Braiding Sweetgrass

by

Robin Wall Kimmerer

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Braiding Sweetgrass: Chapter 8 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
This chapter, “told through the eyes of [Kimmerer’s] daughter,” begins with the narrator (almost certainly Linden, the eldest) musing on the weather of late fall days in Kentucky and the yellow flowers that decorate the bare branches of a witch hazel shrub. Linden visits a house that is now empty—though still decorated for a long-ago Christmas—and remembers when a woman named Hazel Barnett lived there.
In this chapter Kimmerer employs a new narrative technique, imagining her own past experiences through what she imagines her daughter’s memories to be. Linden has her own connection with plants, similar to her mother (and likely influenced by her).
Themes
Motherhood and Teaching Theme Icon
Linden first meets Hazel while she and her mother Robin are looking for wild blackberries, soon after they have moved to Kentucky. Hazel is a very old woman who calls out to them as they pass by her fence. Linden only knows the name “Hazel” from the plant witch hazel, and so she decides that Hazel “must be the witch herself.” Hazel and Robin soon become friends. At the time Robin is teaching at the local college and writing scientific articles, but she spends her evenings gardening. She and Hazel discuss plants, sitting together on the front porch and drinking lemonade. Hazel lives with her adult son Sam, a physically disabled veteran who receives a pension, and daughter Janie, who is mentally disabled.
Robin includes her daughters in her search for wild berries, the activity that was so influential in her own childhood, to likewise instill in them a connection to the land and a sense of nature’s gifts to us as human beings. Hazel seems to have no scientific background, but she and Robin find common ground in their mutual love of plants.
Themes
Indigenous Wisdom and Scientific Knowledge Theme Icon
Gifts, Gratitude, and Responsibility Theme Icon
Motherhood and Teaching Theme Icon
Linden describes how her mother Robin finds great joy in household tasks like splitting wood, sometimes saying that she was “born too late” and should have been a farmwife in the 1800s. Linden feels that Robin and Hazel’s friendship grew around this sense of work and the land: “both were women with feet planted deep in the earth who took pride in a back strong enough to carry a load for others.” One day Hazel starts to cry at the sight of Robin carrying firewood, saying that she used to be able to do hard work like that, but she no longer can.
Along with their connection to the botanical world, Robin and Hazel both take pleasure in simple tasks of manual labor, homebuilding, and helping other people. Hazels’ tears are the first sign to Linden that the older woman carries a great sadness within herself as well.
Themes
Reciprocity and Communalism Theme Icon
Gifts, Gratitude, and Responsibility Theme Icon
Motherhood and Teaching Theme Icon
Hazel often laments the loss of her old home. It’s just down the road, but she hasn’t been back to it in years, ever since Sam had a heart attack and she came to live with him. Robin relates to Hazel’s feelings of longing for home, as she herself has recently been “transplanted” to Kentucky from her native Adirondacks. One day Hazel calls and asks if Robin will take her to see her old house before the next winter. Robin drives Hazel and Linden to the house, and Hazel starts to cry as they approach.
Hazel’s sense of loneliness is connected to the loss of her old house, which is nearby in terms of distance but still feels a world away. Robin can relate to this feeling of being an exile because of her own recent move. She decides to ease her personal sense of displacement by helping Hazel return to her own home.
Themes
Motherhood and Teaching Theme Icon
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They all get out and Hazel shows them around the yard, finally going inside on her own. Linden looks inside the house and sees a room decorated for Christmas, with a table set for a dinner for six. After a moment of contemplation, Hazel sets to work cleaning up the place while Linden explores the abandoned rooms. Later they all go outside, and Hazel points out the witch hazel plant, commenting on how she used to make medicine out of it for her neighbors.
This bittersweet homecoming connects to Robin’s personal feeling of displacement, as well as the broader historical exile of Native Americans that Kimmerer discusses elsewhere. An entire culture can feel like Hazel, longing for a home that is no longer the same.
Themes
Reciprocity and Communalism Theme Icon
The Indigenous Past and Future Theme Icon
After this initial visit, Hazel often calls Robin on Sundays and asks to go visit the house. Linden and her younger sister Larkin go along as well. One day they discover a wren’s nest on the old house’s porch, and Hazel describes how the bird has come to depend on her for shelter. Sometimes they also visit Hazel’s old neighbors, who live in harsh poverty. Hazel always sends Robin and the girls home with a gift of food.
Hazel has a strong connection with the natural world and a generous spirit, two qualities that Kimmerer clearly prizes in a person. Hazel and Robin’s relationship is one of giving and receiving gifts, living out the relationship of reciprocity that Kimmerer sees in so much of the natural world.
Themes
Reciprocity and Communalism Theme Icon
Gifts, Gratitude, and Responsibility Theme Icon
As winter begins, Hazel expresses a wish to visit her old house for one last Christmas. Linden’s family isn’t traveling to be with Robin’s mother and father as they normally would at Christmas, and Robin is already feeling sad about it—until she decides to have a surprise Christmas party for Hazel instead. Robin arranges to have the power reconnected to Hazel’s old home for a few days, and she, the girls, and some of Robin’s college students clean out the filthy kitchen. They invite Hazel’s old neighbors and decorate the house with a tree and lights.
Again Robin redirects her own sense of loneliness and displacement into a project to help Hazel return to her old home and sense of belonging. This is its own gift in response to Hazel’s consistent generosity.
Themes
Reciprocity and Communalism Theme Icon
Gifts, Gratitude, and Responsibility Theme Icon
On the day of the Christmas party, Linden and Larkin welcome the guests while Robin goes to pick up Hazel. Hazel beams as she steps out of the car and sees her old home full of light, warmth, and people. She moves about like a “queen” that night, and falls asleep in the car on the way home. A few years later, Robin’s family moves back north. Hazel gives her a going-away present of a rocking chair and some old Christmas ornaments. Two years after that, they learn that Hazel has died. Linden reflects that “there are some aches witch hazel can’t assuage; for those, we need each other.” Hazel and Robin found a surprising bond in their loneliness, and together they made a healing “balm” for their pain. Even now, Linden goes looking for witch hazel plants in winter, remembering that long-ago Christmas and the “medicine” of friendship.
Closing the chapter, Kimmerer (in Linden’s voice) connects the medicine made from plants like witch hazel with the “medicine” that comes from our relationships with each other. In the traditional Indigenous sense, medicine has a broader meaning than just drugs to heal illness, and the two women’s friendship is an example of this. Hazel’s joy on the night of the party shows how even one night of a true homecoming can transform a person, making them feel that they truly belong to a place once more, generously receiving its gifts and passing them on to others.
Themes
Reciprocity and Communalism Theme Icon
Indigenous Wisdom and Scientific Knowledge Theme Icon
Gifts, Gratitude, and Responsibility Theme Icon
The Indigenous Past and Future Theme Icon