“A bay is a noun only if water is dead. When bay is a noun, it is defined by humans, trapped between its shores and contained by the word. But the verb wiikwegamaa—to be a bay—releases the water from bondage and lets it live. ‘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. This is the language I hear in the woods; this is the language that lets us speak of what wells up all around us.[…] This is the grammar of animacy.”
“What if you were a teacher but had no voice to speak your knowledge? What if you had no language at all and yet there was something you needed to say? Wouldn’t you dance it? Wouldn’t you act it out? Wouldn’t your every movement tell the story? In time you would be so eloquent that just to gaze upon you would reveal it all. And so it is with these silent green lives.”
“Joanna Macy writes that until we can grieve for our planet we cannot love it — grieving is a sign of spiritual health. But it is not enough to weep for our lost landscapes; we have to put our hands in the earth to make ourselves whole again. Even a wounded world is feeding us. Even a wounded world holds us, giving us moments of wonder and joy. I choose joy over despair.”
― Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants
In college I got up at 4:30 am to stand in a cold spring marsh, listening for the sounds of migrating birds before breakfast in the dinning hall. I spent hours in a lab combing through the regurgitated pellets of cormorants, looking for the tiny white specks that were the inner ear bones of fish. I clambered over desert rocks with Cambrian fossils in my hands. I peered into petri dishes of plankton towed from the edges of ponds and over the side of a ship. I learned how to do 100-counts and use a transect, read a graph and write a paper. I kind of learned statistics, and I definitely learned what it feels like when a cold November river floods your waders up to your waist. What I didn’t learn in my scientist’s training was what to do with the despair.
I could tell that my classmates were feeling it, too, but too afraid to fully express it. We knew that the world is impossibly precious, that we have already lost too much, and that no matter how much we study and protect and restore, we are still going to loose more. We had no moral option but to try, but we already felt defeated.
After college, I decided to take time to consider whether I really wanted to stay on the science career path and earn another degree. Partly it was because I knew I needed time to know myself better, to get some more perspective on what I need and what I have to offer – but it was also because I knew I was not yet emotionally equipped to do conservation work. I knew that cold despair would fill my boots and keep rising until it filled my throat.
The jury’s still out on whether I’ll go back for another science degree, but Braiding Sweetgrass has begun to show me how I can do the work and keep myself whole.
I’m not in the habit of marking up books or keeping notes when I’m reading for pleasure, so my ‘reviews’ (and I hope to write more this year) will be impressionistic, not analytical. I’m sure there are plenty of excellent and thoughtfully crafted analytical reviews of this book out there. I just wanted to briefly share what a profound impact this book has had on me, and encourage you to add it to your list.
I’ve lost track of the page, but I’ll paraphrase a moment that particularly struck me. Kimmerer writes about teaching a college ecology class where she asked students to think of ways that we have been harmful to the environment. Of course the students can think of a million ways that we are disruptive and destructive. She then asked them if they can think of ways that our presence is beneficial – and she was surprised aghast that no one could think of anything. Her students, like me, weren’t equipped with an understanding of how can we belong here. Fortunately, our subjects are our teachers.
This book has given me a most unexpected and healing gift: it showed me that humans are not inherently a problem here. Can you imagine how it would to feel to really know that? That we have a place here? That there are so many ways we can begin to repair our broken community with the earth? Maybe you know it- but do you feel it?
This book is so gorgeous that you’ll want to hug it to your chest. Each chapter is a beautifully structured essay that could probably stand alone, but are deeply impactful presented together. This is truly one of those works where the craft of writing is as exquisite as the lessons. Kimmerer uses her poet’s voice, indigenous worldview, and scientific training to help us remember our place in a community of gifts and responsibilities. I think that this is a book that everyone needs to read, and that even if you’re not typically interested in botany or a reader of nonfiction, its pull will surprise you.