Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer

(milkweed editions)

Essay by Brian Tanguay

This June and July were two of the hottest months ever recorded. Wildfires in Canada blanketed a swath of the United States in choking smoke. In the state of Vermont in early July, more than nine inches of rain fell in less than 48 hours, resulting in destructive flooding. At the same time, parts of Southern Europe, the American southwest, and China sweltered. Wildfires erupted in Greece and Portugal. Ocean temperatures off the coast of Florida hit triple digits. Even Antarctica, where it’s currently winter, is experiencing record high temperatures and a corresponding decrease in sea ice. 

In the past few months, the earth has been sending us ominous warnings, as climate scientists predicted it would if we persisted in burning fossil fuels, destroying habitat, and dragging our collective feet. Again and again they warned of the danger of inaction. Since the mid-1990s, through the framework of the United Nations Climate Change Conferences, the nations of the world have met annually to talk about binding agreements to limit greenhouse gas emissions. But decades have passed and despite a great deal of talk, posturing, and recalcitrance, significant agreements haven’t materialized. As so often happens in complex negotiations, the thorniest issues get booted down the road for someone else to solve, as if we have unlimited time. 

But as recent events make clear, time isn’t our ally, and yet a real sense of urgency is missing in wealthy countries with the most work to do and the most to lose. As noted by Samuel Miller McDonald in a recent edition of The Nation, “Governments are still allowing fossil fuel use to increase and habitats to be destroyed.” 

It’s not surprising that a maddening inertia reigns. Climate policy is inextricably entwined with political and economic policy, and the structural reforms that are required will rattle the global status quo, creating new winners and losers along with disruption and sacrifice. 

In her marvelous book, Braiding Sweetgrass, published in 2013, Robin Wall Kimmerer, a botanist and member of the Potawatomi Nation, nailed the crux of the dilemma with crystal clarity: “Most people are indifferent, unless their self-interest is at stake.” I think most people value clean air and water, food that isn’t laced with chemicals, additives and preservatives, and are concerned by unpredictable weather, fires and floods. But if you ask people what they’re willing to sacrifice, the answer might be along the lines of, well, it depends. Sacrifice, how? Why me?

The adage that the dominant mindset that brought us to this pass can’t be the same one to lead us away from it, rings, not only with common sense, but truth. The accelerating severity of climate events all over the world demands that our relationship with the planet change, and fast, because we have procrastinated for so many decades. 

Broadly speaking, what has brought us to this inflection point includes the sanctity of private property, the notion that the resources of the earth are limitless, and that humans possess a divine right to the earth’s bounty and owe nothing to others or future generations. 

Robin Wall Kimmerer posed a question ten years ago that sadly remains relevant and unanswered today: “How, in our modern world, can we find our way to understand the earth as a gift again, to make our relations with the world sacred again?”

The question is rooted in Indigenous culture and practices, worldly wisdom that seems quaint in our hyper-competitive, fast-paced, consumption-oriented, immediate-gratification world. Based on her years studying plants in a variety of ecosystems, Kimmerer believes that all flourishing is mutual, dependent on reciprocity and balance, an equilibrium achieved through conscious moderation of giving and taking. John Perlin, author of the seminal A Forest Journey, now in its third edition, echoes Kimmerer, writing: “Much like the trees depend on the clouds, critters, and soil, we depend on one another.” But Perlin also adds this observation: “For much of human history, the constructors of civilizations forgot this simple truth.”

A section of Braiding Sweetgrass is devoted to a simple idea called the Honorable Harvest, a concept that recognizes that people must consume to survive. In Native cultures, taking what’s needed is viewed as an exchange of life for life. We must consume, but how can we do so in a way that does justice to the lives (resources) we take? Indigenous cultures are replete with allegories about the consequences of taking too much. When early colonists in the Great Lakes region of North America observed the Native people harvesting wild rice, they didn’t understand why some rice was left behind. To the colonists, leaving rice behind indicated a lack of industry, even laziness. They didn’t see that by taking only what they needed the Native people were seeding the next season’s crop as well as sustaining animals and birds.  

Taking less was an idea the colonists couldn’t wrap their minds around. Then, as now, the idea represents a very different view of the world and our place in it, a juxtaposition of humility and hubris. 

Another precept of the Honorable Harvest is to never waste what is taken. Modern industry is productive but also wasteful and destructive, as the condition of the Amazon rainforest, Alberta tar sands, mountaintops in Appalachia, along with numerous lakes, rivers and watersheds attests. Human taking has caused severe damage, some of which may be irreparable. 

Unfortunately, even if we could flip a switch and adopt the ethos of the Honorable Harvest — or the other venerable practices described in Braiding Sweetgrass — we wouldn’t be out of harm’s way because too much damage has been done by human hands. There’s no turning back the clock. If humans are to blunt the catastrophic effects of climate change it will require a collectively-oriented imagination, a different way of thinking and being. It’s a tall order, but our survival depends on it.