Braiding Sweetgrass

by

Robin Wall Kimmerer

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Braiding Sweetgrass: Chapter 13 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Kimmerer describes the sounds of the plants in a growing garden, particularly corn, beans, and pumpkins. She muses on how these plants teach without using words, but rather through their every movement and the gifts that they provide. She remembers a Cherokee writer once gifting her with three seeds: the “Three Sisters,” corn, beans, and squash. These three plants can teach us valuable lessons about how to live, Kimmerer declares.
Kimmerer continues her pattern of using a moment of personally experiencing nature to open up a broader discussion. Most of the book’s chapters also revolve around a certain type of plant, in this case the Three Sisters, ancient staple crops domesticated by Indigenous Americans thousands of years ago and considered sacred.
Themes
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Motherhood and Teaching Theme Icon
The Indigenous Past and Future Theme Icon
For thousands of years, Indigenous Americans have planted the Three Sisters together. The European colonists scorned this method upon seeing it, assuming that a productive garden meant uniform rows of crops. At the same time, they couldn’t deny how much food the Indigenous gardens produced.
The original colonizers thought that Three Sisters gardens were primitive and inefficient, just as current industrial agriculture privileges monocrops that offer immediate profits over more complex agricultural systems that are sustainable in the long-term. Kimmerer again tries to present an alternate worldview, one that is tried and tested over millennia—essentially, through the science of trial and error that is passed down as traditional wisdom.
Themes
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The Indigenous Past and Future Theme Icon
Kimmerer describes the scientific processes of how these three plants first germinate and sprout: the corn shoots up quickly while the bean plant secures its roots first, and the squash takes its time to germinate. As the corn grows straight and tall, the bean makes a few leaves and then becomes a vine, seeking a support to climb. It latches onto the corn, which is already strong enough to support it, and they grow together. Meanwhile the squash spreads over the ground around them, keeping away pests with its bristly leaves and stems. These are the Three Sisters, and there are many stories of their origins as actual mythical women coming to feed the hungry people in winter.
Again Kimmerer braids her narrative with both scientific information and traditional wisdom, trying to paint a fuller picture of the world just as the Three Sisters braid themselves together to support each other. It is possible to see these plants as simply acting out their evolutionary roles and trying to maximize their own benefits, and at the same time to see them as beings with intelligence and purpose of their own who might choose to work together and to provide for the people who care for them.
Themes
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Indigenous Wisdom and Scientific Knowledge Theme Icon
Animacy and Value Theme Icon
A Three Sisters garden emphasizes the “lessons of reciprocity,” Kimmerer claims, as the three plants flourish together better than they might apart, each finding its own niche to best receive sunlight and nutrients and protect itself and its neighbors. The Sisters give their gifts to each other and support each other, and the result is a plentiful harvest. Per acre, Kimmerer says, “a Three Sisters garden yields more food than if you grew each of the sisters alone.”
This passage distills the lesson of the chapter and one of the book’s main themes: reciprocity, rather than competition, leads to mutual flourishing.
Themes
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Examining the plants again, Kimmerer describes them as if they were the kinds of human sisters that are familiar to her. Corn is the firstborn who is straightforward and direct, while the bean sister learns to be more flexible. The baby squash sister has no expectations placed upon her and so chooses her own path for the good of the other two. It also might seem like the bean plant takes more than it gives, but this isn’t the case, Kimmerer claims: the bean’s roots not only share water with the roots of the other plants, but also nitrogen. A bean plant can convert nitrogen from the atmosphere into fertilizer that all three of the Sisters can use, via a symbiotic bacteria called Rhizobium, which hides itself in the bean’s roots.
Anthropomorphizing plants is considered taboo in scientific literature, but Kimmerer is interested in moving beyond mere data and instead deriving real wisdom from fellow citizens of the land. Again note the importance of reciprocity and symbiosis to benefit the organisms involved. Even as there is the obvious reciprocity happening above ground, scientific study has allowed us to see that there is even more happening through the roots of these plants—thus further supporting the traditional idea of the Three Sisters and their ability to mutually flourish through communal generosity.
Themes
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Indigenous Wisdom and Scientific Knowledge Theme Icon
Gifts, Gratitude, and Responsibility Theme Icon
Animacy and Value Theme Icon
Kimmerer finds it tempting to say that the Three Sisters work together deliberately, and she won’t rule out this possibility. What she is sure of, though, is that they are a reminder of the value of both reciprocity and individuality. Each Sister has her own unique gift, but it’s only when she shares it with the other two that all three best flourish.
Kimmerer acknowledges that she is anthropomorphizing these plants to some degree, but even apart from that, she still sees them as teachers about the value of reciprocity.
Themes
Reciprocity and Communalism Theme Icon
Gifts, Gratitude, and Responsibility Theme Icon
Motherhood and Teaching Theme Icon
Animacy and Value Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Kimmerer teaches a General Biology class, and she says that for years she could not pass on her own enthusiasm for plants to her students. One day she asks if any of them have ever grown anything of their own, and only a few raise their hands. She then realizes that they needed a new teacher: not her, but the plants themselves.
Kimmerer learns and relearns this lesson several times throughout the book, as she finds herself trying too hard to teach her students something that they can only learn through their own direct experience with plants and the land.
Themes
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Motherhood and Teaching Theme Icon
Now Robin begins the same class in a garden, studying the Three Sisters in person. One of her students, an artist, points out the harmonious composition of the three in terms of “unity, balance, color.” To another student, one who is avoiding any dirt, Robin explains how the squash fruits come from flowers, and how they are technically ovaries. The student is disgusted at first, but others are drawn in by the “earthy sexuality” of the garden.
Robin now tries to work with the plants as if they were her fellow teachers. The artistic student commenting on the Sisters’ composition and the student repulsed by their sexuality highlight the lesson that plants (like other living things) cannot be fully known through science alone, but also through other ways of seeing like art.
Themes
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Kimmerer now describes the parts of a corncob, and how each kernel must be fertilized in order to properly ripen, making the corncob “the mother of hundreds.” Beans also grow like “babies in the womb,” each bean nurtured by the mother plant. These plants are also like mothers in the way that they feed and nurture us, Kimmerer says.
Kimmerer once again connects the theme of teaching to motherhood. The plants are mothers within themselves, and also act as mothers to human beings in the way that they provide for us.
Themes
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In August, Robin holds a Three Sisters potluck for her friends and family. Everyone brings traditional dishes made from the Sisters, and as part of the event they all visit the garden together to gather more of the vegetables at their freshest, emphasizing the plenitude that the Sisters provide. The Sisters also taste good together and each provides valuable nutrition that the others lack, Kimmerer says. A person could not survive on any one of them alone, but together they provide a balanced diet.
This section continues the theme of flourishing as a community effort rather than a competition between individuals, on the nutritional level as well as in the growth of the plants themselves. In ancient times and during any period of great scarcity, receiving complete proteins and adequate nutrition is crucial for survival, so the Three Sisters truly kept alive the people who needed them most.
Themes
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Gifts, Gratitude, and Responsibility Theme Icon
The Indigenous Past and Future Theme Icon
Eating dessert at the potluck, Robin observes some nearby fields of corn, all planted in straight rows for maximum efficiency and convenience. The Indigenous practice is to plant gardens to fit the land, while modern agriculture modifies the land to best support its “frighteningly similar clones” of plants. The corn plants in these monocrop fields don’t feel like “sisters,” but more like lonely and anonymous faces lost in a crowd. Furthermore, the lack of diversity in these fields encourages pest outbreaks, which then encourages the use of more pesticides.
Robin has tried to find the animacy in all living things and has thought of the corn of the Three Sisters as a literal sister, but this industrial corn seems lifeless. It has always been a commodity, never a gift, and so it lacks the animacy of a gift that leads to a relationship and future generosity. Further, although this practice of monocrop agriculture leads to more immediate gains, it also causes many long-term issues like the need for pesticides.
Themes
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Indigenous Wisdom and Scientific Knowledge Theme Icon
Animacy and Value Theme Icon
The Indigenous Past and Future Theme Icon
The Three Sisters can also act as a metaphor for “an emerging relationship between Indigenous knowledge and Western science, both of which are rooted in the earth,” Kimmerer claims. She sees corn as Indigenous wisdom guiding the curious bean of science, while the squash nourishes an open habitat for both to flourish. In such a relationship, “all may be fed.”
Kimmerer carries on the metaphor of the Three Sisters’ system of reciprocity, itself rooted in scientific fact, to show how science and Indigenous wisdom can work together to improve our world.
Themes
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Related Quotes
There is ultimately a fourth Sister as well, Kimmerer says: the planter who sows the seeds, waters them, protects them, and harvests them. “We are part of the reciprocity” between the Three Sisters, as we offer our own gifts to them and in exchange receive gifts in return. Kimmerer has had many teachers in her life, she says, but she values her plant teachers as much as any human ones, especially the Three Sisters and their lesson of mutual flourishing.
This chapter concludes as a neat metaphor for the themes of reciprocity, gifts, and gratitude. The Three Sisters live in reciprocity with each other but also with us, and we all benefit from this communal arrangement. The conclusion highlights once more the idea that all true flourishing is mutual: the gift is not to be exclusively possessed, but if shared it will grow.
Themes
Reciprocity and Communalism Theme Icon
Gifts, Gratitude, and Responsibility Theme Icon
Motherhood and Teaching Theme Icon
Animacy and Value Theme Icon