It is the nature of humans to be preoccupied with relationship. Relationship is the backbone of family units, proves essential to the success of any collaborative endeavor, and tweaks the deep needs which fuel both gossip magazines and our very wellbeing.
In our modern American culture of progress and bootstraps, this focus on relationship is often inverted: what can they do for me? Are they loyal enough? Effective enough? Do they fulfill my needs?
The way of living put forth in Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass comes as a refreshing reorientation to our connected existence. Encouraging reflection on both our internal and external relationships, Kimmerer lays out a framework for relationship which - while still built on the flaws and fortitude of the individual - fundamentally moves towards a holistic culture.
Sweetgrass, the plant for whom the book is titled, is characterized as imminently generous, a gentle yet resilient plant that needs no honors, and grows most profusely when respectfully (sustainably) harvested. Kimmerer, in turn, encourages us to consider the underlying assumptions of the way we relate: are we in it for ourselves, or do we contribute to a collective success? Do we value the others which inhabit our communities?
This process of becoming mutual requires unearthing potentially unconscious beliefs about our value system, our role in our communities, and the benefit or harm which may arise from the two. Kimmerer, in swathes and ribbons of luminous prose, invites us to view her own process of personal and shared excavation. Personal because it is her own journey, shared because she does not walk it alone. The pages of Braiding Sweetgrass shine with vulnerability and a desire for all beings to know peace.
She discusses our grossest ecological conquests, without shaming the path that brought us there. She lays out her love for traditional ways just before acknowledging that such purity is unachievable given the needs of today’s world. There is pain as she examines the way her hopes and dreams can’t fit into the fabric of reality.
Through intimate stories of shorebound dawns and shepherding salamanders, we are welcomed into the work of being relative. Relative, as in kin. And relative, as in subjective.
A dynamic sense of mutuality is a must if we are to repair and restore the damage we have done, and restore the beauty and complexity we have crushed. We must be willing to bend and reshape parts of our inner world in order to respect and nourish the beings in our outer world. Reciprocity is a movement away from “me first,” and towards grateful receiving, grateful gifting.
Kimmerer must have known this would be challenging for most of us. Each chapter engages with its own story, its own allegory, its own manifestation of pain and resolution. This episodic sense gives each chapter a termination: a hard pause in which to step away and reflect.
This style makes it difficult read cover to cover; the syncopated stories with their repeated message began to feel overbearing, hard to want to enter again. Kimmerer’s eloquence can only go so far in blunting the pain of what we, Homo sapiens, have wrought and not yet reckoned with.
And yet the repetition also became a drumbeat calling me back to finish the song, dipping once again into Kimmerer’s hopeful well of optimism. In her words I found both possibility and a call to an achievable responsibility.
The First Nation’s peoples largely share a philosophy of relationship predicated on mutual aid and mutual flourishing. By allowing ourselves to soften through their stories, we begin to glimpse their vision of a materially and spiritually healthy world.
Kimmerer - and this book - is testament to the gray area of transitions. The fallacy of the individual is laid bare by the sheer volume of interactions that lie within it, and yet we persist in thinking we can go it alone. We are beginning to understand that our lack of relationship with the world is at the root of our exploitation of it. We are searching for a path of belonging.
This book offers one of those paths. May we all be inspired to relate to the living world in the spirit of sweetgrass.