Tag Archives: grammar of animacy

“Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants” by Robin Wall Kimmerer

Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants

This book came to me highly recommended by people whose judgment I regard with some skepticism. Why? Because I wonder if they take either science or nature seriously. There are lots of “wow” moments in science and in nature, but if you go that far (“wow, it’s so amazing!”) and then stop… what have you accomplished?

Maybe my scientific training has made me a snob. But I think nature is worthy of serious study, and I value science. I’m the kind of geek who is really happy that someone declared 2019 the “International Year of the Periodic Table”. I LOVE the periodic table! And I’ve studied it carefully. For six years, the time it took to earn two degrees in Chemistry. Sometimes there’s just no shortcut.

So I’m skeptical about quickie workshops in which people groove on nature for an hour at a time.

Robin Kimmerer has more than “paid her dues” scientifically, with Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in botany and a PhD in plant ecology. She works outside the conventional scientific framework by teaching college courses in subjects like Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Creative Writing. She is a member of the Potawatami Nation, an Algonquian-speaking Eastern Woodlands indigenous tribe. She has studied her Algonquian heritage as carefully as she studied botany. Her passion is the integration of the two, scientific and traditional knowledge. Braiding Sweetgrass is a collection of essays about this endeavor.

This is a BIG book, generous in concept and broad in subject areas. I reacted differently to different subjects.

I LOVED the chapter entitled “Learning the Grammar of Animacy”! Kimmerer undertook to learn the Potawatomi language at a time when only NINE fluent speakers of the language were still alive.

“Our language, millennia in the making…The words that praised creation, told the old stories, lulled my ancestors to sleep, rests today in the tongues of nine very mortal men and women.”

So she has tried to learn it. Not a single word came to her through her family. She found the language difficult because, instead of dividing nouns into masculine, feminine and neuter (he, she, it), nouns are categorized as animate (person) or inanimate (thing). Personhood is attributed to many more objects than in English – almost everything “natural”, including water, fire, stone. “Inanimate” refers mostly to created objects – coat, car.

Additionally (and unlike English), Potawatami is a verb dominated language. Kimmerer found it wildly difficult.

“The simple phrases I’m learning are perfect for my dog. Sit! Eat!…But since she scarcely responds to these commands in English, I’m reluctant to train her to be bilingual. An admiring student once asked me if I spoke my native language. I was tempted to say, ‘Oh yes, Yes, we speak Potawatomi at home’ – me, the dog, and the Post-it notes.”

Anyone interested in languages should read this chapter!

A problem I have with Kimmerer’s approach to the natural world is that it seems to me that she attributes consciousness and intent to creatures and even ecosystems much more frequently than I do. I “love” nature, but I’m not so sure nature “loves” me back. Sometimes I don’t see relationship where Kimmerer does. I don’t think that parasites and hosts “intend” to do something for each other.

Another chapter I especially enjoyed was “The Three Sisters”, about agriculture based on growing corn, beans and squash together. Now I understand about the squash – it is a source of vitamins.

The last parts of the book discuss solutions to the current environmental dilemmas, including climate change. The emphasis is on restoration ecology. Kimmerer is less specific when she discusses the social aspects of our situation, but I am grateful that she shares her vision of hope.