Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer

Braiding SweetgrassSome millennia ago our ancestors discovered language and so began the project of finding the best representation of this (here thump on whatever physical reality is in front of you) in terms of this (here place your hand near your mouth and open/close your fingers to imitate talking).

Robin Kimmerer is a scientist who understands there are dimensions to reality science hasn’t explored thoroughly and won’t explore until voices like hers are heard. This is not to say scientific accounts to date are wrong, but they are incomplete and can be improved by expanding the vision of science while retaining the rigor and objectivity of its methods. As practiced for more than a century by a world-wide community including millions of trained and coordinated people, modern science is the most significant social and methodological human achievement so far. Much has been accomplished by this community following these methods. Yet much remains, and with improvements in communication and storage of information achieved in the Information-Age, the prospects for further achievement are very bright indeed. Young people now going into scientific disciplines will be part of an amazing expansion and improvement of human understanding in the course of their careers. The basis for this expansion and improvement, in my view, will include thoughtful consideration of the perspective Kimmerer recommends, one grounded in ancient insights from the indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere and other indigenous peoples worldwide.

Unfortunately, the debate in the US has come down to science vs. religion, often pitting evolution and the big bang theory against the Genesis creation story, and hammering the question ‘which is right?’ The resulting polarization presses religion into discounting the value of the scientific method, creative reasoning, and evidence. On the other side, the scientific community is pressed into discounting worldviews that include a spiritual element as superstition, mythology, or fantasy. This dichotomy is unnecessary and regrettable. We have much to learn, certainly, and the historic juxtaposition of spiritual against material will need to be significantly amended, if not abandoned, for that learning to occur.

Kimmerer uses the methods and precepts of modern science to explain purposeful behaviors among plants. She points the way for rigorous, creative exploration of flora and the behaviors of flora using the scientific method, but without bleaching away what is most interesting in plant (and, ultimately, animal and human) behaviors. She explains this fascinating world through her personal narrative, which includes both her unwavering grounding in scientific disciplines, and her understanding and steadfast appreciation for the worldview of her Indian ancestors and contemporaries.

I recommend this book to those interested in how the world works, not as conclusive but as pointing the way to increased (and ultimately more satisfying) explanations.

Robin Wall Kimmerer is an enrolled member of the Pottawatomie Nation. Her writings have appeared in Orion, Whole Terrain, and numerous scientific journals. She is a SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor of Environmental Biology, and the founder and director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment.


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