Thinking of the earth as family

‘Braiding Sweetgrass’ sees connection between humanity, ecosystem

Leader Photo by Lee Pulaski Author Robin Wall Kimmerer holds some braided sweetgrass Thursday night as she talks at the College of Menominee Nation’s Cultural Learning Center about the world and how humanity should see it as a gift and not merely as property. That belief is what she talks about in her book, “Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants.”

Leader Photo by Lee Pulaski Robin Wall Kimmerer signs one of her books Thursday after her presentation at CMN. Kimmerer’s book was part of the college’s Community Read program.

Robin Wall Kimmerer doesn’t see the environment as a thing. She sees it as a living being.

Her relationship with that living being and her belief that everyone should see the earth as a member of the family inspired her to write “Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants.”

The book was read by area residents as part of the College of Menominee Nation’s Community Read program. The college’s Sustainable Development Institute partnered with the S. Verna Fowler Academic Library/Menominee Public Library to host Kimmerer on Thursday.

Kimmerer is a plant ecologist and professor with the State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse. She is also a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation.

Kimmerer has made several visits to the reservation, her first in 2002. She presented an audio version of “Braiding Sweetgrass” to library director Marie Escalante at the beginning of her presentation.

“I can’t believe ‘Braiding Sweetgrass’ is part of the Community Reads,” Kimmerer said. “That is deeply touching.”

Kimmerer said her book describes the world as a gift, but it’s not a gift that many accept with gratitude. She pointed out that, when the world is a gift to humans, humans should find ways to give to the world.

She named the book “Braiding Sweetgrass” because her tribe sees sweetgrass as a sign of familial love. Tribal members braid the sweetgrass because it is symbolic of braiding a mother’s hair.

“You almost always see sweetgrass braided. Why is that?” Kimmerer said. “It is understood as the hair of Mother Earth.”

She grew up with the belief of nature as a living entity, with medicinal plants being her pharmacy and other plants serving as her library, but when she went to college, she almost failed freshman botany because academia viewed the ecosystem as a machine, where entities take in one thing while giving another. In the Western world, land is seen as property, capital or natural resources, not relatives or gifts.

“Land is a source of our identity,” Kimmerer said. “Land is the place where our ancestors live, where our grandchildren live. It is the place where we become an ancestor. It is the place for which we have moral responsibility.”

Kimmerer said it is the belief of the earth as a living entity that had Native Americans protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline, which is slated to go through the land where the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe resides in North Dakota.

Kimmerer received another reminder of how the Western world views the ecosystem when she tried to find a publisher. Her belief of the earth as a living entity led her to use the word “who” in conjunction with it, but editors were flagging the reference because, as a non-living entity, the word “that” would be grammatically appropriate.

“Suddenly, I was right back to college,” Kimmerer said. “Is the world alive? Is the world a person, or is the world a thing? All of those blue marks (on the manuscript) were telling me the world was a thing. It’s an example of how one tiny word can change a definition.”

Kimmerer finished her presentation by pointing out that it is important to let people know that humanity and nature are not a bad combination.

“There’s this tremendous delusion that humans and nature are a bad mix and always have been, that humans are just takers and consumers,” Kimmerer said. “Four hundred years, we’ve been living with this mentality. For the rest of history, we’ve lived as though the earth was kin, as though it was sacred.”

Christopher Caldwell, the institute’s director, said most people who have read Kimmerer’s book have insight into her, but anyone who has a connection with the earth has a connection with her, too.

“Robin really writes with that passion and that dedication that comes out in her a work, in a way that shares her personal story,” Caldwell said. “I think that is an example of braiding that indigenous wisdom with scientific knowledge together because knowledge and science is personal, a way to understand our home and our environment.”