Zoom In: Braiding Sweetgrass

Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants is a rich text for environmental humanities courses, and there are many ways to approach the book in the classroom. Here are just three: an exercise about reciprocity, observation, and narrative; another that asks students to consider sustainable food practices by creating menus; and finally a process to help students to explore connections between language and environment. What happens when we and our students stop to observe our surroundings closely, when we think ethically about where our food comes from, or when we attend to the relationships between the language we use and the place we call home? The exercises shared by Matt Morgenstern, Luke Rodewald, and Dawn Wink below address these questions and more.

Braiding Sweetgrass and Narrative Connectedness
By Matt Morgenstern

Matt Morgenstern is a Ph.D. student in literary studies at Purdue University. His research interests include the energy and environmental humanities, with secondary interests in disability studies and digital humanities.

The areas that surround Purdue University’s West Lafayette campus consist of several gardens, parks, and trails that supplement diverse ecosystems.* The Wabash Heritage Trail, for example, runs along the eponymous river where one encounters nonhuman species like turtles and groundhogs. In the Celery Bog marshlands just north of campus, several amphibian and avian beings live alongside abundant cattails and wild grasses. A brief bike ride, bus trip, or walk takes visitors to other local natural spaces like Cumberland Park, Happy Hollow Park, McAlister Park, and Tabawingo Park, as well as the Purdue-affiliated Horticulture Park and Wildlife Reserve. When I moved to West Lafayette in August 2020, I visited these local natural spaces to learn more about my new home. Spending time at each local natural space taught me more about what makes up the greater Lafayette region and who I am within it.

During the 2020-2021 academic year, I taught first-year composition (FYC) remotely over Zoom. To avoid spending all day in front of my laptop, I walked outside, either in the early morning or late evening. For the fall 2021 semester, I was assigned an in-person FYC section and, to avoid pandemic-education burn-out, designed projects that let students go outside. Instead of only masking up to discuss our readings sitting in a cramped classroom, I wanted my students to spend time in the local environment and reflect on what it meant to them and the stories they tell about themselves. The course’s first major project was a “Personal Narrative” essay that prompted students to visit one of the local natural spaces mentioned above. My students then wrote a brief narrative about their time at the chosen space, using transitions between detailed scenes to advance the narrative. In their final submissions, students wrote about navigating trails, meeting other West Lafayette residents, and even about local natural spaces back home. Along with a few images, they also described conifers, jewelweed, and cattails in minute detail.

Each student’s scenes were effective because of our narrative models, one of which was Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass. One lesson centered around “Sitting in a Circle,” Kimmerer’s account of a weekend class trip to an Adirondack wilderness field station. Detailed scenes exist throughout “Sitting in a Circle,” including Kimmerer’s description of the class’s wigwam assembly with sapling bark (Kimmerer 225-4) and cattails both as botanical objects of inquiry and important ecological actors (227). Many of my students noticed cattails on their walks. As a result, of interest to our class discussion was Kimmerer’s discussion of cattails as foundational actors in wetlands that also provide nourishment (231). Local connections like these, laid out in detail, inspired my students’ engagements with West Lafayette’s local natural spaces, enabling them to see the ecological histories behind the places they inhabit. Later in the chapter, digging up spruce roots for the wigwam connects Kimmerer’s students to local natural spaces: “Gathering roots holds up a mirror between the map in the earth and the map of our minds” (236). In connecting these themes to student experience, Kimmerer synthesizes narrative conventions to make Indigenous ecological ways of being accessible.

Our discussion of “Sitting in a Circle” engaged with narrative conventions in a few ways. To begin the class, we played the “Description Game.” For five minutes, each student wrote about a place and shared their writing on a Google Doc. Students were to describe the place without identificatory information like names or significant landmarks. Following my example of “a place on campus where people go to watch events” that “has many seats and a big parking lot where people congregate” (Purdue’s football stadium, Ross-Ade), I asked a few students to share their descriptions for the class to guess. Employing selective descriptions, my students described Hong Kong, the Chicago Cloud Gate, and the Capitol Building. For my students, this was a key lesson: in narratives of all kinds, settings rely on details that do more than place names.

After the “Description Game,” we pivoted to identifying significant examples of detail and setting as in Kimmerer’s chapter. My FYC section’s “Personal Narrative” project includes two components: the narrative essay and a rationale. For the rationale, my students explain the stylistic choices behind their narratives. To frame narrative conventions as choices, our discussion of “Sitting in a Circle” centered around why Kimmerer used details in certain scenes to convey themes. While I assured my students there were no definitive answers, this is an important lesson for my students: while we study narratives as narratives¸ we also analyze them as rhetorical constructions where the conventions we employ affect meaning. “Sitting in a Circle” offers an excellent example of this because Kimmerer’s attention to local natural spaces suggests how we extract from and give back to them (240). Our class arrived at the conclusion that practicing reciprocity with local environments requires thinking about what we notice in the settings we inhabit: the thoughtful use of narrative conventions like detail thus becomes a steppingstone for more entrenched conceptions of place. As part of my FYC’s “Personal Narrative” project, then, reading Braiding Sweetgrass allowed me and my students to reconsider how we engage with the local natural spaces through reading, writing, and visiting.

*A “land-grant” university, Purdue University is built upon the homelands of the Bodéwadmik (Potawatomi), Lenape (Delaware), Myaamia (Miami), and Shawnee Peoples. For more on Purdue as a “land grab” university, see “All Universities.” The Native American Educational and Cultural Center at Purdue is also a vital source for critiquing the on-going legacies of settler colonialism.

Expressions of Gratitude and Reciprocity: Teaching the Honorable Harvest at Thanksgiving
By Luke Rodewald

Luke Rodewald is an English PhD student at the University of Florida. His research and teaching interests are rooted in the environmental humanities, composition studies and pedagogy, and environmental justice, and consider how personal narrative and thoughtful explorations of local place can be extended toward a global sense of environmentalism and multispecies kinship.

Over 50,000 undergraduate students will call my university “home” this year. Between the busy demands of academic schedules, extracurricular opportunities, job obligations, and their predominant social scenes, “what’s to eat?” is a question my students often answer under the considerable influences of convenience and price. Dining options on campus are consistently designed with this same mindset, with residence halls and iconic international franchises like Wendy’s and Panda Express promising quick, mindless, and hassle-free solutions. Food, in short, is not something typically given much thought of on today’s college campus.

Robin Wall Kimmerer knows this addiction to a detached, edible expediency isn’t only a university phenomenon. In Braiding Sweetgrass, Kimmerer calls for a monumental shift in our collective attitudes toward what and how we eat. In “The Honorable Harvest,” she spotlights the unsustainable core of our contemporary global food system: “We have constructed an artifice…an ecosystem where we perpetrate the illusion that the things we consume have just fallen off the back of Santa’s sleigh” (199). Kimmerer’s metaphor here points us to the hidden costs of the Global North’s unabated appetite: unsustainable agricultural practices, soil depletion, waste, labor crises, and a destructive dependence on carbon-producing transportation methods are all side-effects of a worldview that only sees nonhuman nature as a consumable object.

Enter, instead, the Honorable Harvest: guidelines and practices rooted in Indigenous knowledge that espouse how to live in harmony with the land. In often-intimate, reverent rhetoric, Kimmerer underscores the overlooked value and wonders of the plant-based foods in our grocery stores: strawberries, pecans, sap from sugar maple trees, squash, beans, and corn. With these miracles in mind, Kimmerer articulates a vision of a more ethical relationship with the land and its gifts: a culture of both gratitude and—especially—reciprocity, made possible through ceremony, stewardship, science, art, and “everyday acts of practical reverence” (190).

Kimmerer presents the concept as more than merely a code of ethics. She writes, “we can think of the Honorable Harvest as a mirror by which we judge our purchases” (195). This intrigues my students, who see the Honorable Harvest as both a challenge and reflective opportunity. What foods are they buying already, reflexively? As consumers, what possibilities might exist beyond the traditional confinements of the market economy and embody a reciprocal relationship with the land? Kimmerer’s own jarring experiences at her local grocery store and a shopping mall demonstrate how difficult it is to abide by such principles today. For my students, who readily admit that they rarely give much consideration to where and how the food they eat is grown, such a radical shift is even more difficult to imagine. As students with understandable, structural limitations in budget, time, and accessibility, a new question arises: How to begin?

This past fall, I taught Braiding Sweetgrass throughout most of October. By the time we finished, students were actively looking forward to Thanksgiving Break—an occasion that, for many of them, would involve the most meaningful, carefully-constructed, and emotionally significant meal in which they will participate all year. Author Jonathan Safran Foer calls Thanksgiving “the meal we aspire for other meals to resemble” (248). Nevertheless, recognizing that the bulk of the holiday’s gustatory fare—turkey, potatoes, macaroni and cheese, cranberry sauce—involve ingredients grown, harvested, and transported via methods at-odds with the Honorable Harvest, my students wondered: What might a more ethical Thanksgiving feast look like?

I created a two-pronged assignment to explore this query. First, students would track the environmental costs of their traditional Thanksgiving menu, considering factors like transportation, waste, and water usage. Such a task is fairly routine in environmental studies courses, offering students an eye-opening, pragmatic look at the complex web of systems to which their dining choices are bound. However, I was more interested—as were they—in what alternatives might exist to such conventions. Accordingly, the second part of the assignment focused on creating a substitute menu for such customary Thanksgiving cuisine—a menu guided, largely, by the principals of the Honorable Harvest.

Working in small groups, students mulled over Kimmerer’s articulated guidelines. How could notions of sustainability, respect, honor, and care for the earth be exemplified in a menu? While each group could answer this question differently, the majority focused on exchanging established out-of-state goods with in-season, local options from farmers markets or co-ops. Others emphasized the value of organic agriculture or attempted to find the bulk of their ingredients from family farms or slow agricultural operations. Ingredients now “in hand,” students created recipe alternatives that either substituted traditional fare or imagined an entirely new table spread. Listing both the required ingredients and detailed preparation steps, menus featured a range of concoctions rooted in sustainable agricultural practices:

  • The often out-of-state, out-of-season cranberry sauce was replaced with a citrus salad featuring fresh produce from the nearby St. Petersburg farmers’ market.
  • The customary factory-farmed and genetically-modified turkey was pardoned and substituted with mindful alternatives, such as roasted pumpkin, grilled Florida grouper, or free-range heritage birds from local farms.
  • The expected side dishes of potatoes, stuffing, and beans were modified or reimagined altogether with local, ethically-sourced goods: pineapple stuffing, vegetable-stuffed Florida mushrooms, hush-puppies, and persimmon pie.

Submitted menus included informative hyperlinks to websites and locations where such ingredients could be purchased. Finally, at the bottom of their menus, students co-wrote brief reflections on their creations, articulating what sort of message or argument could be gleaned from it. Many noted that their locally-derived menus represented a desire to know their food more intimately. Others felt their recipes were an explicit articulation of “thanks,” as the holiday occasion suggests: a respectful, conscientious celebration of the life-sustaining gifts the land provides all year round. If Thanksgiving is indeed the meal all others aspire to be, such mindfulness represents the seeds for a more considerate attitude toward the earth’s gifts as a whole—the start of a habit that can eventually come to be, as Kimmerer avers, “reinforced in small acts of daily life” and promote wellbeing for all who call this planet home (183).

Exploring Language Loss and Climate Change
By Dawn Wink

Dawn Wink, PhD, is a writer and educator whose work explores the tensions and beauty of language, culture, and place. With a background in multilingual education, ecolinguistics, and Linguistic Human Rights, Wink is author of MeadowlarkTeaching Passionately (with Joan Wink), “Wild Waters: Landscapes of Language,” and “Raven’s Time: Critical Literacy in the American Southwest.” Wink is Director of the Department of Teacher Education at Santa Fe Community College and lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
A friend recommended Braiding Sweetgrass to me a number of years ago. I came to the book with a sense of curiosity. I experience the world through the lens of ecolinguistics, the relationship between ecology and language. The title of the book intrigued me. Kimmerer explores landscape and language through the eyes and experience of an Indigenous scholar and scientist. I engage with these ideas through my background in multilingualism, linguistic human rights, and landscape literature. We navigate a common terrain through different lenses of experience and this fascinated me. Braiding Sweetgrass was for me a reading journey of expansive thought, wonder, and deep reflection.

In our time together, we will explore the pedagogic possibilities found within Kimmerer’s poetic prose that makes science and the humanities both entrancing and approachable. She brings a transdisciplinary lens to biology, Western scientific knowledge, and wisdom through the unique combination of an Indigenous woman trained in Western academia. We will dive deeply into the chapter “Learning the Grammar of Animacy” and how the ideas presented here tie to greater global issues of ecolinguistic loss and climate change through a textured and engaged lesson of reading, reflection, writing, and artistic expression.

  • First, to create relevancy and meaning for each of the students, they will be asked to reflect privately in writing on their understandings about what it means “to be native to a place we must learn to speak its language.”
  • Next, students share their understandings one-on-one. Ideally, in an in-person class, the instructor organizes students into a Conversation Line. Details on how and why pedagogically to do this will be discussed within the class. This structure allows students to talk one-on-one with multiple other students in the class and ground their thoughts not only in their own understandings of the readings, but others’ ideas, as well. If class takes place on Zoom, professor structures small-group private discussions in break-out rooms, which allow all students to participate and share.
  • When students have had a chance to share in the safety of one-on-one conversations, we’ll open the conversation to the class as a whole.

Kimmerer conveys her journey in learning—claiming—her most probably heritage mother tongue Potawatomi, of an Anishinaabe language. She describes her first experience with listening to the language of nature, “after the drumbeat of my mother’s heart, this was my first language” (48). Kimmerer then details the loss of Indigenous languages due to colonialism and the intentional linguicide of boarding schools, an impact with a profound impact far beyond the linguistic, as a grandmother explains “’It’s not just the words that will be lost,’ she says. ‘The language is the heart of our culture; it holds our thoughts, our way of seeing the work. It’s too beautiful for English to explains'” (50). Kimmerer’s conveyance of linguistic loss is deeply relevant as we enter unprecedented loss of languages. If we continue to lose languages at our current rate, 90% of the world’s languages will be extinct within the next 100 years.

  • Students will be asked to take out a blank piece of paper and write the world “Language” in the middle of the paper and draw a circle around it. Students are then asked to write any and all thoughts, experiences, ideas about “language” around the circle, connecting these ideas to the main circle with a line. By the end of this, all students will have a cluster of language.
  • Students share with a partner and then share as a whole group.
  • Professor then facilitates with prompts (Who are the first people we use language around? Who first uses language with us? What does it mean to speak the language of a nation? What does it mean not to speak the language? etc.).
  • Professor then asks students to rip up their piece of paper. This is what it means to lose a language. This segues into a conversation around mother tongue languages, hierarchy of languages, linguistic loss, ecolinguistic loss and their impacts on the social structures and ecology/climate.

Kimmerer conveys the impact of the English language, a language based in nouns and with the pronoun of “it” for the nonhuman. She compares this with Indigenous, and other, languages that utilize a gendered pronoun.

  • Professor elicits conversation around potential modern consequences of historic and current ecolinguistic loss. What consequences are experienced today due to loss of global Indigenous languages? What are the impacts on societies, families, cultures, and science does the loss of wisdom gleaned over hundreds and thousands of years and embedded within languages?
  • Professor facilitates conversation and reflection around these questions: If we used the pronoun “she” for a tree and “they” for a forest, how might this shift our relationships with trees and forests? What greater consequence might referring to elements of nature (plants, animals, rocks, streams, oceans, lakes) as gendered, embodied, alive, have on our perspective around human interactions with nature (i.e. mining, clear-cutting, deforestation, water pollution)?
  • Closure—Students reflect privately in writing or illustration on new ideas they have learned through the reading and conversation. What experiences in their own lives can they describe? What surprised them? What further questions do they have?
  • Students share the ideas from their writing/artistic expression with the whole group.
  • Professor asks students to think of 1-3 words that convey the essence of their learning and hold those silently. When all students indicate they have, professor emphasizes to students that they are going to go around in a circle (online or in-person) and say only this word/these words. No explaining. No justifying. Just lifting the essence of the learning.
  • The class ends with the essence of the learning of all lifted in a cloud around the class.

Since that first reading many years ago, I return to Braiding Sweetgrass again and again. I discover new depths of wisdom and fine nuances of understanding with each reading. The book is so multi-faceted and layered that each new reading offers new treasures and questions. Braiding Sweetgrass provides rich opportunities for reflection, conversation, and exponential expansion of ideas around language and landscape as they relate to climate change and global sustainability.

This is the first of a planned series of Zoom In posts on teaching various environmental texts. If you are interested in writing for the series, please check out the call for submissions and get in touch with ASLE’s Digital Strategies Coordinator, Christy Tidwell.