Braiding Sweetgrass: A Call for Pedagogical Gratitude

Kimmerer, Robin Wall. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, Milkweed Editions, 2013.

A shift to a posthuman way of thinking requires understanding new ways of inhabiting the world.  Kimmerer calls her offering in this book: “a braid of stories meant to heal our relationship to the world” (x). My first and primary response to Kimmerer’s braid of stories surprised me, a deep visceral and emotional response that I typically do not find in an academic text. I felt richly fed as I moved through Kimmerer’s unique blend of personal essay, scientific description, and indigenous stories. The author creates the braid of these three genres with near seamless weaving. I did not expect to pick up a book written by an academic and feel connected to the earth.

The indigenous stories begin with the creation story “Skywoman Falling” and end with “Defeating Windigo.” Kimmerer’s telling of Skywoman falling to earth invites the reader to form a new relationship with the lifeforms present in the story. Geese rise up to break Skywoman’s fall. A council of water animals elect the giant turtle to carry Skywoman and build an island for her to build her new life. From this small island, Skywoman’s dance and thanksgiving spreads the land through “the alchemy of all the animals’ gifts.” This new earth provides shelter as well as food to all the lives that participated in the rise of the land. This synergy between human, animal, plant, and earth frames every chapter.

In “The Gift of Strawberries,” Kimmerer describes her summers picking wild strawberries for a Father’s Day pie. These gifts, and others, “establish a particular relationship, an obligation of sorts to give, to receive, and to reciprocate” (25). The powerful concept of gifts given, received, and reciprocated frame the entire relationship Kimmerer builds between the herself, the reader, and the natural world. Curiously, the vehicle of words in these stories can create a connection between the human and the world we inhabit. At its heart, this book is its own gift, offered to the reader as an act of reciprocity. The scientific elements of the plant and animal kingdom complement these pedagogical metaphors and ask the reader to consider the deep possibilities when viewing the earth as a gift and “to make our relations with the world sacred again” (31).

Relevant to the concept of a posthuman pedagogical practice are the moments when Kimmerer describes her scientific method and her experiences with her students. Her first description of education comes in “Asters and Golderod.” Kimmerer describes her natural inclination in her studies “to see relationships, to seek the threads that connect the world, to join instead of divide” (42). However, her scientific education pushes her to see plants as objects and to distance her own experience from her investigations as a botanist. She finds this science “rigorous in separating the observer from the observed, and the observed from the observer” (42). This separation exists in a wealth of fields, not just in the STEM fields. In the humanities, students are trained to remove their emotional, physical, and even spiritual responses to texts. Even more problematic are the ways in which humanities fields are separated from experience and materiality. In many ways, the disciplines of higher education resemble monocultures carved into distinct tidy rows of disciplinary knowledge with little crossover between the demarcated fields. This unfortunate monoculture has led to a lack of reciprocal relationships between ideas, a vast swath of fields with dead soil and empty resources.

Kimmerer does slip into advocacy. She describes the composition of the deadliest lake in the United States—one that has rendered the entire area smelly and uninhabitable. This description carries the urgency necessary to rejuvenate and enliven areas that have previously been tapped beyond their capacity by human hubris. Her antidote, the one that will defeat the Windigo that feeds greedily on resources without ever becoming full, is gratitude and a change of heart. “Gratitude for all the earth has given us,” she prescribes, “lends us courage to turn and face the Windigo that stalks us, to refuse to participate in an economy that destroys beloved earth to line the pockets of the greedy” (377). And while this gratitude is difficult and requires a measure of reflection and hope, Kimmerer’s solution does not pretend to be something that it is not.

As a corollary or metaphor for education, isn’t it possible that to disrupt the monocultures in education we too might find gratitude a possible solution to the laments echoing throughout our pandemic invested world? To find gratitude for the scientist who examines the tiniest particles in search of potential benefits to human and animal life. To find gratitude for those who expend their energies in service to communicating the multi-faceted prism of the human and more than human world. To find the abundance in our rich intellectual resources that can potentially heal and rejuvenate not only the human heart but the pulse of the natural order and the processes that enable all life to continue to exist on earth.

I find abundance and gratitude in the squares of my students’ faces on my computer screen. Those who are eager to learn and to contribute to the world. I find abundance and gratitude in my colleagues who tirelessly invent and create and innovate in an effort to improve experience and to train new generations to take on the problems we face in the 21st century. I find abundance and gratitude in the possibilities opened by this novel Coronavirus. It is easy to focus on the destruction, on the darkness, and on the despair. It is much harder to see in the burning of the world an opportunity to partner with and acknowledge the power of the fire. When the world is on fire, the destruction feels so intense as to render us nearly paralyzed.

And yet, after a fire, “when spring returns, the headland becomes a beacon again, shining with the intense green light of new grass. The burnt and blackened soil heats up quickly and urges the shoots upward, fueled by fertilizing ash” (244). The miracle of razing the ground requires an understanding of the elements and an appreciation for the processes that operate all around in a harmony of reciprocity. Embedded in Kimmerer’s braid of stories is an enactment of how to listen to these processes with humility and gratitude and look to a future where education does not privilege the sterilized production of knowledge but rather invites an integral relationship with the multiplicities of being that make, shape, and support human existence.

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