Braiding Sweetgrass, originally published in 2013 by Robin Wall Kimmerer – who styles herself on her homepage ‘mother, scientist, decorated professor, and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation’ – is the latest title deliberated by the RGRG Book Club. The book has gained ever more recognition as society looks for remedies to myriad significant constitutional and material challenges as may be found – as the book’s subtitle puts it – in ‘indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge and the teachings of plants’.
Within the Geographical realm, the RGS’s 2022 Annual Conference asks us to consider how we can ‘recuperate, repair and transform’ after disaster, so what better way to begin such discussions than with Kimmerer’s interweaving of indigenous, scientific, and more-than-human teachings?
Interlaced within this book are modern and ancient stories which explore environmental tragedies and restorative practices, guiding us to new ways of connecting with the world and other beings.
This post briefly traces lines of thought that emerged during the reading group, from general reflections on what we as Rural Geographers gained from the book to examples of how we can apply Kimmerer’s teaching to our work practices.
General RGRG Reviews of Braiding Sweetgrass
“A captivating read, as well as a good source of knowledge”
“Enjoyable style of writing, especially the use of stories as evidence”
“A timely consideration of social and climatic injustices, pertinent for the 2020s”
“A book that allows a deeper consideration of how we regard land and all those within it”
These considerations are summarised under two interlinked themes: 1. Place-Based Knowledges; 2. Connections & Responsibility to Land.
A theme relevant to Rural Geographical discussion which weaved through Sweetgrass was the importance of regarding local place-based forms of knowledge and wisdom. Kimmerer pertinently suggests “It is not more data we need, it’s wisdom”, a quote which arguably conflicts with researchers need to continually generate novel data. We saw this, however, as a valid reminder to acknowledge knowledges already in existence, such as those passed down from elders within communities, which she argues have been partially replaced by a focus on scientific papers as primary knowledge sources.
In terms of how this could be applied to our own research, attendees discussed how their research has met with rural groups who feel disconnected from the land they live and work upon and are frustrated by not being listened to. For example, these frustrations have been shared by some UK based farmers and land managers, evident during the latest post-Brexit Australian trade deal, where they expressed frustrations at the government, who they felt had not considered their concerns.
The group discussed how this was a common theme felt by many rural citizens, who consistently report feeling disconnected with policy makers/organisations, who in their view neither understand nor listen to their place-based knowledges. Furthermore, the group discussed how it can appear that urban communities are more frequently consulted, in part due to their size and proximity to decision makers.
The group moved on to discuss the value they have found in regarding place-specific wisdom imparted by a small but significant number of rural dwellers, especially in relation to neglected rural spaces/populations. Therefore, this theme was highly pertinent for the group members’ respective research concerning rural areas, where the importance of listening to and respecting those who live and work upon the land is critical for bridging trust and closing ruptures between the rural and the urban, science and place-based knowledges.
Connections & Responsibility to Land
In Britain there has been a deep-rooted history of disconnection to rural land and injustices associated with the supposed productivist gains, most notably in the Highland Clearances, where rural communities were displaced and dispossessed for agricultural advancement and private ownership. A more general disconnection is also well expressed recently in books such as Shrubsole’s (2019) Who Owns England? and Hayes’s (2020) Book of Trespass. Today, too, there are emerging examples of the disconnection of communities from their lands, most recent cases involving the consequences of new agendas of environmental restoration, rewilding and carbon offsetting, which all often are seemingly quite ignorant of the histories of landed oppression and removal.
Within Sweetgrass, Kimmerer discussed how within Western, neoliberal thinking, private land is understood to be obtainable for free with a ‘bundle of [associated] rights’ attached. Yet, from Kimmerer’s teachings we could also see how land in Britain can be viewed as a gift which comes with ‘a bundle of responsibility’. This clearly needs higher profile in contemporary land access and ownership debates.
Discussion from our own work noted how rural people have been seen as bad or destructive to the landscape, including through the pollution of rivers, deforestation and habitat destruction and species persecution. Yet, Kimmerer also reminds us that not all our relationships with the land must be ill and that local knowledges, histories and cultural associations again should be listened to and not disregarded. She reminds us that land is a gift, something we cannot simply take but must give back to and respect. It is not ours to claim and those that live and work within the rural landscape should be considered and given the chance to show their positive interactions with the land.
Specific examples from our own research were observed that illustrate the displacement of rich cultures and histories and further degradation of communities and landscape as a result:
Jenny, working with farmers, illustrates how policies have separated farmers from waterways, sanctioned for pollutive practices. In doing so, farmers who want to care for the waterways are fenced off from them, meaning they can no longer monitor nor care for them.
Natasha found gamekeepers and land stewards who felt “tarnished with the same brush” through a culture of blame surrounding historic and ongoing persecutors of raptors and decimation of peat bogs through intensive burning practices. Those trying to forge better and more sustainable practices while living and working the land felt disregarded by policy, developers and opposing rural stakeholder groups.
Sweetgrass, in sum, can potentially aid Rural Geographers in considering landed injustices and in more widely reconsidering how we relate to rural land and prevent histories of dispossession and clearances repeating.
To conclude, Braiding Sweetgrass was a valuable book which all participants thoroughly enjoyed. There were reflections from all members of the group on how Kimmerer’s key points regarding the importance of place-based knowledge and the very connection and responsibility to the land are relevant to our work as Rural Geographers. This is especially so with on-going trade deals and growing environmental consciousness recognised in wider society. The discussion was enjoyable for all and we look to build further on this with our next book club session: Nan Shepherd’s A Living Mountain on February 11th at 11am.
Natasha and Hannah would like to offer special thanks to Jenny Knight, Keith Halfacree and the rest of the book club attendees for contributing their thoughts.