We are almost at the end of 2022, and I do not want to let the year end without mention of this book – Braiding Sweetgrass – by Robin Wall Kimmerer. For me this has been the best book I have read this year. I had better qualify what I mean by ‘best’. It is a beautifully written book – beautiful prose with the feel of poetry. It is easy to read, but by no means superficial; in fact, it is the exact opposite – a deeply meaningful book. It is the book that has had the most impact on me this year. I will never think about Nature, and plants, in the same way again. It is a book full of wisdom and love. It is indeed ‘A hymn of love to the world’ as is quoted by Elizabeth Gilbert on the front cover. Sweetgrass symbolises healing, peace, and spirituality. The three cords of the sweetgrass represent mind, body, and spirit.
Robin Wall Kimmerer is a decorated botany professor, a scientist with a non-orthodox approach to science. She currently works as a Distinguished Teaching Professor of Environmental and Forest Biology in New York, but most significantly she is the Director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment. She comes from a Native American background, Potawatomi heritage, and this informs her life and work as a botanist and her approach to science and to our planet.
In her book Kimmerer takes a story telling approach, and through these stories we learn to think of plants not as separate from ourselves, not as ‘things’ we dominate or a resource that we plunder, but as living beings like ourselves with whom we should live in harmony, in the spirit of love, gratitude and reciprocity. Most plants already live with each other in this way, and they can be our teachers. Most importantly, she passes on the teachings of her forefathers in the idea of ‘The Honourable Harvest’; that is, we only take from the ‘Earth’ what we need and use natural resources responsibly. And not only do we not ‘take more than we need’, but we give back, and exist with plants in a relation of reciprocity and gratitude. Robin Wall Kimmerer recounts many stories in the book to illustrate this point.
Source of image: https://www.robinwallkimmerer.com/
The book is so rich with wonderful ‘teachings’ that I could not possibly do justice to it here. If you are a scientist, there are lessons for how to include ideas of beauty and reciprocity into the analytical world of science. If you are a botany teacher there are lessons for how to step back and allow plants to teach your students. If you are a mother, there are lessons you can draw on from how Nature acts as a mother. If you are a gardener, there are lessons you can learn about which plants thrive when planted next to each other and why. If you are a conservationist, there are lessons you can learn about collaboration, cooperation and listening. If you are a medic, there are lessons you can learn about the gift of plants. If you are an artist, there are lessons to be learned from the beauty of Nature. If you are spiritual, there are lessons you can learn from the legend of Skywoman Falling.
I would not have come across this book had it not been for the Philosophy of Education Reading Network – the last book of the year to be read and discussed by the group. In our online meeting (zoom) at the beginning of this month, the book was introduced by Louise Hawxwell, who posed these thought-provoking questions for us to discuss, beautifully presented in a lovely set of slides:
You can see from these slides and the questions that Louise asked, that there is far more in this book than I have discussed here. I have barely scratched the surface. Braiding Sweetgrass is a book that deserves to be read many times and it is certainly a book that I will be thinking about when working in my garden next year or caring for my house plants, not to mention reflecting on my personal relationships with humans and non-humans in my life.
Robin Wall Kimmerer (2013). Braiding Sweetgrass. Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teaching of Plants. Penguin Random House, UK.
The first book to be read by the Philosophy of Education Reading Network in 2023 (Tuesday 17th January, 7.00 pm, zoom details posted on Twitter, @PhilofEd) will be Miseducation. Inequality, Education and the Working Classes (21st Century Standpoints) by Diane Reay