Lessons From Braiding Sweetgrass

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Plant for pollinators and for People

How To Love Our Planet

How many of you have discovered Braiding Sweetgrass, the remarkable book by Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer? Scientist, professor, and parent, Dr. Kimmerer is also an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and the Director of The Center for Native People and the Environment. Her much loved book, Braiding Sweetgrass, is used in homes and classrooms all over the country and the world. The subtitle is Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, which made me read it immediately. Pouring through it, slowly and appreciatively, I found myself agreeing with pretty much everything Dr. Kimmerer wrote. As she explains, Indigenous cultures understand that knowing about plants can be medicine, just as the plants themselves can be medicine, good for people and the planet. And by people, she means plants and critters, for Indigenous wisdom considers all living things to be People, and their personhood is to be respected.

I first read this book 8 or 9 years ago, having been lent a battered copy that had clearly made the rounds many times, though it was almost new. Since then, I’ve dipped into it often, sometimes knitting along to the author’s gentle voice as she reads her own words on a library audiobook, bringing the ideas to life with tone and phrasing. This book has influenced many people and rightfully so, as it has a lot to teach. For one thing, Kimmerer talks about recognizing plants as elders and teachers, holding wisdom and knowledge. For millennia, people learned from plants, how to use them and how to nurture them in turn. That relationship is familiar to gardeners, who learn to care for plants by paying attention and being observant. Cherishing the Earth sounds woo woo to some folks, but it makes total sense to those of us who cherish the soil in our gardens.

Living In Reciprocity With Nature

Reading or listening to such ideas makes me deeply happy, feeling confirmed in that inner knowing that we belong in harmony with nature, not in mastery (the very word reeks of patriarchal hierarchy). Instead of a power-over relationship with the natural world, our most natural one is a joyful reciprocal friendship that enjoys and delights in each other. A friend recently passed along the link below, in which Dr. Kimmerer offers a brief synopsis of her book and discusses the ideas with students from Gonzaga University in Spokane. As she reminds them, Indigenous wisdom is not about the olden days. In fact, it’s never been more timely and cogent. Indigenous wisdom teaches that land is not a resource, it is a library, a pharmacy, a pantry, and a source of identity. Indigenous wisdom holds that we are part of the land, and Kimmerer notes, “the land is more than an ecosystem, it is our home and the home of all our relatives, those more than human beings who provide gifts for us and for each other and for the planet.” She reminds us that we are surrounded by “intelligences other than our own,” and if we are to preserve the planet, we need to be present to these voices and learn from them.

Over and over, Kimmerer stresses that our relationship with the Earth needs to be one of reciprocity. She tells stories about elders reminding younger students to think about how we can reciprocate the gifts of the earth with our own gifts, which may be gratitude, science, justice work, art, regenerative agriculture and circular economies, respect and education. Education is defined not as rote learning but as a way for us to offer our gifts to the land and all the people. As a Crow elder explained, “To be educated is to understand what your gifts are, and to understand how you can return them to the world.” When you think about that, what comes up for you?

Valuing Diversity

I love the acknowledgement that plant diversity and landscape diversity are as important as every other kind, of great value for people and People and for our beautiful blue planet. I’ve taken this to mean that when I plant a garden, I must consider the pollinators as much as the plants themselves. If I plant food for my table, I leave some plants to bloom and make nectar, and let some set seed for birds. Some may also self-sow, creating enough to share with neighbors of all species, making more abundance for all concerned. When I create landscapes for myself and others, they always contain native plants for critters as well as whatever ornamentals we may currently dote on. Planting this way is a kind of reciprocity, a giving back and an acknowledgement of all that we have been given. Last March, researchers “discovered” the sites of ancient Indigenous forest gardens along the coast of British Columbia and Washington and found that many plants had persisted for hundreds of years. Talk about sustainability! Though all the plants are native coastal species, there are far more kinds growing together than are found in nature (nowadays, anyway). When the scientists asked local Tribal people about the gardens, they were told that the Elders had planted the gardens to support people, birds and bears, a gift of relationship and reciprocity.

I’ve been asked many times recently about planting for climate change and again, I think the key will be paying attention and being observant. Nobody really knows what the changing climate will bring, though it’s already obvious that our plant palettes will be changing along with the climate, willy-nilly. Extreme weather events are becoming commonplace and even many native plants are showing stress if not dying outright. A neighbor who’s been tapping Bigleaf maples to make syrup realized this year that the sap is all brown. She contacted University of Washington scientists who told her that’s a sign of heart rot and all the sap must be discarded. Our iconic maples are fatally stressed from years of drought and heat, wind storms and deep freezes. So are many of the plants typically found in regional gardens, and as they die, we need to make different choices when replacing them. Will it be enough to look South for solutions? I don’t know, but surely anything we can do to heal and improve the soil will be helpful. Onward, because there’s no place else to go.

If you would like to hear Dr. Kimmerer talk about all this and much more, here’s a similar conversation Dr. Kimmerer presented:

This entry was posted in Birds In The Garden, Care & Feeding, Climate Change, Garden Design, Health & Wellbeing, Native Plants, Plant Diversity, Plant Partnerships, Pollination Gardens, Sustainable Gardening, Sustainable Living, Teaching Gardening and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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