Braiding Sweetgrass

by

Robin Wall Kimmerer

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Braiding Sweetgrass: Chapter 17 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Robin walks through a field, noting that years of herbicides and monocrops of corn have left the soil sterile and dead. This field is just her path to the local woods, however. Once she enters the forest Robin starts seeing life everywhere, and she begins looking for wild leeks. They are easy to find, as if wanting her attention, and she asks the leeks for their permission before she harvests them. At this point in her life Robin’s daughters Linden and Larkin are grown and live elsewhere, but they are visiting for the upcoming weekend. Robin asks the leeks to help her and her daughters renew their bonds to each other, to act as both “food and medicine.”
Again Kimmerer starts with a personal anecdote that opens up the larger theme of the chapter. The wild leeks of this forest are like the wild strawberries of Chapter 3, seen as their own sovereign beings who deserve her respect and gratitude. Robin hopes that these gifts from the land will keep on giving, particularly by offering their help to renew her relationship with her distant daughters.
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The first leeks that Robin gently removes are underdeveloped, so she puts them back in the ground to keep growing. Feeling happy among the plants, Robin longs to share in their ability to photosynthesize, to naturally provide for others just by the act of breathing—to feel like a mother again, and to be needed. However, she is a “mere heterotroph,” and thus must consume other living things in order to survive. This fact leads to the moral question, “how do we consume in a way that does justice to the lives that we take?” The answer to this question is an ancient concern, Kimmerer says.
This is an important example of a time when the plant does not give its permission, and Robin respects that and so refrains from harvesting. She can’t help but feel jealous of plants that get to be like good mothers at all times, providing for their children just in the act of breathing and providing oxygen. She connects this to her personal sense of motherhood, clearly still feeling empty-nest syndrome and wanting to be essential to someone else, but also to her status as a “heterotroph,” or a being who derives energy and nutrients from other living things. Because we are all heterotrophs, this leads to the pivotal question of the chapter, one that is certainly not new despite our culture’s overconsumption as compared to most ancient peoples.
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A few weeks later Robin visits the forest again, noting that the leeks are much larger this time. Once more she asks permission to harvest them, and this time when she removes them, they are plump and aromatic.  Her intuition tells her that their answer is yes, and she begins to harvest, trying to thin the patch in the healthiest way for the remaining plants. Robin notes that she uses a trowel to carefully excavate the leeks and avoid injuring the other plants, even though a sharp shovel would be much faster. “Not everything should be convenient,” Kimmerer writes.
Robin’s patience and respect is rewarded, as the leeks now offer themselves up to be harvested, and the gift that she receives is far better than what she would have had if she had taken them prematurely. “Not everything should be convenient” fits with many of the lessons of the book, as Kimmerer often advocates for mindfulness and care over immediate gratification. Practices that might be less convenient or immediately efficient can have long-term benefits, while convenience often leads to thoughtlessness and overconsumption.
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Kimmerer then relates a story told by an elder about Nanabozho, who was the Anishinaabe original man and a great teacher. One day Heron taught Nanabozho how to catch fish, but also warned him not to take too many fish at once. Nanabozho ignored Heron, already planning a feast and stores of food for the winter. Day after day Nanabozho ate as much fish as he possibly could and also filled his drying rack. One day, however, he went to the lake and found that it was empty—he had taken all the fish. Returning home, he saw that his hoard had been stolen by Fox. Stories like this one warning about the consequences of overconsumption are common in Indigenous cultures, Kimmerer says, but they are hard to find in English.
This early story of Nanabozho shows the danger of overconsumption: something common in many ancient cultures but antithetical to market capitalism and contemporary Western society, which requires constant consumption to thrive. Like Nanabozho, we are fast approaching the time when the lake is empty and we will be forced to realize that there are consequences to our greed.
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The “Honorable Harvest” is the collective term for the traditional Indigenous rules and ideas about “the exchange of life for life,” Kimmerer explains. She again wishes to herself that she could photosynthesize in order to survive, but because she cannot, she must try to participate in the Honorable Harvest as well. She doesn’t claim to be an expert on this subject, but in this chapter she hopes to pass on to readers the wisdom that she has learned from others.
This passage introduces the term for this idea: the Honorable Harvest. Because we cannot photosynthesize, but must consume other lives in order to survive, there are rules about doing this in the most honorable and moral way possible. These are ancient ideas and contradict our contemporary economy that encourages us to treat everything as a commodity to be exploited, but Kimmerer believes that they are crucial for her readers to learn about.
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Kimmerer begins by commenting on our current society’s legal harvesting regulations for certain species. The law treats wildlife as a resource to be hunted or fished, and so these regulations aim to protect the resource for future consumption, rather than for the sake of the animals themselves. When European colonizers first arrived on Turtle Island, they were awed by the abundance of natural resources. When they saw the harvesting practices of the Indigenous people, however, they assumed that their rules limiting overconsumption were the result of laziness, rather than what allowed for such abundance in the first place.
It is a positive step that we at least have some harvesting regulations now, but as Kimmerer points out here, these laws are based around the desire to protect future commodities, rather than protecting the rights of the harvested beings themselves. This section again shows how the settler mindset clashed with the Indigenous American way of life, and how the colonizers could not appreciate the wisdom in Indigenous practices.
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Kimmerer then tells a story of a European engineering student who went rice harvesting with his Ojibwe friend’s family in Minnesota. The student found their harvesting methods to be inefficient, and as a thank-you gift offered to design a new system that would gather more rice. The family politely declined, saying that they knew their traditional methods weren’t the most immediately efficient, but they were best for attracting ducks and seeding the rice for next year’s harvest—a more long-term efficiency.
That earliest settler mindset survives today as capitalism has taken over, such that even the gift offered here is really just something that can make people more efficient at consuming and therefore more profitable. It’s an important point that the inefficiency in the family’s process is not accidental or a result of incompetence, but rather purposeful and with longer-term benefits in mind.
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Back in her current narrative, Robin walks home with a basketful of leeks for dinner, thinking of a story an herbalist once told her. The herbalist was looking for snakeroot, and quickly found the plant—but only one, and because of this she refrained from taking it. She continued searching, only to find that she had lost the trowel that she used to harvest medicine. Retracing her steps, the herbalist found the trowel among another patch of snakeroot, where she asked the plants’ permission and harvested some. The herbalist saw this experience as an example of the plants reminding her that they will help her if she treats them with respect.
The herbalist’s story emphasizes the importance of respecting the plant and obeying the rules of the Honorable Harvest. Because she found only one plant, she didn’t take it—not wanting to deplete a sparse population—and because of her thoughtfulness the plant rewarded her with a greater bounty. This echoes the lesson of Chapter 15: “if we use a plant respectfully it will stay with us and flourish.”
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Kimmerer then tries to make a list of some of the most basic tenets of the Honorable Harvest. These include “Never take the first. Never take the last,” “Take only that which is given,” and “Give thanks for what you have been given.” The final rule she lists is “Sustain the ones who sustain you and the earth will last forever.” State regulations regarding harvesting are based on scientific data, she says, while the Honorable Harvest considers ideas of responsibility and accountability as well, treating nonhumans as persons of value deserving their own rights and dignity. “Killing a who demands something different than killing an it,” Kimmerer writes.
Many of these tenets will have become familiar to readers of Braiding Sweetgrass, as Kimmerer clearly draws on them in her own narrative. The Honorable Harvest is based on the concept that nonhuman beings also have animacy and value, and therefore should have rights. Again referencing how language affects the way that we see the world, Kimmerer notes that seeing nonhumans as persons rather than things drastically changes the way that we interact with them.
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Kimmerer now imagines what our society would be like if the rules of the Honorable Harvest were enforced as the law, as they once were in Indigenous cultures. For example, what if developers had to ask permission of the plants before covering them in concrete? This would mean that everyone would be subject to the same laws, the “democracy of species,” rather than privileging human beings above all other living things.
This is the kind of society that Kimmerer dreams of as possible, as the term “democracy of species” returns to describe the kind of government that would treat human beings as the “younger siblings of creation.” If the Honorable Harvest were the law of the land and the Thanksgiving Address were the Pledge of Allegiance, it would mean drastically changing our society—and for the better, Kimmerer believes.
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There are many gray areas within the tenets of the Honorable Harvest, and so some people believe that it is easier to instead follow the rule of taking not what you need, but “only that which is given.” Kimmerer compares this to accepting cookies from one’s grandmother versus breaking into her house and stealing her cookies. Both end with the same result, but one method of receiving the cookies damages the relationship between the giver and receiver. Noting the many examples of “dishonorable harvest” taking place in the world around us—rainforests, oil fields, etc.—Kimmerer says that sometimes it is easy to see then the gift has been stolen rather than given. In other cases, there is no easy way to discern what has been given and what has not.
There are different interpretations of the Honorable Harvest, and they may even be contentious ones, but Kimmerer suggests that as long as the intention is the same, then they still constitute a valid appreciation of the earth’s gifts. She once again uses the metaphor of a gift from one’s grandmother to make readers appreciate how we are really treating the earth by so brutally stealing its gifts. There are gray areas within the Honorable Harvest, but most of our consumption is very clearly black-and-white—and dishonorable.
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On an October day, Robin sits talking with some local Indigenous hunters during hunting season. An elder describes his own method of waiting for deer to pass by until he sees one animal that clearly offers itself up. He only carries one bullet with him when he goes hunting, he says, to make sure that he uses it carefully. This is the ethos of the Honorable Harvest: we need to consume for our own survival, but we should only do so mindfully and gratefully. Harvesting methods like coal mining are clearly violations of the Harvest, as coal is in no way given as a gift by the earth—we must tear the land itself apart to harvest what we want. Wind, sun, and water are freely given, however, and can also be used for energy, if not as immediately and conveniently as fossil fuels.
The elder hunter shows how the Honorable Harvest can be put into practice in one specific situation, but from there Kimmerer applies it to more contemporary concerns, like the sources for the energy that we are so used to consuming in our daily lives. Limiting ourselves to renewable energy would certainly change modern society, but if we were also able to treat such energy as a gift to be treasured and respected then we might use less of it, unlike our current ethos of constant consumption of a commodity that we feel no connection to. Not everything should be convenient, as Kimmerer said.
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Robin describes giving a lecture called “Cultures of Gratitude” at an expensive college. At one point she tells a traditional story about people disrespecting the generous Corn Spirit, growing lazy and giving up their ceremonies of gratitude. Eventually the Corn Spirit left to find somewhere else where she would be appreciated, and the people starved. Only when the people returned to their work of offering gratitude and respect did the Corn Spirit return. Watching the students carelessly waste food at the reception after the lecture, Robin can tell that they couldn’t relate to the story.
Robin here tells another story about the dangers of overconsumption, but to an audience that has no concept of a society that might actually follow rules like those of the Honorable Harvest. Kimmerer hopes that her reader will be more mindful of these stories in the context of modern environmental collapse and our own disconnection from the earth.
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 One girl approaches Robin at the reception, however, to say that she understands and appreciated her lecture. The girl says that she grew up in a small village in Turkey, where her grandmother taught her to “kiss the rice”—if even a single grain of rice fell on the ground, they were to kiss it and show that they respected the gift. Coming to the United States, the girl says that she was sickened to see how people wasted food so callously. The girl offers this, her own story, as a gift for Robin to pass on to others.
This is an example of another culture that shares the Indigenous American ideas about gratitude and respect for the gifts of the earth. This is not an uncommon worldview, Kimmerer suggests, just because the dominant culture in recent centuries is one of capitalism and commodification. The student also echoes Kimmerer’s ideas about the nature of gifts, in that they are meant to be passed on and shared with others, not hoarded by the receiver. Such a story, itself about the appreciation of gifts, is the perfect example of this.
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Kimmerer now believes that gratitude alone is not enough for us to offer the earth as our part of the Honorable Harvest—we must become a culture of reciprocity with the earth as well. She quotes an Indigenous ecologist, who says that our current models of sustainability are just about finding better ways to keep on taking from the earth, not about what we can give back. Reciprocity, on the other hand, eases the moral debt of taking lives by giving back through “gratitude, through ceremony, through land stewardship, science, art, and in everyday acts of practical reverence.”
Kimmerer affirms the importance of gratitude, but also questions if it is enough to be considered true reciprocity with the earth. Here she considers the modern environmental movement of sustainability, which, while a step in the right direction, is still about taking and not giving back: just taking less, or in a less harmful way. Gratitude is part of reciprocity, but at this point in our broken relationship with the land more is required of us, like the practical examples that Kimmerer tries to suggest throughout the book.
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Robin describes her interview with Lionel, a fur trapper with Indigenous heritage from the woods of northern Quebec. She can’t help but judge him before meeting him, wondering how he could possibly abide by the Honorable Harvest while doing such work, but she tries her best to listen respectfully. Trapping is his family business, Lionel says, and he describes growing up in the bush and learning everything there was to know about minks’ behavior. When a new and cruel kind of trap became popular, the “leg-hold trap,” he gave up the trade and tried logging instead, but the old-fashioned practices that he used were no longer profitable there either, having been replaced by heavy machinery that was much more harmful to the forest.
The fur business is often associated with animal cruelty and exploitation, so Robin is immediately skeptical that a fur trapper could abide by the rules of the Honorable Harvest, no matter his Indigenous heritage. Toothed leg-hold traps can brutally injure and restrain the animal, so Lionel’s refusal to use them shows that he at least has a sense of respect for the animals’ dignity. This then follows through to his logging career, another business associated with exploitation of the land, where he is only willing to pursue the work when he is able to use traditional methods that are less efficient but also less harmful to the forest.
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Lionel then worked in an Ontario mine for a while, but he became disillusioned when he saw how the chemicals used in the mine destroyed the surrounding landscape, making it look as dead as the moon. He finally felt too guilty about participating in this work and went back to trapping, but now he tries to do it in the most ethical way possible, following the traditions of his Métis Nation heritage. He only uses traps that kill the animals instantly, and he tans hides in the traditional way, using the animal’s own brain rather than harsh chemicals.
The pattern continues as Lionel quits mining upon discovering how harmful it is to the environment. The depressing thing is that it seems that the only viable work in his area is that which is only profitable when it is cruel and exploitative to animals and land. Fortunately, he has been able to make a living using traditional methods to trap animals again.
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Lionel considers the animals that he traps to be his neighbors, and he feels a responsibility to take care of them even as he selectively harvests them. For example, he only traps martens when they are catching males—as soon as he catches a female, he stops trapping so the population can continue to grow. In the summer Lionel works as a local fishing guide, and he saves all the fish guts from his catch in his freezer. In the winter he constructs platforms in certain trees, thaws out the fish guts, and distributes them onto the platforms throughout the forest. This is the time before the marten mothers give birth, and his work ensures that they have a place to find a guaranteed meal even in the harshness of winter.
Here Lionel explains all the ways that he tries to follow the rules of the Honorable Harvest. Essentially, he respects the animals that he harvests and tries to look out for their best interests even as he selectively takes their lives. His yearlong work to provide for them in winter shows another level of reciprocity, as he gives back to the animals that give their lives for his business.
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Robin is surprised by the tenderness in Lionel’s voice as he talks about the martens. He is helping his own business by taking care of the martens and making sure that they flourish, but he is also trying to abide by the Honorable Harvest and giving back for whatever he takes: he will kill the martens eventually, but first they will live well because of him. Lately Lionel has been invited to teach about wildlife and conservation at schools, “giving back what was given to him.” Still, Kimmerer can’t help but think of who will buy the fur coats that he makes—probably someone with no consideration for the Honorable Harvest or the idea of taking from the earth only what has been freely given.
Although this is a matter of life and death, in a way it is also another sign that all flourishing is mutual. Ensuring that the martens live well also means that Lionel is able to harvest them successfully and provide for his own future. At the same time, Kimmerer points out that in Lionel’s business the Honorable Harvest likely stops with him: most of the people buying fur coats probably became so wealthy through some kind of exploitation of the earth and other people.
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Kimmerer expresses her hope that the Honorable Harvest will make a comeback in our culture, because it is sorely needed: we need to restore our relationship to the land and to not be ashamed of our existence on this planet. Kimmerer admits that although she is lucky to have her own garden and to harvest some wild food, she still mostly consumes groceries from the store like everyone else. She also acknowledges that city dwellers have little chance for meaningful interaction with the land, but they can at least choose what they support by what they spend their money on. In capitalism, we can use “dollars as the indirect currency of reciprocity.” It’s difficult to blame only the coal companies for ecological collapse when we are also buying what they sell.
Kimmerer admits the limits of what we can do personally in a capitalist society, but she believes that we should do what we can: and that means trying to restore our own personal relationship to the land, as well as rethinking our habits of consumption and trying to be as honorable in our harvest as possible. Ideally, having respect for the animacy of nonhuman beings and considering the earth’s resources as gifts will help people to change their habits.
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Recognizing how dishonorable much of her lifestyle is, Robin decides to try an experiment: to live in her current capitalist economy and still attempt to abide by the Honorable Harvest. First, she goes to the grocery store, where she tries to buy only local and organic food. She is momentarily stunned to notice wild leeks for sale, alarmed to see the land’s gift wrapped in plastic and commodified.
Robin attempts to take her own advice and see if contemporary life can be, within reason, lived according to the rules of the Honorable Harvest. As with the wild strawberries, she is horrified to see what to her is clearly a gift (the wild leeks) stolen and commodified.
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Robin then goes to the mall to buy writing supplies. Unlike at the grocery store, everything here seems so far removed from its original life. Robin tries to buy recycled paper at least, but gives up when it comes to the pens—she has no idea where they even come from, and so ends up just buying ones that she likes. The “pulsing animacy” of the woods is impossible to find in this place, and the Honorable Harvest doesn’t work: it’s not exchanging life for life anymore, because “everything for sale here is dead.”
Robin’s experience shows how difficult it is to live by the Honorable Harvest in a society that has no value for it at all and is totally disconnected from the land. It is easy to understand why modern people have no relationship to the earth when they never have to think about the lives that are given to make their possessions. When the gift is commodified, it dies.
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Afterward, Robin gets a cup of coffee and observes people in the mall’s food court. She realizes that the Honorable Harvest is not the “aberration” here, however much it might seem; the aberration is rather this market of dead things, built on the illusion that the products we consume have not been torn from the unwilling earth.
This tragic passage highlights the illusion at the center of capitalism: that our consumption has no consequences, that the earth is a commodity to be exploited and killed for our own convenience.
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Back home now with her daughters Linden and Larkin, they clean and cook the wild leeks that Robin gathered, first setting aside an unwashed pile of leeks. After dinner, Robin goes out to a patch of forest by her pond to plant these extras, trying to give back to this piece of land that has lost its wild leeks. The forest here is still not healthy even a hundred years after it was developed, as it has been robbed of nutrients, “medicine,” or some other factor that ecologists don’t understand. This is why Robin is trying to replant the leeks here, to restore some of the original diversity of the old-growth forest.
Having harvested the wild leeks as honorably as she could, Robin tries to practice reciprocity by giving back to the forest that human overconsumption has ravaged. This is another example of the limits of science, as we do not know why this past development has left the forest still unable to recover even a hundred years later.
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Kimmerer asserts once again that we need the Honorable Harvest in today’s world, though its ethos of reciprocity is now endangered. We have created a culture and economy with no place for such a worldview, one that pretends that everything is a lifeless commodity to be taken and used without consequence. Kimmerer closes the chapter by urging readers to remember the Honorable Harvest and to work at “bringing back the medicine.”
Even in a world of dead commodities, Kimmerer argues, the Honorable Harvest is crucial. Unless we can recognize the “pulsing animacy” in all things, we will continue on our reckless path of overconsumption and destroy the very earth that provides for us.
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