Postcard Rex: Braiding Sweetgrass
Pause, breathe, root
Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer
Li Ziqi’s contemplative YouTube videos have mesmerized almost 15 million subscribers with their soft-lens focus on harvesting, making, and cooking. In peaceful montages, flowers and fields bloom, seasons turn, and Li Ziqi forages and harvests by hand. She turns roses into a various feast: syrup, marinade, nougat, cakes, and wine. Wheat becomes bread and candy; peach tree sap transforms into dessert; persimmons are dried and steeped as tea. All of these patient creations are accompanied by a soothing soundtrack and minimal dialogue, occasionally giving way to the ambient sounds of nature and work: the rasp of a shovel against soil, the snap of a branch, the hard slice of a hoe, a pounding rain. Were it not for the occasional glimpse of a modern object, we could be watching these processes happen at any point over the past century.
The tranquility is a large part of their gentle, genteel appeal; in that sense, these videos are almost the antithesis of the chatty, cajoling Anglo-American food tutorials that serve as my main frame of YouTube reference. Occasional instructions appear as subtitles, but only in the vaguest of terms—Li Ziqi’s videos are clearly not intended as recipe guides, or a lifestyle that most people can afford to follow. Instead they fulfill a deep craving for the (illusory) aesthetic of rural idyll. Thousands of comments laud how “calming” the videos are, and the respite they offer from the anxieties of life in 2021. (The fact that this peace is brought to us by the same technology and platforms that destroy our calm is an irony for another essay.)
It’s the problem of how many of us contemporary humans relate to the world, writ small: the terminal conflict of putting the work in to create, grow, and work with your environment versus modern capitalism providing everything and anything just as fast and as easily as possible and damn the consequences. Their antithesis is played out in the interludes of flashy ads served up between the videos’ scenes of stillness.
Robin Wall Kimmerer explores that opposition more deeply in Braiding Sweetgrass, a book that reads to me like a prayer. Or ceremony, or love letter—whatever you hold sacred, this is like that. It feels like a sacred text, laying out a vision of the world that is heartfelt and precious and rare.
Some of the vignettes in Braiding Sweetgrass are almost a textual version of Li Ziqi’s scenes. Peace comes dropping slow as Kimmerer describes teaching students how to gather roots, fights an uphill preservation battle by mucking out a pond, and follows the reverent process of harvesting sweetgrass. Each essay can stand alone, but they are all connected by their grounding in fundamental Indigenous philosophies of respect towards the earth and every other living thing that grows on it.
An enrolled member of the Potawatami Nation and a professor of ecology, Kimmerer is eloquent about the need for complementary forms of knowledge—traditional ways of understanding the world alongside scientific method. Studies have been conducted to show that the smell of humus stimulates the release of oxytocin in humans. And we can also trust what generations of us have learned from lived experience: that when you dig your hands into the dirt, it smells and feels good. Kimmerer tackles the ‘head and heart’ way that western science has been distinguished from Indigenous wisdom, arguing that we need both kinds of knowledge for a holistic and functional worldview and that both should respect what they can learn from the other.
It’s hard not to love a book that talks about catalytic enzyme processes in the same breath as describing the beauty of the world around us, a book that tries to solve the false division between emotion and reason. Kimmerer evokes the multifaceted nature of everything she approaches in poetic prose, including the ambivalent experience of our environment today, which encompasses “joy for the being of the shimmering world and grief for what we have lost.”
One of the things we’ve lost is a strength of connection to our immediate locality and environment. Between malls and megastores, online and delivery services, you could, if you chose to, recreate your life in almost any urban setting in the west with the same stores, same brands, and same year-round produce. Same AirBnb aesthetic. If our work is digital or office-bound, we are even more disconnected from the seasonal rhythms of change; sucked into screens, we’re even disconnected from time. I’ve talked over and over again with friends about our perceptions of time during the pandemic, how it seems to contract and expand like an accordion and everything feels like it took place six days or six months ago. It’s the compounding effect of the sameness of our days on top of the fact that our seasonal cycles—personal and ecological—are all out of whack.
The solution, as appealing as Li Ziqi makes it seem, is not for us all to take up our rakes and hoes and return to agrarian societies. I very much enjoy being able to write for a living, connecting with people around the world, the availability of analgesics, not being a serf. But books like this remind us that how we currently operate is not sustainable. The earth has finite resources and we are ruining them with greed, with the presumptuous attitude that everything else exists to serve us humans. To use Kimmer’s words: “The ecosystem is not a machine, but a community of sovereign beings, subjects rather than objects.”
“The circle of ecological compassion we feel is enlarged by direct experience of the living world, and shrunken by its lack,” Kimmerer writes. The pandemic disconnected many of us even further, making it harder to see and to fight for all of the interrelated and ever-compounding issues. In trying to protect human health, we traded off attention from our ecological health. But our health is intertwined with our environment’s, and the philosophy of reciprocity, symbiosis, mutual aid (whichever framework you prefer) is vital to our survival.
Every object around us comes from something and somewhere. We’ve come to take it for granted that we can click our fingers and have anything from anywhere, but we don’t actually need to have regimented, characterless produce/objects available year-round to be nourished or fulfilled. (Things would, in fact, be much, much better if we didn’t.) Imagine what the world might look like if, instead of trying to force or rush or endlessly expand, we cultivated the mentality of taking enough to sustain a community without damaging the environment, or took the time to appreciate the sense of serenity that accompanies work done with care and intention. It’s always worth knowing where our food and materials come from, how our clothes are made, and who and what comprise the ecosystem that keeps us sheltered and alive. But I’ll be the first to admit how often I forget, overlook, or ignore these things for the sake of my own convenience.
Kimmerer describes ceremony, in the Indigenous tradition, as transcending the individual and focusing community attention into intention. By contrast, white U.S. individualism has given many of us a culture of personal rather than communal rites, glorifying triumph, conquest, and the myth of “by-your-own-bootstraps,” rather than gratitude, reciprocity, and a soul-deep recognition of how much we rely on every other living thing around us. At one point, Kimmerer describes teaching a group of students who look like “they’re trying to remember what it would be like to love the world.” What could it feel like, taste like, look like to love our world? And what would it take to try?
If you like it
…because you enjoyed Kimmerer’s poetic expressions of the interrelatedness of people, land, and story, go for Natalie Diaz’s absolutely ravenous Postcolonial Love Poem.
If you’re drawn to the prescriptive side of things, try All We Can Save, an intense (read: terrifying) and necessary collection of essays about climate change and its possible solutions from activists and leaders. (With thanks to AC for recommending!)
If you don’t
If you found yourself thinking “eh, nature’s cool, but I want more animals,” Helen MacDonald’s lovely, soaring Vesper Flights is for you.
Things I’ve written lately:
The Art of Wine Labels (Wine Enthusiast, May print issue)—about the intersections of art and wine, two fun things! Email me if you want a PDF or random trivia on Prince Charles’ career as a label artist, because I have both.