Braiding Sweetgrass

by Robin Wall Kimmerer

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Last Updated on March 23, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 893

Kimmerer focuses on the power of storytelling to shape humanity’s understanding of its place in the world, for good or ill. In the first chapter of Braiding Sweetgrass, “Skywoman Falling,” Kimmerer recounts the Anishinaabe creation story, which has been passed down the generations through oral tradition. The story tells us that the first human falls from a hole in the sky and is caught by a flock of geese, who hold Skywoman aloft on their soft wings. When the geese can hold her no longer, Turtle offers up his back for Skywoman to stand upon. All the animals of the sea take turns attempting to bring up mud from the bottom of the ocean to create a more permanent place for Skywoman. Loon, Otter, Beaver, and Sturgeon all try, but only the little Muskrat is successful, although he has to give his own life in the process.

Skywoman spreads the mud which Muskrat gathered on the shell of Turtle and begins to dance in gratitude for Muskrat’s sacrifice. As she dances, the mud grows and grows until it forms the land known today as Turtle Island. Once the land has been created, Skywoman reveals her own bundle of gifts in return for the animals’ generosity, and she plants the seeds of many botanical species so that the animals will have plenty to eat, with some animals even choosing to leave the water and stay with Skywoman on the land. Kimmerer contrasts the Anishinaabe creation myth with the Western Christian creation myth of Eve, wherein Eve is banished to the earth by God after taking a bite from the apple of knowledge.

Storytelling is the primary way humans understand the world, and Kimmerer stresses the subconscious effects these creation myths have on humanity’s relationship to the earth by comparing the Skywoman myth with that of Adam and Eve. When Skywoman falls to the earth, she is welcomed and willingly aided by the animals, who show compassion for her plight. Touched by their generosity, Skywoman returns their gifts in kind, creating the model for a reciprocal relationship with the earth and its nonhuman inhabitants. By contrast, Adam and Eve are banished to a barren, hostile earth that is juxtaposed with the effortless plenty they initially experience in the Garden of Eden. Due to Eve’s original sin, mankind is cursed to toil on the earth to produce food, and it is only after death that their spirits may eventually return to Heaven.

In her analysis, Kimmerer reveals how these creation myths have informed their respective societies’ relationships with the earth. In Indigenous culture, the fruits of Mother Earth are seen as gifts that are freely given but which also entail an implicit responsibility for reciprocity. Indeed, Skywoman reciprocates the generosity of the animals with her own gifts. The myth also frames humanity as a crucial part of the natural ecosystem; humans are active participants in the cycle of life, death, and reproduction. Another important aspect of the myth is the portrayal of plants and animals as humanity’s equals, citizens of the world who came before humans and who ought to be respected as teachers and gift-givers in their own right. 

In contrast, the myth of Adam and Eve treats humanity’s arrival on earth as a punishment. Nature does not provide humans with all they need to sustain themselves; rather, it must be worked and molded with physical labor to even dimly resemble the plenty that Adam and Eve experienced in the Garden of Eden. Not only is the earth portrayed as a hostile and desolate landscape, it is also crucially depicted as a temporary layover that must be endured until the soul can ascend to Heaven. By separating the earthly from the divine, Christianity subconsciously encourages people to believe they are superior to animals and plants and all nonhuman species. They are all of the corporeal realm, whereas humanity has been invested with a spark of the divine that can only reconnect with its true element once it frees itself from the physical realm.

In this way, Kimmerer demonstrates that storytelling lies at the heart of humanity’s current climate crisis. Although science has divested itself of any religious trappings, the conviction that humans evolved beyond other species in their intellect allows science to perpetuate a sense of superiority grounded in humanity’s supposedly divine ancestry. It is this superiority that enables people to take recklessly from the earth without heed for how their actions may impede the lives of other species. Thus, in order to avert the course of climate change, scientific research unaided by a greater cultural shift will never be enough to save the planet.

Science has given us the tools to restore ecosystems once thought irreparably damaged by human greed, but simply repairing the damage will not prevent humanity from continuing to take from the earth. Through Braiding Sweetgrass, Kimmerer hopes to reframe public discourse around climate change by focusing on the spiritual and philosophical origins of the problem rather than fixating on solutions. To save our planet, humans must first rediscover a gratitude for the earth and foster a relationship with the earth defined by respect and reciprocity. It is only then, when humanity fully values Mother Earth and all nonhuman beings, that people will be able to employ long-lasting, sustainable solutions to climate change.

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