connecting through creativity
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Book Review: Braiding Sweetgrass: Rethinking Solitude
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What inspired you to create this artwork?
The springs of my childhood were filled with wonder: leaves that seemed to dress bare branches in brilliant green overnight, the incomparable sweetness of wild strawberries in secret patches, the soft fur and endless legs of a caterpillar, the buzz of June bugs, the sweet smell of earth. Walking home alone after school or playing in the fields, I never felt alone. All the natural beings around me were my companions.
Somehow, ‘growing up,’ I became reliant on human friends for company and almost forgot my childhood companions in the forests and fields. While I loved hiking in the mountains, I was often with friends and walking at a good clip. It took a global health emergency and a couple of powerful books to get me to slow down and find the wisdom in my childhood wonder. These books and my daily solitary walks have encouraged me to rethink my place in nature and examine my feelings of solitude.
In March, I started reading one chapter of a good book first thing each morning so I could reflect on the insights throughout the day. It has become a kind of meditation. One of these books, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer, has consoled and inspired me during these troubled times. Its short, thought-provoking chapters, have become an important part of my day and my desire to find meaning beyond this global epidemic.
Kimmerer is a plant scientist, or botanist, in both the Indigenous and Western scientific senses. A member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation (Anishinabek), she grew up treasuring the gifts of nature, the wild strawberries in the spring, the hickory nuts in the fall. By keenly observing the qualities and needs of these generous plants, by sharing with her family and with other animals, she learned the values of gratitude, generosity, humility and reciprocity.
“Gifts from the earth or from each other establish a particular relationship, an obligation of sorts, to give, to receive, and to reciprocate,” she writes. “The field gave to us, we gave to my dad, and we tried to give back to the strawberries. When the berry season was done, the plants would send out slender red runners to make new plants. Because I was fascinated by the way they would travel over the ground looking for good places to root, I would weed out little patches of bare ground where the runners touched down… No person taught us this – the strawberries showed us. Because they had given us a gift, an ongoing relationship opened between us.”
From Kimmerer’s perspective, shared by many Indigenous people, humans are part of nature, not separate from it. Living parts of nature include not just animals, fish, birds and insects, but plants and even water and rock. She reminded me of something my Sinixt friend, Shelly Boyd, once said. “In our language, water is a living thing.” Water, plants, soil, give gifts and, in turn, humans need to pay attention and care for them.
If we see ourselves as part of nature and pay attention by naming, observing and caring for the living things around us then we are not alone. We are only isolated from humans. Also, the practice of careful observation makes the world much richer and encourages curiosity. How do trees know when to sprout leaves? When and why does sap run? As the snow melts, what are the first hardy plants exposed in the forest? How can I identify them without their flowers? How do they grow? What plants and insects do they coexist with?
Kimmerer taps into both Indigenous and Western science to answer these questions. “The fact is,” she writes, “Maples have a far more sophisticated system for detecting spring than we do. There are photosensors by the hundreds in every single bud, packed with light-absorbing pigments called phytochromes. Their job is to take the measure of light every day. Tightly furled, covered in red-brown scales, each bud holds an embryonic copy of a maple branch, and each bud wants desperately to someday be a full-fledged branch, leaves rustling in the wind and soaking up the sun.”
Sometimes Western scientists are blind to important questions. For example, Kimmerer and one of her graduate students, Laurie, wanted to know how different ways of harvesting sweetgrass – a plant used in ceremony and basket making – affected the health of these plants and fields. Scientists on Laurie’s graduate committee dismissed the question because “everyone knows that harvesting a plant will damage a population.” Much to the scientists’ surprise, Laurie proved, using meticulous scientific methods, that “sweetgrass flourishes when it’s harvested and declines when it’s not.” By harvesting responsibly – no more than 50% – pickers make space for new growth. Thoughtful human activity can be integral to a healthy ecosystem.
If humans are important to the health of the natural environment, then what guidelines could we use for the “honourable harvest?” Kimmerer has some suggestions:
Know the ways of the ones who take care of you, so that you may take care of them.
Introduce yourself. Be accountable as the one who comes asking for life.
Ask permission before taking. Abide by the answer.
Never take the first. Never take the last.
Take only what you need.
Take only that which is given.
Never take more than half. Leave some for others.
Harvest in a way that minimizes harm.
Use it respectfully. Never waste what you have taken.
Give thanks for what you have been given.
Give a gift, in reciprocity for what you have taken.
Sustain the ones who sustain you and the earth will last forever.
Over the past few years, as I listen to, and read the works of, Indigenous friends, leaders and thinkers, I hear these values articulated over and over. Thinking about the many ways in which we, in Revelstoke, engage with our natural environment, I wonder how all of us – harvesters, foresters, builders, recreationists – might behave differently if we took these guidelines to heart.
I wonder what will happen once the Covid-19-related isolation is over. Revelstoke makes heavy demands on our natural environment. We engage intensively with the outdoors and don’t seem to have a stop button. What would be different if we felt a responsibility for, and reciprocity with, our fellow beings in the world? Would we harvest an ancient tree, knowing the abundance of life it supports? Would we skidoo into the habitat of endangered caribou? Would we pollute our living creeks and rivers?
If we all observed, cared and shared a little more with our fellow beings, if we made a practice of it, we might all feel less alone and more grounded, even in the face of crisis.
Braiding Sweetgrass is available for purchase through the Revelstoke Museum and Archives. To arrange a no-contact pick-up please e-mail Holly at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Okanagan Regional Library has audio and e-book versions, although there is a waiting list. The Kindle edition is available for $14.39 on Amazon.ca.
Where did you create this artwork?
How is your workspace?
I write at an old, hand-made desk that I bought at the Revelstoke thrift store. As I look out at my back garden, my mother’s worn-out stuffed rabbit from her childhood, one of Cathy English’s crocheted owls and a carved elephant from my days in Kenya surround me.
Laura Stovel is a writer and historian who was born and grew up in Revelstoke. Her most recent book is Swift River: Stories of the First People and First Travellers on the Columbia River around Revelstoke.