Braiding Sweetgrass

by

Robin Wall Kimmerer

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

Braiding Sweetgrass: Chapter 20 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Robin is now leading another student expedition into the wilderness, this time back in New York state and as part of an ethnobotany class that she is teaching. This outing, which is a graduation requirement for her students, is also longer and more intense: it involves spending five weeks away from civilization. Robin has been leading these trips for years and has noticed a change in the students as time has passed—they used to remember camping trips from their childhood, but more recent students are mostly familiar with nature on the TV and are surprised to experience the reality of real wilderness. One student, Brad, is especially apprehensive and seems attached to his phone and his sense of the readily available conveniences of civilization.
This chapter begins with a similar subject as the previous one—Robin leading a student expedition into the wilderness—but this one is more extensive and (arguably) more successful. She is no longer taking pre-med students but rather her own ethnobotany class, and the outing is much longer and more involved. The way the students react to this trip over the years shows how even in the last decade, newer generations have less and less real experience of the land that is not filtered through technology.
Themes
Indigenous Wisdom and Scientific Knowledge Theme Icon
Motherhood and Teaching Theme Icon
Animacy and Value Theme Icon
They arrive at their destination—Cranberry Lake Biological Station—and a few days pass. Most of the students seem to enjoy working as biologists in the field, forming a community together and practicing their memorization of the Latin names for things. At the same time, Robin notices that their preoccupation with Latin names makes them pay less attention to the named beings themselves. She also feels that they have no personal connection to the plants they are studying, or sense that they are actually cared for by the land.
Cranberry Lake Biological Station is located in upstate New York. Being on the land and away from the distractions of technology immediately creates a sense of community among the students, but Robin notices that the categorization inherent to science (ironically, the Latin naming system largely established by Carl Linnaeus) tends to create a disconnect between the students and the living beings, as if these categories are a way to distract them from paying attention to the living things themselves.
Themes
Indigenous Wisdom and Scientific Knowledge Theme Icon
Motherhood and Teaching Theme Icon
Animacy and Value Theme Icon
To teach this lesson, Robin first encourages the students to brainstorm a list of their basic needs. On the rest of the trip, they will be learning how the land provides for these needs. First, they set about building their shelter/classroom, as Robin shows them how to construct the frame for a wigwam out of saplings. Kimmerer notes that Indigenous architecture often imitates nests or wombs from nature, and it feels comfortable and homey in an instinctual way. Next, they need walls and a roof.
The students have likely never considered that a stretch of wilderness could directly provide for their basic needs, or thought of the land as like a mother tending to her children. This metaphor is furthered by the image of the nest or womb as the most natural house design for architecture like this, which is so closely tied to the land itself.
Themes
Reciprocity and Communalism Theme Icon
Indigenous Wisdom and Scientific Knowledge Theme Icon
Gifts, Gratitude, and Responsibility Theme Icon
Motherhood and Teaching Theme Icon
The Indigenous Past and Future Theme Icon
The following day Robin and her students go “shopping” in the cattail marsh. The students love wetlands in theory, but in practice they are still wary of wading around in the muck. They eventually do jump in, however, and soon are having fun working in the mud, harvesting cattails by pulling them up at the base and trying to get the rhizome (a thick, stemlike root). The rhizomes are nutritious, and the cattail leaves, which are essentially giant grass blades bundled together to create the strength of a stalk, can be made into string and twine to weave walls for the wigwam.
Again Robin sees a divide between theoretical, scientific knowledge (these are students of ecology, so they can appreciate the value and beauty of wetlands) and intimate experience of the land itself (actually wading into the mud that makes the wetland). Robin teaches both her students and the reader about the science of the cattails and also their significance as a source of gifts for humans to respectfully use.
Themes
Reciprocity and Communalism Theme Icon
Indigenous Wisdom and Scientific Knowledge Theme Icon
Gifts, Gratitude, and Responsibility Theme Icon
Motherhood and Teaching Theme Icon
Get the entire Braiding Sweetgrass LitChart as a printable PDF.
Braiding Sweetgrass PDF
The students fill their canoes with leaves and then bring them to shore, where they sort and clean them. The cattail leaves are slimy, which the students find gross at first, but then they learn that the gel is soothing and antimicrobial, like aloe. The leaves also repel water, protecting their nutrients from being dissolved away by the swampy environment. This water shield helps humans too by repelling rain from the wigwam. One student remarks that “it’s almost as if the plants made these things for us.” Peeling all the leaves away, they can reach the cattail’s central pith, which is also edible, and they all sample it.
Kimmerer continues to offer detailed scientific descriptions of plants while also finding wisdom in their compositions and habits. In this case she sees harmony and balance in the parts of the cattail, as their leaves contain a gel that soothes the hands made irritated by working with the plants. As the student points out, the plants’ natural qualities seem made for human beings, from its edible parts to its water-repelling leaves, emphasizing the idea of the earth offering its gifts for our respectful use.
Themes
Reciprocity and Communalism Theme Icon
Indigenous Wisdom and Scientific Knowledge Theme Icon
Gifts, Gratitude, and Responsibility Theme Icon
Motherhood and Teaching Theme Icon
Animacy and Value Theme Icon
Looking out over the wetland and able to see where they’ve harvested, the students start comparing the marsh to an actual store, and they grow excited talking about everything that they can “buy” there. They gather pollen from the cattail flowers, which adds protein and a yellow dye to pancakes. The flower’s stalks are also edible, and the students harvest them as well.
Although it is moving to watch the students’ excitement over the gifts that the wetland has to offer, it’s also notable that their first point of comparison is to a department store: a place of lifeless commodities to be exchanged for capital.
Themes
Reciprocity and Communalism Theme Icon
Indigenous Wisdom and Scientific Knowledge Theme Icon
Gifts, Gratitude, and Responsibility Theme Icon
Next, they harvest the cattail stalks covered in their trademark fluff of seeds, which can be used as a lantern when dipped in fat. The stalks themselves are so straight that they can be used to make arrows. Continuing to describe the abundance that they can harvest here, Kimmerer explains that wetlands are extremely rich ecosystems, almost as productive as tropical rainforests. The colonizers thought they were worthless, however, and filled them in to form farmland or even just parking lots.
Wetlands are places of new life being born from decay, of complex webs of relationships between organisms on land that is inhospitable to human activity—so colonizers assumed them to be worthless. From the perspective of immediate profits this might be the case, but in terms of long-term abundance and the value of nonhuman life, it couldn’t be more wrong.
Themes
Indigenous Wisdom and Scientific Knowledge Theme Icon
Gifts, Gratitude, and Responsibility Theme Icon
Motherhood and Teaching Theme Icon
Animacy and Value Theme Icon
The Indigenous Past and Future Theme Icon
After a few days of weaving cattail mats for the wigwam’s floor and walls, Robin takes the students to harvest the roots of white spruce, which can be used to make a strong rope. Arriving at the forest after a long hike from camp, Robin once again decides to let the plants themselves be the real teacher for her students.
“Sitting in a Circle” focuses on two main plant species: the cattail and the white spruce. Robin has learned her lesson from the trip in the previous chapter and now humbly points her students to the plants themselves, letting the plants share their wisdom directly as they work together.
Themes
Motherhood and Teaching Theme Icon
Animacy and Value Theme Icon
By now the students are used to Robin’s Honorable Harvest ritual of greeting the plant, asking its permission to be harvested, and leaving an offering of tobacco, and some of them even join her. Robin then peels back a layer of the forest floor, observing the rich layers hidden beneath the surface, crawling with insects and crisscrossed by thousands of roots. She contrasts this rich, living forest soil, which is “so sweet and clean you could eat it by the spoonful,” with the homogenized, manmade dirt that most of her students are familiar with.
Robin continues to attempt to follow the Honorable Harvest whenever she gathers a living thing, and she passes on this lesson to her students. Here she also contrasts the vibrant animacy of real forest soil—created by and composed of countless living things existing in community—with the relatively lifeless soil that fills most lots and gardens. That soil is a commodity: the forest soil is its own sovereign entity.
Themes
Reciprocity and Communalism Theme Icon
Indigenous Wisdom and Scientific Knowledge Theme Icon
Gifts, Gratitude, and Responsibility Theme Icon
Motherhood and Teaching Theme Icon
Animacy and Value Theme Icon
Amid the tangle of life in the forest soil Robin finds a spruce root and gently pulls on it, following where it leads. The root is then intersected by another, where she digs again and follows its path further. Eventually she cuts one end and then tries to untangle the single long root from all the other roots of the other plants, trying to keep from tearing them. After watching Robin and learning what to do, the students spread out and start looking for their own roots. She reminds them to refill the parts of the forest floor that they’ve dug up, and to pour some water there as well.
The maze of roots leading to countless interconnections acts as a living symbol of the interdependence of life in a thriving ecosystem. Even as they harvest the roots, Robin continues to remind her students to respect the life that they are disrupting and to try to minimize the harm that they are doing to both the tree and the other organisms affected by the root’s disappearance.
Themes
Reciprocity and Communalism Theme Icon
Indigenous Wisdom and Scientific Knowledge Theme Icon
Motherhood and Teaching Theme Icon
Animacy and Value Theme Icon
Robin listens to her students work, knowing that they, like her, are pursuing the complex thread of roots through the soil, as if following the routes on a map. She compares this process to the many choices that her students are making at this point in their lives as they navigate the space between childhood and adulthood.
Seeing things through the eyes of a mother and teacher and always searching for new layers of meaning in the world of plants, Robin sees the intricate web of roots as also symbolizing the branching pathways of her students’ futures.
Themes
Motherhood and Teaching Theme Icon
A silence falls for a long time as they work, and then someone starts singing. This happens every time, Kimmerer says. Some research shows that the smell of humus (the decaying organic matter in real forest soil) causes human beings to release oxytocin, the hormone that also “promotes bonding between mother and child.” Essentially, being close to Mother Earth makes us happier. Robin remembers the first time that she dug for roots like this and how transformative it was for her, to feel like the entire forest was “held in a wild native basket” of roots like a loving embrace.
This echoes the scene from the previous chapter and further explains what happened there. Being so intimately connected to the land causes a similar sensation that a child feels in the arms of its mother, and one way that the students respond to this sense of joy and safety is through spontaneous song. Robin conjures the lovely image of the web of underground roots as being like a basket tenderly holding the forest and its inhabitants, including her students.
Themes
Reciprocity and Communalism Theme Icon
Indigenous Wisdom and Scientific Knowledge Theme Icon
Motherhood and Teaching Theme Icon
Animacy and Value Theme Icon
Afterwards, the students compare their harvest and swap stories about interesting things that they found while following the roots’ paths. Robin next shows them how to clean the Spruce roots by soaking them in the stream and then peeling away the outer layer, leaving a clean, pale twine behind that is flexible but will later dry to be as hard as wood. The students weave some baskets by the stream, and then use the root rope to tie together the birch bark that they’ve gathered for their wigwam’s roof.
Robin continues to teach both her students and readers the myriad ways that plants can provide for us. Notably, this root harvesting is entirely sustainable, producing an extremely useful product while doing little harm to the plant and surrounding forest. Further, the process of harvesting it creates an increased closeness between people and the land whose gifts they rely upon.
Themes
Reciprocity and Communalism Theme Icon
Indigenous Wisdom and Scientific Knowledge Theme Icon
Gifts, Gratitude, and Responsibility Theme Icon
Motherhood and Teaching Theme Icon
The Indigenous Past and Future Theme Icon
Robin tells her students about the time that a Mohawk elder once joined them as they made cattail baskets and commented on how happy it made him to see them working with the cattail, the plant who “gives us all that we need to live.” The Potawatomi word for cattail means “we wrap the baby in it,” Kimmerer explains, while the Mohawk word slightly alters this such that it is the cattail wrapping humans in her gift.
The Potawatomi and Mohawk words for cattail both emphasize the plant’s many gifts, but they differ slightly. The Potawatomi word describes humans using the cattail to care for their children, while the Mohawk word gives the cattail itself agency, as if it purposefully wraps its respectful harvesters in its gifts.
Themes
Reciprocity and Communalism Theme Icon
Indigenous Wisdom and Scientific Knowledge Theme Icon
Gifts, Gratitude, and Responsibility Theme Icon
Motherhood and Teaching Theme Icon
Animacy and Value Theme Icon
The Indigenous Past and Future Theme Icon
As they continue to work at weaving the cattails, one of the students questions whether or not it’s right to have taken so much from the land without paying anything back besides gratitude and a tobacco offering. Robin explains that different people have different answers about the right way to give back as part of the Honorable Harvest: some think that gratitude alone is enough, while others believe that it’s too arrogant to think that we have the capacity to give back to Mother Earth at all. She acknowledges that reciprocity is difficult in practice.
While they first thought of the abundant wetland as like a department store, the students now start to parse through the implications of what it means if the wetland’s bounty is not made up of lifeless commodities, but gifts. Their conversation returns to the debate that Kimmerer has mentioned several times, with the question of just how we can ever practice true reciprocity with the earth, and what role gratitude plays in the gifts that humanity can give back.
Themes
Reciprocity and Communalism Theme Icon
Gifts, Gratitude, and Responsibility Theme Icon
The students debate this among themselves as they weave. One says that they don’t owe anything to the plants. Another says that if the plants are offering a gift, then payment other than gratitude isn’t expected. Another says that a gift comes with a responsibility to give something back—it’s a moral debt, not a legal one. Robin is overjoyed to hear them talking about this, contrasting them with the average contemporary shopper who never considers “their debt to the land that has produced their purchases.”
This experience of being close to the land and disconnected from modern technology and the conveniences of capitalism has led the students to consider difficult questions like these. Kimmerer hopes that her readers will start to think like the students here, rather than the average modern shopper who is totally disconnected from the land that produces the commodities they buy.
Themes
Reciprocity and Communalism Theme Icon
Gifts, Gratitude, and Responsibility Theme Icon
Animacy and Value Theme Icon
Related Quotes
The students then start brainstorming about practical ways to give back to the land, like donating to wetland protection programs, attending political meetings, and making cattail coasters to give as gifts to loved ones. As she listens, Robin is reminded that “caring is not abstract”—it requires real, tangible action. She also knows that the students would not be having this conversation if they hadn’t just been so fully immersed in the land itself and interacted so intimately with its gifts.
Kimmerer lets the students’ debate speak for itself: there are in fact many ways that we can give back to the land that provides for us, and really paying attention to the gifts that we receive naturally leads to creative ways to offer our own gifts. Indeed, our creativity itself is a very human gift, like gratitude, that we can put to good use in the practice of reciprocity with the earth.
Themes
Reciprocity and Communalism Theme Icon
Gifts, Gratitude, and Responsibility Theme Icon
Motherhood and Teaching Theme Icon
Animacy and Value Theme Icon
Related Quotes
On their last night they all sleep in the wigwam that they’ve built together, and one student says that she’s sad to be leaving this place where she felt so connected to the land. Kimmerer says that even if we don’t feel it, the earth is always providing its gifts for us, in the middle of a city just as much as camping in a wetland. Around the fire that night, the students perform a song that they’ve made up for Robin about their adventure, ending with “no matter where I roam, when I’m with plants I’ll be at home.” As they drift off to sleep that night, Robin feels like a good mother. The next morning, she watches one student wake up at dawn, step outside the wigwam, and “speak her thanks to the new day.”
Robin’s words to her students here are also directed at her readers: one doesn’t need to be camping in the wild to feel a connection with the land. Mindfulness of the land’s gifts and gratitude for those gifts can maintain the relationship even in the most unnatural of environments. Motherhood again shapes Robin’s perception of her teaching practice, and because she feels that she has taught her students well (as emphasized by their song of gratitude to her)—and even more importantly, led them to learn directly from the wisdom of plants—she feels again like the “good mother” that she is always trying to be. Robin’s (presumably non-Indigenous) students are not trying to appropriate Indigenous practices or traditions, but experiencing such closeness to the land leads them to naturally develop their own offerings and rituals, like the student’s greeting of the dawn that closes the chapter.
Themes
Reciprocity and Communalism Theme Icon
Gifts, Gratitude, and Responsibility Theme Icon
Motherhood and Teaching Theme Icon
Animacy and Value Theme Icon