Puhpowee – “the force which causes mushrooms to push up from the earth overnight.”
In Braiding Sweetgrass author Robin Wall Kimmerer is that prodigious force. She is puhpowee. I am happy to be the humble mushroom she forces up into the light of day.
The bounty of wisdom that Kimmerer imparts makes Braiding Sweetgrass impossible to classify. As a renown PhD botanist, she knows her science. As a professor, she knows how to make it relatable. Steeped in the traditions and teachings of her Potawatomi tribe, she breathes, eats and sleeps with the insight into humanity’s place in the natural world.
And, with decades of experience as an eco-activist, she’s quite clear on how we’ve decimated the natural balance of our planet, and continue to do so.
Kimmerer elevates her breadth of knowledge with a poetic writing style – “You can smell it before you see it, a sweetgrass meadow on a summer day. The scent flickers on the breeze, you sniff like a dog on a scent, and then it’s gone, replaced by the boggy tang of wet ground. And then, it’s back, the sweet vanilla fragrance, beckoning.”
It matters not whether Braiding Sweetgrass is considered a botany text, a tale inspired by Native wisdom, a volume of inspired prose or a memoir by a loving and deeply dedicated mother. Once you’ve read it, you will want to return to it. It is a bible that offers real hope, a blueprint for human redemption. It shows us the way toward ‘An Age of Restoration.’
First, she says, we must radically change our view of ourselves and our duty to each other. Noting the closing words of the Pledge of Allegiance, ‘with liberty and justice for all’, Kimmerer asserts, “If what we want for our people is patriotism, then let us inspire true love of country by invoking the land herself . . . If we want to grow good citizens, then let us teach reciprocity . . . If what we aspire to is justice for all, the let it be justice for all of creation.”
Kimmerer points out that ecology is a subversive science. It questions humanity’s place in nature. It upends the Christian belief in our right to dominion over the earth. Ecology recognizes the interconnectedness of all life on earth. each of us dependent on the other. Something we seem to have forgotten.
Long before whites set foot on the land we now call America, all the people of the Haudenosauree (Iroguois) Confederacy tribes opened their gatherings with the Thanksgiving Address – or as the Onondaga call it — ‘The Words that Come Before All Else’ —
Today we have gathered and when we look upon the faces around us we see that the cycles of life continue. We have been given the duty to live in balance and harmony with each other and all living things. So now let us bring our minds together as one as we give greetings and thanks to each other as People. Now our minds are one.
Ecology, botany, biology and all the life sciences teach us the lessons known for eons among native tribes. They knew that plants have much to teach us about reciprocity. They knew that even the lowly fungi and algae have important roles.
When white settlers saw natives planting their traditional ‘Three Sisters’ crop (corn, beans and squash), they scoffed at them, believing that they didn’t know how to farm. But botanists now understand that when grown together, corns, beans and squash help each other thrive, much better than mono-crops of any one of them.
Harvesting wild rice from the northern lakes in the fall, natives fill their canoes, taking what they need, letting much of the grain fall into the water, and leaving a lot of the rice standing. White folks thought they we just too lazy to do a thorough harvest.
But, as the tribal elders pointed out, how will the rice grow next year if we don’t feed some of this year’s crop to the lake? Why would the ducks and geese come visit us, if we didn’t leave behind some of the stalks of rice for them to eat?
At her first college interview, when her advisor asked her why she had chosen botany, Kimmerer said she “wanted to learn about why asters and goldenrod look so beautiful together.”
The botany professor admonished her, “That is not at all the sort of thing with which botanists concern themselves.”
Once she was deep into her field of study, she found the scientific answer to her aster/goldenrod fascination. It turns out that bees’ eyes see the contrasting colors of goldenrod and aster much the way we do. Since they are attracted to it, they favor both flowers with their pollination. Like The Three Sisters, goldenrod and aster thrive better together. In this case, they also arrest the eyes of humans with the beauty of their contrast.
Seeing the natural world through the eyes of Robin Wall Kimmerer is a delight to mind, body and soul. She never loses her sense of wonder. That’s not to say that she is untroubled. Nor is she afraid to make us face our dark side.
In the latter chapters of Braiding Sweetgrass she speaks of the Windigo, the ancient mythological figure conjured up by elders to warn the young against greed. Windigo is described as a monster in human form, huge and haggard, with a voracious appetite. In the dead of winter, it wanders the frigid forests looking for any life that it can devour.
Windigo is human greed at its self-destructive worst.
Kimmerer talks about flying over the Ecuadorian Amazon oil fields with “raw gashes of red soil marking the paths of pipelines”. She describes industrial sludge in northern lakes, clear-cut forests of the Oregon Coast, Western Virginia mountains with their tops ripped off by coal miners. She calls these, “The footprints of Windigo.”
She adds to this list, “A square mile of industrial soybeans. A diamond mine in Rwanda. A closet stuffed with clothes.”
Supporting the evidence of our greed, she notes what Harvard economist Lawrence Summers, advisor to the World Bank and the U.S. National Economic Council, said. “There are no limits to the carrying capacity of the earth,” he said, “The idea that we should put limits on growth because of some natural limit is a profound error.”
Amazingly, with such a profound awareness of our greed-driven self-destruction, Robin Wall Kemmerer still believes we can redeem ourselves. She believes that if we could just rekindle our love of nature enough to apply our science capabilities and our native wisdom, “we could fashion a restoration plan.”
The key, she says, is to redefine our relationship with the land. We need to see: “Land as sustainer. Land as identity. Land as grocery store and pharmacy. Land as connection to our ancestors. Land as moral obligation. Land as sacred. Land as self.”