‘Writing Wild’ and ‘Braiding Sweetgrass’

  • "Braiding Sweetgrass" Contributed photo—

  • "Braiding Sweetgrass" Contributed photo

  • "Writing Wild" Contributed photo

Published: 6/29/2020 9:56:34 AM

“Writing Wild” is the thrilling and inviting title of Kathryn Aalto’s book about “25 women poets, ramblers, and mavericks who shape how we see the natural world (Timber Press $24.95). She begins with Dorothy Wordsworth, sister of poet William Wordsworth, who succinctly described herself as a “mountaineer, diarist, poet.”

This first section sets up the design of the book. First, there is a bit of unexpected (in many cases) biography focusing in some way on the natural world, then an additional list of women who have similar interests. Wordsworth called herself a mountaineer; other mountain lovers were British Dorothy Pilley (1894-1986), Helen Mort who is described as “a dazzling British poet” who has won many awards; and the more familiar Cheryl Strayed, who wrote “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.”

Other writers come at the natural world in different ways, some familiar and some not. Susan Fenimore Cooper beat Henry David Thoreau by four years in writing the first  book of American nature in 1850. That book, “Rural Hours,” has recently been incorporated in a book of her writing, “Susan Fenimore Cooper: New Essays on ‘Rural Hours’ and Other Works.” Surprisingly, that book is published and for sale in England.

I am familiar with many of the women portrayed including Rachel Carson, Mary Oliver, Annie Dillard, Rebecca Solnit and Andrea Wulf. I love Wulf’s engaging books, “The Brother Gardeners” and “The Founding Gardeners: the Revolutionary Generation, Nature and the Shaping of the American Nation.” The founding gardeners are our first four presidents.

I was not familiar with Carolyn Merchant, ecofeminist philosopher and science historian, nor Lauret Savoy, who lives nearby and teaches at Mount Holyoke College. Her book is “Trace: Memory, History, Race and the American Landscape.”

I was also not familiar with Robin Wall Kimmerer, a botananist and professor of plant ecology whose new book “Braiding Sweetgrass” was recently published — more about that later. I will be learning more about all these fascinating women.

“Writing Wild” is just full of tempting bits of poetry, of literary biographies and travel essays. I suspect it will send many readers back to the bookshelves to read Elizabeth Rush’s book “Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore” and Helen MacDonald’s book “H is for Hawk.”

After “Writing Wild,” I read “Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants” (Milkweed editions ($18. paper) by Robin Wall Kimmerer, botanist and professor of plant ecology. She is the SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor of Environmental Biology. She is also the founder and director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment.

Like many indigenous people, Kimmerer did not grow up speaking the Potawatomi language, or learning all the stories of the plants that her people used in so many ways. Now, she is able to share the stories with us, stories about the reciprocity between plants and people.

Her love of plants began when she was just a child. She filled shoe boxes of seeds and pressed leaves for identification. She was looking to identify plants and their habitats. She thought she was ready when she applied for the forestry department at college. There, she learned that what she knew about plants was not what the college wanted her to know. So, she learned what the college taught. She earned a Ph. D. and began to work at the college. But she came to learn more through her own curiosity, the stories of her people, and the ways that plants work with each other.

Kimmerer shares her stories with us and provides unique ways to think about what plants give and what the plants need from us.

I am entranced by the stories she tells us about why and how maple trees gave the people sap to turn to sugar, which kept them from starving in the early spring. I am equally as stunned to learn that sweetgrass survives better if only half of the crop is harvested. Conversely, if people think they need to leave whole patches without taking any harvest, the sweetgrass will fail. Gifts of nature are given in many ways and we need to learn to understand what is required in turn, if we are going to make our world healthy.

Kimmerer explains some of the mysteries of plants, the gifts they give us and what we owe. She gives us scientific facts, but it is almost like reading poetry. “The Allegiance to Gratitude” chapter has given me a lot to think about as I work in my garden and in my everyday life.

Every page of this book brings us to intriguing lessons of how the natural world works. We need those lessons as our planet is becoming warmer, as storms become more violent, as the air has become polluted, as water needs more protections.

Kimmerer is an amazing teacher who is much needed and it is a joy to be her student.

Pat Leuchtman has been writing and gardening in Heath at End of the Road Farm since 1980. She now lives in Greenfield. Readers can leave comments at her website: commonweeder.com.

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