Tending Sweetgrass Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on March 23, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 980

Maple Sugar Moon

Kimmerer recounts the myth of Nanabozho, the Anishinaabe Original Man, who walked through the world judging whether his fellow men were living according to the Original Instructions. After walking far and wide, Nanabozho came across a village in complete disarray. The people were not tending to their responsibilities as citizens of the earth but rather lay all day beneath the maple trees, letting the thick syrup slowly drip into their mouth. Due to the abundance of sweet syrup, the people of the village had become lazy and had begun to take for granted the gifts of the Creator. In response, Nanabozho poured water in the maple trees to dilute the sap so that forty gallons of sap will only yield a gallon of syrup.

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Witch Hazel

This chapter is told from the perspective not of Kimmerer, but of her daughter. It recounts her daughter’s experience with their neighbour Hazel, who lived with her disabled children Sam and Janie. Hazel had originally lived in a farmhouse in Jessamine County, Kentucky, but had left suddenly when Sam had a heart attack on Christmas Eve. On that day, Hazel moved in with her son to care for him; with no car or mode of transport, her house had stood abandoned ever since. The chapter then centers around Kimmerer’s daughter's recollection of a Christmas when her family worked to clean Hazel’s old house and restore it to its former glory for one last Christmas dinner.

A Mother’s Work

In this chapter, Kimmerer narrates her struggle to be a “good mother” while raising her two daughters as a single mother. Unable to control so much in their lives, Kimmerer fixated on a tangible wish list her daughters had created for their new home: “trees big enough for tree forts . . . a stone walk lined with pansies . . . a red barn; a pond to swim in; [and] a purple bedroom.” Methodically, Kimmerer worked through the list in her quest to provide the perfect childhood for her daughters and was successful in all items but one, a swimmable pond.

Through this anecdote, Kimmerer explores the innate human desire to reconstruct an ecosystem on a microcosmic level as she attempts to alter the pond to make it swimmable for her daughters. In this chapter, Kimmerer also reflects on the nature of motherhood. The progression of motherhood continues long after one’s children are grown; a woman’s circle of motherhood simply grows until it encapsulates her extended family, her wider community, and finally all of creation.

The Consolation of Water Lilies

This chapter focuses on the pain Kimmerer experienced as her daughters transitioned from their place at home to embracing the wider world as they moved away from home to college. After settling her younger daughter, Larkin, into her dorm room, Kimmerer drove herself to Labrador Pond and kayaked through the pond past groves of water lilies. She then studies the example of water lilies, whose old leaves help the young budding leaves to grow. In turn, the old leaves are supported by the flow of oxygen that is passed along by these new, dense leaves. 

Kimmerer posits that this reciprocal biological relationship modeled by the water lily reflects our own human relationships, both with each other and with the earth. A good mother will rear her child with love and inevitably her child will return with her own loving gifts.

Allegiance to Gratitude

In this chapter, Kimmerer recounts the Thanksgiving Address as recorded by John Stokes and Kanawahientun in 1993. In the Onondaga language, the Thanksgiving Address is known as the Words That Come Before All Else, demonstrating how the Indigenous peoples prioritized gratitude before all else. Although the exact wording of the Thanksgiving Address varies from speaker to speaker, the Address is structured so that the speakers first greet and then express their gratitude towards all members of nature in a specific order. First, they “give greetings and thanks to each other as People”, then to Mother Earth, the Water, the Fish, the Plants, the Berries (of whom Strawberry is acknowledged as leader), the Food Plants (especially the Three Sisters), the Medicine Herbs, the Trees (of whom Maple is acknowledged as leader), the Animals, the Birds, the Four Winds, the Thunder Beings, our eldest brother the Sun, our Grandmother the Moon, the Stars, the Teachers, and finally the Creator, or Great Spirit.

Analysis

As the title of the section implies, “Tending Sweetgrass” explores the theme of stewardship, the thoughtful nurturing of one’s relationship with one’s environment. This theme is explored through Indigenous stories, personal recollections, and meditations on motherhood.

Through the parable recounted in the chapter “Maple Sugar Moon,” it becomes clear that although the earth gives humans great gifts, these gifts alone will not be enough to sustain us: “The responsibility does not lie with the maples alone.” Humans are a necessary part of the ecosystem and it is only humans’ interception—and conscious gratitude—that can transform the maple’s sap into syrup. 

As Kimmerer explores in “Witch Hazel,” witch hazels are flowers that bloom in November, a splash of bright colour and beauty in the bleakness of late autumn. Because of their unseasonable beauty, witch hazels remind people that beauty and joy can be found even in the darkest months of the year, as long as one is adept enough to perceive it. This makes the flower the perfect allegory for Christmas celebrations; indeed, they have created joy both for Hazel and for Kimmerer, who was separated from many of her friends and family at the time.

Finally, in the chapter “Allegiance to Gratitude,” Kimmerer contrasts the gratitude inherent within the Thanksgiving Address with the Pledge of Allegiance, implying how much better the world might be if Americans began their days with an allegiance to the earth rather than an allegiance to one’s nation and state.

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