Robin hikes into an old-growth forest of the Pacific Northwest, where she stops and is awed by the lushness around her and the massive trees. She knows that this rainforest once spread along the whole coast, with the biggest trees on earth and an incredible biodiversity of life in every square inch of land. Indigenous people here lived richly off both the land and the sea, holding “Mother Cedar” in special honor. In this wet climate, cedar, which resists rot, is especially valuable.
Robin continues her West Coast trip, here focusing on a different plant: the western redcedar. Even in the midst of the abundance of the northwestern rainforest, she can’t help but lament all that has been lost, as this forest is now just a fraction of its glory before colonization and industrialization.
The Indigenous people had many uses for cedar. Its wood is straight and buoyant and easily made into canoes, arrows, and harpoons. Its bark could be stripped off in long ribbons that would regrow in time without damaging the tree (if it were carefully harvested) and then shredded to create a fluffy wool for newborns. Its roots could be woven as twine, its wood burned in winter, and even coffins were made of cedar. “The first and last embrace of a human being was in the arms of Mother Cedar,” Kimmerer writes.
Some ancient redcedars still show the signs of this sustainable harvesting, which when performed properly did no lasting harm to the tree. Kimmerer once more personifies a plant to describe it as a mother figure, showing its love for the people through its various gifts.
These old-growth forests were rich and complex, and the old-growth cultures that they sustained were similarly rich in a culture of gratitude and reciprocity. Giving its scientific name, Kimmerer says that Mother Cedar is today known as western red cedar, not the tallest of the trees but able to grow trunks as wide as redwoods. The old people honored the cedar for its many gifts, but now it is seen as just another piece of lumber. “What can we who recognize the debt possibly give back?” Kimmerer asks.
Again Kimmerer associates a culture of reciprocity with the plants that are important to it, as the relationship between people and plants is a way of reinforcing a closeness to the land.
The narrative now shifts to the late 1980s and describes a man in his fifties named Franz Dolp, who is clearing a trail through thick brush and writing in his journal about his work. His path is stopped by a massive fallen cedar, the victim of past logging when only Douglas Fir was used and cedar was left behind. Now that cedar wood is considered valuable, however, these fallen giants are harvested as well. They’ve gone from being honored by Indigenous people to being logged and rejected by settlers—to now being sought after for their market value.
This is a rare chapter in that it shifts to the perspective of someone outside of Kimmerer’s immediate family, and contains many of his writings as well. As is so common, the cedar so beloved by Indigenous people was initially thought useless by colonizers, and only more recently has capitalist society realized its value.
It takes several days of work for Franz to clear a path to the top of the ridge, where he is able look out over the landscape. From there he can see patches of dead logged land next to uniform Douglas Fir plantations, and within a small, preserved area a swathe of old-growth forest—the kind of forest that used to cover this entire landscape. In his journal, Franz writes that he is working out of a sense of loss for “what should be here.”
Franz Dolp is another example of Aldo Leopold’s quote, as he can see the wounds of what should be there in the old-growth forest but which doesn’t exist. This doesn’t drive him to despair, however, but rather to work.
The Coast Range was first logged in the 1880s, and by a hundred years later almost all the old growth was gone. At this time Franz is living with his wife and two children in Oregon, planting apple trees and working as an economics professor. His marriage deteriorates, however, and they sell their farm. He visits the farm after it’s sold and weeps to see that all the trees have been cut down. Separated from his wife now, Franz moves to a forty-acre patch of land on Shotpouch Creek, a plot of clear-cut former old-growth forest where his family had once lived and logged, and which is now being taken over by blackberries and salmonberries.
Dolp is not of Indigenous American heritage, but he clearly does feel the kind of connection to the land that Kimmerer tries to encourage in Braiding Sweetgrass. This is especially evidenced by his tears over the logged trees on his farm.
Kimmerer describes how clear-cutting drastically changes a forest; the trees don’t just grow back as they were, because the sudden abundance of sunlight and dried-out soil encourages “opportunistic, or pioneer, species” instead. These are plants like blackberries, that cover the ground quickly and keep slower-growing plants like trees from getting light. The pioneer plants favor fast growth and resource consumption, acting as competitors to other species instead of community members. They reflect the worldview that allowed for their growth explosion, in fact, as they do not thrive in stable old-growth forests with biodiverse populations. Pioneer human communities have created these pioneer plant communities by destroying old-growth forests worldwide.
In the wisdom of plants Kimmerer also sees some species that act like colonizers and capitalists rather than thriving on systems of reciprocity and communalism. Fittingly, these species are the ones that usually follow in the wake of the colonizers and capitalists who destroy the old-growth, reciprocal forests. Not all plants offer wisdom worth emulating, it seems.
Kimmerer now marvels at how well old-growth forests function, even in times of great scarcity. They are self-sustaining communities, like the old-growth human communities that grew up alongside them. At Shotpouch, Franz decides that his goal for his own wounded patch of land is “to plant an old-growth forest” in an attempt to heal the land. This doesn’t just mean planting trees, but also developing a personal relationship with the land itself.
While the pioneer plants are successful in the short-term, Kimmerer sees more valuable wisdom in the centuries-long flourishing of old-growth systems—just like the contrast between reciprocity- and competition-based societies. Kimmerer presents Dolp as an example of how someone can set about restoring a relationship with the land and also practice reciprocity by undoing the destructive work of past humans.
First Franz builds a cabin for himself—made of cedar, as he originally intended, but he has to purchase the wood from elsewhere because the native trees have been so thoroughly clear-cut from his own land. Kimmerer describes how the Indigenous rainforest people also built structures out of cedar, and even developed a way of using some of its wood without killing the tree at all—entirely sustainable forestry that is the antithesis of the modern lumber industry.
Dolp tries to be close to the land in his home itself—and whether purposefully or not, to recreate the home materials of past people—but the land has been so thoroughly destroyed that he must go elsewhere for the redcedar that should be native to Shotpouch.
To even own the land at Shotpouch, Franz has to register an “approved management plan” for the property, which is not classified as forest but rather as “timberland.” The state offers him assistance via herbicides and genetically modified Douglas Firs, but this is the opposite of what Franz wants. “To love a place is not enough,” he writes. “We must find a way to heal it.” Refusing to use the herbicides, he knows that he must clear the brush by hand.
This passage shows how the government thinks of land only in terms of the resources and short-term profits that it can provide. Fortunately, Dolp rejects their “management plan” and commits to the much slower and more difficult work of restoring the land without harmful chemicals.
There is a pattern for planting an industrial forest for logging, but no one had previously attempted to plant a natural, old-growth forest before. Franz has only the forest itself to teach him, so he closely observes how old-growth forests are actually arranged, mapping which species of trees grow in which environments. Eventually he hires a crew to help him clear the brush. Meanwhile he reads through dozens of ecology texts alongside studying the forest in person.
Like Robin, Franz Dolp sees the plants themselves as teachers, their wisdom evident in the very way that they live and interact with each other and their environments. To plant a new old-growth forest requires learning from scientific studies, but most importantly paying respectful attention to the forest itself.
Franz sometimes doubts if his plan will work, as it seems especially difficult to restore the environment that will allow cedar trees to flourish once more. Red cedar grows very slowly and patiently, so it is easily outcompeted by more opportunistic species. Ecologists estimate that “the window of opportunity for cedars to get started occurs perhaps only twice in a century.” Franz doesn’t have time to let regrowth happen naturally, so he has to plant the cedars himself.
As a human being living on a different timeline from trees, Dolp must sometimes rush the process in order to get anything done within his lifetime, but mostly he tries to abide by the most natural way of doing his work.
Despite all its delicate requirements for growth, red cedar is a common tree in many areas, especially in swampy soil that other species don’t like. Franz thus plants most of his new cedars alongside creeks. The antimicrobial properties of cedar wood—which make it good medicine for people—also protect the tree itself from fungi and rot, which is always a danger in the Northwestern rainforest.
The natural antifungal properties of mature redcedar are another example of a plant’s gifts causing mutual flourishing: helping the plant itself and also helping the people who respectfully harvest it.
Franz starts dating someone named Dawn, who works alongside him clearing brush and planting trees. They work together for years, planting more than 13,000 trees and creating “a network of trails with names that reflect intimacy with their forty acres.” Kimmerer describes a hand-drawn map of the property, full of names that suggest personal experience with the land. One is called “Cedar Family,” which leads her to discuss how cedar trees often grow together in groves, partly because the tree’s trunk and branches can take root and send up new growth if they are resting on the wet ground, making them easy to propagate.
Growing a relationship with the land can also lead to growing relationships between people, Kimmerer asserts, as the gift keeps giving and the community keeps growing. The way that redcedar propagates is another example of communal networks expanding by shared resources.
Kimmerer then comments on another name on Franz’s map: “Old Growth Children.” The name implies faith and hope for a future even after Franz himself is gone. His work is hard, delicate, and often frustrating as he learns more and more about the factors that make certain things grow and others fail. He writes that he wishes he had consulted with all the forest wildlife before he began his experiment, since they so often frustrate his efforts. When he is finally done planting, he writes, he has hope that he may truly heal the land—but he also knows that the land has helped him much more. “An element of reciprocity is the rule here. […] In restoring the land, I restore myself.”
In his work, Dolp learns the hard way many of the lessons that Kimmerer tries to relay in Braiding Sweetgrass. Here that means respecting the animacy and personhood of nonhuman animals and, more positively, recognizing that restoring the land is an act of reciprocity—even as Dolp works hard, the land is working to heal him at the same time.
Franz’s journal continues, as he describes how he has come to think of forestry as an art form more than a science. He wouldn’t claim the title “forester” for himself, but he would let himself be called an author who “writes in trees.” He imagines his land 150 years in the future as a thriving forest, but also knows that in its present state it is still very vulnerable and needs help from an “old-growth culture” to maintain it. His project continues to be the restoration of a personal relationship with the land, and to fulfill this goal, Franz co-creates the Spring Creek Project. His cabin in the woods is now a communal building for writers-in-residence and a place for artists to collaborate and share ideas about our relationships to land.
From the land Dolp has come to this important conclusion, fitting with the themes of Braiding Sweetgrass: environmental science and restoration are not enough. What is needed is a change in mindset and cultural values to maintain that restoration, and to rebuild people’s connection to the land so that environmental disasters do not take place again. Dolp’s thoughts on forestry again look beyond pure science into the realm of art, beauty, and wisdom, just as Kimmerer has tried to do.
Franz writes that he believes his work has taken root and he has hope that it will continue to flourish—and it has indeed. He was killed in 2004 in a collision with a paper mill truck, Kimmerer writes, but he has inspired thousands of people with his work, and the forest that he planted continues to grow. To close, she imagines the young cedars surrounding Franz’s cabin as a circle of dancers who, together with all the other citizens of the forest and the people who live and create there, work to “[dance] the old-growth children into being.” Kimmerer invites the reader to join them.
Dolp’s death is tragically ironic, in that he is killed by a vehicle of the exploitation of nature, specifically trees. Kimmerer often turns to the idea of dancing as an act of ceremonial healing and restoration, and here she personifies the trees that Dolp planted as dancing a slow dance for the restoration of their old-growth environment and a culture that might grow in reciprocity along with it.