Braiding Sweetgrass – Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teaching of Plants is a phenomenal book that challenges the mindset of modern western society. Robin is a wonderful storyteller who personifies nature to give it life and respect to challenge the worldview that nature is an object and something that people can own.
The book opens up with a story that really resonated with me, being a university student in an environmental-based program. She gives her third-year university ecology class a survey that asks them “to rate their understanding of the negative interactions between humans and the environment.” Nearly everyone in the two-hundred-person class agreed that humans and the environment are a bad mix. Later in the survey, she asked about positive interactions between humans and the environment, with the average answer being there are no positive interactions. What the students fixate on is the culture they’ve grown up in where the land and water are constantly being harmed by human actions. This is not true for all cultures though as Robin explains and provides examples throughout the book. Indigenous wisdom is echoed throughout the entire book and countless examples are written that share the beneficial relationships that humans and the environment can have.
Robin is an ecologist and explores questions that have pondered her since a child through a scientific lens. One example is the disturbance of sweetgrass, a sacred plant in her culture. While harvesting sweetgrass Robin was taught to always leave the first patch you come across because that might be the next one, and that when you come across another patch you never take more than half. Robin wanted to explore this wisdom that has been passed down in Indigenous culture with a scientific lens. Her faculty didn’t think highly of it and predicted that any level of disturbance would leave impair the health of the sweetgrass. Robin’s research revealed the opposite with sweetgrass patches flourishing with the harvesting disturbance demonstrating one of the many beneficial relationships between humans and the environment. Robin uses her research as a form of storytelling. Her goal is to make science understandable to the average citizen and not exclusive to the elite scientific community. There is a time and a place for scientific language and jargon, but Robin highlights the need to make that information digestible to the general public. When it comes to change, the public at large holds an immense amount of power and it becomes essential to communicate with society on new scientific breakthroughs to see change.
Braiding sweetgrass is a book that shows a deep appreciation for the environment. But the book goes beyond highlighting the generosity of nature. Throughout the book, there is a theme of the human responsibility of looking after and respecting the environment. One quote that stands out, in particular, is “everything we use, is the result of another life, but that simple reality is rarely acknowledged in our society” (p 148). Our society has become disconnected from the environment that we rarely take the time to recognize that everything comes from another life. It’s easier to see the life given to have a chicken breast or hamburger, but harder to see the lives that went into the computer. But past marine plankton or algae lived lives and tectonic action turned them into oil to be used in modern life. This book was a reminder to slow down, be mindful, and give appreciation for everything the gift giver that is Earth.
Another topic that is presented throughout the book is the responsibility that humans have to give back to the earth. As mentioned in the previous paragraph, this is something quite alien to the western society. We live life as consumers, and often the only time we thinking about gift-giving is when it comes to holidays and birthdays. Everything we use comes from the Earth, and there is a relationship built on respect that needs to be cultivated. This relationship is a “one-size-fits-all” relationship. Giving back and showing respect to the Earth can look like many different things. Cultivating a relationship of respect can look like a neighbourhood clean-up, biking to work, learning about wetlands, donating to an organization, composting, talking to a friend about an issue, refusing a plastic bag, planting a tree, and many more. There are so many ways to give back, all it takes is a little time, energy, and respect.
The book is filled with stories, lessons, and wisdom. To thoroughly digest everything Robin writes about, I would suggest reading this book slowly over time, whether it be one chapter a day, or a chapter week. The awareness presented throughout the book is alien to western society and needs time to digest and apply. This book is an amazing read and one that I plan to come back to on a regular basis. The wisdom presented in the book will never get old and provides a mindset and worldview for creating a relationship with the environment that can last for generations.