Braiding Sweetgrass: Beginnings with Aha! Moments

One of my book discussion groups, the one internal to AODA members (all are welcome to join!!), is reading Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass. Not having heard of it before we started, I was not prepared for how incredibly thoughtful it is, both from a nature spirituality aspect as well as related to its intentionality related to expressing things that have been lost, and continue to be lost, with the active and subtle erosion of indigenous cultures in the continental United States.

Unlike reading most books after the first chapter section (this one being 59 pages long), I am really not sure where or how Kimmerer’s book is developing, so I cannot provide an overview of the book or the meaning I will make of it. However, I am more surprised in the smaller chunks than I ever expected, and find myself gasping at times due to how the author has a way of challenging conventionality through animistic spirituality common in indigenous, native cultures in ways that are surprising, eye-opening, invigorating, and thought-provoking.

I will share four aha! moments I experienced along the way thus far. These are not intended to stand alone and are all within various contexts of the author’s life and meaning-making as she reflects upon her own scientific progress (career) while trying to grok how her indigenous roots present new opportunities for understanding the world around her.

I feel her pain when facing the supposed objective approach contemporary science takes to the study of things, a (post)positive one that allows only for its own ways of making sense of the world to the exclusion of others:

In the old times, our elders say, the trees talked to each other. They’d stand in their own council and craft a plan. But scientists decided long ago that plants were deaf and mute, locked in isolation without communication. The possibility of conversation was summarily dismissed. Science pretends to be purely rational, completely neutral, a system of knowledge- making in which the observation is independent of the observer. And yet the conclusion was drawn that plants cannot communicate because they lack the mechanisms that animals use to speak. The potentials for plants were seen purely through the lens of animal capacity (p. 19).

Who am I to pretend I have the owner’s manual to the earth and how all living things on it live and interact with complex networks?

Likewise, when we start to realize that meaning making and reality can happen in ways beyond my own understanding, not everything can (or should) be owned. Private property is important in many ways, though that often happens within the context of power relations. True, it is often intended in a way to protect individual freedoms, it is helpful to notice that the notion of individual is something that implications far beyond my wanting to keep my stuff for myself.

“These berries belong to me,” she said, “not to you. I don’t want to see you kids eating my berries.” I knew the difference: In the fields behind my house, the berries belongs to themselves. At this lady’s roadside stand, she sold them for sixty cents a quart (p. 25).

When we develop land, we often see it as a commodity to be exploited, rather than a home to many living things, many aspects of an ecosystem that happily lived in harmony of sorts since before humans came and carved up things as mine or yours. Why doesn’t the deer or owl or tree have rights to live in that forest when we determine something more to our liking should be there instead, regardless of the impact of that small, human decision?

It follows, in a logic thrown upside down, that:

The questions scientists raised were not “Who are you?” but “What is it?” No one asked plants “What can you tell us?” The primary question was “How does it work?” The botany I was taught was reductionist, mechanistic, and strictly objective. Plants were reduced to objects; they were no longer subjects. The way botany was conceived and taught didn’t seem to leave much room for a person who thought the way I did. The only way I could make sense of it was to conclude that the things I had always believed about plants must not be true after all (p. 42).

It makes me think that those who own the truth or the ability to name things and their characteristics are defaulted a very great power indeed.

That is the opposite of many indigenous or native traditions, ones that seek to live in networks with the world in a way that some sense of balance was accepted and encouraged.

I remember the words of Bill Tall Bull, a Cheyenne elder. As a young person, I spoke to him with a heavy heart, lamenting that I had no native language with which to speak to the plants and the places that I love. “They love to hear the old language,” he said, “it’s true.” “But,” he said with fingers on his lips, “You don’t have to speak it here.” “If you speak it here,” he said, patting his chest, “They will hear you” (p. 59).

What has happened to our notion of living with, something that descended into a more confrontational pull and take with the world (people, animals, plants, and the natural world itself) around us?