Back to School, Part 2

September 1, 2023

The Fall semester is already finishing its second week at Washington State University. As they hustle between classes, the Engineering students may have Additive Manufacturing in their backpacks, while Ag students carry Agricultural Cybernetics and Business majors carry Deep Purpose. But all first-year students are reading the best-seller from State University of New York scientist and professor Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass.

A single book is chosen by the university to be read by all first-year students. This “common reading” is then used in their courses and in special programs outside of classes. According to the university, the Common Reading Program at WSU is designed to “create community connections among students, and between students and their professors…” and to spark “academic conversations in and beyond classrooms, highlighting WSU research and the diversity of ideas across disciplines.”

Braiding Sweetgrass is the first book selection in the program’s 17-year history to be used for a second year.

[Note to Husky students and alumni: Page 47 touches on the September pairing of purple and gold, so this isn’t just a book for Cougars…]

The book is described by Parul Sehgal in her interview of the author this way:

“If you haven’t read it, imagine a series of linked essays that don’t fit cleanly into any conceivable category. These are scientific essays. Why do Asters and Goldenrod bloom together in such intense display. And why does maple syrup flow so abundantly in the spring? But they’re also a meditation on our relationship with the natural world, and they draw heavily on Native American teachings handed down from generation to generation.”

Those scientific essays and Native American teachings offer all of us lessons in living, in reciprocity, and in climate action.

At 390 pages, there’s too much to cover in this brief note. Hazel’s witch hazel… “Windigo economics”… “The Seventh Fire Prophecy”… But one passage may be enough to pique your interest in spending Labor Day under the canopy of a Maple, reflecting on our place in the natural world:

I once gave a lecture titled “Cultures of Gratitude” at a small private college where tuition ran upwards of $40,000 a year. For the allocated fifty-five minutes, I talked about the Thanksgiving Address of the Haudenosaunee, the potlatch tradition of the Pacific Northwest, and the gift economies of Polynesia. Then I told a traditional story of the years when the corn harvests were so plentiful that the caches were full. The fields had been so generous with the villagers that the people scarcely needed to work. So they didn’t. Hoes leaned against a tree, idle. The people became so lazy that they let the time for corn ceremonies go by without a single song of gratitude. They began to use the corn in ways the Three Sisters had not intended when they gave the people corn as a sacred gift of food. They burned it for fuel when they couldn’t be bothered to cut firewood. The dogs dragged it off from the untidy heaps the people made instead of storing the harvest in secure granaries. No one stopped the kids when they kicked ears around the village in their games. 


Saddened by the lack of respect, the Corn Spirit decided to leave, to go where she would be appreciated. At first the people didn’t even notice. But the next year, the cornfields were nothing but weeds. The caches were nearly empty and the grain that had been left untended was moldy and mouse-chewed. There was nothing to eat. The people sat about in despair, growing thinner and thinner. When they abandoned gratitude, the gifts abandoned them. 

One small child walked out from the village and wandered for hungry days until he found the Corn Spirit in a sunlit clearing in the woods. He begged her to return to his people. She smiled kindly at him and instructed him to teach his people the gratitude and respect that they had forgotten. Only then would she return. He did as she asked and after a hard winter without corn, to remind them of the cost, she returned to them in the spring. 

Several students in my audience yawned. They could not imagine such a thing. The aisles of the grocery store were always well stocked. At a reception afterward the students filled their Styrofoam plates with the usual fare. We exchanged questions and comments while we balanced plastic cups of punch. The students grazed on cheese and crackers, a profusion of cut vegetables, and buckets of dip. There was enough food to feast a small village. The leftovers were swept into trash bins placed conveniently next to the tables. 

A beautiful young girl, dark hair tied up in a headscarf, was hanging back from the discussion, waiting her turn. When nearly everyone had left she approached me, gesturing with an apologetic smile at the wasted remains of the reception. “I don’t want you to think no one understands what you were saying,” she said. “I do. You sound like my grandmother, back in my village in Turkey. I will tell her she must have a sister here in the United States. The Honorable Harvest is her way, too. In her house, we learned that everything we put in our mouths, everything that allows us to live, is the gift of another life. I remember lying with her at night as she made us thank the rafters of her house and the wool blankets we slept in. My grandma wouldn’t let us forget that these are all gifts, which is why you take care of everything, to show respect for that life. In my grandmother’s house we were taught to kiss the rice. If a single grain fell to the ground, we learned to pick it up and kiss it, to show we meant no disrespect in wasting it.” The student told me that, when she came to the United States, the greatest culture shock she experienced was not language or food or technology, but waste.

“I’ve never told anyone before,“ she said, “but the cafeteria made me sick, because of the way people treated their food. What people throw away here after one lunch would supply my village for days. I could not speak to anyone of this; no one else would understand to kiss the grain of rice.” I thanked her for her story and she said, “Please, take it as a gift, and give it to someone else.” 

I’ve heard it said that sometimes, in return for the gifts of the earth, gratitude is enough. It is our uniquely human gift to express thanks, because we have the awareness and the collective memory to remember that the world could well be otherwise, less generous than it is. But I think we are called to go beyond cultures of gratitude, to once again become cultures of reciprocity. 

I met Carol Crowe, an Algonquin ecologist, at a meeting on indigenous models of sustainability. She told the story of requesting funding from her tribal council to attend the conference. They asked her, “What is this all about, this notion of sustainability? What are they talking about?” She gave them a summary of the standard definitions of sustainable development, including “the management of natural resources and social institutions in such a manner as to ensure the attainment and continued satisfaction of human needs for present and future generations.” They were quiet for a while, considering. Finally one elder said, “This sustainable development sounds to me like they just want to be able to keep on taking like they always have. It’s always about taking. You go there and tell them that in our way, our first thoughts are not ‘What can we take?’ but ‘What can we give to Mother Earth?’ That’s how it’s supposed to be.” 

The Honorable Harvest asks us to give back, in reciprocity, for what we have been given. Reciprocity helps resolve the moral tension of taking a life by giving in return something of value that sustains the ones who sustain us. One of our responsibilities as human people is to find ways to enter into reciprocity with the more-than-human world. We can do it through gratitude, through ceremony, through land stewardship, science, art, and in everyday acts of practical reverence.

Kimmerer, Robin. Braiding Sweetgrass : Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants, Milkweed Editions, 2013. ProQuest Ebook Central

More than anything, the book is an invitation. Kimmerer tells Sehgal, “Braiding Sweetgrass is an invitation, isn’t it? It’s an invitation into reciprocity, to say what is your gift and how could you give it to the world? What do you love too much to lose? And what are you going to do about it?”

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