Braiding Sweetgrass; The Book That Made Me Understand Gratitude

‘Made’ is perhaps a little hasty, I’m not quite finished Dr. Kimmerer’s song to the lost knowledge of the indigenous tribes of America.
But, I’ve never read a book before that speaks so beautifully about the relationship between land and human. I’ve been trying, in my own strange way, to define why my Grandfather’s relationship to the land seemed so peaceful, though he was a hunter and a fisherman. Maybe it was the small garden bursting with life, and vegetation in so many flavours and colours. Maybe it was his panic when we didn’t catch fish quite the right way (almost didn’t I should say.) There was no greater waste than the waste of the gifts of the natural world in my house, but I didn’t really get that until Kimmerer put it into words, and weaved a book through her own experience.

My Mum has always, in some way, been drawn to the Native America’s — I grew up knowing that there was a people like us that had had their culture stolen, but that did not have their own sovereign territory in the way we did. That’s a rough outline of how it was explained, and how it came across. I grew up in a house that had a legacy of freedom fighters, and, if village rumours are to be believed, a house of witches and wizards, too. Though, the only magic I ever witnessed at home was my family’s strange ability to work with resources the way others simply did not. Everything was usable, everything was colourful, if I wasted anything — I was in BIG trouble.

But, enough about that, onto the resonance I experienced while reading this mammoth of emotional writing…

Kimmerer speaks about the dwindling Potowatomi language, in one part (of course, in a book about nature and the life that is all around us, cradling us, the part with words is the one that sticks out to me) she talks about the ‘grammar of animacy’ that has been lost with indigenous culture. You see, in Potowatomi, she explains, there are tenses for everything — for beaches, trees — for life. In English, these words are static nouns — they are not given life by the language, and, as language shapes perspective, there is a chasm between native English speakers and the natural world. In Potowatomi, the language embraces the life around it. It’s a language that understands that without man’s gaze, there is still life in the world.

She speaks about the lexicon of science meeting this grammar of animacy, her words, not mine. She speaks about the deep love scientists have of their subject matter, how humans still try to find ways of saving what we love because intuition has not abandoned us — at least, this is how I read it.

She speaks about people, as much as plants.

This book is a book about relationships — all relationships. The connections between our world and us — we are the world, and the world is us. Too often, we think the Earth ‘hates’ us, giving us trials and tribulations in the form of natural disasters. Too often, we’re awed by our smallness when we witness something beautiful, I never had to roam far from home to know that the sunsets and sunrises of the West of Ireland are transcendental. Life became suspended in that filagreed seeming light. It washes my memories in a filter of effervescence, making it seem like the land I read about in our myths, but rarely saw in practice, in life.

Braiding Sweetgrass is a book that reminded me of gratitude because we live in a world ruled by the cycles of it. The loop between giver and receiver always comes full circle in some way, the Earth gives, and we take – and we return. How much of history is built with the foundations of resource wars? How much of it is about the innovation of humans, not in leashing nature (though there’s plenty of that, too) but in working with it? Shaping it? Loving the Earth, essentially?
Gratitude is a relationship-builder, healer, a high priestess and a counsellor for all. It is a connector. Something humans forget, for example, is that the world does need us. For example, a crux of the book is that harvested Sweetgrass remained strong, Sweetgrass that had been left to waste did exactly that, it wasted away. Gratitude is an action that requires reciprocity. Care. We never take more than is needed, and never more than is given. It has rules that were made to keep the harvests strong, and the seasons happy. Rules that were made by abundance, not scarcity and lack.

I wondered, thinking back on tense moments at the table when my Grandad would speak about fishermen giving up their birthright to have the river fished by outsiders — to the point that there were few fish left, and the river became mostly sludge — whether he was really speaking about an older type of duty. A birthright of care, of gratitude. They took the fish, and the money, they should have protected the environment that gave them so much. I wondered if it wasn’t a sense of duty that caused him to feel personally attacked. I never knew someone that walked the land as if it welcomed him so much as my Grandfather. Forget Disney Princesses getting animals to come close, replace Sleeping Beauty with a 5’7″ wrinkly, grumpy, old Irish man who suddenly melted when the pheasant chicks would arrive. They never came near my excitable 5-year old self, but they went to him without fear or question.

My family kept the birthright of the water. My Grandad instilled a sense of duty in me that I never could make sense of. Instead, it was made manifest in the strangest ways — one incident being that a late night out turned into a rubbish clean-up when I noticed strewn college campaign posters everywhere. I never knew what the compulsion was then, to clean it up. I wasn’t and am still not a gardener, though I think I may take up orchid growing at some point (as I haven’t killed mine yet.) Kimmerer’s book makes me feel less lonely, honestly, though I didn’t have a language to express what I lost when he died, I do now. It wasn’t just a man that died, it was the sense of something much older and much brighter than any one person could be. Something that I, quite frankly, delight in — the duty of humans to care. The joy of giving thanks.

Kimmerer explains that in indigenous culture, humans are known as the only species that can express thanks. In a sentence, she explains that an elder even warned against the arrogance of humans thinking that we could ever give as much as Earth gives to us – that thanks, and actionable thanks through care, was our role here.

Until now, my gratitude has been a half-fledged thing, I think. I read all the personal development books and posts about the effects of it on mental health, I began noticing the difference in expressing thanks, shucking off that awkwardness of being unable to the first few times I tried to authentically appreciate another. I haven’t thought about it as relationship building, it had only ever been about making myself feel better — and isn’t so much of what we’re taught or told to go for in terms of jobs, things, even people, about making ourselves feel better? I don’t particularly feel guilty about this, after all, why would we make a novice feel guilty about something they could only ever learn on the next step of their journey? Maybe it had to be now, maybe now, I’m finally open to hearing a new type of language. One that lets the Earth speak, one that lets me speak back.

Unexpected lessons show up in the most wonderful of places, and I couldn’t be more grateful that someone wrote this book.

This book!

Read it for joy, read it for sorrow, read it because you’re human, living in a world that none of us quite understand but which is amazing precisely for that.

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