When she was young, Robin’s father taught Robin and her siblings to light a fire using only one match. This meant patiently searching for the right firewood and kindling. The hard work involved also taught them about responsibility and reciprocity with the land. After they learned this lesson, they then went on to learn to light more difficult fires, like starting a one-match fire in the rain or snow. Kimmerer now muses on the simple act of creating something so important as a fire: something that is both a gift and a responsibility.
In the worldview of reciprocity with the land, even nonliving things can be granted animacy and value of their own, in this case a fire. Because of its great power of both aid and destruction, fire contains within itself the two aspects of reciprocity: the gift and the responsibility that comes with the gift. Again, patience and humble mindfulness are important aspects of any sacred act.
Potawatomi means “People of the Fire,” and so it seemed especially important to Robin and her family that they master and share this skill. In the present, Robin works to light a fire in the traditional way, without using any matches at all, but instead only a bow and drill. This is not a feat of engineering alone, but also requires bringing oneself into harmony with the involved materials and working with them in a balanced way.
Fire itself contains the harmony of creation and destruction, so to bring it into existence properly it is necessary to be mindful of this harmony within oneself as well. This simple act then becomes an expression of Robin’s Potawatomi heritage and close relationship with the nonhuman world.
Kimmerer describes her father, now 83 years old, teaching lessons about fire to a group of children at a Native youth science camp. He explains about the four types of fire, starting with the campfire that they have just built together, which is used to keep them warm and to cook food. A second type is a forest fire, which can be wild and uncontrolled or used to bring about new life. Robin’s father explains how Indigenous people learned the science of controlled forest fires that could help clear the land for new species of plants and encourage new birch trees to grow—which themselves provided tinder for new campfires.
Robin’s father’s lessons here about the different types of fire exhibit the dance of balance within the element, and also highlight how it is like a person in itself, with its own unique qualities, gifts, and responsibilities. This passage is also another reminder of the traditional wisdom that is now being confirmed by the science that once scorned it, particularly about the value of controlled forest fires to encourage new growth and prevent larger disasters.
Robin’s father emphasizes that it’s important for people to be involved in nature, that we have a responsibility to the land itself. “The land gives us so many gifts,” he says, and “fire is a way we can give back.” He describes using fire on the land like a paintbrush, sweeping across and making new environments for plants and animals. Fire was the responsibility of the Potawatomi people, he says—“it was our art and our science.”
This is a beautiful image of fire as a paintbrush across the land, and also another example of a uniquely human gift—the ability to control fire—that we can offer to the land in the spirit of reciprocity. Notably, the use of fire is both art and science for the Potawatomi people, combining both in their close relationship with the element and its effects on the land.
Kimmerer then continues her father’s point about traditional controlled burns creating new life. The birch forests that thrived on these burnings also hosted a special fungus: the chaga mushroom, known to the Potawatomi as shkitagen. The mushroom is hard to find and extract, but it can then be used as a firekeeper, maintaining an ember within its intricate network of pores and threads. Shkitagen will nurture the spark inside its own body, keeping it alive.
The controlled burns are ancient practices that combine science with spirituality, and Kimmerer briefly explains the scientific aspect of them once again. The plant (or technically fungus) central to this chapter is the chaga mushroom, a parasitic fungus of cold-climate birch forests. Kimmerer sees wisdom in the complex network within the mushroom’s body, that which keeps the spark alive.
Robin’s father continues his lesson. The third type of fire, he says, is the Sacred Fire, which is used for ceremonial purposes and represents the Potawatomi spiritual traditions. There are not many ceremonies using this fire in modern times, but he tells his students that they all carry part of the Sacred Fire within themselves as well, and so they have the responsibility to honor it and keep it alive. Continuing, Robin’s father says that traditionally men are responsible for fire, and women for water. These two elements are both necessary for life and serve to balance each other. Hearing this, Kimmerer briefly references a similar teaching from Nanabozho about how fire itself must be balanced between creation and destruction, and how important it is that human beings understand this balance.
In “A Mother’s Work” Kimmerer referenced the traditional idea that women are the keepers of the water, and here Robin’s father completes the binary image of men as the keepers of the fire, both of them in balance with each other. The great grief of Native American history must always be taken into account, as Robin’s father here laments how few ceremonies of the Sacred Fire still exist. Still, even if the details have been lost, the spirit remains, just as his own offering of coffee to the land was in the spirit of older rituals whose details were unknown to him at the time.
Kimmerer then continues her father’s lesson, describing the last type of fire: a symbol of different eras in the life of the Anishinaabe nation. This is part of the “Seventh Fire Prophecy,” which she goes on to explain. The people of the First Fire were the Anishinaabe who lived along the Atlantic shore. The prophecy told them to move west, carrying their fire in bowls of shkitagen, to the place “where the food grows on the water.” Eventually they made their way to Lake Huron and an area that is now the city of Detroit, beginning the era of the Second Fire. There they divided into three groups: Ojibwe, Odawa, and Potawatomi.
Like the Popol Vuh story of the people made from different elements, this Anishinaabe story describes different eras of humanity, although of course specific to its own people and more directly considered a prophecy than a creation myth. The Anishinaabe people inhabit the Great Lakes regions, but in their own history they once lived along the Eastern coast and moved west according to this prophecy.
Each of these three tribes made their way around the Great Lakes in different ways, developing homes as they traveled, but eventually they were all reunited to form the people of the Third Fire, what is still known today as the “Three Fires Confederacy.” Building new homes on rice fields, they had finally found the place “where the food grows on water,” and they flourished alongside their nonhuman neighbors. Eventually two new prophets told of the coming of “light-skinned people in ships from the east,” but after this initial message the prophets’ messages were divided. The first prophet said that these strangers would come in a spirit of brotherhood, while the second said that they would come to steal their land—no one was sure which face the strangers would show. The colonizers’ actions made it clear that the second prophet was correct, however.
The first prophet’s prediction about the coming of Europeans again shows the tragedy of what might have been, how history could have been different if the colonizers had indeed come in the spirit of brotherhood.
In the time of the Fifth Fire, the prophecy warned of the Christian missionaries who would try to destroy the Native people’s spiritual traditions. This was the period of exile to reservations and of separating children from families to be “Americanized” at places like Carlisle. During the Sixth Fire, “the cup of life would almost become the cup of grief,” the prophecy said, as the people were scattered and turned away from their own culture and history. In this time of tragedy, a new prophet arose who predicted a people of the Seventh Fire: those who would return to the old ways and “retrace the steps of the ones who brought us here,” gathering up all that had been lost along the way. We are the people of the Seventh Fire, the elders say, and it is up to us to do the hard work.
These prophecies put the history of the colonization of Turtle Island into the context of Anishinaabe history. Rather than focusing on the actions of the colonizers, they emphasize how the Anishinaabe reacted to these actions. Importantly, the people of the Seventh Fire are not meant to seek out a new path, but to return to the old way that has almost been lost. This brings back the idea of history and prophecy as cyclical, as well as the importance of learning from past stories and mythologies.
Another part of the prophecy involves a crossroads for humanity in our current Seventh Fire age. This says that all the people of earth must choose between two paths: one is grassy and leads to life, while the other is scorched and black and leads to the destruction of humanity. Kimmerer connects this to our current crossroads regarding climate change and the depletion of earth’s resources. We can continue along our current path of reckless consumption, which has led to our fractured relationship to the land and the loss of countless non-human beings, or we can make a radical change.
This prophecy essentially speaks for itself: we are at a tipping point in our current age, nearing the point of no return for catastrophic climate change. Gradual reforms and sustainability practices that are still rooted in market capitalism are not enough anymore.
Kimmerer imagines the two paths vividly, describing the grassy path as full of people of all races and nations walking together and carrying lanterns of shkitagen, full of a vision of a world of reciprocity and respect for all of creation. In the distance she can see the other road, however, a black road of melted asphalt traversed by bullying drivers speeding recklessly ahead. Kimmerer says that she has her own experience with this “cinder path,” and she tells a story from decades before of one night in January.
The dark path Kimmerer imagines looks exactly like the road that we’re already on in our current system. It will take a drastic change to uproot those whose power comes from exploitation of the land.
On this night, Robin and her young daughters (Larkin is still a baby at this point) are awakened by the sound of thunder. Robin is confused—there shouldn’t be thunder in January—and when she looks outside, she sees that the sky is orange and the air is rocked by waves of heat. Robin rushes the girls to her car as Linden asks her if she is afraid. Robin lies and tells her that she’s not afraid, assuring Linden that everything is going to be okay. Robin quickly drives the girls to a neighbor friend’s house ten miles away, and there she sees on the news that a natural gas pipeline had exploded near their farm. A few days later Robin visits the site of the explosion, noting the black and melted road.
For Robin, the image of the asphalt road melted by a gas explosion is the epitome of the dark path in the Seventh Fire Prophecy. She is lucky that she is able to escape and reassure her daughters, but this will not always be the case with other climate-related disasters. Natural gas, which relies on unsustainable drilling, powers most of the electricity in America. Even worse, the gas pipelines are often built through Native American territory, and leaks and explosions like this can have dire consequences for the communities nearby.
Kimmerer says that on this night she had the experience of being a “climate refugee,” but she was fortunate that it was only for one night. The reality is that she is afraid “for my children and for the good green world,” and if Linden asked her now if she was afraid, she couldn’t lie and say that it’s all going to be okay. She worries that if we are the people of the seventh fire, that we might have already passed the crossroads and are hurdling along the scorched path. The only hope she has is if we can collectively assemble our gifts and wisdom to return to a “worldview shaped by mutual flourishing.”
This passage expands the idea of mutual flourishing to the global level, as only a change like this can save us and put us on a different path. Robin has tried to be a good mother, but now she realizes that that means telling the truth: she really doesn’t know if it’s going to be okay for her children.
Returning to the prophecy, Kimmerer says that some spiritual leaders have predicted an eighth fire of “peace and brotherhood,” one that will only be lit if we, the people of the Seventh Fire, are able to follow the green path of life. Kimmerer wonders what it will take to light this final fire, and in doing so returns to the lessons that she has learned from her people: “the spark itself is a mystery, but we know that before that fire can be lit, we have to gather the tinder, the thoughts, and the practices that will nurture the flame.”
The work of preparing for the fire is necessary to bring it into being, and this is the kind of work that Kimmerer says we, the people of the Seventh Fire, must do if we are to have any hope of lighting a new spark of the Eighth Fire.
Kimmerer then describes the materials necessary to make a fire in the traditional way: a board and shaft of cedar, a bow made of striped maple, its bowstring fiber from the dogbane plant, and tinder made of cattail fluff, cedar bark, and birch bark. Everything depends on the angle and motion of both these plants and the person working with them. Robin then describes her own struggle to achieve the necessary harmony of “knowledge, body, mind, and spirit” as she seeks to make the fire. Remembering the lesson of shkitagen and the Seventh Fire—to “turn back along the path and gather up what has been left beside the trail”—she tries again, this time noting another element of the fire: the air itself, the breath of the Creator providing fuel.
Many of the components of the fire-making ritual come from plants central to Braiding Sweetgrass—cedar, maple, cattail, and birch—bound together in a sort of dance between people, plants, and air. The breath, provided by the fire-maker themselves, is also a crucial element, showing another kind of reciprocity in which human beings can offer their own gifts to bring new life into being.
In closing, Kimmerer advises that we should be looking for people who are like shkitagen—those who keep the fire alive and carry it forward—and should seek to be like shkitagen ourselves.
This lyrical closing leaves open-ended just what it means to be like shkitagen—whatever each individual needs to do to keep the fire alive within themselves, receiving the gift and preparing to share it with others.