Braiding Sweetgrass

by

Robin Wall Kimmerer

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Braiding Sweetgrass: Chapter 9 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Kimmerer briefly mentions that her husband abandoned her while they were living in Kentucky, leaving her to take care of Linden and Larkin alone. The three then moved back to upstate New York, where Robin looks for a new house and, wanting to be a good mother, tries to meet all of her daughters’ criteria for what they want in a home (including big trees and a pond to swim in). Robin eventually settles on an old farmhouse on seven acres of land, surrounded by enormous sugar maples and including a frozen-over “trout pond.” She and the girls move in that spring, and soon Linden and Larkin’s wish-list is complete—except for the swimming pond.
Kimmerer’s husband is rarely mentioned in the book, but here she briefly hints at the reason that she is raising her daughters alone from this point on. Being a newly single mother makes her insecure about her ability to fully provide for her daughters, so she wants to meet all of their wishes, including the swimming pond. This chapter is then another perspective on the time period when they moved into the farmhouse surrounded by maples, as described in “Maple Sugar Moon.”
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As the ice melts, Robin realizes that the supposed “trout pond”—which some of the neighbors say that people used to swim in decades ago—is now a thick mass of weeds and algae. Still doing what she thinks a “good mother” would do, Robin adopts some baby ducks for the girls to raise. When they grow up, the ducks move to the pond, but their feces only provide more nutrients for the algae to grow. In the winter the ducks become a nuisance to Robin as well, leaving the shelter she built for them and crowding on the back porch instead, eating the dog’s food and covering the porch in their frozen feces. Robin gets so annoyed that she considers giving them away, but instead she continues to try to be a good mother and feeds them and cleans their leavings. In the spring they return to the pond, and they are gone a month later.
Robin here gets some experience of trying to be a good mother to more than just her own daughters, but to other living things as well. Even though the ducks irritate her to no end, she still tries to care for them as best she can. At the same time, the nutrients that they provide with their feces make the “trout pond” even less swimmable, as the algae that has taken over grows even thicker in response.
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In the ducks’ aftermath, the pond is greener than ever. A family of Canada geese move in, and one day Robin sees one of the chicks actually walking on the surface of the water because the algae is so thick. This is the last straw for her—“you should not be able to walk on a pond,” she thinks. Kimmerer then describes what has happened to this particular pond: something called eutrophication, “the natural process of nutrient enrichment that comes with age.” Eventually the pond would become a marsh, and then even a field or forest. However, Robin wants to be a good mother and offer a swimming pond for her girls before they get too old, and good swimming ponds are not eutrophic but rather oligotrophic, or nutrient-scarce.
Once more navigating her braid of narratives, Kimmerer shifts from personal memoir to scientific explanation. The eutrophic process of building up nutrients is a natural one when left to its own devices over many years, but Robin the mother decides to circumvent Robin the botanist and try to reverse this process for the sake of her daughters. This means removing the nutrients and the algae that thrive off of those nutrients from the pond in order to make it swimmable for Linden and Larkin.
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Robin thus decides to alter the pond’s natural process and to clear it for her girls to swim in. Her first attempts at raking up the algae from a canoe are futile, and as she does more research, she realizes that she needs to remove the nutrient-rich muck at the bottom, not just the algae. A regular snow shovel and a window-screen sieve both fail to collect much muck, however. She resolves to remove the nutrients not by shoveling soil, but by hauling away the plants that store them. Robin takes a sample of algae from the pond and examines it under her microscope, feeling an obligation to know about the living things that she is trying to remove. She identifies three different kinds of algae, her “partners in restoration.”
Robin is essentially fighting against the natural processes of time and nature here, and so she must be patient, diligent, and inventive to succeed. At the same time, the botanist in her can’t help exploring all the plant life that she is now dealing with so intimately. Over time, the pond becomes her own private restoration project, and she likes to think of herself as working with the plants around her. The algae naturally absorb and store the nutrients that she is trying to remove, so she will use this absorption to aid in her work.
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Going forward with her project, Robin must schedule her “pond restoration hours” in between her regular work and all the duties of a single mother with two daughters. Her time at the pond becomes special to her, however, a chance to actually “do ecology” instead of just teach it. She develops a new strategy of raking the algae up from the shore and tossing it into a wheelbarrow. Eventually she progresses from raking only from the safety of dry ground to actually wading into the pond to work, first wearing waders and then just her shorts. She changes her ideas about mud as well, no longer trying to avoid getting muddy but simply becoming oblivious to it.
Throughout the book, Kimmerer emphasizes the importance of hands-on work with the land itself, which provides its own wisdom and insight that can never be truly found in a laboratory or classroom. Her work on the pond then serves as a counterpart to her work at the college, getting messy and putting her theoretical lessons into action. The more she works, the closer she literally gets to nature, as when she eventually gives up on trying to stay clean and embraces the mud.
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One day Robin notices a large bullfrog tadpole struggling in the mass of algae that she has just raked up. She puts it back in the water, but her next haul has many more. This new development leads Robin to a moral dilemma—she is trying to be a good mother and make a swimmable pond for her children, but she feels that she cannot sacrifice another mother’s children (the tadpoles) in the process. She adapts her work, now not only raking the algae but also picking out tadpoles and returning them to the water. As she works, she thinks more about the choices she is forced to make in her work. In theory she believes that “all lives are valuable, protozoan or not,” but in practice she is prioritizing some lives over others, and she reluctantly accepts that fact.
Robin recognizes that she is making sacrifices in her attempt to be a good mother to her own children. She decides that killing the tadpoles in the process of cleaning the pond is a sacrifice that she is not willing to make, but also recognizes that she must draw the line somewhere. Throughout the book Kimmerer tries to focus on practical applications of the ideas that she describes, and practical work often means wading through ethically murky waters. Though she believes that all lives are valuable, it is impossible to live without doing some kind of harm to others, so she must simply remain aware, respectful, and thankful for those lives that fall on the other side of the line.
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Because the loads of wet algae are so heavy to haul away, Robin begins leaving them for a few days to dry and bleach in the sun before moving them. The remaining plant matter is incredibly rich in nutrients, and she adds it to the compost pile to eventually be reborn as vegetables in her garden. Along with the algae, Robin now starts to cut back the willow trees along the pond’s edge, as they are another storehouse of nutrients. The more plants she removes, the more grow back, as they gradually draw more and more nutrients from the muck in the pond. One day she is cutting willows with careless enthusiasm and notices that she has almost chopped down a stem holding the tiny, exquisite nest of a nearby yellow warbler.
This section emphasizes the cyclical, elegant nature of many ecological processes, as the nutrient-rich algae becomes compost for Robin’s garden. Having removed much of the algae, the willow trees act as her next restoration partner in absorbing the pond’s nutrients. Noticing the warbler’s nest, she realizes that once again a lack of awareness has nearly made her carelessly sacrifice another life.
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This incident makes Robin muse again on the casualties produced by any kind of habitat manipulation, no matter how well intended. She has once more risked sacrificing another mother’s children (the warbler’s eggs) in the process of making a home for her own daughters. She wonders how the warbler envisioned her as she approached with her shears, and compares herself to a force of destruction like industrialism or climate change “advancing inexorably toward her children and mine” in the wider world. Again she wonders “what does a good mother do?” in the face of such threats.
Robin is again forced to recognize that there will always be casualties in any kind of major ecological work, but that awareness and respect can help to minimize them. She also sees herself in the mother warbler trying to protect her eggs. To Robin, climate change is like herself as the woman with the thresher, impossible to stop. There is no easy answer to how a mother should respond to such powerful threats.
Themes
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Robin lets the pond settle for a week, and at first it looks better, but soon algae reappears. She compares the pond to cleaning a kitchen that will always get dirty again soon. She considers the fact that when her girls eventually move away from home and her kitchen is finally clean, she will probably long for the messy, “eutrophic” kitchen that accompanied their presence.
Robin once more connects her work at the pond to the work of mothering her daughters. She recognizes that she is trying to undo the pond’s eutrophication process even as she tries to savor her own eutrophic household with Linden and Larkin.
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One day Robin finds a new kind of algae in the pond, a fine mesh of green lace called Hydrodictyon. Hydrodictyon grows outward via “daughter cells” replicating the mother cells’ hexagonal net formation. Robin thinks to herself, “what does a good mother do when mothering time is done?” and starts to cry as she stands there in the water. Hydrodictyon is Latin for “water net,” she explains, and she muses on how a water net “catches nothing, save what cannot be held.” She compares the act of mothering to this net: caring for and enclosing that which cannot be held and which will eventually pass beyond. Potawatomi women are the “Keepers of the Water,” connecting the water of the womb to motherhood. “Being a good mother includes the caretaking of water,” she writes.
In this poignant passage, Kimmerer again uses her scientific knowledge about botany to find a lesson of wisdom and then applies this to her own personal life. In the water net algae she sees the contradiction at the heart of motherhood—caring for and holding that which, when truly cared for, can no longer be held. She then takes this idea further by connecting it to traditional Potawatomi culture, which associates women with water. Being a true caretaker of the water means being a good mother to not just one’s own children, but to all living things as well.
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Years pass as Robin continues to work at restoring the pond whenever she has a free weekend day. Linden and Larkin grow older, and the family dog who accompanies Robin at her work eventually dies. One day there is a nearby rally for the cleanup of Onondaga Lake, a place sacred to the Onondaga Nation but now one of the most polluted lakes in America. Working on her own pond that Saturday, Robin considers the decisions she has made to take on certain responsibilities over others, choosing to spend so much time cleaning up her daughters’ pond but neglecting the cleanup of Onondaga Lake.
Onondaga Lake is a sacred place to Haudenosaunee people, and Robin recognizes that she is choosing her personal project over something with larger importance to other Indigenous people. Once again, she must choose who exactly she is being a good mother to, and sometimes this means neglecting children other than her own.
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Robin muses on the apple tree beside the pond, who acts as a “good mother” sending out her fruit to be shared with the world. Linden and Larkin have also grown up here, but are now ready to leave like the apples or the seeds of the willows. Linden leaves for college before the pond is clean, and Larkin continues to help Robin in her work. The water is much cleaner now and Robin herself enjoys swimming there, but the girls only briefly get in to please their mother, and Robin recognizes that she hasn’t succeeded in “turning back time.”
A large part of Robin’s experience as a mother in this chapter is preparing for and dealing with her daughters’ inevitable departure from her home. The project of the pond has not exactly been successful—the eutrophic process cannot be stopped by one woman’s work—but it has been a labor of love that has brought Robin closer to the land and taught her many lessons about motherhood.
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On the last day of summer vacation, the last summer with Larkin at home, Robin watches the apples floating on the surface of the pond. Musing on motherhood, she references Paula Gunn Allen’s book Grandmothers of the Light, which describes women as walking different paths over the course of their lives. As the years spiral outward and a woman grows, first she walks the Way of the Daughter, then the Way of the Mother, and finally the Way of the Teacher. The spiral continues outward until she can even mother the earth itself.
Kimmerer introduces another traditional idea about women here, one that intimately links motherhood with teaching. She often associates motherhood and teaching in Braiding Sweetgrass, as both involve a kind of care and generosity, and are of course essential parts of every culture on earth.
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Robin imagines her grandchildren swimming in the pond, but also the “water net” connecting every living thing, and the “circle of care” growing larger until her work tending to the pond spreads to a mothering of all the world’s waters. A good mother knows that her work doesn’t end, she says, “until she creates a home where all of life’s beings can flourish.”
This passage returns to the idea of women as caretakers of the water, and water flows downhill to reach all things. This means that the mothering and teaching of women also flows downhill, from one’s own children to all the children of the earth. Robin feels responsible not just for building a home for her daughters, but for making the earth itself a better home for all life.
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