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My friends Peg & Nicki recently recommended Robin Wall Kimmerer‘s book Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. Kimmerer is a scientist and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. Her book is part memoir, part sharing of indigenous knowledge and beliefs, and part natural (and unnatural, in the case of the poisoning of Onandaga Lake, clear cutting of forests and draining of estuaries) history. It’s a book that describes ecological degradation as a broken relationship. This makes the work of repairing the damage we’ve done to the environment clearer, although not necessarily easier: “Here is where our most challenging and rewarding work lies, in restoring a relationship of respect, responsibility, and reciprocity,” Kimmerer writes.

This is countercultural, at least from the perspective of the dominant culture in America today. In fact, visiting an Onandaga Nation School near her home in New York, Kimmerer watches the children leading and participating in the Thanksgiving Address, and comments on how this teaching is so different from the way most people relate to the earth as a collection of resources to be exploited. This passage gives you a sense of her wonderful writing and the main point of Braiding Sweetgrass:

“You can’t listen to the Thanksgiving Address without feeling wealthy. And, while expressing gratitude seems innocent enough, it is a revolutionary idea. In a consumer society, contentment is a radical proposition. Recognizing abundance rather than scarcity undermines an economy that thrives by creating unmet desires. Gratitude cultivates an ethic of fullness, but the economy needs emptiness. The Thanksgiving Address reminds you that you already have everything you need. Gratitude doesn’t send you out shopping to find satisfaction; it comes as a gift rather than a commodity, subverting the foundation of the whole economy. That’s good medicine for land and people alike.”

The Thanksgiving Address is very different from the Pledge of Allegiance Kimmerer (and most of us) grew up saying in school, which purports that the flag stands for “one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” — a notion that is clearly not the case if you spend any time examining the way race and socioeconomic status, as well as gender, cultural background and religion if it’s not Christian, determine who has access to liberty and justice in contemporary America. The Thanksgiving Address “reminds the whole community that leadership is rooted not in power and authority, but in service and wisdom.” It’s “a pledge of interdependence,” Kimmerer notes. Imagine.

Whether she is writing about restoring the pond behind her home, healing the legacy of government schools where Native American children were stripped of their culture, learning alongside a graduate student that harvesting Sweetgrass makes it grow more plentifully, making Maple syrup, rescuing salamanders from a roadway, or raising her daughters, Kimmerer infuses her prose with appreciation and gratitude for the natural world, and a sense that “We are bound in a covenant of reciprocity, a pact of mutual responsibility to sustain those who sustain us.”

Which is what justice for all is really about, and what most if not all faith traditions teach — that we are here to care for one another. Kimmerer extends that to what she refers to as non-human people, including plants. It seems to me that this thinking helps make a way forward with regards to environmental and every other kind of justice clear (and again, I don’t mean easy). Gratitude and mutual responsibility towards each other and the earth, definitely. But for starters, simple awareness that everything we own, consume, use up, is likely in our life because another life ended for it — trees and other plants, the prehistoric creatures who died and became fossil fuels, insects, animals, algae, etc.

This isn’t an easy or quick read. Kimmerer’s writing is beautiful but requires careful consideration. It took me over two weeks, although I was also finishing a class and  started with the eBook version from my library, which crashed so often I went to my local indie bookstore and bought a paper copy, for which I am grateful. I think this is a book to savor and to return to. But if you’re looking for a summer read with some substance, Braiding Sweetgrass is an excellent choice. Thanks, Peg & Nicki!

 

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