Thursday, September 18, 2014
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Braiding Sweetgrass blends science and First Nations insight

by Alexander Varty

Braiding Sweetgrass

By Robin Wall Kimmerer

Milkweed Editions

390 pp, hardcover

A book this rich in metaphor deserves a metaphorical introduction: Braiding Sweetgrass is a deerskin pouch containing a smouldering coal of shkitagen fungus, starter of cheering fires to come. Potawatomi biologist Robin Wall Kimmerer’s beautiful language, almost poetic in its intensity, is the carrier of her culture’s wisdom, and of her own; wider distribution of this deep and complex book will fan the flames of understanding she hopes to promote.

For a different angle, consider Braiding Sweetgrass’s subtitle: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. What Kimmerer’s attempting to do here is create a bridge between First Nations ways of seeing the world and the 21st-century scientific approach, between the “all my relations” credo of tribal cultures and the new discoveries in quantum physics and biology that prove we really are all one. And in a greater sense, she’s trying to promote a more ethical approach to existence, one that extends personhood to Salmon, Cedar, and Salamander but not to Enbridge, Sinopec, and Coca-Cola.

The implications are obvious, especially in light of another smouldering fire: the poisoning of the commons by fossil-fuel extraction, especially in areas traditionally held by indigenous peoples. “Taking coal buried deep in the earth, for which we must inflict irreparable damage, violates every precept of the code,” Kimmerer writes while discussing the Potawatomi concept of “the Honorable Harvest”.

“It doesn’t mean we can’t consume the energy that we need, but it does mean that we honorably take only what is given,” she continues, arguing that wind power, solar energy, wave action, and geothermal heat are gifts, while more destructive forms of resource extraction are theft.

This moral absolutism is, admittedly, unsettling: what if the profits generated from the tarsands, for instance, were directed away from enriching a few and put toward ending poverty or funding education? That’s not an option considered here; for Kimmerer, as for true believers on both sides of the ecological divide, there are few grey areas. But by addressing the way that First Nations philosophy intersects with science, and especially by framing it within the context of one botanist and mother’s relationship with the land, she’s done us all a huge favour. Read this book: it might change your life.

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