The Artifact of Connection in Robin Wall Kimmerer's “Braiding Sweetgrass”

by Alli Lindquist

Robin Wall Kimmerer paints scientific knowledge as an artifact of connection. Her scientific experiences as a field biologist and botanist are woven fervidly into her emotional invocation for healing. Braiding Sweetgrass is an engaging read that captures the reader’s attention with vivid stories of lab science, student interactions, childhood experiences, and a discerning voice. Kimmerer frames the story around her indigenous roots, creating an arch of propagation that illustrates a passion for the interdependence of land and person that I have never experienced before. In the Anishinabekwe tradition, sweetgrass is seen as one of the first to grow on earth and is thus one of four sacred plants. Within the first chapters, she is already challenging our understanding of the natural world and replacing this idea with a history of connection and reflection. This is something that many of us who are not part of such an indigenous community have experienced before. I think the poignancy of Braiding Sweetgrass comes from its accessibility. I do not have to be an expert in indigenous culture, ecological biology, or human psychology to be drawn into the stories and open to receiving the wisdom Kimmerer reveals.

Four years into a Neuroscience degree, I still get intimidated with the jargon of scientific language. The Latin-derived names and the foreign experimental procedures all seem to serve as a barrier to understanding the true purpose of scientific research. Kimmerer is able to push through these barriers by tracing patterns across her life with specific scientific research experiences.

In one passage, she laments how her job as a mother and a caretaker has come to a close. After dropping her daughter off at college, she takes a kayak out into the lake. While experiencing the watery ecosystem around her, she explains the flow of oxygen through water lilies. Though originally thought to be simple diffusion, it turns out the young leaves take up oxygen that is then pushed by the larger capillary spaces in older leaves. She describes this low-pressure gradient as “one long exhalation,” of the young and the old—a call back to her daughter and their unbreakable connection. She uses the water lilies as a lesson in consolation and mutuality, breathing life from scientific understanding.

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At its most simple, she uses these connections as a way to remind the reader that scientists are people too. I think that it is this early emphasis on personal narrative that draws the reader in close enough to willingly engage with scientific concepts that might normally be seen as daunting or exhausting. She embodies the idea of photosynthesis in describing her “chlorophyll envy”—that is, wanting to be a plant so that she could do the work of the world while experiencing and being in one place. Wishing to provide for others without being forced to consume another life for fuel, she explains a scientific concept without losing the emotional and tangible humanity of her life. She continues to thread the connections between her own being and the empirically described lives of plants.

Stories of pecans, strawberries, and lichen fill the nuances of Kimmerer’s identity as a scientist, mother, educator, and activist. It becomes clear that sweetgrass is a metaphor for Kimmerer’s life view—a perspective where science and indigenous knowledge, the empirical and the spiritual, exist interwoven and interdependently. “I envision a time when the intellectual monoculture of science will be replaced with a polyculture of complementary knowledges,” she says. “And so all may be fed.”

Particularly, Kimmerer’s view of the scientist is interesting, as she gives them not the elitist lab-coat-tied purposes I have grown up with, but instead states that scientists hold the privilege of interacting more directly with nature than most people. Their close relationship with the physical gives them a unique connection with the “more-than-human” world (aka nature) through constant exposure and knowledge. In her eyes, scientific experiments framed fairly and wisely are questions asked of the earth, and the data gathered patiently and painstakingly are the earth’s raw responses.

One of Kimmerer’s grad students, Laurie, was introduced to this method when Kimmerer asked her to study the decline of the sweetgrass population. Their approach to this study came from the theoretical framework of indigenous basket makers, who thought that a certain harvesting technique (leaving the roots of the plant) created a much healthier plant population. Through months of observation, data collection, and time in the sweetgrass fields, Laurie found that the carefully harvested plots were indeed the healthiest in terms of density and propagation. Utilizing the framework of indigenous knowledge, they were able to translate the knowledge of the past into the scientific framework of the present.

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Only via a method of listening and translating knowledge from nature can an experiment be understood and analyzed fully. Choosing to lean into and understand the knowledge given to us by nature provides scientists entry into a kinship with the natural world. It is through embracing this experience that knowledge becomes significant beyond data—turning from fact to a vessel for connection and relationships. Kimmerer’s push for intimate connection in science facilitates respect for other species that can only be rivaled by that of sacred indigenous practices: ones where we ask permission of plants to harvest them, of leaving gifts of tobacco leaves for the plants, of restoring reverence to scientific inquiry.

Formulation of an active relationship with nature allows scientists to approach their experiments differently, sharing results with awe and humility at what nature has revealed to us. Educating others about the earth by increasing scientific knowledge is how Kimmerer argues we are able to give back to the earth. Expressing gratitude for the gifts the earth has given to humans can be as basic as allowing the emotions of awe and connectedness to seep back into scientific research, thus allowing scientists to become messengers for nature. Even if this shift in perception of the natural world does not fix the issues in our ecological systems, teaching others to see science through the lens of connection will allow for the growth of a generation much more in tune with the pathos of human connection.

After reading this book, I am convinced that sharing and teaching science about the natural world is the fiercest defense of the earth I can pursue. It gives scientists, as well as all humans, a goal—to train us to cultivate respect and reverence for the knowledge we receive.

Alli Lindquist is a Staff Writer from Colorado. She currently attends Hope College.