Unbraiding Sweetgrass

A Rocky Start

I’ll be honest. When I read Braiding Sweetgrass by bryologist Robin Wall Kimmerer for the first time, I wasn’t impressed. The introduction had said the book was going to braid Indigenous and Western wisdom together in the service of a more ecologically oriented culture and relationship to earth. Kimmerer is a botanist and a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation who is trying to re-learn her language and cultural knowledge. Rather, what I read in the first chapter felt like a polemic against the entire Western tradition embodied in the creation myth of the Abrahamic religions.  

For Kimmerer, both her own and the Abrahamic creation stories involve the planting of a garden. In one, the earthlings are exiled from the garden and in the other, Skywoman descends from on high to plant it. Despite the complexity and multiple versions of the creation story, Kimmerer clearly elevates her own as a parable of ecological care and gift giving. She then simplistically contrasts this with the biblical myth. She writes:

On one side of the world were people whose relationship with the living world was shaped by Skywoman, who created a garden for the well-being of all. On the other side was another woman with a garden and a tree. But for taking its fruit, she was banished from the garden and the gates clanged shut behind her. That mother of men was made to wander in the wilderness and earn her bread by the sweat of her brow, not by filling her mouth with the juicy fruits that bend the branches low. In order to eat, she was instructed to subdue the wilderness into which she was cast (6-7).

So much for braiding. Instead, this felt more like the drawing of a line in the sand.

In Kimmerer’s telling, we meet Skywoman as she is already falling to earth with a small bundle of seeds. The animals below rescue her. Her fall is broken by the Geese. Muskrat sacrifices himself to bring earth to the surface so that she might have a place to stand on the self-giving back of Turtle. The earth-dappled shell expands, and Skywoman goes to work seeding the new world with plants.

Kimmerer does not mention however, how Skywoman fell from the sky. There are of course many widely available versions of the Skywoman creation story. She is a member of the Sky people, who inhabit a land in the sky. In most, she is pregnant. In one Iroquois telling, Skywoman is sent by the Sky Father through a hole at the base of the Tree of Life; in another she is pushed through the hole, which was made when her enraged husband knocked down the Tree of Life. In Haudenosaunee and Mohawk tellings of the story, either Skywoman or her husband are greedily digging at the root of a sacred tree in order to make tea from it, a hole opens in the sky and Skywoman is alternately pushed, falls or jumps through.

Kimmerer suggests that at the heart of our destructive ecocidal culture is a myth about shame, fear and exile. A story about the fall from grace. A story of the denial of earthly gifts. Adam and Eve are exiled from the garden for disobedience and then commanded to subdue the earth. However, as different as the two stories seem from Kimmerer’s telling, her story is the one that actually involves a literal fall. Skywoman begins as an exile and becomes native to earth. Adam and Even begin as native to earth and become exiles. In both cases, humans are not entirely at home in the earth. And yet, Adam and Eve were fashioned from the very flesh of Mother Earth herself. Adama literally means earth in Hebrew, and Chavah, Eve,means to give life. They are earthlings, not celestial sky beings.

While Genesis 1 contains an admonition to exert dominion over the earth as a just ruler might, Genesis 2 commands them to dress and keep the garden in a way that is absolutely harmonious with Kimmerer’s continual theme throughout the book of the fact that the vocation of humans is as gardeners. Yes the Genesis creation story has been used to justify destruction in the name of human supremacy; but it does not compel that destruction, which is rooted in the dark shadowy vices of greed, selfishness and lust, that were ignited by the Enlightenment and industrial revolution from the fuel of Greco-Roman Christian civilization. These same vices we are told, are later embodied in one of the twin sons birthed by Skywoman after her arrival on earth. So the motif of exile and return in Genesis, of dominion and tending, is mirrored by the motif of light and dark, generosity and greed in Kimmerer’s Skywoman.  

I also like to point out that Indigenous myths and stories are not immune from anthropocentrism, sexism and even racist elements. One Potawatomi creation story speaks of Earthmaker making people by baking them out of clay. ‘White’ people turned out to be undercooked, ‘black’ people were overcooked, and ‘red’ people were apparently cooked just right![1] But this of course does not mean that Indigenous peoples are therefore constrained by these singular elements for all time and eternity. They do not diagnose some deep rupture in their very existence as Kimmerer seems to suggest of the Abrahamic myth to Western civilization. By telling the story the way she does, Kimmerer sets up a binary between modern and Indigenous that she has just professed to want to blur.

The Break Through of Grace

In Kimmerer’s chapter ‘Witch Hazel’, I wept. This story from Kimmerer’s own life felt like the most beautiful of braids. While living and teaching in rural Kentucky, Kimmerer befriended her elderly Christian neighbor, Hazel. Told in the voice of Kimmerer’s daughter, despite their differences, Kimmerer and Hazel eventually connect over gardening and become close.

Hazel, a settler with deeper roots than Kimmerer in Kentucky, had cultivated her own sense of place and had accrued her own ecological knowledge—often by gardening in her slippers. Hazel had formed a deep connection to witch hazel, a native tree with myriad health benefits. Her simple theology came from her connection to place,

That witch hazel…it’s not just good for you outside, but inside too. Land sakes, flowers in November. The good Lord gave us witch hazel to remind us that there’s always somethin’ good even when it seems like there ain’t. It just lightens your heavy heart, is what it does ().

I pictured Hazel was an elderly and tired Eve, exiled from her childhood home-garden, longing to return. Her Adam is long gone, and her son Sam is now a retired coal miner, disabled by breathing the toxic dust of the substance that powers Western civilization—coal. He worked by the sweat of his brow to get ahead, to make a life for his family, only to remain in relative poverty, unable to work. His offering was accepted by the god of capitalism. Hazel had come to live with her son after he had a heart attack on Christmas Eve, a holy-day that Hazel loved.

Kimmerer felt to me like a stand in for Skywoman, though I don’t imagine she intended this, who is able to reconcile the feud she started with Eve in Chapter 1. Kimmerer is able to see that even in exile, Eve was a loving and kind human being who had stayed close to her dear Mother Earth, despite the hardships of her life, and the necessities of her friends and family working in an industry that has taken Genesis 1’s dominion to the most radical extreme in human history. At one point, Kimmerer takes Hazel to her former home, a place she deeply missed living with Sam. It was mostly ramshackle, and they spent a little time tidying up before leaving. Hazel had left the place almost as it was the Christmas Eve she went to live with her son.

As time passed, Kimmerer noticed that Hazel was depressed. When she asked, Hazel admitted that she wanted to spend one more Christmas in her “dear old home.” Kimmerer too had come to cherish and celebrate Christmas, but that year she were not going north to spend time with family. So Kimmerer with her daughters devoted hours to secretly cleaning up Hazel’s old home, getting the electricity turned back on and inviting neighbors to a beautiful surprise Christmas dinner. Like the 1987 film ‘Babette’s Feast’, where Babette, a French refugee in a strict Christian Reformed Danish town, wins a large sum of money in the lottery only to spend it on a sumptuous multiple course meal for the small village. Like Babette, Kimmerer prepared a sumptuous Christmas dinner for Hazel who beams with joy on entering her cherished home which has been decorated and filled with friends.

Eve-Hazel, filled with joy, had returned to the garden from her long exile. She is showered with the undeserved, unexpected grace at the heart of her faith, who Kimmerer, an Indigenous woman, quite naturally embodied through her kind, selfless action. It is a perfect parable of both Christian virtue and the abundance of earthly gifts which Kimmerer highlights throughout her book. Grace, like the gifts of the earth, is generous and beautiful. Grace calls us into deeper relationship with its source and entangles us with the world in a never ending cycle of life, death, and resurrection. That is the seasonal cycle at the heart of Kimmerer’s gift economy, and it is also at the core of the Christian Pascal Mystery. So even when our stories open up pathways to greed and exploitation, as many do, there is always the possibility of choosing grace instead. As Kimmerer later says to her daughter, “There is no hurt that can’t be healed by love.” This felt like a good braid.


[1] http://railsback.org/CS/CSPotawatomi.html