At a time when the earth is going to sleep for winter and things feel a little dark in a few ways, I am finding this book uplifting and heartwarming. I hope it gives you a boost too.
Looking forward to seeing you next Thursday the 19th!
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I'm looking forward to our discussion of Robin Wall Kimmerer's Braiding Sweetgrass. Join us on Zoom this Thursday at 8:15pm.
Last week, when I encouraged you to try at least a few chapters, I was at the point in the book where I was falling in love with the earth. Kimmerer details the gifts of the world so vividly that your heart can't help but overflow with gratitude. And so, by the time I got to chapters more explicitly explaining human actions that have thrown life out of balance, I found myself on a roller coaster of heartbreak. Kimmerer writes that "Anishinaabe elders like Stewart King remind us to always acknowledge the two faces -- the light and the dark side of life -- in order to understand ourselves," and she does this in her writing. (306) By the end of the book, I understood the book's structure to be intentional on the part of the author -- to draw you in so that you are moved to act when you hear about brokenness. I look forward to hearing how the roller coaster treated you...
As always, suggested discussion questions are below. This time, many of them are Kimmerer's own questions that she posits to the reader throughout the book.
Hope to see you there!
1. What did you like / dislike?
2. From Kimmerer's student survey: Rate your understanding of the negative interactions between humans and the environment. Rate your knowledge of positive interactions between people and land.
3. Kimmerer says that "in a way, [she] was raised by strawberries." (22) Is there a point in nature from your childhood that "gave [you your] sense of the world, [your] place in it?
4. What do you make of the "fundamental nature of gifts: [that] they move, and their value increases with their passage"? (27) How does this compare to "Western thinking, [where] private land is understood to be a "bundle of rights," [versus] in a gift economy [where] property has a "bundle of responsibilities" attached"? (28)
5. How do the "stories we choose to shape our behaviors have adaptive consequences"? (30)
6. What does Kimmerer say is left of her people? "The one thing that was not forgotten, that which could not be taken by history: the knowing that we belonged to the land, that we were the people who knew how to say thank you." (37)
7. What is the purpose of ceremony? ("That...is the power of ceremony: it marries the mundane to the sacred. The water turns to wine, the coffee to a prayer." (37) How could you apply Kimmerer's definition of "ceremony" to ceremonies you have witnessed or participated in during your own life? ("Ceremony focuses attention so that attention becomes intention. If you stand together and profess a thing before your community, it holds you accountable." 249)
8. "Why is the world so beautiful? It could so easily be otherwise: flowers could be ugly to us and still fulfill their own purpose. But they're not. It seemed like a good question to me." (41)
9. What is Kimmerer's purpose in presenting scientific and Indigenous teaching side by side for us to examine? ("Might science and traditional knowledge be purple and yellow to one another, might they be goldenrod and asters? We see the world more fully when we use both?" (46) Similarly, "what good is knowing, unless it is coupled with caring?" (345) ("Science can give us knowing, but caring comes from someplace else." 345)
10. What does reciprocity for the world's goodness look like? ("When I am in their presence, their beauty asks me for reciprocity, to be the complementary color, to make something beautiful in response." (47) Other ideas for how to restore the relationship between land and people? Kimmerer says "plant a garden" (126). I say be in a place where I can admire nature. Later, Kimmerer mentioned "political action, civic engagement." (174) Later, she mentions entering reciprocity "through gratitude, through ceremony, through land stewardship, science, art, and in everyday acts of practical reverence." (190) At the end of the book, she adds to this list the power of storytelling: "Language is our gift and our responsibility. I've come to think of writing as an act of reciprocity with the living land. Words to remember old stories, words to tell new ones, stories that bring science and spirit back together to nurture our becoming people made of corn." (347)
11. On language: What do you make of Kimmerer's observation that English is a noun-based language "versus Potawatomi which is verb-based? And based on whether an object is animate or inanimate" where inanimate is restricted mainly to things made by humans. Everything else is alive.
12. Regarding Kimmerer's 12 years of work to clear the pond and the last summer with a child at home, do you imagine you'll have a work or project that will define your child-rearing years? Could you imagine one that you would want to define them? (96)
13. What do you make of the spiraling changes of life that Paula Gunn Allen describes for women's roles -- as daughter, then self-reliant ("the necessary task of [learning] who you are in the world"), then as mother, then as mother to community and then to the earth? (96-7) Anyone else feel pressure when trying to picture "mothering the earth" in old age?
14. Kimmerer buys a kayak and heads to Labrador Pond when her youngest child goes to college. Will you "celebrate your freedom" or grieve your loss? What will that look like?
15. Kimmerer's cousin leaves her messages to help her in her sadness as an empty-nester, messages like "take comfort", "to find your new path" and "because they always come home" and "celebrate having time to write". What would the notes left for you say? (103-4)
16. Allegiance to Gratitude / Thanksgiving Address: Who would you greet and who would you thank if you were to create your own ceremony of Greeting and Thanks to the World? (107-117)
17. What does it mean to be a good leader? Kimmerer, quoting Freida Jacques at the Onondaga Nation School, says it means "'to have vision, and to be generous, to sacrifice on behalf of the people. Like the maple, leaders are the first to offer their gifts.' It reminds the whole community that leadership is rooted not in power and authority, but in service and wisdom." (112)
18. Do you agree or disagree: "You wouldn't harm what gives you love." (124)
19. Kimmerer says "the most important things each of us can know is our unique gift and how to use it in the world." (And she later says that language is humans' unique gift.) Does this message of individuality surprise you coming from a culture which stresses the group? How do you feel about this message? (134)
20. What do you make of John Pigeon's observation that "the work of being a human is finding balance, and making splints will not let you forget it" as Kimmerer is trying to learn basket weaving? (146)
21. How does this apply when speaking to children...or political opponents...or fill-in-the-blank: "To be heard, you must speak the language of the one you want to listen." (158)
22. Kimmerer writes: "Getting scientists to consider the validity of Indigenous knowledge is like swimming upstream in cold, cold water. They've been so conditioned to be skeptical of even the hardest of hard data that bending their minds toward theories that are verified without the expected graphs or equations is tough. Couple that with the unblinking assumption that science has cornered the market on truth and there's not much room for discussion." (160) Has science cornered the market on truth? In what circles? To what implications? (This makes me think of Mary Karr's assertion in "The Art of Memoir" that "The American religion--so far as there is one anymore--seems to be doubt. Whoever believes the least wins, because he’ll never be found wrong.” (88-89) While not exactly talking about the same thing, to me, the statements seem related.)
23. In the chapter Mishkos Kenomagwen: The Teachings of Grass, what do you make of how Kimmerer pairs traditional teaching with scientific investigation to weave a new, cross-cultural story? (156-166)
24. What more do you need in life besides "duct tape to hold things together and WD-40 to get them apart?" :) (167)
25. Laurie wrestled with whether her method of harvesting sweetgrass "really duplicated the traditional harvest." How do non-native people learn to show respect and honor for plants and the earth in general when they are "not qualified to speak to sweetgrass?" (160-1) Relatedly, "can Americans, as a nation of immigrants, learn to live here as if we were staying?...What happens when we truly become native to a place, when we finally make it a home? Where are the stories that lead the way?" (207)
26. True or False: "We get the government we deserve." (174) ("But the maples, our most generous of benefactors and most responsible of citizens, do not deserve our government. They deserve you and me speaking up on their behalf. To quote our town council woman, "Show up at the damn meeting." (174)
27. How are the guidelines of the Honorable Harvest similar to what we teach our kids about table manners and hospitality? (183)
Know the ways of the ones who take care of you, so that you may take care of them.
Introduce yourself. Be accountable as the one who comes asking for life.
Ask permission before taking. Abide by the answer.
Never take the first. Never take the last.
Take only what you need.
Take only that which is given.
Never take more than half. Leave some for others.
Harvest in a way that minimizes harm.
Use it respectfully. Never waste what you have taken.
Give thanks for what you have been given.
Give a gift, in reciprocity for what you have taken.
Sustain the ones who sustain you and the earth will last forever.
28. Did you feel any pressure to change or any shame around your consumption habits? For me, I appreciated her comic relief when she writes, "I don't have much patience with food proselytizers who refuse all but organic, free-range, fair-trade gerbil milk." (196)
29. How would we approach our days differently if we arrived at them with empty hands? "[Nanabozho's] gratitude for their abilities grew and he came to understand that to carry a gift is also to carry a responsibility. The Creator gave Wood Thrush the gift of beautiful song, with the duty to sing the forest good-night. Late at night he was grateful that the stars were sparkling to guide his way. Breathing under water, flying to the ends of the earth and back, digging earthen dens, making medicines. Every being with a gift, every being with a responsibility. He considered his own empty hands. He had to rely on the world to take care of him" (211)
30. Would you sign up for her ethnobotany class and wade in the marsh to pick cattails? (223-240)
31. Can you really eat dirt? And what does that say about medical conditions like pica? ("There is nothing "dirty" about soil. This soft black humus is so sweet and clean you could eat it by the spoonful." 234)
32. What do you learn about successful partnerships...from lichens? Or from Franz and Dawn who plant 13,000 trees over 11 years? (And how ironic and sad that Franz Dolp was killed in a collision with a paper mill truck on his way home? 291)
33. What monsters does our society create, and how do they reflect the "collective fears and deepest values of our people?" (305) (As Kimmerer writes, "Born of our fears and our failings, Windigo is the name for that within us which cares more for its own survival than for anything else.")
34. How can we think of Windigo through the consumerist lens of today's society? ("a Windigo was a human whose selfishness has overpowered their self-control to the point that satisfaction is no longer possible." 306)
35. How can we have joy in creation in the midst of despair over its destruction? (Even a wounded world is feeding us. Even a wounded world holds us, giving us moments of wonder and joy. I choose joy over despair. Not because I have my head in the sand, but because joy is what the earth gives me daily and I must return the gift. 327) How do we act in the midst of "paralysing despair"? (328) What was hopeful in her message? ("The land knows what to do when we do not." 333)
It was so nice to see you on Thursday and check in on the pulse of our lives these days. Thank you so much to our reader who suggested Braiding Sweetgrass and to all of you for bringing your varied perspectives and your courage to contribute to sensitive conversation.
During this Thanksgiving Week, I am particularly remembering our discussion of Kimmerer's comparison of our nation's Pledge of Allegiance with the Onondaga Nation's Thanksgiving Address. If you get a chance this week, reread the chapter Allegiance to Gratitude. What a beautiful reminder of how our wounded world continues to sustain us despite our best efforts to destroy it! I appreciated the broader views of citizenship on the part of the Onondaga Nation, and thinking more about it raised further questions in my mind. Let me admit a little vulnerability here as I poke around topics for which I have incomplete knowledge. To my understanding, Indigenous peoples like the Onondaga lived independently from one another, at times warring between nations. I would like to learn what they teach about diversity of people groups. We know from Kimmerer's writing the high value they place on diversity in nature in general. I wonder how this translates to people groups.
Bear with me. Someone suggested recently to me that diversity is hard. And I have to say that I found relief in her startling words. Perhaps long ago we were content to live in our own tribes. And for sure, when a group of white men and their families founded the USA, they founded it for white men and their families. And while the Pledge of Allegiance has a dubious history, with revisions to its language that were compromises to reflect the desires of those (white men) in power, I will still say it -- not to perpetuate a lie, but rather to declare a hope that our nation of polarized and varied groups might still work toward unity, with liberty and justice for all. This is not to be "nationalistic" in a negative sense, but rather to work to make this home welcoming to all who still seek to build their lives here. To me, it's a declaration of resolve to stick it out, even when there are problems or people we would rather ignore. As Kimmerer writes about the light and dark sides of life, we can similarly acknowledge both in this simple 15 second Pledge.
But to return to the Earth. Like the daunting topic of racism, some of us felt equally paralyzed by the challenge in front of us to DO SOMETHING to help restore and appreciate the planet. Keep in mind that Kimmerer herself spent most of her adult life circling back to her roots and appreciation for the natural world. She wasn't born fully formed on this. (Here's a glance at where she is now -- thank you to one of our members for this article.) So, some potential baby steps:
-When We Were Alone by David A. Robertson (children's)
-Debbie Reese's website "American Indians in Children's Literature" (https://americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.com/) Thank you to one of our members for suggesting this website. In her words, this is "a great place to find books by and about Native Americans. There are reviews of a lot of books that detail what authors get right or wrong. This may be especially helpful for books like the Little House series; I know a lot of people like to read these because they tell a very "American" story, so it's useful to be able to add details about the Indigenous side of that story."
-Louise Erdrich's Birchbark House series as well as books for adults
-Books referring to boarding schools in Canada: Fatty Legs by Margaret-Olemaun Pokiak-Fenton and A Stranger at Home by Christy Jordan-Fenton (older kids)
-Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann (adult)
-Window shop at O'Neill Branch Library (A shout out to the librarians who are curating Native American stories for our youngest readers!)
2. Appreciate nature:
-Hike, thank the grain of rice, etc.
-Try the app PictureThis to identify plants, flowers and trees
-Plant a garden (cucumbers and tomatoes?)
-Learn about the wonders of science (We have a recommendation for the Cambridge program Science Club for Girls!)
3. Reduce waste:
-Try the app PaperKarma as a way to reduce the junk mail coming into your home and filling up your recycling bin
And with all of that said, we realize that it was a lot. So continue to bear with us as we take a break from the heaviness and escape in December with The Duke Who Didn't by Courtney Milan. Join us for discussion over Zoom!
Also, we typically have a book exchange for our December club. I would love to do something along those lines this year. I will be in touch about a box I will set up on my back porch with several of our books from this year (in case you want to try one that you didn't get a chance to read!) and maybe a few surprise titles. I would love to invite you to come and take a book and leave a book and participate in this exchange. Perhaps, at the risk of generating more waste, we could exchange them in ziploc bags so the books could be easily quarantined before transitioning to the next reader.
Until then, Happy Thanksgiving to you! Wishing you a safe and merry modified holiday season!
The Tipsy Mamas' Book Club is co-hosted by Corinne Foster and myself, though the spirit of our discussions is flavored by many readers.