Lifelong Learning

The Green Earth Book Club

This book club features both fiction and non-fiction reads that focus on environmental issues.

Book cover of Braiding Sweetgrass.

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

Author: Robin Wall Kimmerer

Chosen by: Miro Kummel and Corina McKendry of the CC Environmental Studies Department

Summary: As a botanist and professor of plant ecology, Robin Wall Kimmerer has spent a career learning how to ask questions of nature using the tools of science. As a Potawatomi woman, she learned from elders, family, and history that the Potawatomi, as well as a majority of other cultures indigenous to this land, consider plants and animals to be our oldest teachers.

In Braiding Sweetgrass, Kimmerer brings these two lenses of knowing together to reveal what it means to see humans as “the younger brothers of creation”. As she explores these themes, she circles toward a central argument: The awakening of a wider ecological consciousness requires the acknowledgement and celebration of our reciprocal relationship with the world. Once we begin to listen for the languages of other beings, we can begin to understand the innumerable life-giving gifts the world provides us and learn to offer our thanks, our care, and our own gifts in return.

Discussion Questions

  1. The “Gift of Strawberries” introduces the reader to the concept of “the essence of a gift economy is, at its root, reciprocity.” How can “the relationship of gratitude and reciprocity that has been developed increase the evolutionary fitness of both plant and animal” from your perspective?
  2. “Learning the Grammar of Animacy” introduces the concept of communing with nature by getting to know more about plants and recognizing that they are not inanimate objects. If you addressed the plants in your neighborhood as something other than “it,” would that change your relationship to the environment? How?
  3. In the story “Maple Sugar Moon,” Nanabozho finds that people have grown lazy due to the bounty of the first Maple trees. Nanabozho removes this culture of plenty by diluting the sap and teaching the people to honor and respect the gift of the Maple tree. Can you draw any parallels from this story and our consumer-driven economy?
  4. In “Allegiance to Gratitude,” Kimmerer introduces the Thanksgiving Address used
  5. by the indigenous peoples to give thanks to the land. She writes that “it is the credo for a culture of gratitude.” How does the Thanksgiving Address support the concept of “our mutual allegiance as human delegates to the democracy of the species”? What does that mean to you?
  6. In “Putting Down Roots,” Kimmerer writes, “Losing a plant can threaten a culture in much the same way as losing a language.” Discuss the sweetgrass’s decline, which Kimmerer outlines in this chapter. How can plants repeat the history of their people?
  7. Based upon the central themes in Braiding Sweetgrass, explain the differences between reciprocity and the current ecological movement known as sustainability. Can you think of other authors, activists, or artists working to achieve Kimmerer’s idea of reciprocity?
  8. Since Braiding Sweetgrass was released in paperback in 2014, artists of all disciplines have been inspired by and created work in honor of Kimmerer’s book. Visual artist Jenny Holzer projected dozens of quotes from the book on the buildings of Glasgow during the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, including “Our leaders willfully ignore the wisdom and the models of every other species on the planet – except of course those that have gone extinct” and “Climate change will unequivocally defeat economies that are based on constant taking without giving in return.” Videographer Phoebe Mussman created a short film entitled “I Must Return the Gift” with The Resilient Activist using excerpts as an immersive entryway into indigenous wisdom and resilience. Share an idea for an art project grounded in Kimmerer’s ideas of reciprocity, attention, and reconnection to the land that you would like to create.