Review: Diversity Common Reader ‘Braiding Sweetgrass’

Savanna Hennig

Everyone who cares about the environment should have a copy of this book.

Part of NMU’s Diversity Common Reader Program this year, “Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teaching of Plants,” caught my attention unlike any other book. The front and back covers are full of phrases that boast the teachings of plants and animals, promoting the wisdom of the natural world and the love for it we should have in return.

Coming from a family that hugged trees and studied pagan beliefs, I dove in. Author Robin Wall Kimmerer immediately becomes a mesmerizing storyteller in the first chapter. Each chapter is not a traditional chapter, but instead a lesson. She takes you through the world in a beautifully-written first person perspective. If you allow yourself to be immersed in her teachings, you will not finish the book as the person you were before reading.

Kimmerer is a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, and in the book you will learn so much about indigenous traditions and history — something not freely taught and respected in American textbooks. This history, of course, discusses the coming of the “white man” to the lands that Kimmerer’s ancestors respected and loved. These lessons left a bitter, sad feeling with me (as they should), and made me wish that I could have a different classification than “white.”

Weaving together tools of science and traditional, respectful indigenous knowledge, Kimmerer will teach you so much about the relationships of plants. From all the uses of cattails in a marsh to the healing purposes of sweetgrass, you will slowly start to see all of the plants around  you differently.

This book is written in such a touching way that her words will make you feel. She gives each being, whether it be a maple tree, patch of water lilies or polluted lake, the wisdom of the world around it.

Perhaps the hardest-hitting lessons in the book for me were the chapters that discussed waste. “Take only what you need, no more than half,” is a repeated theme throughout the chapters, along with, “use it respectfully, never waste what you have taken.” These phrases, along with plenty of others, are enough to make one think twice about food waste. I’ve started to believe that with Kimmerer’s teachings — the teachings of plants as well as indigenous wisdom — the world would start to heal.

What is an issue, though, is having a closed mind to these issues.

It’s unbelievably easy to say, “They’re just plants, whatever,” and dismiss everything. “Is this like your religion or something?” One of Kimmerer’s students had asked, not entirely following    her lessons.

It’s easy to forget the grass you’re walking on is a living thing. In today’s society, it’s painless to throw away food when you are full. Only when without do you notice the things that had been dismissed before. Kimmerer changes that mindset with this book; with her lessons you gain respect for the grass on the ground, the food on your plate.

I invite and encourage all to pick up a copy of “Braiding Sweetgrass” and learn from the beautiful storytelling of Robin Wall Kimmerer.