This is going to be a bit different than usual, as this is nonfiction. Few months ago, I asked about recommendations on Native American… psychology, I think it was? Over on twitter. Now, this is Not It, but it was an amazing read nonetheless. I first got a paper copy from the library but it was written so tiny I just kind of gave up on it. It’s too tiring for me when I feel like I’d need a magnifying glass. Thankfully though, the audiobook is on Scribd, so I jumped on that opportunity!
As a botanist, Robin Wall Kimmerer has been trained to ask questions of nature with the tools of science. As a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, she embraces the notion that plants and animals are our oldest teachers. In Braiding Sweetgrass, Kimmerer brings these lenses of knowledge together to show that the awakening of a wider ecological consciousness requires the acknowledgment and celebration of our reciprocal relationship with the rest of the living world. For only when we can hear the languages of other beings are we capable of understanding the generosity of the earth, and learning to give our own gifts in return.
As a disclaimer of sorts, I’m European. I studied US history from a non-US perspective so I may have a good grasp of the general history and Native American oppression but it’s in a very general way, and I knew little about Native American culture and ways of living before reading this book.
First, I will say it is highly accessible, the audiobook was lovely, read by the author herself. Her voice is very calm and soothing and I’ve got to admit I used this as my bedtime reading for a few weeks, as it lulled me right to sleep (this is a compliment! I was never bored, just soothed).
I don’t feel competent to evaluate the topic, in all honesty, but I think the book does its job very well in first, making you rethink scientific ways of thinking and how obtuse (often white, often male) scientists can be. As a psychology student, this is something I’m well aware of, but it was nonetheless really interesting to hear about how Kimmerer challenged that, with concrete examples.
I did learn a lot about plants (lichens are a mix of fungi and bacteria??? pecan trees all give nuts at once???) but more importantly about how Native Americans, in specifically Anishinaabe and Potawatomi people live alongside nature. I think we (Westerners) have a lot to learn in terms of respecting nature, and practicing honourable/reciprocal methods of harvesting. I grew up on a farm, and I know the good the bad and the ugly, but the idea that you could plant maize, beans and squash together on the same bit of land was never something I even HEARD of, and yet it makes absolute sense!
It also gave me a much deeper understanding of what was done to Native Americans, not just in terms of displacements and loss of land, but also what was essentially kidnapping children, and forced assimilation. I knew about most of this, of course, in a vague and academic sort of way, but I think it was important to me to learn about it from someone who IS Native American, and not from some WASP professor.
Another of Kimmerer’s focus is, of course, climate change, and capitalism’s impact on the land. I say of course, because she clearly sets out ways in which Native Americans work with the land, and this contrasts clearly with the “use all you can no matter the long term consequences” capitalist approach. She draws a grim portrait of the state of the land (and this was published 8 years ago so things surely did not get better), and I was extremely pissed to learn about Onondaga Lake, but she does not stop there. She offers ways in which everyone can help, and doesn’t want you to stop at despair, because that does nothing. In a way, I found her account truly hopeful. I think it should be required reading in agriculture and forestry schools.
I could write a whole essay about it, but I’m going to stop here. This was an amazing book, and it was truly eye-opening, and I’ve got to confess I thought I knew more than I did, so it was humbling too. And funny! Kimmerer has a way with words, and I can’t recommend the audiobook enough.
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