Issue 2 — Revolutionary Gratitude
Braiding Sweetgrass, by Robin Wall Kimmerer
I am so grateful for all your kind words about Issue 1, and for embracing the idea of Frugal Chariot so wholeheartedly. It brings me such pleasure to share my love of books and the natural world with you. Thank you for encouraging this endeavor.
Here’s how to support it financially.
Here’s how to share it with anyone whom you think might enjoy it.
Robin Wall Kimmerer
Milkweed Editions, 2013
The smash and grab. The shock and shame. As I have come to learn more of the former, I have felt a great deal of the latter when it comes to the history of settler colonialism in North America. Most of us who are white know so little: about the extent of The Great Dying, about the number of massacres, about the cruelty and scale of the forced migrations, allotments and acculturation, about the degradation of native homelands and waters. The mind struggles to comprehend the losses of life, land, and language suffered by Native Americans. I am still at the beginning of a learning journey. In the months to come, I’ll be recommending additional books that address this history, and will attempt to do so with humility as I write from unceded Pawtucket lands.
The sharing and growth. The gratitude and healing. There is an opening of the heart that comes when someone extends a hand and leads you to a widening view. Robin Wall Kimmerer is a plant scientist, a mother, and a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. Her book, Braiding Sweetgrass, begins with a generous invitation:
Hold out your hands and let me lay upon them a sheaf of freshly picked sweetgrass, loose and flowing, like newly washed hair . . . Will you hold the end of the bundle while I braid? . . . This braid is woven in three strands: indigenous ways of knowing, scientific knowledge, and the story of an Anishinbekwe scientist trying to bring them together in service of what matters most. It is an interweaving 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.
Right away we are also offered a powerful framework for healing: stop thinking that humans need to come up with all the answers to our ecological crisis, and start listening to our evolutionary elders. Start learning from the ways in which they share and connect.
In the Western tradition there is a recognized hierarchy of beings, with, of course, the human being on top—the pinnacle of evolution, the darling of Creation—and the plants at the bottom. But in Native ways of knowing, human people are often referred to as “the younger brothers of Creation.” We say that humans have the least experience with how to live and thus the most to learn—we must look to our teachers among the other species for guidance . . . They’ve been on the earth far longer than we have been, and have had time to figure things out. They live both above and below ground, joining Skyworld to the earth. Plants know how to make food and medicine from light and water, and then they give it away.
Gratitude for these plant elders runs through the pages of this book, extending spiraling tendrils that connect the many stories. Kimmerer teaches us about the Thanksgiving Address of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy—also called The Words that Come Before All Else—which begins:
Today we have gathered and when we look upon the faces around us we see that the cycles of life continue. We have been given the duty to live in balance and harmony with each other and all living things. So now let us bring our minds together as one as we give greetings and thanks to each other as People. Now our minds are one.
We are thankful to our Mother the Earth, for she gives us everything we need for life. She supports our feet as we walk about upon her. It gives us joy that she still continues to care for us, just as she has from the beginning of time. To our Mother, we send thanksgiving, love and respect. Now our minds are one.
Noting that the Address as it proceeds represents an inventory of our ecosystem partners, as well as an opportunity to develop our capacity to listen with attention and respect, she goes on to share another powerful insight.
You can’t listen to the Thanksgiving Address without feeling wealthy. And while expressing gratitude seems innocent enough, it is a revolutionary idea. In a consumer society, contentment is a radical proposition. Recognizing abundance rather than scarcity undermines an economy that thrives by creating unmet desires.
This grounding in gratitude made the reading of this book extraordinarily joyful for me, even though many of the stories carry their full portions of loss and sorrow. There are profound chapters on the despoliation of native lands in the Lake Onondaga watershed in New York, and on the damage done to her family through her grandfather’s forced education at the Carlisle Industrial Boarding School in Pennsylvania. Where there is harm, Kimmerer seeks out pathways for natural restoration and reconciliation. “But it is not enough to weep for our lost landscapes; we need to put our hands in the earth to make ourselves whole again. Even a wounded world is feeding us. Even a wounded world holds us, giving us moments of wonder and joy.”
Kimmerer’s authorial voice has a sheen like the light that shines through a leaf. Here is a portion of her hymn to Mother Cedar.
Every part of the tree was used. The ropy branches were split for tools, baskets, and fish traps. Dug and cleaned, cedars’ long roots were peeled and split into a fine, strong, fiber that is woven into the famous conical hats and ceremonial headgear that signify the identity of the one below the brim. During the famously cold and rainy winters, with a perpetual twilight of fog, who lit the house? Who warmed the house? From bow drill to tinder to fire, it was Mother Cedar.
And there is wonderful humor as she tells her “seemed like a good idea at the time” stories of parenthood and the teacher’s life: staying up all night to boil maple sap over a wood fire, clambering through the muck of the pond she was trying to restore so that her kids could swim in it, creating a “Walmarsh” to help her students appreciate the bounty of a wetland. She leavens her lyricism, as during a rain-sodden hike in the forest: “I want to feel what the cedars feel and know what they know. But I am not a cedar and I am cold.”
Her chapter on The Three Sisters, (corn, beans and squash) is alive with plenitude and delight.
The bean twines around the corn stalk, weaving itself between the leaves of corn, never interfering with their work. In the spaces where corn leaves are not, buds appear on the vining bean and expand into outstretched leaves and clusters of fragrant flowers. The bean leaves droop and are held close to the stem of the corn. Spread around the feet of the corn and beans is a carpet of big broad squash leaves that intercept the light that falls among the pillars of the corn. Their layered spacing uses the light, a gift from the sun, efficiently, with no waste. The organic symmetry of forms belongs together; the placement of every leave, the harmony of shapes speak their message. Respect one another, support one another, bring your gift to the world and receive the gifts of others and there will be enough for all.
This book would make a perfect gift to new parents, because its vision is so generative, so teeming with growth and with insight into the cycles of life. I like to imagine reading it by morning light, while a baby takes its first nap of the day.
Braiding Sweetgrass is published by Milkweed Editions, a non-profit independent publisher in Minneapolis that has just celebrated its fortieth anniversary. The story of this book is also a story of reciprocity, because its extraordinary success—well over 300,000 copies sold, and counting—has allowed Milkweed to invest in a range of important new books, including the recently published World of Wonders by Aimee Nezhukumatathil and Northern Light by Kazim Ali. Braiding Sweetgrass is a reminder to seek out books from small independent publishers, which are such important members of the publishing ecosystem.
As part of their anniversary celebration, Milkweed has released a special clothbound edition of Braiding Sweetgrass. One option is to purchase that edition online from Birch Bark Books in Minneapolis, a bookstore owned by the writer Louise Erdrich. It may not surprise you to know that I have a Bookstore Bucket List for the Covid Aftertimes, and Birch Bark Books is definitely on it. Not only does the store have a birch bark canoe hanging from the ceiling, but also—and according to their website:
We have our own personal confessional, rescued from its fate as a sound booth in a bar. One side is dedicated to Cleanliness, the other to Godliness. The confessional is now a forgiveness booth, there for the dispensation of random absolution. Come visit and take advantage of this unusual bookstore offering!
Who among us could not benefit from a little random absolution? I like to think that Robin Wall Kimmerer, with her profound generosity of spirit, would approve.
Speaking of generosity of spirit, I want to thank, my daughter, Grace Panetta, who gave me my copy of Braiding Sweetgrass for Christmas! Thank you, Sweetie!
Poem of the week
Many gifted Native American poets are currently writing and publishing. This week I’m sharing a poem by our Poet Laureate Joy Harjo, Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings. Here is the final section:
6. AND, USE WHAT YOU LEARN TO RESOLVE YOUR OWN CONFLICTS AND TO MEDIATE OTHERS' CONFLICTS:
When we made it back home, back over those curved roads
that wind through the city of peace, we stopped at the
doorway of dusk as it opened to our homelands.
We gave thanks for the story, for all parts of the story
because it was by the light of those challenges we knew
We asked for forgiveness.
We laid down our burdens next to each other.
For your eyes and ears
I am fascinated by the myriad connections that fiber artists weave between humans and the plant kingdom. An upcoming group exhibition at Fruitlands Museum in Harvard, Massachusetts is called Piecework: Resistance and Healing in Contemporary Fiber Art. On view will be one of the splendid Broken Treaty Quilts by Gina Adams, who is a descendant of both Indigenous (Ojibwe) and colonial Americans.
And here is a treasure: an ash and sweetgrass basket woven by Passamaquoddy artist Kenny Keezer.
For your calendar
For your reading radar
Milkweed Editions has just published Northern Light: Power, Land and the Memory of Water by poet and essayist Kazim Ali, Professor of Literature and Writing at the University of California San Diego. Ali, the son of South Asian migrants, spent part of his childhood in small towns in Manitoba, Canada. He returns there to learn of the efforts of Indigenous communities to hold accountable the builders of a destructive dam.
Have a good weekend and be sure to get outside if you can. xoxo