Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants

About Robin Wall Kimmerer:

Robin Wall Kimmerer is a mother, scientist, decorated professor, and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. She is the author of Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants and Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses. In 2015, she addressed the general assembly of the United Nations on the topic of “Healing Our Relationship with Nature.” She lives in Syracuse, New York, where she is a SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor of Environmental Biology, and the founder and director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment. As a writer and a scientist, her interests in restoration include not only restoration of ecological communities, but restoration of our relationships to land. (Source:

Braiding Sweetgrass – A Summary

‘We are showered every day with gifts, but they are not meant for us to keep. Their life is in their movement, the inhale and the exhale of our shared breath. Our work and our joy is to pass along the gift and to trust that what we put out into the universe will always come back.’  In many ways, this captures the quintessence of Kimmerer’s book as she writes of reciprocity, recognising and nurturing the gifts in the world and celebrating the democracy of species and mutual flourishing.  By focusing on gratitude rather than fear of how we are consumptively mining the earth, she takes the approach of love and our deeper symbiotic connection to the natural world.

Originally published by the independent non-profit Milkweed Editions in 2013, Braiding Sweetgrass found its way to the NYT bestseller list in 2020. A collection of essays, it has been called a ‘hymn of love to the world’ by author Elizabeth Gilbert and hailed as an eco-Bible by many others. Both descriptions are fitting as the book weaves indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge and the teachings of plants and the natural world to gently bring attention to ways of seeing that feel essential even as the world grapples with one planetary crisis after another. A collective longing for a renewed connection with the natural world is perhaps one of the many appeals of reading Kimmerer’s book in this time. As she writes in the preface, ‘It is an intertwining of science, spirit and story—old stories and new ones that can be medicine for our broken relationship with earth, a pharmacopoeia of healing stories that allow us to imagine a different relationship, in which people and land are good medicine for each other.’ 

In the first essay, Skywoman Falling, Kimmerer sets the tone of reciprocity and gratitude by describing the creation story shared by the original peoples throughout the Great Lakes. She writes of how Skywoman ‘fell like a maple seed, pirouetting on an autumn breeze’ and moved by the gifts of the animals, she danced in thanksgiving until the earth was made. Creation, borne of the alchemy of both, tells of a generous embrace of the living world in this cosmology. She writes, ‘Perhaps the Skywoman story endures because we too are always falling. Our lives, both personal and collective, share her trajectory. Whether we jump or are pushed, or the edge of the known world just crumbles at our feet, we fall, spinning into someplace new and unexpected. Despite our fears of falling, the gifts of the world stand by to catch us.’  

She describes the richness of these gifts throughout the rest of the book, sometimes in wild strawberries who the Potawatomi recognise as the heart berry, in bouquets of wildflowers or hickory nuts. ‘A gift comes to you through no action of your own, having moved toward you without your beckoning. It is not a reward: you cannot earn it, or call it to you, or even deserve it. And yet it appears. Your only role is to be open-eyed and present. Gifts exist in a realm of humility and mystery—as with random acts of kindness, we do not know their source.’ Referencing author and scholar Lewis Hyde, she writes of how the fundamental nature of gifts is that they move and that their value increases with their passage. In striking contrast to Western thinking and ideas of private property, she writes instead that sharing and reciprocity are the roots of a gift economy. She draws attention to the many gifts of the earth, of feeling gratitude for its abundance, writing that ‘It is human perception that makes the world a gift,’ and how ceremonies are a way of reminding us of our gifts and responsibility to those gifts. 

Kimmerer also writes of her struggle as she teetered between two worlds—the scientific and the indigenous. From a childhood spent in woods where plants were companions, she was suddenly in a botany classroom in her freshman year that was based on reducing plants to objects, not subjects. ’The questions scientists raised were not “Who are you?” but “What is it?” No one asked plants, “What can you tell us?” The primary question was “How does it work?”’, she writes. The scientific approach while encouraging observation was based on separation rather than studying relationships and connections that bound life forms together. It was a separation that felt false and prompted her to turn back to indigenous knowledge when she began teaching to ‘cross-pollinate’ science with the radiance and spirit of indigenous knowledge. ‘We understand a thing only when we understand it with all four aspects of our being: mind, body, emotion and spirit […] Science and art, matter and spirit, indigenous knowledge and Western science—can they be goldenrod and asters for each other? When I am in their presence, their beauty asks me for reciprocity, to be the complementary colour, to make something beautiful in response.’

In building and renewing bonds with the earth, another powerful essay in the book is Learning the Grammar of Animacy. She takes the example of the word Puhpowee, which translates as ‘the force which causes mushrooms to push up from the earth overnight.’ She adds, ‘the makers of this word understood a world of being, full of unseen energies that animate everything.’ Kimmerer points out that while gender is assigned to nouns in European languages, Potawatomi does not make these distinctions by dividing the world into masculine and feminine. The grammar of animacy is extended to all beings—mountains, rocks, fire and water—and all that are imbued with spirit like songs, stories and sacred medicines. ‘In English, we never refer to a member of our family, or indeed to any person, as it. That would be a profound act of disrespect. It robs a person of selfhood and kinship, reducing a person to a mere thing. So it is that in Potawatomi and most other indigenous languages, we use the same words to address the living world as we use for our family. Because they are our family.’ She writes of how making living land into an ‘it’ automatically creates distance and separation, easing the path to mine, extract and exploit. When a tree or rock is a ‘her or him’ rather than an ‘it’, however, it charts a different relationship. One that is based on ‘new ways of living in the world, other species a sovereign people, a world with a democracy of species, not a tyranny of one—with moral responsibility to water and wolves, and with a legal system that recognises the standing of other species. It’s all in the pronouns.’

As the other essays unfold, what ties them together is the reinforcing of the bond with the earth. Whether it is her desire to be a good mother to her two daughters by teaching them to care for the world or the consolation and comfort she drew from the water lily pond after her daughter left home, she writes of how the earth offers gifts we can provide ourselves, ‘She gives what we need without being asked.’ An allegiance to gratitude is what we need.  


The Intelligence in All Kinds of Life:

Discussion themes and questions:

What ceremonies or rituals could you include in your day to re-remember your connection to the natural world?
What allegiances of gratitude would you like to share with your children or those in your life as a way of giving thanks to all the gifts the earth offers?
How can you build a practice of reciprocity even as you continue to receive gifts from the land? What would that look like?
‘What would it be like to be raised on gratitude, to speak to the natural world as a member of the democracy of species, to raise a pledge of interdependence?’