Our guest author for this issue’s Interpreting Nature column is Arely Mendia Perez.  Greenhouse alumni and current LA Audubon staff member, Arely is back to give readers another great book recommendation.

By Arely Mendia Perez, Restoration & Education Staff Member; Stacey Vigallon, Director of Environmental Education

Our guest author for this issue’s Interpreting Nature column is Arely Mendia Perez. Greenhouse alumni and current LA Audubon staff member, Arely is back to give readers another great book recommendation.

 

If you are a lover of science and nature, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, is a wonderful addition to your home library. Award-winning author, Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer, gives her readers insight into her life as a botanist and indigenous scientist. Potawatomi knowledge runs through her veins, and she uses storytelling to teach us about nature and the value of reciprocity. With every chapter, Kimmerer captivates us with traditional Potawatomi stories, showing us the deep connection between her passion of scientific knowledge and traditional ways. Each story holds a personal memory that helps us understand how reciprocity is key. Whatever is given to us must eventually be given to another, whether it is a gift from the earth or from our neighbors.

In reading Braiding Sweetgrass, I personally connected with many concepts. As one who is also passionate about botany, I was deeply entranced by the way Kimmerer described certain plants in her chapters such as sweetgrass, pecans, asters, goldenrod, witch hazel, and more. Kimmerer shows us there is more to plants that meets the eye, which the plants we see teach us to be thankful for what they give us, underscoring the idea of reciprocity. Using one of the stories from her culture as an example, Kimmerer explains how Skywoman gave trees, flowers, fruits, and seeds, thereby creating the earth, in thanks to the birds who saved her when she fell from the sky. Though I am not of Potawatomi descent, I am reminded of cultural stories about nature from my Aztec ancestors that made me think of the multiple ways that I connect to nature - through both botany and science as well as culture. Kimmerer quotes ethnobotanist Dr. Gary Nabhan, “We can’t meaningfully proceed with healing, with restoration, without ‘re-story-ation.’” This truly spoke to me because I work in habitat restoration in the Baldwin Hills and I teach students about restoration. Though I may know some history of the plants I grow and care for, I cannot honestly say that I know their cultural story, how they came to be and how through past generations they were cared for and used.

I learned that I need to have a scientific and a cultural/spiritual connection to the habitat restoration work I do. Kimmerer relays a friend’s story about their time in the rainforest. Kimmerer’s friend was astounded by the indigenous guide’s knowledge of the plants. The guide responded, “Yes, I have learned the names of all the bushes, but I have yet to learn their songs.” After reading this, I came to the same conclusion that Kimmerer did: I had been teaching myself the names of plants but had been not been listening for the plants’ songs. This is indicative of many of the ideas behind using indigenous as a lens to view ecology.

In every chapter of Braiding Sweetgrass Kimmerer skillfully combines science, emotion, and storytelling. Every plant, native or non-native, has a story to tell us. In these times of ecological crisis, we need to use all the knowledge, ideas, and tools at our disposal. This book left me with a sense of awe about the possibilities of science and culture working together to inspire a connection with nature.

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