Braiding Sweetgrass

by

Robin Wall Kimmerer

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Braiding Sweetgrass: Chapter 27 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Kimmerer describes her home of upstate New York, which was once Onondaga land and part of the Haudenosaunee (or Iroquois) Confederacy. Robin drinks from a cool, clear spring whose water has been filtered by natural limestone. She thinks of how faithful water is, always flowing and providing as it is meant to, and the Thanksgiving Address, which reminds us to be grateful for the water’s diligent work.
Recognizing the animacy in nonhuman things means seeing all the elements of life taking part in communal existence, acting out their own gifts and responsibilities as recognized in the roll call of the Thanksgiving Address.
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Kimmerer tells the story of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy’s founding. Long ago, she says, the people forgot to live with gratitude, and fought constant wars between themselves. Then a Huron man called the Peacemaker began spreading a message of peace to all the tribes, traveling among them as they fought. An Onondaga chief named Tadodaho initially refused his message. At first Tadodaho was so poisoned by hatred that his hair was full of snakes, but eventually he accepted the Peacemaker’s message and was healed.
When exactly the Peacemaker founded the Haudenosaunee Confederacy is unknown, estimated between 1450 and 1660 but possibly as early as 1142. The story of Tadodaho and the people before the Peacemaker is another cautionary tale warning of the danger of living in violence and competition instead of gratitude and reciprocity.
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The Peacemaker gathered the leaders of the five Haudenosaunee nations at the “Great Tree of Peace,” a white pine on the shore of Onondaga Lake. This was the birth of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, “the oldest living democracy on the planet,” in which all five tribes agreed to abide by the Great Law of Peace. Tadodaho was honored for the special role that the Onondaga played in this act, and the name Tadodaho has since then been passed down to the Confederacy’s spiritual leaders. The Confederacy thrived for many years, Kimmerer says, but today “the ground where the Peacemaker walked is a Superfund site.”
Other democracies (like Ancient Greece) were older, but the Haudenosaunee Confederacy continues to this day, which is what Kimmerer means by “oldest living democracy.” The united Haudenosaunee nations are still represented by the white pine tree. A superfund site is an area designated by the EPA for the cleanup of hazardous substances. The contrast between the history of the Peacemaker and this single closing sentence warns the reader that the rest of the story is not a pleasant one.
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Kimmerer now relates how Onondaga Lake went from a sacred and cherished site to one of the most polluted lakes in the country. Starting in the late 1700s, early industrialists built factories there and used the lake as a chemical dumping ground. The Tree of Peace is now buried by waste beds, which formed new shorelines entirely. This lifeless white waste is known as Solvay waste because it is the byproduct of the Solvay Process, which turns limestone into soda ash, itself a crucial ingredient in many industrial processes. In the late 1800s, the Solvay Process Company made the region explode in wealth. Trains full of products left Onondaga Lake, while the pipes kept pouring out more waste into the lake itself.
The soda ash (sodium carbonate) produced by the Solvay Process is used in many soaps and cleaning materials, as well as in the production of glass and paper, among other mass-produced products. As is the case with too many of the stories told in Braiding Sweetgrass, at Onondaga Lake settlers exploited and destroyed the long-term abundance that was already present for the sake of their own immediate profits, with no thought for the consequences of their actions.
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The limestone for the Solvay Process was quarried from nearby open pit mines, turned into soda ash, and the waste dumped into the lake. Kimmerer imagines how the wildlife felt as they encountered the very first ejection of that waste. The pipes filled in not only a new shoreline, but the surrounding wetlands as well. Further, even once it has become the new land the waste continues to leach chemicals into the water whenever it rains. “The water has been tricked,” Kimmerer writes: the rain and the creek that flow into Onondaga Lake are fulfilling their purpose responsibly, but now they have been made to carry poison into the lake instead of new life.
Kimmerer returns to the idea of water as constantly fulfilling its responsibilities according to the rule of reciprocity, but here it has been “tricked” by humans who have disrupted the system for the sake of greed and profits. Once again rich ecosystems that don’t fit capitalist ideas of productivity are sacrificed and destroyed in the name of progress and profit.
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Kimmerer describes how Onondaga Lake looks today, its shoreline steep with white cliffs of Solvay waste. The waste continues to leak salts into the water, which keeps aquatic plants from growing. Underwater plants create oxygen that other lake creatures rely on to survive, so the lake without underwater plants remains oxygen-poor and lacking in life. Fishing was banned in the lake in 1970 because of high amounts of mercury in the water, and even today it isn’t considered safe to eat fish from Onondaga Lake. Mercury was a byproduct of another chemical process used by Allied Chemical (the successor company to the Solvay Process Company), and the toxic element still circulates through the lake’s food chain.
Onondaga Lake is like the opposite of the pond by Robin’s home (ironically close by)—devoid of plant life rather than choking with an abundance of it. All of this waste was created in the name of immediate profits and abundance, but there are long-term repercussions to these short-term gains.
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In the 1880s, at the height of its industrial wealth, Onondaga Lake was a tourist attraction famed for its swimming and whitefish. Swimming was banned in 1940, however, when the waters became too toxic. The water is also muddy now because of flow from Onondaga Creek, which contains the Tully mudboils: eruptions of mud from the creek floor.
Even from a purely capitalist perspective, this shows how the pollution robbed the lake of long-term profits by destroying the tourism and fishing industry. The mudboils are separate from the Solvay waste, but cause their own problems for Onondaga Lake.
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Some consider the mudboils to be natural geologic features, but Kimmerer says that Onondaga elders remember when the creek was perfectly clear, and that the mudboils didn’t appear until salt mining began. Allied Chemical began salt mining from the headwaters of Onondaga Creek when the closer salt wells ran dry, which meant pumping salt for miles through Onondaga Nation territory, ruining their water whenever a pipe broke. The waste also likely created the mudboils that now make the creek run brown. Allied Chemical still refuses to claim any responsibility for the mudboils, saying that they are an “act of God.” “What kind of God would that be?” Kimmerer asks.
It is a sad reality that many pipelines like this go through Indigenous territory in North America, leading to health and environmental crises when the pipes leak or break. Another sad reality is that corporations like this rarely face any real penalties for their crimes or are forced to make restitution. Because there is no legal proof that the mudboils were caused or exacerbated by the mines, Allied Chemical can claim that its hands are clean.
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Kimmerer compares the wounds of Onondaga Lake and its waterways to the snakes that needed to be combed out of Tadodaho’s hair. All these waters are supposed to be part of the Onondaga Nation, but “water is more faithful to its responsibilities than the United States would ever be.” She describes how George Washington ordered the destruction of the Onondaga people during the Revolutionary War, leading to tens of thousands of deaths, and the many broken treaties that followed—along with the boarding schools like Carlisle that further destroyed so much of the people’s cultural heritage.
The Onondaga, like the rest of the Haudenosaunee, allied themselves with the British in the Revolutionary War, and in response George Washington named the entire Haudenosaunee Confederacy an enemy of the U.S. He then ordered what is now known as the “Sullivan Campaign,” in which an army led by Gen. John Sullivan destroyed more than 40 Haudenosaunee villages, along with all of their crops, and killed and imprisoned countless warriors and civilians. The note of bitterness in Kimmerer’s voice here seems entirely justified in light of this history.
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Despite all this, Kimmerer says, the Onondaga people continue to feel a responsibility to and love for their land, and they try to live according to the Peacemaker’s Great Law of Peace. “The people went on giving thanks to the land, although so much of the land had little reason to be thankful for the people.” Onondaga also remains an Indigenous nation still separate from U.S. sovereignty, despite having their territory drastically reduced. Recently the Onondaga people have tried to use U.S. law to reclaim their land, filing a suit in 2005 saying that it was illegally taken from them. The Supreme Court even upheld their claims.
Kimmerer expresses a similar sentiment here as when she described the Mohawks exiled in Akwesasne, who continued to follow the Thanksgiving Address even as the land itself was polluted by industry. Kimmerer clearly respects the Onondagas’ decision to retain their own sovereignty in the face of U.S. government disloyalty.
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Unlike many Native nations who receive various government settlements for their claims, the Onondaga called their suit a “land rights action.” Kimmerer then quotes from the suit, which states that the land is not property to be possessed, and also that they will not try to evict anyone living on the land, instead aiming to bring about peace among everyone who lives there. The suit’s overall goal was “to gain the legal standing necessary to move restoration of the land forward”—to begin the proper cleanup of Onondaga Lake and its surrounding area. The defendants were the state of New York and several corporations, including Honeywell Incorporated (the new name for the former Allied Chemical).
The Onondaga again hold true to their values rather than letting themselves be bought out, affirming their rights to the land but also the rights of the land itself. This is the kind of accountability necessary for real restoration, Kimmerer suggests. Corporations need to be held accountable for pollution, the government needs to be held accountable for land theft, and all parties involved need to move forward in a spirit of peace and restoration rather than revenge.
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Because of other outside pressures, Honeywell had already begun cleaning up Onondaga Lake, but only in superficial ways—merely covering the contaminants in sand—that wouldn’t help restore the living balance of the lake. The Onondaga Nation suit sought to hold the corporation accountable for a full cleanup of the lake, with no half-measures. Kimmerer emphasizes that this suit was not just about who owns the land, but about the rights of the land itself. She quotes an Onondaga Clan Mother, who says that the suit is about “justice for the whole of Creation.” In 2010, however, a federal court dismissed the suit altogether.
Corporations exist for the sake of their own profits and can necessarily have no concern for the value of nonhuman beings. Thus, their reparations to the lake are the bare minimum in terms of cost and effectiveness. This lawsuit seemed like a sea change in the way that the land might begin to have its own legal rights and restoration might be written into law, but sadly the story ends abruptly in this passage. Those in power will never willingly give up that power by means of their own systems.
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Robin now describes her own experience with Onondaga Lake: she knew nothing of its history until college, when her attention was briefly brought to it by seeing a huge HELP sign along the shore from the highway. Fifteen years later, when she lived in Syracuse again, she had a free day and decided to visit the lake. Robin drives to an abandoned fairground on the lake’s shore, parking her car and finding her way along a path through thick, tall reeds. There are more than a thousand acres of “wasteland” along Onondaga’s shore, and as she walks alone through the reeds Robin suddenly feels afraid, like she’s in a horror movie.
This part of the narrative shifts to Robin’s personal, present-day experience as she explores the wasteland of Onondaga’s shores. The gigantic “HELP” sign is introduced rather mysteriously at first, but Kimmerer gives context for it later on in this same chapter.
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Robin turns a corner and faces what initially seems to be the scene of a gruesome murder—but then she realizes that all the bloody figures make up a life-sized diorama, part of an abandoned “Haunted Hayrides” attraction from the previous Halloween, sponsored by the Solvay Lions Club. After her initial terror Robin can’t help but laugh, but then she thinks about the irony of it all. What has actually happened on this land is just as gruesome as any bloody execution—and the executioner is named Solvay Process, now Honeywell. She thinks further about the horror of the fact that these were not faceless corporations, but real people who filled the lake with poison, all “just doing their jobs.”
The “Haunted Hayrides” diorama that Robin finds hits all the usual horror-movie tropes, and even her narrative initially seems like she has stumbled onto a murder scene. At the same time, she points out the irony that the real horror is the lake and shoreline that she is standing on: the brutal removal of the native people who lived there and the destruction of millions of nonhuman lives as well. While Kimmerer recognizes the power of corporations and governments, she always advocates for personal change and individual responsibility: corporations and governments are made up of individuals, so their choices matter. It was real people who chose to continue the destruction of Onondaga Lake.
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Kimmerer comments on how contemporary people have been psychologically conditioned to avoid confronting environmental disasters directly. She then muses on the word “wasteland,” which implies that the land itself has become useless or been squandered—and in the case of Onondaga Lake no one seemed concerned, as “ruined land was accepted as the collateral damage of progress.”
Kimmerer attempts to make readers look directly at the damage, the wasteland that is the result of our current society of convenience and consumption. She can be hopeful and gentle in her writing, but also piercingly direct about the horrors of our reality.
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In the 1970s, a professor at the local College of Environmental Science and Forestry seeded and fertilized one of the Solvay waste beds facing the highway such that when the grass eventually sprouted, it spelled out the word HELP—the same sign that Robin herself had seen as a student. This one-word message was apt, she thinks, as Onondaga Lake was like a kidnapping victim unable to speak for itself.
This explains the HELP sign that the young Robin saw from the highway, briefly alerting her to the tragedy taking place in slow motion. Individual acts of protest like that of the professor can have an effect, the passage suggests—and we also have a responsibility to speak for the things that cannot speak for themselves.
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Kimmerer now asks the reader how we respond to these wastelands. We can despair, letting ourselves be overwhelmed by the environmental disasters everywhere in our world. It is important to grieve for the land, she believes, but grief is also a part of love, and to love the land is also to give back to it some of the gifts and joy that it still gives to us. Environmentalism has mostly become about doomsday predictions and pessimism, she notes, rather than about actively giving back to the land and having a healthy relationship with it.
In the face of these tragedies it is easy to despair, Kimmerer admits, but we also have the responsibility to do more than just the easy thing. If we are really to love this world, then we must be willing to do the work of restoring it and also give our own gifts and joys. This is a relationship, after all, a system of reciprocity, and is meant to be constantly growing and adapting.
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The idea that if people only knew what was happening then they would change their ways is misguided, Kimmerer believes. People do know about what our economies have done to the planet, and those that care are merely moved to despair, not positive action. “Despair is paralysis,” she writes, and we cannot let ourselves be paralyzed when the land itself is crying out for “HELP.” “It’s not enough to grieve,” she says. “It’s not enough to just stop doing bad things.”
This is a crucial passage, as Kimmerer makes a direct plea to readers: awareness alone is clearly not the answer, and sustainable consumption is just slowing the problem. We must do more than do fewer bad things: we must actively start doing good things, offering our own gifts back to the generous earth that we have so terribly wounded.
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Related Quotes
After eating the feast that Mother Earth has provided for us, Kimmerer says, it’s time for us to do our dishes. This doesn’t have to be a burden, but can be a communal effort that forms relationships between people and the land. The act of restoring the land, “doing the dishes,” also means reconsidering how we think about land in the first place. Kimmerer suggests a new tableau as a counterpart to the Haunted Hayride at Onondaga Lake. This would be a ride about reimagining land in the process of restoring it.
Kimmerer has used the “doing the dishes” metaphor before to represent the act of restoration that is our responsibility, and again she emphasizes that doing the dishes together can actually build community and be something joyful and loving, a passing on and sharing of new gifts. The rest of the chapter is framed as different stops in a reimagined version of the haunted hayride ride: this one about the stages of restoration and the different ways of thinking about land.
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The first stop in this “hayride” might be called “Land as Capital,” Kimmerer imagines. This is the general modern mindset that the land is nothing but a commodity to be exploited for profit, as represented by the original Solvay waste beds themselves. The second stop, “Land as Property,” is reflected in the city’s sloppy attempts to undo the damage by planting invasive reeds to cover the waste beds. This strategy is employed widely, as companies and governments that destroy entire ecosystems then just cover the carnage with some new vegetation to feel like they have done right by their property.
These first two stops really are like a haunted hayride, as they represent the current state of much of the world, where land is treated as capital and property to be exploited without any concern for its own sovereignty or value. Viewing the land solely as property means treating it however the person who owns it wishes—even supposed restoration is only done for the sake of optics and reduced losses.
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Some people have stood against this kind of behavior, however, like Bill Jordan, who cofounded the Society for Ecological Restoration. Ecological restoration is not about returning the appearance of nature, but the actual functioning ecological system that was previously lost. At the ride’s third stop, “Land as Machine,” Kimmerer describes how native plants can be used as engineering solutions for restoration, like the push to plant willow trees to absorb water pollution. Kimmerer understands the good intentions behind these ideas, but they also assume a worldview in which only humans can be active subjects, while plants and other creatures are passive objects.
As the ride progresses, the tableaus shift through the different ways that we think about land, starting with the mindsets that Kimmerer believes are the most harmful, and progressively improving. In these middle sections are ways of treating the land that are well-intentioned but still flawed, as she explains here. She appreciates the work of restoration through science, but also reminds the reader of the limitations of science when it comes to real relationships and recognizing the animacy and value of nonhuman beings.
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Instead, Kimmerer suggests that we take the Indigenous worldview, viewing the ecosystem as “not a machine, but a community of sovereign beings.” This leads to the ride’s next display, which Kimmerer doesn’t yet name. The restoration ecologists at work at this stop are not scientists, however, but the plants themselves, Mother Earth’s greatest teachers and healers.
Throughout the book Kimmerer has emphasized the importance of humility and awareness, which in turn can lead us to learn from the teachings of plants. “The community of sovereign beings” echoes the idea of the “democracy of species,” again placing humanity as part of a community of equals rather than a hierarchy of subject and objects.
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Kimmerer then describes the plants that have gradually taken root along the wounded shores of Onondaga Lake. Robin digs into the soil where these plants have survived and sees that it is slowly returning from white waste to dark rich earth. She watches ants carrying both waste and grass seeds, slowly removing the poison and spreading new life. Birch trees grow with the help of algae, and birds perch in the branches, defecating seeds that become fruiting shrubs. Robin sees new beginnings and reciprocity everywhere here, in “the small incremental processes by which an ecological community is built.”
As Robin personally explores the shore of Onondaga lake, she sees some signs of hope. This is the result of awareness and humility: recognizing that true restoration will mostly be the work of the land itself, as the ecosystem rebuilds itself entirely outside of human intervention. In the cycles of giving and receiving that she sees here a new system of reciprocity is being constructed, healing the poisoned land through community.
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Kimmerer finally names this tableau: “Land as Teacher, Land as Healer.” We can learn from the natural processes that plants use to build new ecosystems and restore lost ones. Indeed, the lake has “offered signs of hope” in recent years, as life returns with the help of human engineering and restoration efforts. The water itself continues to remember its duty as well, Kimmerer says.
The water is ever-dutiful, Kimmerer reminds the reader, and when it is allowed to be a vehicle for life instead of death it will help in the work of restoration. Again she affirms the importance of humbly learning from nonhuman beings and the land itself.
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Whatever new ecosystem might emerge at Onondaga Lake, it is likely to be “naturalized” rather than native, and unrecognizable to the people who lived there with the Peacemaker. Some new plant communities are thriving here, however, and Robin goes to visit them with a fellow professor and his students, who have been testing which plants can survive and hopefully recreate the original salt marsh. As she observes the plants, she smells something haunting and familiar, but soon it disappears. Next she admires a stand of goldenrod and asters. She imagines this tableau of restored plant-life as another stop on the hayride, this one titled “Land as Responsibility.”
Kimmerer recognizes that there is no restoring all that has been lost, returning to the idea that a colonist can never become truly indigenous. Becoming naturalized to a new home, however, remains the best option and is what she hopes for the future of Onondaga Lake’s ecosystem. As she moves through this imaginary tableau and the real-life lakeshore, Robin returns to some of the important plants of earlier in the book, like the asters and goldenrod.
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As she observes the students working among their plants, however, Robin feels that something is missing in this tableau as well. Everyone speaks of data and solutions, but no one dares to use words like “beautiful” or “love.” Suddenly she smells the familiar aroma again. Examining a nearby patch of green, Robin sees that it is sweetgrass—thriving even here at Onondaga Lake. Referring to sweetgrass like a teacher and friend, Kimmerer says that “she reminded me that it is not the land that has been broken, but our relationship to it.”
Continuing through the important plants of the book, Robin comes to its most central one: sweetgrass. She sees sweetgrass as a teacher and friend, and here it reminds her that for true restoration we must move beyond hard science and develop a real relationship with the land and its nonhuman inhabitants. Much of restoration can be done with science, but science cannot build relationships of love.
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Restoration is necessary to heal the earth, Kimmerer says, but “reciprocity is imperative for long-lasting, successful restoration.” Science is a crucial part of restoration practices, but restoration should not be the domain of only science. We must be reminded that we aren’t the ones in control of the earth, only our relationship to it. Along with restoring the land itself, we must restore “a relationship of respect, responsibility, and reciprocity. And love.” Kimmerer then quotes a statement from the Indigenous Environmental Network, saying that science is the “head and hands” of restoration, but Native spirituality is the “heart” that guides them. “Ecological restoration is inseparable from cultural and spiritual restoration.”
This important passage distills some of the themes of Braiding Sweetgrass: one being that scientific work is important, but it should not and cannot be the end of our relationship to the earth. That requires active reciprocity, the giving of our own gifts, and the humble awareness that we are just one part of the democracy of species, the younger siblings of creation. The quotation from the Indigenous Environmental Network is then a reminder that these are not Kimmerer’s own ideas: she is passing on established wisdom, and there are many others who share her worldview.
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Robin recalls going on a date when she was a college student in Syracuse; she asked her date to show her Onondaga Lake, but he seemed embarrassed by it because of its odor and wouldn’t even get out of the car when they got there. Another friend who grew up there recalls imagining the toxic sludge of Allied Chemical as a vision of hell. It’s easy to write off Onondaga Lake, Kimmerer says, but there are seeds of hope here as well. Just as resilient plants have returned to the waste beds, so the Onondaga people themselves have endured and continue to try to fulfill their duty to the land.
Because of Robin’s close relationship to the land and its inhabitants, the idea that someone could be ashamed of their home because of how other people have mistreated it seems especially poignant to Robin. It is brutally ironic that the sacred place where the Great Law of Peace was established recently looked like hell itself.
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Kimmerer now describes a new declaration put forward by the Onondaga: the “Onondaga Nation Vision for a Clean Onondaga Lake.” The declaration follows the pattern of the Thanksgiving Address, greeting each element of creation while also offering a plan for restoring the lake. The declaration is an example of a new approach called “biocultural or reciprocal restoration,” which echoes the Indigenous worldview that restoration should be part of a people’s relationship to the land. “It is relationship that will endure and relationship that will sustain the restored land,” Kimmerer writes. “It is medicine for the earth.”
This vision for Onondaga Lake and these new approaches to restoration are exactly what Kimmerer hopes for in our future on this planet: looking beyond science and capitalism and trying to undo the damage we have done, but also restoring a full relationship with the land in the process. Science is crucial to this work, but so is traditional knowledge and ceremony.
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There was a recent cultural event held for the restoration of Onondaga Lake, Kimmerer says. Participants brought vessels of clean water (including one all the way from Mount Fuji in Japan) and poured them into the lake as a symbol of healing. Onondaga people danced traditional dances, people gave speeches, and the group joined together to plant a new tree in the tradition of the Tree of Peace. This sixth stop on the hayride would be called “Land as Sacred, Land as Community.”
This is an example of the kind of ceremony that Kimmerer has hinted at in chapters like “An Offering” and “Burning Cascade Head.” This ceremony is celebrating a specific place and involves Indigenous practices but also new non-Indigenous aspects that focus the participants’ attention on what is important: the restoration of the lake and the restoration of the relationships between people. This is also another example of the work of restoration not being drudgery but rather an opportunity for joy and community, the giving and receiving of gifts.
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There are hopeful stories of environments being restored, Kimmerer asserts, and these stories can serve as inspiration, feeding the desire within us all to be closer to our mother earth, acting as “antidotes to the poison of despair.” Restoration and relationship to the land must continue to push our society towards a “life-sustaining civilization” instead of the current “Industrial Growth Society.” We need to heal the earth, but in the process the earth will also heal us—and we need it to. To close the chapter, Kimmerer imagines one last, future stop on the hayride tour. In this scene, titled “Land as Home,” families gather happily by Onondaga Lake, fishing and swimming under trees full of birds, with both the American flag and the Haudenosaunee flag flying proudly together.
This long chapter is one of the most important of the book, as Kimmerer speaks directly about some of the darkest parts of history and the present—genocide, oppression, the destruction of the environment—but also warns against despair as a reaction to these realities. It is appropriate to mourn for them, she believes, but also to hope, and hope leads to new action. She began with the story of the Peacemaker and the founding of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, and ends with an imagined future in which Onondaga Lake is a sacred place of abundance and community once more.
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