consumption, it lays waste to humankind.”
Kimmerer explains that traditional teachings saw that “Windigo nature is in each of us” so that we need to resist greed. She references Ojibwe scholar Basil Johnston, among others, who point to addictions as an example of the Windigo spirit. But she says multinational corporations “have spawned a new breed of Windigo that insatiably devours the earth’s resources ‘not for need, but for greed.”
She says that “the consumption-driven mindset masquerades as ‘quality of life’ but eats us from within.” By contrast, “the practice of gratitude lets us hear the badgering of marketers as the stomach grumblings of a Windigo.”
Christians would argue that we are sustained by the love of our Creator who gifted us with this abundant, beautiful planet, rather than by the earth’s love. Nevertheless, this book will persuade many readers that biblical Christianity has more in common with traditional Indigenous teachings than with the practices of capitalism.
Indeed, the virtues of self-control, sharing, generosity, gratitude and stewardship of the world which God has entrusted to us are straight from Scripture. As Kimmerer writes, “The market economy story has spread like wildfire, with uneven results for human wellbeing and devastation for the natural world. But it is just a story we have told ourselves and we are free to tell another, to reclaim the old one.”
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