Preface and Planting Sweetgrass Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on March 23, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1137

Preface

Kimmerer opens her preface in the second person with an invocation for the reader to hold out their hands and let her place upon them “a sheaf of freshly picked sweetgrass, loose and flowing, like newly washed hair.” This direct address and immersive description of the sweetgrass is employed to draw the reader into a personal involvement with the narrative. Thus, Kimmerer immediately differentiates her text from the many volumes of ecological nonfiction published before Braiding Sweetgrass. Kimmerer describes the threefold symbolism of the three-strand braid: a weaving together of “science, spirit, and story,” a combination of scientific and Indigenous ways of knowing conveyed through narrative form.

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Skywoman Falling

The opening chapter of Braiding Sweetgrass focuses on the creation story told by the original peoples of the Great Lakes. More specifically, Kimmerer discusses the story’s relationship with the earth. According to oral tradition, Skywoman was the first human to arrive on the earth, falling through a hole in the sky with a bundle clutched tightly in one hand. Sensing her danger, the geese rise up from the earth and save Skywoman, catching her with their soft feathers. However, Skywoman quickly grows too heavy for the geese to carry, so the animals hold a council to decide what to do with this strange new creature. A great turtle offers his back for Skywoman to stand upon and the water animals take turns one by one attempting to pull mud from the bottom of the ocean.

Only the little Muskrat succeeds, although he gives his life in order to do so. From the mud, Skywoman creates land, and from the bundle still clutched tightly in her hand, she creates plant life to ensure that the animals who aided her will always have plenty to eat.

The Council of Pecans

In “The Council of Pecans,” Kimmerer tells the story of her grandpa while he was a boy living in Oklahoma. By that time, Kimmerer’s ancestors had already been forcibly moved three times in a single generation along what became known as the Trail of Death. But one day, while searching for fish to bring home for dinner, Kimmerer’s grandpa stumbles upon a grove of pecan hickory trees thick with pecan nuts. This anecdote is followed by a reflection on the nature of pecans, namely the fact that they are a product of mast fruiting. This means that all hickory trees in a grove blossom at once en masse rather than following an individual schedule.

The Gift of Strawberries

Strawberries are seen by the Potawatomi people as the leader of the berries, born from the heart of Skywoman’s daughter. In this chapter, Kimmerer contrasts two stories from her childhood. The first was about the wild strawberries that she and her siblings used to gather in the fields near her home. Kimmerer highlights that these strawberries were gifts of the earth, freely given but forming a bond of reciprocity between Kimmerer and the earth. The second is the cultivated strawberries that she and her siblings used to harvest for a dime per quart at a nearby farm. 

An Offering

In this chapter, Kimmerer recalls the canoeing trips she used to take with her family during the summer holidays. Every morning, after brewing a pot of coffee, Kimmerer’s father would pour the first portion of coffee onto the earth. As he did, he would repeat the words “Here’s to the gods of Tahawus.” In recounting this humble, homemade ceremony, Kimmerer emphasizes the importance of giving thanks to nature and finding small ways to demonstrate one’s gratitude and the understanding of one’s responsibilities towards the earth.

Asters and Goldenrods

In this chapter, Kimmerer contrasts the concerns of Indigenous knowledge and scientific knowledge while recounting her own journey of becoming an ecologist. When initially asked in her college admission interview why she wanted to major in botany, Kimmerer remembers replying that she wanted to know why asters and goldenrods looked so beautiful together. Her interviewer calmly replied that question had nothing to do with science, and Kimmerer was soon indoctrinated into the objective scientific method promoted by Western tradition.

However, later in life Kimmerer realized that in order to create a full view of nature, humans need not just the narrow scientific explanation of life but also to embrace the method of traditional knowledge and thereby “understand [the world] with all four aspects of our being: mind, body, emotion and spirit.”

Learning the Grammar of Animacy

In this chapter, Kimmerer explores the grammatical differences between English and the traditional language of Potawatomi. One of the distinct elements of Potawatomi is verbs comprise seventy percent of the language, whereas verbs only represent thirty percent of the English language. Kimmerer explains that “the arrogance of English is that the only way to be animate, to be worthy of respect and moral concern, is to be human.” In Potawatomi, and Indigenous cultures more generally, all things—from trees to stones to rivers—are animate. For example, when referring to an apple, the language considers the apple a “Who” rather than a “What.”

In this way, Kimmerer demonstrates how the grammar of animacy in the English language has contributed to the Western world’s view of nature as inanimate and hence unimportant.

Analysis

The preface lays out Kimmerer’s thesis that only interweaving scientific knowledge with Indigenous ways of knowing will allow humans to truly help the distressed earth. This principle is stressed when Kimmerer asks the reader, “Will you hold the end of the bundle while I braid?” But perhaps more importantly, the preface also deliberately emphasizes the necessity for the reader to take an active role in this interweaving. 

In the chapter “Skywoman Falling,” Kimmerer takes care to point out how the Anishinaabe creation story sets a firm precedent for the relationship between humanity and the earth. Skywoman is aided by the animals of the earth, without whom she would not have survived. In turn, Skywoman creates land and food, which allow the animals to thrive. It is a relationship founded on the principle of reciprocity. 

Similarly, Kimmerer’s lesson from the pecan in the chapter “The Council of Pecans” is “that there is strength in unity, that the lone individual can be picked off as easily as the tree that has fruited out of season.” It was a divide-and-conquer method that allowed the English to cause the Indian diaspora, and it is unity of purpose that will allow for the survival of Indigenous tradition.

Through the anecdotes she recounts in “The Gift of Strawberries,” Kimmerer highlights the primary difference between a gift economy, where goods are freely given but create a reciprocal bond, and a private economy, where goods must be bought, and no bond is created between seller and buyer or the consumer and the earth.

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