Reflection on Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, by Robin Wall Kimmerer
I just moved to a new location in my life—brand new. I grew up moving around the Piedmont section of North Carolina where my German, Scottish, and English ancestors settled generations ago. During my twenties I lived in Washington DC. Most of my adult life has been spent in the mountains of West Virginia and suddenly, this past month, the wisdom of the Bishop and Cabinet of the WV Annual Conference decided that I need to spend some time living in the Mid-Ohio Valley, along the Ohio River in Parkersburg, WV.
My parsonage has a glorious deck that I have started calling the aviary because of the multitude of birds that dart in and out throughout the day, checking to see what is in the feeders and what I might be up to. There are woods directly behind my house and the woods are full of wildlife—deer, raccoon, groundhog, squirrels, and all manner of creatures that prefer to remain unseen. There is even a rumor that a family of fox live there, but I haven’t seen them—yet. And in the midst of the aviary of birds and the wooded creature homes there are all kinds of wild flowers and green things that attract butterflies and what has become my favorite of God’s creatures—the bees.
It was in this setting, just after moving at the first of July that I settled in to read Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teaching of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer. Maybe it is the setting of my home or maybe it is just because all of these gifts of God’s creation have fascinated me since I was a child, but my home at the edge of the woods was the perfect place to read and reflect on the wisdom, grace, and passion with which Kimmerer writes. I was thoroughly taken in by everything that she had to say, but the concept of language and communication captured my thoughts most.
Kimmerer’s writings touched me deep at the core of my being, setting into a swirling motion images of plant life that supports, sustains, and renews the earth and amplified sounds of trees and animals speaking a language all their own—a language that so many humans, myself included, have refused to acknowledge could exist, a language that has far more to say in the quiet of the earth than most of what I say in a 25 minute sermon.
I was fascinated by Kimmerer’s discussion of language in the chapter “Learning the Grammar of Animacy.” Her quote at the beginning of the section captured my attention as I take up residence in a new place, along a wide river teeming with all kinds of life which is also vulnerable to the industry and carelessness of human “progress”: “To be native to a place we must learn to speak its language.” (Kimmerer,pg. 48). Her quest to learn her own nearly forgotten ancestral language offered to me a whole different way of looking at creation and while I will never learn her language, I am suddenly thinking about creation in a different way. The notion of Puhpowee captured my thinking for an entire day, so much so that I used the word and meaning as an illustration in my sermon, the following Sunday morning. Kimmerer describes the meaning of the concept in the words of ethnobotanist Keewaydinoquay: “…the force which causes mushrooms to push up from the earth overnight.” (Kimmerer, pg. 49)
Think of it! There is in a unique and beautiful language, one word, dedicated to the process where mushrooms that were not in sight the evening before are suddenly visible in the morning sunlight. That’s magic!
Her further description, as I understand it, that all words have a “to be” component is equally captivating. It didn’t take me any time to grasp and visualize what she is saying about a bay, for instance. We can choose to look at a bay as a body of water held captive by our human words so that it is only dead water “trapped between its shores and contained by the word.” (Kimmerer, pg 55) Or we can try to understand the native word for this same image or noun or body of water that sets the captive water free and suddenly it lives and moves and is full of life that never stops the cycle of birth and life and death and resurrection. Looking at a bay in that manner is “wonder-ful,”—indeed full of such wonder that is overlooked and when overlooked, a bay becomes an object whose only purpose is to be possessed. As Kimmerer writes:
“To be a bay” holds the wonder that for this moment, the living water has decided to shelter itself between these shores, conversing with cedar roots and a flock of baby mergansers. Because it could do otherwise—become a stream or an ocean or a waterfall, and there are verbs for that, too. To be a hill, to be a sandy beach, to be a Saturday, all are possible verbs in a world where everything is alive. Water, land, and even a day, the language a mirror for seeing the animacy of the world, the life that pulses through all things, through pines and nuthatches and mushrooms.” (Kimmerer pg. 55)
What this one notion in understanding language, in a different manner, has encouraged in me is to think about creation as life pulsing through everything from the tip top of a sugar maple all the way down to the ends of its underground roots. It is encouraging me to look deeply into the waters of the Ohio River and see it as a home for thousands of shapes and sounds of life or as a highway for transporting life to all kinds of places from north to south, from its beginning in Western Pennsylvania, south of Lake Erie to the mouth of the Mississippi. I find myself examining all parts of creation as something that is more of a verb than a noun, trying to “be” in the midst of observing. It has become for me a new way of praying.
I will forever identify this summer as the “Summer of the Bees” for me and part of this identification comes from Kimmerer’s very discussion of language and creation. Bees fascinate me. They always have, but in light of the danger that surrounds their lives I find myself concentrating on them more and more. My photography has captured dozens of bees—this summer—in flight and in feast, in and around some of the most vibrant blossoms, especially blues and purples and reds. After reading Kimmerer’s discussion on the grammar of animacy, I find myself in the midst of the bee’s activity. I feel the buzzing inside me, vibrating through my mouth until I too am buzzing. I am intrigued by the patterns on their wings and suddenly their wings are more than objects attached to their backs that take them from one place to another. The wings are masterpieces of beauty and function that play an important role in the life of the whole world. How can we simply think that the bees are just something small that irritate us? They are life itself for us. The wings, the buzz, the tiny hairs that are visible only if I stop, hold my breath and pay attention are really only part of this fascinating creature. I have found myself concentrating on a moment with a bee, finding union with the buzz, and knowing that in my heart I am praying for this bee and for its place in our world. It is a prayer of gratitude, a prayer for safety, and a prayer for protection from the likes of humans like me.
Although there is an overarching theme of the planet’s life of support and deep care for all of creation, the theme of communication—of language—stands out to me from Kimmerer’s writing. In each section, there is a foundational point to make that all of creation can communicate and care for the whole. From her discussion about how asters and goldenrod looked so pleasing and gorgeous together to the notion of how trees communicate when they are in danger or when, exactly, they need to produce more, to the prayer of Thanksgiving that names all of life and moves us to make our minds one, to the way creation reacts to and informs us of the damage that evil and greed inflicts upon the planet, there is the notion that if we think differently, if we think deeply, if we listen differently, if we listen deeply, we can understand that we are part of creation, not separate from it, and we might understand that the lives of all persons and non-persons on this planet depend on each other.
The understanding of language in this manner puts us in the very lives of that which humans have declared over and over as objects for our benefit. I will not look at creation the same after this summer and I know that it is part of my calling to help people to pay attention to the water in a bay and the buzz of a bee and the whole of creation as interwoven life. For me, I understand this whole as God’s design and to refuse to notice creation as interwoven life is a sin against the Holy One who loves all of life. Looking at creation in this way is spiritual, mystical, and life-giving.