Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, I was constantly surrounded by the wonders of nature, but it wasn’t until reading Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book, Braiding Sweetgrass, that I was able to fully appreciate the complexity of the relationships between different plants and animals within ecosystems themselves. Humanity does so much damage to these relationships and incredible systems, when what we really need to be doing is learning from their wisdom. Braiding Sweetgrass is an excellent reminder that Indigenous communities have been treating these relationships with respect from the start, and that our developed world needs to return to the practice of giving back to the organisms that have given so much to us. Nature is just as alive as the rest of us, and we need to treat it with the dignity that comes with being a sentient and living being.
Part memoir, part science textbook, and part poetry, Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass is an homage to the beauty and complexity of nature and how its many facets have impacted her life. A citizen of the Potawatomi Nation, located from southern Michigan to northeastern Wisconsin and parts of Illinois, Kimmerer views the natural world as an entity that must be treated with respect. The vignettes throughout her book emphasize that fact: each of the stories connect with a different part of nature present in her life at distinct times, incorporating personal observations alongside Indigenous wisdom, to create a narrative of the environment that is both educational and compelling.
As a budding ecologist, I thoroughly enjoyed reading about Kimmerer’s appreciation for not only the science of the natural world around her, but also the beauty. Her chapter “Goldenrod and Asters” is a wonderful example of how science and beauty are intertwined, and led to a shift in my own ecological perspective. Kimmerer questions why asters and goldenrod pair so well aesthetically. She receives ridicule for this question, but pursues an answer nonetheless — and through research and experimentation, she reaches a conclusion that nature’s beauty and scientific complexity can be acknowledged in the same context. It is such a simple idea, but usually science and observation are strictly labeled as “objective,” so this astounded me. Uniting what I found beautiful with scientific evidence to back it up felt out of reach. Seeing Kimmerer’s observations and reading about her success in assimilating the objective with the subjective was a revelation. The environment plays a role in making itself beautiful. The natural world admires beauty just as much as humanity does, and Kimmerer’s chapter on the relationship between goldenrod and asters confirms that.
Braiding Sweetgrass also serves as a reminder of the living, breathing Indigenous cultures that ground our country and hold the knowledge and wisdom we need to return the lands to a healthy state. Kimmerer’s childhood experiences of family camping trips and at Potawatomi reunions and cultural events fostered her connection with the environment and reinforced the fact that, for her, a connection to and relationship with her Indigenous culture means a bond to the natural world around her as well.
Reading these vignettes as a white person, I thought about the absence of nature in Western cultures. I contemplated how the West as a whole has brutalized nature because it has never been viewed as an ally or compatriot, just something to be used for survival and for profit. Now is the time – and has been for a while – to change that relationship. We need to defer to the knowledge and wisdom of Indigenous nations who have successfully maintained a balanced relationship with nature for centuries; to use their knowledge to transform ours in the fight for a healthy planet; and to respect and listen to the people who treat the natural world as an equal, deserving of just as much dignity as humanity itself.