Picking Sweetgrass Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on March 23, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1130

Epiphany in the Beans

In this chapter, Kimmerer explores the nature of humans’ relationship with the earth, specifically regarding mutual reciprocity and, perhaps more importantly, the exchange of love. Due to the prevailing Western portrayal of the earth and nature as inanimate objects, it is difficult for modern Americans to conceptualize an active relationship with the earth. When Kimmerer once sat in on a graduate writing workshop, she observed that all the students held a deep love and regard for the earth. But when she asked the students if they believed the earth loved them back, she was met with silence.

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However, Kimmerer notes that the earth displays many qualities of love for humanity, nurturing people’s health and wellbeing and offering a myriad of other gifts. Kimmerer demonstrates a microcosm of this love in a vegetable garden. A person does not just say “I love you” to the earth in words but also in seeds. And, as Kimmerer concludes, “the land will reciprocate, in beans”.

The Three Sisters

The Three Sisters represent the core of Indigenous agriculture and could be found across the continent from Mexico to Montana for millennia before the advent of colonization in the seventeenth century. The Three Sisters are Corn, the eldest sister; Bean, the middle sister; and Squash, the youngest sister. Myths about how the three came together vary, but every native culture views these plants as sisters, and scientific studies have shown that “acre for acre, a Three Sisters garden yields more food than if you grow each sister alone.” This is due to the reciprocal relationship between the plants. Corn grows first, straight and true, providing a stake around which Bean can wind herself, taking care to grow her leaves in the gaps between the corn leaves.

Squash grows low to the ground, minimizing weeds and creating shade in which Bean and Corn can flourish. Meanwhile, Bean captures nitrogen from the atmosphere and converts it into nutrients, which are shared with Corn and Squash through their joint root system. Through mutual reciprocity, every sister will flourish. The whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.

Wisgaak Gokpenagen: A Black Ash Basket

This chapter centers on Kimmerer’s experience learning how to weave black ash baskets from John Pigeon, a man descended from a large Potawatomi family of basket makers. Kimmerer recounts how, when weaving a basket, the first two layers of ash splints are the hardest to tackle, since there is no structure with which to bind the two splints into a larger whole. It is not until the third splint is woven into place that the unfinished baskets become stable. Every row after that is easier than the last, and the basket slowly becomes a whole thing rather than a collection of individual splints working against one another.

Mishkos Kenomagwen: The Teachings of Grass

This chapter centers around the conservation of sweetgrass and is laid out in the format of an academic article, split into an introduction, literature review, hypothesis, methods, results, conclusions, acknowledgements, and references cited. In it, Kimmerer discusses her experiences of trying to use the knowledge of basket makers, who have a deep connection to sweetgrass, to help with efforts in sweetgrass conservation. By appropriating this academic structure to discuss the legitimacy of traditional knowledge so often dismissed by Western science, Kimmerer highlights how it is only when people combine the teachings of Indigenous wisdom with the methods of Western science that they can form a complete view of the ecological world.

Maple Nation: A Citizenship Guide

In this chapter, Kimmerer once again contrasts the artificial structures of government and democracy with their ecological counterparts. Throughout Anericans’ childhood schooling, they are often taught how to be a good citizen of the nation, but they are rarely taught how to be a good citizen of Mother Earth. By refusing to acknowledge the animacy of plant life, such as the Maple, people become preoccupied with issues on either an individual or human level without extending the same amount of concern to the ecological disasters happening around them. 

The Honorable Harvest

In Indigenous tradition of the Honorable Harvest is a set of rules that govern the relationship between humanity and Mother Earth. Kimmerer outlines the precepts of the Honorable Harvest, although they are more a collection of daily principles than a strict doctrine and may shift from person to person and community to community. These precepts include adjurations to know how to take care of others; to request permission before taking things; to take only what what needs and what is given; to harvest as harmlessly as one can; to avoid wasting what one uses; to share; to reciprocate with gifts and thanks; and to sustain that which is sustaining.

Analysis

In the chapter “Wisgaak Gokpenagen: A Black Ash Basket,” Kimmerer observes how the principle of the first three rows of basket-weaving is essential in “weaving well-being for land and people.” This theory frames Mother Earth as the first row, laying down the foundation layer of ecological laws. Human beings form the second row, with human society’s own distinct needs and structures. However, with only these two rows in place, the basket will be in perpetual jeopardy of pulling itself apart. Kimmerer labels the third row, the binding row, “the spirit row” and explains that this row can take many forms. Respect, reciprocity, and gratitude all help to weave humanity and the earth together in a way that is both sustainable and beneficial.

Another chapter that emphasizes the necessity of humanity in the world’s larger ecology is “Mishkos Kenomagwen: The Teachings of Grass.” The original scientific hypothesis for why sweetgrass was disappearing in record numbers from its traditional habitat was human interference, specifically through overharvesting. This fits into the Western conception that humans live outside and above the natural order and that the best way to rehabilitate a species is to protect it from human intervention. Nevertheless, when Kimmerer and her collaborator, Laurie, ran scientific experiments into the cause of sweetgrass’s depopulation, they found that sweetgrass flourished around Native communities, particularly those with a strong tradition of basket-weaving. In this way, the chapter draws attention to the fact that picking sweetgrass stimulates growth and that the cause of its disappearance was actually under-harvesting, a fact that reinforces the necessity of a reciprocal relationship between humanity and the earth.

Finally, in “The Honorable Harvest,” Kimmerer points out how the Western economy is structured in such a way that people become disconnected from the origin of the goods they consume. Due to this disconnect, people also become disconnected from the principles of the Honorable Harvest, and it is this philosophical dissonance between the goods consumed and the earth from which they were taken that allow hyper-consumerist cultures to develop.

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