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On Braiding Sweetgrass and Ways of Knowing

by Phyllis Barber

Braiding SweetgrassWhile wandering through the many aisles at the AWP book fair in Minneapolis this past April, I saw a book title: Braiding Sweetgrass. A Milkweed edition. It almost glowed. Or at least it stood out from the other books. I stopped. I picked it up. I had written an essay titled “Sweetgrass” in my latest book, To The Mountain: One Mormon Woman’s Search for Spirit. I also knew that the basketball coach of the Runnin’ Utes at the University of Utah (Larry Krystkowiak, who grew up in Montana and knew of such things) burned sweetgrass before each game—a ceremonial preparation for a fair battle. (They had a great run, by the way, to the NCAA Sweet Sixteen this year, and I LOVE basketball). Book in hand, I felt a strong vibe. I knew I had to take it back home with me to Park City, Utah.

I carried it with me on the airplane and leafed through its pages. Robin Wall Kimmerer, the author, is a trained botanist as well as a member of Citizen Potawatomi Nation. She writes that sweetgrass was the first plant to grow on earth, the “flowing hair of Mother Earth, and one of the four sacred plants of Native Americans. Breathe in its scent and you start to remember things you didn’t know you’d forgotten.” And yet so many of us have forgotten how to listen and how to be taught in the “grammar of animacy,” the language of The Beaver People, the Duck People, the wind in the grass—whatever creatures of the earth and air quietly inhabit the perimeters of our daily lives. Reading through these pages was like stopping to poke my head out of the fast current of my everyday life.

I was taken by one particular comment. “In the indigenous ways of knowing, we understand a thing only when we understand it with all four aspects of our being: mind, body, emotion, and spirit.” And Kimmerer, a scientist herself, understands that science “privileges only one, possibly two, of those ways of knowing: mind and body.”

I thought of the ways I know things. I think. I study. I reason. I listen. I trust the wisdom of my body, and the spirit which inhabits unseen places. And I feel. While I read this book, I felt appreciative of Kimmerer’s beautifully crafted words and thoughts and for being taken into this world where non-human beings are not objects but subjects, where rivers and strawberries and mice teach important lessons.

When I returned home, I drove to my bank, to not only add money to my checking account, but to watch the two fat marmots that hang out on the hill behind the drive-through windows and the ATM machine—all three of us making deposits and withdrawals to see us through thick and thin. Thank you R. W. Kimmerer and writers everywhere who help me remember.


Phyllis Barber is an author/teacher of fiction and creative nonfiction, with eight books to her name. She teaches the One-Weekend Intensive: Spiritual Autobiography beginning June 6 as part of Lighthouse’s 10th annual Lit Fest.

About Lighthouse Writers Workshop

Lighthouse Writers Workshop is the literary center for writers, readers, and literary gadabouts in the Rocky Mountain region.

2 comments on “On Braiding Sweetgrass and Ways of Knowing

  1. Jenny Itell
    May 22, 2015

    Sounds like a lovely book and perfect for a friend of mine… I’ll have to order a copy. I enjoyed your post; thanks!

  2. andreadupree
    May 22, 2015

    This is beautiful, Phyllis. Marmots! I want to write a review that somehow includes marmots.

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