Braiding Sweetgrass

by

Robin Wall Kimmerer

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on Braiding Sweetgrass can help.

Braiding Sweetgrass: Chapter 16 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
In Kimmerer’s small, close community in upstate New York, there is only one gas station, which acts as a gathering place and trading post. It is almost spring, “sugaring season,” when maple syrup is harvested—and also tax season, so people at the gas station discuss both topics. Robin listens to a local man banter with his former teacher, complaining about taxes. The teacher, who is now a town official, has no patience for his griping and tells him to “show up to a damn meeting.”
This chapter returns to the territory of “Allegiance to Gratitude,” as Kimmerer considers citizenship to something other than a manmade government. The natural rhythm of the sap is somewhat humorously contrasted with the unnatural yet seemingly inevitable tax season.
Themes
Motherhood and Teaching Theme Icon
The new moon at this time of year marks the start of the Anishinaabe new year: the Maple Sugar Moon, when nature starts to awaken from the slumber of winter. Robin receives her census form at this time as well, and considers how the maple trees outnumber people in this region. She has seen a map of the country that divides the land into bioregions rather than state boundaries, and the Northeast would be “Maple Nation,” she thinks. Kimmerer considers what it would mean to be a citizen of Maple Nation: what kind of taxes would we be expected to pay? Even though the maples themselves aren’t on the census form, they have still been contributing to their community all year long, offering their wood as building materials, their shade to keep people cool, and their sap for syrup.
Considering the animacy and value of all living things leads to different perspectives on things like nations, taxes, and citizenship. If the maples were counted on the census, then they might have a say in how their community is run, especially because they have been paying their own “taxes” year- round via their gifts of oxygen and other resources. Kimmerer is reluctant to pledge allegiance to the U.S. government, but Maple Nation is a homeland that she would be proud to be a citizen of.
Themes
Indigenous Wisdom and Scientific Knowledge Theme Icon
Gifts, Gratitude, and Responsibility Theme Icon
Animacy and Value Theme Icon
The Indigenous Past and Future Theme Icon
Robin’s parents are involved in their own local town government, so she is familiar with the work necessary to build a strong community. There are different kinds of involvement necessary to do this, including the “quiet leaders” who work behind the scenes and make sure that things get done. The Onondaga people call the maple tree the leader of the trees, Kimmerer says. She goes on to describe the maples’ natural processes as if they were civic duties: “running air and water purification service 24-7,” beautifying the region, creating soil, providing habitats for local wildlife, and more.
In this chapter Kimmerer briefly touches on the value of political involvement, noting her parents’ example and how important it is to be active in one’s community. This is another practical way that readers can make use of the lessons of Braiding Sweetgrass. Kimmerer describes the maples like her fellow human citizens, framing their life activities as public services for their larger community.
Themes
Reciprocity and Communalism Theme Icon
Gifts, Gratitude, and Responsibility Theme Icon
Animacy and Value Theme Icon
Economists can put a monetary value on timber or syrup, but not on these other services that the trees provide. Something as crucial as oxygen is essentially their gift to us that we take for granted, ignoring its value because it cannot be commodified. In terms of civic responsibility, the maples “do their share for us,” Kimmerer says,” but “how well do we do by them?”
This is an important point, and one that is becoming increasingly clear as climate change progresses. Our market economy only values immediate commodities, not gifts that in the long-term can be catastrophic in their absence, like oxygen.
Themes
Gifts, Gratitude, and Responsibility Theme Icon
Animacy and Value Theme Icon
Get the entire Braiding Sweetgrass LitChart as a printable PDF.
Braiding Sweetgrass PDF
Robin arrives at the “sugar house,” where the workers are making fresh maple syrup, boiling the water from the fresh sap until it’s at the perfect consistency. She watches them for a while and then asks the workers a question: “What does it mean to be a good citizen of Maple Nation?” One man describes how they use traditional methods to make the syrup, and how they take care of the trees by clearing out some new growth that would compete with the sap trees.
Robin acts as a journalist here, sharing her musings on citizenship with her Potawatomi neighbors to get other perspectives. The first man suggests that care of the trees and respectful harvesting is a way of practicing good citizenship. His point about clearing the trees echoes other sections from the book, like the previous chapter’s study about harvesting sweetgrass respectfully.
Themes
Reciprocity and Communalism Theme Icon
Gifts, Gratitude, and Responsibility Theme Icon
Animacy and Value Theme Icon
A second man emphasizes the fact that they make their fires with wood instead of oil or gas, thus remaining carbon neutral in their work. The wood burned to boil the syrup releases its carbon, which is then absorbed by the very trees that the syrup came from. Kimmerer thinks about carbon as a kind of currency in Maple Nation, passed cyclically through the community of trees, people, animals, and atmosphere. Robin asks her citizenship question to a third man, who thinks a while and then answers that being a good citizen means making the syrup, enjoying it, and sharing the gift with others. All of them then discuss their favorite ways to eat maple syrup, including at many community events where the gift of the syrup is shared with everyone.
This passage poetically describes the flow of oxygen and carbon dioxide as a kind of long, cyclical breath between people and the trees, a form of living reciprocity in action. The third man that Robin asks suggests that another way to practice reciprocity (which is essentially what her citizenship question is about) is to simply be grateful for the gifts of the land and to enjoy them. Community is an important aspect of this enjoyment, as the gift is passed on to and shared with others.
Themes
Reciprocity and Communalism Theme Icon
Gifts, Gratitude, and Responsibility Theme Icon
Animacy and Value Theme Icon
Robin joins one of the workers as he goes to fetch more sap, and as they drive back he explains to her how some years are good for sap and others are bad. It’s always a gamble to rely on sugaring, he says, but still “you take what you get and be grateful for it,” because we have no control over the weather. Kimmerer then comments that our use of fossil fuels actually has affected the weather, and the seasons are noticeably different in this region than they were even 20 years before.
Even the natural rhythms of the weather, long considered far beyond our control, are out of sync because of human interference. Respectful use of the land—like the way that the people here harvest sap—would not lead to such a situation, but exploitation of the earth for fossil fuels is destroying our own environment.
Themes
Reciprocity and Communalism Theme Icon
Indigenous Wisdom and Scientific Knowledge Theme Icon
Gifts, Gratitude, and Responsibility Theme Icon
Driving home, Robin thinks about the American Bill of Rights, but imagines that the maples abide by a different Constitution: a “Bill of Responsibilities.” At home, she looks up the citizenship oaths of several different nations. If she had to swear an oath to a nation, she thinks, she would swear allegiance to Maple Nation, with its laws of “reciprocity, of regeneration, of mutual flourishing.” As in other citizenship oaths, she would swear to protect them, as they are in great danger from climate change at this very moment. Rising temperatures will soon make New England inhospitable to maples, driving them further north like climate refugees. She tries to imagine her home without the maples and feels heartbroken.
The American Bill of Rights is important in that it seeks to guarantee that the country’s citizens cannot be oppressed by their government, but the country’s focus on human rights has neglected our responsibilities to non-human beings and to the country’s actual landscape. Kimmerer finds a law that she can pledge allegiance to in the laws of the maples, again distilling the themes of the book: reciprocity, responsibility, and mutual flourishing.
Themes
Reciprocity and Communalism Theme Icon
Indigenous Wisdom and Scientific Knowledge Theme Icon
Gifts, Gratitude, and Responsibility Theme Icon
Animacy and Value Theme Icon
The Indigenous Past and Future Theme Icon
The cost of our tax-free gasoline is the survival of the maples, Kimmerer writes, and she would happily pay a tax to protect them. We might deserve the governments that we have created, but other beings do not—and they still suffer the consequences of our policies. Kimmerer closes the chapter by asking the reader to abide by the “Maple Nation Bill of Responsibilities,” to “show up at the damn meeting,” and to actively work to protect the trees.
Most of our government’s policies only focus on the short term, like keeping gas affordable—while destroying the environment in the process. Kimmerer affirms that some of these issues can only be changed through political involvement. What is important is to act on the intention of being a good citizen of the “democracy of species,” and to remember not only our rights but also our responsibilities.
Themes
Reciprocity and Communalism Theme Icon
Gifts, Gratitude, and Responsibility Theme Icon
Animacy and Value Theme Icon
The Indigenous Past and Future Theme Icon