Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer

In June Mandy Haggith recommended this book to me, saying it was one I must read, and she was right. When I wrote Ways of Knowing I was looking for a way of thinking about and transmitting knowledge that would encompass both the academic and the intuitive ways we get to know about the world we live in, and this book does exactly that. Robin Wall Kimmerer is a botanist, Professor of Environmental Biology, and a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, and this book discusses the human relationship to the land from both the perspective of her scientific training and the traditional wisdom and practices of her family. Intellectually and ecologically this is a great achievement, and the book is well-written, approachable and engaging. I Love it, and it will be on my shelves forever, so you can take this as a heart-felt recommendation.

It throws up a few issues, not of contention, but requiring further thought and development from a European perspective. (By which I mean simply someone living in Europe – in the book Kimmerer uses ‘European’ and ‘Western’ as cultural groupings, which is reasonable in an American setting, but less so from here).

What I love especially are her ideas

  • science as relational knowledge, not as detached observation
  • the speaking of a language as connection with the past and with other speakers, not as an assertion of identity (Gaelic activists here will get this connection – I get the feeling that people who disapprove of the use of Gaelic see it simply as creating barriers and ant-establishment acting out)
  • the reciprocity of the ‘honourable harvest’ where a disciplined use of natural resources is repaid by care, and this care is valued as genuinely nurturing the environment we profit from.. If we might see traditional cultures as tending towards the anthropomorphic and magical, we might want to recognise that this is in deference to our needs as humans; we behave much better when we are in caring relationships than when we try to follow rules.
  • seeing the earth as nurturing rather than functional, as organic and alive rather than as property
  • her ways of relating to key plants in a region as a way of belonging to that region. I thought about my territory and I’d say the key plants are ash, willow and alder, meadowsweet, comfrey, hawthorn, bramble and red clover. As it turns out, most of them have a place in Haggards. Alder doesn’t, but I have plans —-

I see some parallels between traditional Native American culture and Celtic practices, and even Biblical ones – the idea of jubilee, for instance, or leaving the gleanings of the harvest for wanderers, of gratitude and restraint. I can see parallels between what happened to First Nation Americans and what happened in Ireland and in the Highlands – the same lies, the same exploitation, the same refusal to understand the existence and respect the validity of other, less pragmatic world-views, which makes me wonder about how Western culture got to be the way it is (too big a subject). I don’t want to be too simplistic here, some of the Scottish and Irish who suffered so badly here went and inflicted exactly the same treatment on others when they got to America, but it does throw up some thoughts on why we can’t simply import ideas from other parts of the world simply because they seem sensible. So much of traditional Native American knowledge is conditioned by long knowledge of landscape and climate, soil types and wildlife. We can’t just copy and paste ideas, especially if we don’t have the same grounding – and we mostly don’t. Roger Deakin, in Notes from Walnut Tree Farm, deplored the damage well-meaning developers did to watercourses in his area for want of detailed local knowledge, and I have become aware of controversies among permaculturalists about importing ideas such as herb spirals, which work when in some countries, in places where neither the soil nor the climate make them appropriate.

We are aware of attitudes that seem similar – profit as motivator, the market as the only regulator of industry, the earth as inert resource to be exploited (along with the self-serving opposition of jobs and environmental protection). But things are different here. We are, despite the ‘get on your bike’ mentality of governments, a much more settled country. People feel they belong to their place of residence, town or countryside. People feel, mostly, some obligation to their locality, even if it means being thought a ‘nimby’. It can narrow us, make us selfish when we go to other places like the National Parks, but it’s something we can build on, and we do, sometimes.

It means our residual land-lore is closer to us and more extensive than we think, and perhaps environmental organisations could be less dismissive and paranoid about unqualified people doing damage, and more willing to co-operate with residents, rather than taking such a missionary position.

It means that in this country, questions of class need to be more carefully looked at before assumptions are made about consultation and new initiatives, because we can create conflicts of interest unnecessarily in one direction, and turn a blind eye to others. This especially applies to the issue of land ownership. There’s a lot of over-simplification in these discussions, mostly because we’re importing models from places where the issues are much starker.

This book is a great place to start those conversations!

 

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