Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants
The author is an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, a Native American people originally from the Great Lakes region. Robin is a mother, scientist, writer and Distinguished Teaching Professor of Environmental Biology at The State University of New York (SUNY) in Syracuse, New York. She serves as a Senior Fellow for the Center for Nature and Humans and is a founding Director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment. Her other writings include numerous scientific articles and the book Gathering Moss. As a writer and a scientist, her interests in restoration include not only restoration of ecological communities, but restoration of our relationships to land. She has a Ted talk entitled: Reclaiming the Honorable Harvest and many Youtube videos of her lectures.
A Brief Description
The book is “a braid of stories meant to heal our relationship with the world. This braid is woven from three strands; indigenous ways of knowing, scientific knowledge, and the story of a Native American scientist trying to bring them together in service to what matters most. It is an intertwining of science, spirit, and story.”
My favorite chapter is entitled Asters and Goldenrod. Robin had all of her “answers prepared for the college freshman intake interview to the question “So, why do you want to major in botany?” So I told him the truth. I wanted to learn about why asters and goldenrod looked so beautiful together. “I must tell you that THAT is not science. That is not at all the sort of things which botanists concern themselves.” “I’ll enroll you in General Botany so you can learn what it is.” Once enrolled, her adviser told her “if you want to study beauty, you should go to art school and that science was not about beauty, not about the embrace between plants and humans.”
What I Learned
1) “science also tells us that the two colors of purple asters and yellow goldenrod, having reciprocal colors in human and bee eyes and growing together, attract a greater number of pollinators than either would growing alone, therefore leading to better plantings.” 2) Sweetgrass is in the Poaceae (grass family); native to the lower 48 states, also called vanilla grass; 12-20 inches tall, with small seedheads bearing broad, bronze-colored spikelets. The grass spreads by creeping rhizomes which send up few to several leafy shoots. This is a perennial which does best and “thrives where it is used and disappears elsewhere.” 3) For the indigenous people, sweetgrass is called “Hair of the Mother Earth” and is one of the four sacred herbs including sage, cedar and tobacco. It was the very first to grow on the earth. “When we braid sweetgrass, we are braiding the hair of Mother Earth, showing her our loving attention, our care for her beauty and well-being, in gratitude for all she has given us.”
The Living Landscape: Designing for Beauty and Biodiversity in the Home Garden
Most gardeners today understand the importance of incorporating more native plants in our landscapes for the broader benefit of our environment, but they may be challenged to design their outdoor living space with the whole picture in mind. The premise of this book is that by observing and understanding the natural landscape, with its interrelationships of species and layers of living organisms, and replicating those layers in our home gardens, we can create gardens that go beyond ‘decoration’ to sustain wildlife and support biodiversity.
True confession- I bought this book for the pictures. It’s full of incredible photographs, most taken by Rick Darke, of plants, birds, animals and other aspects of the landscape that illustrate the concepts the authors are teaching. If you were reluctant as a child to transition from picture books to chapter books, this book will satisfy your visual learning needs and reawaken your childlike sense of awe at the beauty, mystery and diversity of nature.
From a purely practical perspective, the last section of the book stands out as wonderful resource. It’s an 80-page plant list by region, keyed to 20+ ecological and aesthetic landscape functions (for example: cover for wildlife, nest sites for birds, pollen, summer flowers, fall foliage, shade/cooling). The Mid-Atlantic region is predominant, as it’s the home of the authors, but Ohioans will find mostly familiar plants on the list.
This book will interest both new and veteran gardeners. The authors clearly explain how landscapes really work, and why they’re important not only for people and their aesthetic pleasure, but for all the life forms that share our space. Understanding the various layers of both wild and domestic landscapes, from the ground to the herbaceous plants to the shrubs and tree canopies, enables us to plan sustainable landscapes that serve many purposes and appeal to both wildlife and the gardener’s artistic eye.
It’s a beautiful, well-researched and informative book by two gardening giants, that you can return to time and again for inspiration as you create and tend your own living landscape.
Noah’s Garden: Restoring the Ecology of our own Backyard
A history of Stein’s property in Pound Ridge NY after originally taming the land into a typical suburban lawn and garden, resulting in the loss of a myriad of life forms in the garden. The book documents her efforts to “ungarden” in order to support wildlife and restore the ecosystem. Demonstrates principles of gardening for biodiversity years be-fore Doug Tallamy’s “Bringing Nature Home” made these ideas mainstream.
Of interest to gardeners of all skill levels. Includes illustrations. Gives an example of how these gardening practices such as replacing lawn with native plantings in adjacent yards create “mosaic ecosystems,” or what are considered wildlife corridors today.
Chapter 11, Smiles of Vanished Woods; describes the complexity of nurturing natural landscapes with several examples of unintended consequences
Coevolution of wildlife and plants results in plants that bloom when their pollinators require the pollen and nectar, thus a need for blooming plants from early spring through late fall, not for the gardener’s pleasures but for the very existence of certain insect species in the landscape.
Soil organisms play an important role in the ecosystem of natural areas and landscapes. These ideas are mainstream now but not widely understood in the 90’s.
In 1990 a local town board (Pound Ridge, NY) prohibits removal of trees in a number of situations because of the disruption it causes to the ecosystem. This law seeks to protect land from soil erosion and flooding; reduce air pollution; provide oxygen; temper noise; and provide natural habitat for wildlife. Yet it permits “radical surgery” in the landscape, for instance the removal of all understory trees and shrubs, thus disrupting the ecosystem services the law sought to protect. “They can’t legislate woodland complexity or impose species diversity.”
It pulls together so many concepts which are widely accepted today but which must have seemed farfetched at the time of publication