Book Review: Braiding Sweetgrass
I had seen “Braiding Sweetgrass” suggested many places, and since it was available as an audiobook rental from my library, I jumped in. The descriptions of the book are vague on the actual subject matter, and I think that’s because it is hard to quantify. Runtime on this book is almost 17 hours, and to give some comparison, most of the books I listen to are 5-8. I was hesitant when I started, but soon got drawn in with Robin’s playful descriptions of her life and of the plants she works with.
To me, “Braiding Sweetgrass” is the story of intersections. The main intersection Robin highlights is that of scientific and Indigenous understanding of our natural world, but that’s not the only one. Maybe it’s the subtle rise and fall of her voice, but Robin is a gentle guide into this world that carries so much contrast to western culture. She weaves together the intersection of human and nature, spiritual and scientific, experience and study.
Much of the subject matter is overshadowed by climate change looming, but Robin is still braiding together stories of the Three Sisters (squash, corn, and beans,) and Sky Woman, a central figure of Indigenous origin lore. Robin still addresses the serious topics, both from a global and personal perspective. She shares how she has learned much of what she knows, so in a way, listening to the book feels like I’m learning right along with her.
I was most impressed by the ongoing discussion of reciprocity, gratitude, and the guidelines for the honorable harvest.
Reciprocity is a theme introduced early, in tandem with that of gratitude as a basis for economy and worldview. Listening to Robin explain Indigenous values feels like a balm for the part of me run ragged by our western hustle culture.
Personally, I find the idea of making environmentally sustainable lifestyle choices overwhelming. It’s easy for me to look at the plastic everywhere, coating everything, and give up hope. A split second decision of getting lunch from my local Big Y lands me with a takeout clamshell in my lap, a plastic fork, and a cup of ranch dipping sauce in, yes, plastic covered with foil. This waste in my office garbage is the result of a single decision.
Then there’s the warning that we eat too much meat, and that is a large contributing factor to environmental distress. I look down at my burger with a guilty pang. I am a protein in every meal kind of girl, and I am not a fan of beans or tofu, so feel I’m back at square one.
Sometimes it seems every decision I make harms someone.
Robin’s description of our symbiosis with the natural world, and the honorable harvest is vital. In the beginning of the book, she describes asking her college classroom if they thought humans could be good for the natural world. At the beginning of the book, I would have agreed with her students that our impact, that my impact, is mostly bad for our world. But as I get further into the book, and consider the principles of honorable harvest, I can see how the tide could turn.
The guidelines for honorable harvest Robin shares include:
Know the ways of the ones who take care of you, so that you may take care of them.
Introduce yourself. Be accountable as the one who comes asking for life.
Ask permission before taking. Abide by the answer.
Never take the first. Never take the last.
Take only what you need.
Take only that which is given.
Never take more than half. Leave some for others.
Harvest in a way that minimizes harm.
Use it respectfully. Never waste what you have taken.
Give thanks for what you have been given.
Give a gift, in reciprocity for what you have taken.
Sustain the ones who sustain you and the earth will last forever.
She talks about balancing and guiding our consumption with reciprocating, care-taking, and exercising our gifts, sharing what we can give to our world.
This shifted something important for me. Consumption is not bad in and of itself, but over consumption is irresponsible. Capitalism tells me I must always pay my way, and hustle to keep up. Capitalism tells me that I’m better the more I amass, the more I consume. This starkly opposes the quiet voice of honorable harvest asking us to take only what is needed. If I fall behind in hustle culture, I am unworthy. Gratitude culture pulls my awareness in to the bounty of gifts I receive, and in response to those, I both have responsibility and want to return the favor. In gratitude culture, all things are already worthy. This also heightens our awareness of what we consume. We consume worthy beings for our lunches, to write our to do lists on, to print fax confirmations. (Trees were felled and processed so I could know my fax made it.)
I’m looking at ways to give back through a different lens now. Through a lens of reciprocity instead of one of worthiness held ransom. I pause before choosing a paper plate to warm up food on, am I spending the resources used to make this plate on this? Today? Or can I wash a dish?
I reach for the real plate.
I’m looking for ways to meet my needs and that of my family, while giving back the maximum amount to nature and to my community. Convenience has become a god in my life I am working to dethrone.
It’s been a while since I finished the book, but these themes stick with me. The container garden of three sisters I attempted to plant is bedraggled and not watered intentionally. But when I taste a strawberry, it does taste exactly like summer, and I think about how it’s the king of the berries. We’re gearing up for another election season, and I wonder how the tone would be changed if they began with the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address, in addition to acknowledging the nations who originally took care of the lands they argue over now. I receive a gift from a patient at work and smile, understanding that they value my time, empathy, and attention, and see the power of reciprocity at work. I still wonder what world my nieces and nephews will inherit. I wonder if we will have left any of Mother Nature to sustain them and their children. I wonder if their children will know the taste of real maple sugar, or if all the sugar maples will have died out for lack of northern winters. But then, I walk my dog in the morning, and start the day with birdsong, and somehow, find hope.
I recently shared on Instagram that Thanksgiving 2018 was a particularly hard one as I processed the full history and significance of "The First Thanksgiving." Looking back over the last two years I can see that Robin (through her book) helped ease some of my cognitive dissonance. She helped me find the ever elusive "and".
I can enjoy a delicious meal with those closest to me AND still grieve our collective history. I can be grateful for the wonderful things in my life, recognize their full cost, and be moved by the spirit of reciprocity to keep developing my gifts and give back.