Braiding Sweetgrass

by

Robin Wall Kimmerer

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Braiding Sweetgrass: Chapter 31 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The chapter begins with an italicized section in which Kimmerer tells a story of her own encounter with the Windigo. One day she walks across the meadow to her usual “medicine woods,” where she has been going for decades to gather plants from the forest. When she arrives, however, she is horrified to see that her neighbor—who technically owns the maple forest—has brought in loggers over the winter, and they have cut down almost all the trees.
The italicized sections of this closing chapter lean towards the fictional and fantastical, as Robin tells a first-person story about encountering the Windigo. This opening scene seems entirely based in reality, however, as her medicine woods—presumably where she harvested the wild leeks in “The Honorable Harvest”—have been callously cut down for quick lumber profits.
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Robin knows that all the other plants that depended on the maples will soon die out, to be replaced by the “invasive species that follow Windigo footprints.” “I fear that a world made of gifts cannot coexist with a world made of commodities,” Kimmerer writes. “I fear that I have no power to protect what I love against the Windigo.”
From Robin’s point of view, this is the stark choice offered by the two paths—we cannot have it both ways. We must truly rethink our relationship to the world and to each other if we are to save ourselves.
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Temporarily leaving the italicized story, Kimmerer describes how people in the past tried to defeat Windigos, but no matter how hard they fought, the Windigo always managed to slip away. Connecting the Windigo to materialistic greed once more, Kimmerer says that some people think that climate change will eventually become so drastic that exploitative economies will collapse and the Windigo heart will “melt,” but she knows that in the process there will be immeasurable loss for the world. Instead of waiting for things to get so bad that even the Windigo dies, she suggests we “strap on our snowshoes and track him down.”
The idea that Kimmerer describes here is one based in despair and fatalism, arguing that the only thing that will change society is the total collapse of the market economy. The problem with this is all that will be lost along the way, and the fact that the people suffering the most will not be the wealthy exploiters of the earth, but rather the least powerful. Instead, Kimmerer suggests that positive action is our only hope, and in this chapter she frames it not just as restoration work to save what is in danger, but as an active battle against something evil.
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Though humans alone could never defeat the Windigo in stories, with Nanabozho’s help they were able to succeed. Kimmerer points out something else unique about the story of this epic battle against the monster: it took place in the summer, the time of abundance and plenty. The Windigo is strongest in winter, in the season of scarcity and hunger, but when he is surrounded by plenitude he is weakened. The weapon that really defeats Windigo, Kimmerer states, is plenty. Unfortunately, the idea of plenty is antithetical to capitalism, which requires scarcity to drive the constant consumption on which it thrives. The wealthiest nations on earth must reinforce this sense of scarcity, creating “famine for some and diseases of excess for others.” This, Kimmerer says, is the “Windigo economy.”
Here Kimmerer returns to some of the earliest motifs of the book: the idea that perceiving of things as gifts rather than commodities creates a sense of fullness and abundance, making one appreciate the object more. Capitalism, however, cannot last on appreciation and fullness, as it requires scarcity to drive more consumption—just like the never-ending hunger of the Windigo. This suggests that on a personal level, we can help to fight the Windigo by resisting the market economy’s push to consume more and more, and instead appreciate the abundance of gifts that are already around us.
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Kimmerer doesn’t have an easy alternative for modern capitalist economies, but she suggests that we turn to Indigenous wisdom once more for guidance, in this case the teaching of “One Bowl and One Spoon.” This is the idea that all the earth’s gifts are contained within one bowl, and that they are to be shared by all with one spoon. The teaching is similar to the “economy of the commons,” where resources that benefit everyone are “commonly held rather than commodified.”
Kimmerer stops short of outright endorsing a socialist stance, but she does support a communal approach to public goods. Most socialist states still see the earth as a commodity, just one to be distributed rather than bought and sold, and Kimmerer wants much more than that. To hold these things equally is to share them as gifts rather than as goods.
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Changing our economy is important, Kimmerer says, but we also need a change of heart to accompany it. “Scarcity and plenty are as much qualities of the mind and spirit as they are of the economy,” she says, and “gratitude plants the seed for abundance.” We were all originally Indigenous to somewhere on earth, Kimmerer reminds the reader, and we can “reclaim our membership in the cultures of gratitude that formed our old relationships with the living earth.” Gratitude fights Windigo thinking—and it also just makes people happier.
This passage contextualizes our current industrial capitalist society within the span of human history—it hasn’t always been this way, and it doesn’t need to stay this way. This is important on a global political level, but also on an individual level, as Kimmerer reminds readers that changing their own perspectives is crucial to changing the world, and will benefit them as well—this is the concept of mutual flourishing.
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Kimmerer returns to the italicized story of her personal experience. Surrounded by the clear-cut forest, Robin throws herself to the ground in grief. She feels powerless against the Windigo, having only the wisdom and knowledge of plants on her side. But looking around her at the budding strawberries, asters and goldenrod, and sweetgrass, she hears them affirm their own power against the Windigo: “we already have everything we need,” they say. As Robin rises from the ground, Nanabozho appears, grinning mischievously. He tells Robin to give the Windigo “a taste of his own medicine” and then he walks off, laughing.
After an interlude of essentially addressing the reader directly about our need for change, this italicized story returns to a fictionalized version of Robin’s own struggle with the Windigo. She is aided by all the wisdom of plants and the knowledge of her heritage that she has leaned on throughout the book, going again through the major plants of earlier chapters as she is reminded of the friends and teachers who will help her to defeat the monster.
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Over the next few months, Robin gathers plants to make a medicine to defeat the Windigo. She starts with buckthorn, a harmful invasive species that takes over environments and poisons the soil so that other species cannot grow. Kimmerer describes buckthorn as a plant that’s a “winner in the free market, a success story built on efficiency, monopoly, and the creation of scarcity.” She gathers buckthorn berries and then many other plants, drying them in her home and waiting for winter to return. By her door she hangs a braid of sweetgrass, which reminds her of the web of reciprocity, the gifts exchanged between people and the land. In the Windigo, “the braid is unraveled,” leaving him isolated from these gifts and the rest of creation.
Throughout the book Robin has gathered wisdom from many plants, but also recognized invasive plants that often follow in the footsteps of colonizers and that don’t live by the rules of reciprocity and mutual flourishing, like buckthorn. As Nanabozho suggested, she is giving Windigo a taste of his own medicine with this buckthorn, which thrives in an environment of scarcity and competition, but is ultimately poisonous. Sweetgrass again is representative of the braid of reciprocity between people and Mother Earth, between gifts and responsibilities, and the Windigo is representative of this braid unraveled. It is a terrible thing to be cut off from the web of reciprocity, as Kimmerer noted previously.
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The previous night Robin had friends over to share food and laughter, but tonight she is alone in the house, waiting for the Windigo. She starts to make her medicine: first she boils water and adds in all the dried buckthorn berries that she has collected, making a blue-black syrup. In a different pot she mixes pure spring water with a few carefully selected flower petals, root pieces, berries, and leaves. She sets this pot to simmer as well. As a snowstorm builds, she hears the Windigo at her door. Robin puts the sweetgrass braid into her pocket and goes to confront him.
The Windigo has no power in the time of abundance and community, of sharing food with friends. So it is only when she is alone that Robin knows that he will come, but she is also waiting for him and ready with her two medicines: one of poison, and one of healing. Sweetgrass, her old teacher and friend, gives her strength in this moment of truth.
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Robin opens the door and faces the Windigo: a tall, icy monster with red eyes and yellow fangs. He reaches for Robin, but she distracts him by placing a cup of the buckthorn tea into his hands. The Windigo drinks it all and howls for more—he is always hungry—reaching for the pot and drinking all of it. He then tries to attack Robin, but suddenly lurches back out into the snow and vomits. Buckthorn tea is a strong laxative, and taking a large amount at once causes immediate vomiting. The Windigo throws up “coins and coal slurry,” bones and sawdust, Solvay waste, an oil slick, and more. Finally he has nothing left to vomit up and lies weakened but still hungry in the snow.
The Windigo’s vomit contains all the pollution and toxic waste of our industrial capitalist world, exploiting the earth and poisoning it with our greed, destroying each other and nonhuman beings alike. Endless consumption does not happen in a vacuum, and all this vomit is the real, physical consequence of our current system. The buckthorn tea, representative of the Windigo thinking of competition and exploitation, acts as a cleansing agent, draining his starving belly with the poison of even more scarcity.
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Robin runs inside and fetches her other tea. The Windigo is repulsed by its smell, so Robin drinks some to reassure him, and he takes a sip. This tea, which is a beautiful pink-gold color, is made of many things including Strawberries, the Three Sisters, Wild Leeks, Pecans, Witch Hazel, Cedars, and Maple, each plant representing a different gift of wisdom. “You can’t know reciprocity until you know the gift,” Kimmerer says, and the Windigo is “helpless before their power.”
This tea of healing is made up of the plants that have guided Robin throughout Braiding Sweetgrass, from its very first chapters. The Windigo is strong in his endless hunger and greed, but these plants have their own, greater strength in the quiet but enduring power of reciprocity and generosity, the strength of the relationship that lasts.
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The cup is still full and the Windigo looks satisfied after just that one sip, but Robin knows that there is another necessary ingredient to her medicine. She sits down beside the Windigo—the snow is melting and the grass is already turning green—and begins to tell him the story of Skywoman, starting with the first words of the book: “She fell like a maple seed, pirouetting from the autumn sky.”
Throughout the book, Kimmerer has come to believe that language and storytelling are part of our human gift and responsibility to the earth, especially for her as a writer and storyteller. This is then the final part of her medicine to defeat Windigo: the telling of a story to pass on the wisdom of her heritage and her plant teachers, to restore the relationship between people and land. This story then is Braiding Sweetgrass itself, as she begins again with the story of Skywoman, hoping to love the Windigo back into wholeness.
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