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Thoughts on “Braiding Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer

My daughter gave me this book as a gift, and I have to say, I loved it. She obviously knows me well.

Kimmerer is Native American and a Professor of Environmental Biology. So this book is essentially a weaving of environmental science writing and spiritually based storytelling. Science and spirituality used to inhabit opposite ends of the spectrum, but not anymore. The people who are at the forefront of each discipline are exploring the relationships between the two, and Kimmerer’s skill as a wordsmith makes this book a joy to read, even when she addresses painful issues, which are unavoidable when writing about environmental topics.

I have Bruce King’s portrait of Skywoman, Moment in Flight, hanging in my lab. Floating to earth with her handful of seeds and flowers, she looks down on my microscopes and data loggers. It might seem an odd juxtaposition, but to me she belongs there. As a writer, a scientist, and a carrier of Skywoman’s story, I sit at the feet of my elder teachers listening for their songs.

(pp. 5 – 6)

We live in a society that is detached from the sources of that which we consume. As a result, we do not have to think about where everything comes from, and the true cost to our world in the mass production of commodities that are destined for landfills. But as Kimmerer points out, almost everything that we use, every item that finds its way into our homes, is made at the expense of another living entity.

Just about everything we use is the result of another’s life, but that simple reality is rarely acknowledged in our society. The ash curls we make are almost paper thin. They say that the “waste stream” in this country is dominated by paper. Just as much as an ash splint, a sheet of paper is a tree’s life, along with the water and energy and toxic byproducts that went into making it. And yet we use it as if it were nothing. The short path from the mailbox to the waste bin tells the story. But what would happen, I wonder, to the mountain of junk mail if we could see it in the trees it once had been?

(p. 148)

There is a long section later in the book that is worth quoting. Kimmerer uses the myth of the Windigo as a metaphor for our current state of mindless consumption.

No matter what they call it, Johnston and many other scholars point to the current epidemic of self-destructive practices—addiction to alcohol, gambling, technology, and more—as a sign that Windigo is alive and well. In Ojibwe ethics, Pitt says, “any overindulgent habit is self-destructive, and self-destruction is Windigo.” And just as Windigo’s bite is infectious, we all know too well that self-destruction drags along many more victims—in our human families as well as in the more-than-human world.

The native habitat of the Windigo is the north woods, but the range has expanded in the last few centuries. As Johnston suggests, multinational corporations have spawned a new breed of Windigo that insatiably devours the earth’s resources “not for need but for greed.” The footprints are all around us, once you know what to look for.

(p. 306)

We all have important decisions to make, and every choice, regardless of how insignificant it may seem, will have lasting consequences. We are indeed at a crossroads, and we no longer have the luxury of complacency. Every one of us has a responsibility, to begin the healing process and start undoing the damage that we have done as a collective species.

We do indeed stand at the crossroads. Scientific evidence tells us we are close to the tipping point of climate change, the end of fossil fuels, the beginning of resource depletion. Ecologists estimate we would need seven planets to sustain the lifeways we have created. And yet those lifeways, lacking balance, justice, and peace, have not brought us contentment. They have brought us the loss of our relatives in a great wave of extinction. Whether or not we want to admit it, we have a choice ahead, a crossroads.

(p. 368)

I strongly encourage you to read this book. It will inspire, outrage, and motivate you. Remember, everything that you do matters. Act accordingly.

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“Hayduke Lives!” by Edward Abbey

This book was difficult to find. I had been keeping an eye out for it for a while, since I am a fan of Edward Abbey and particularly enjoyed The Monkey Wrench Gang, of which Hayduke Lives! is the sequel (published posthumously in 1990). I eventually found a copy at Blue Bicycle Books in Charleston, SC, a cool used and antiquarian bookstore. Anyway, I bought the book and finally got around to reading it.

While I do not think the book is as good as The Monkey Wrench Gang, nor as good as Desert Solitaire, it is decent and worth the read. Basically, the old gang from the first book teams up again to save the environment from the evil government-backed corporate interests seeking to destroy the pristine wilderness for the quick extraction of resources.

The first thing that struck me about this book is how little has changed in the 27 years since it was published. People still believe the lies that raping the environment will create jobs, and that jobs are more important than protecting the planet.

…”good folks of southern Utah and the Arizona Strip, listen to me. I’ll only take a minute, just like everybody else I’ll speak my little piece and let you go. [Crowd resumes seats.] Thank you. Now we heard a lot today, especially in the last ten minutes, from those good neighbors of ourn, Mr. and Mrs. Kathy Smith [laughter] about how dangerous this nuclear industry is. Uranium is poison, they say. Well I want to tell you folks something different: that uranium smells like money to me. [Cheers!] It smells like jobs to me. [More cheers!] Hundreds of jobs right here in Hardrock and Landfill County and and just across the line in northern Arizona. Hundreds? I mean thousands of jobs. [Thunderous applause!]

(p. 22)

Abbey appears to be very critical of the news media. At one point, one of the characters asserts that the only intelligent part of a newspaper is the Letters column.

When looking for wit, wisdom, knowledge or intelligence in a newspaper, any newspaper, your only hope is the Letters column.

(p. 99)

Sadly, though, this is no longer true. With the proliferation of social media and online commenting, comments and letters have sunk to a new low. People now use online commenting to spew vitriol based upon pre-established beliefs about biased news articles. It seems that every day it becomes more and more difficult to find thoughtful and unbiased information regarding world events. It’s kind of sad.

As the book progresses, Abbey paints a bleaker, misanthropic view of humanity. It appears that he acknowledges the good of individuals, but sees the whole of humanity as petty, mean-spirited, and just outright dangerous.

“People are no damn good,” agreed Seldom. “Take ‘em one at a time, they’re all right. Even families. But bunch ‘em up, herd ‘em together, get ‘em organized and well fed and branded and ear-notched and moving out, then they’re the meanest ugliest greediest stupidest dangerest breed of beast in the whole goldang solar system far as I know.”

(p. 228)

Without giving away the story or spoiling anything, I will say that the gang is seeking to stop a machine called GOLIATH, which is a giant earth mover used in strip mining. Symbolically, I see the machine as representing America as controlled by massive corporations, a mindless machine whose only purpose is to acquire and consume in an endless cycle until nothing is left. Abbey implies that it is only through radical action and anarchy that our country has any chance of defeating the leviathan of greed that dominates our world.

He waited, frowning into the gloom, looking two miles west at the glinting strobe light of the Super-G.E.M. He heard no roar of motors. GOLIATH had paused. Was down, waiting. Waiting for him, Hayduke, George Washington Hayduke, father of his country. Not the America that was – keep it like it was? – but the America that will be. That will be like it was. Forward to anarchy. Don’t tread on me. Death before dishonor. Live free or fucking die. Etc., etc.

(p. 274)

Edward Abbey’s earlier works inspired the Earth First! movement, so it was interesting to read Abbey’s commentaries on the movement which were woven into this book. In fact, Earth First! founder Dave Foreman makes a cameo character appearance in the text.

Abbey once stated that “If wilderness is outlawed, only outlaws can save wilderness.” Our planet is still in peril and there is a lot of work to be done on the environmental front. I encourage everyone to do their own small part.

If you want to learn a little more about Edward Abbey, here is a good article on Wilderness.net:

Edward Abbey: Freedom Begins Between the Ears

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“Beyond the Wall” by Edward Abbey

BeyondWall

I picked this book up while visiting The Last Bookstore in Los Angeles. I was introduced to the writings of Edward Abbey in college when I took a class on environmental literature. We covered Desert Solitaire in the class, and I also read The Monkey Wrench Gang for my independent project. Both books made a lasting impression on me.

This book is a compilation of ten essays that Abbey wrote about his experiences in the wild, the area he considers to be beyond the wall of controlled civilization. This is the area that Abbey considers to be the real world, where you can discover who you truly are.

Beyond the wall of the unreal city, beyond the security fences topped with barbed wire and razor wire, beyond the asphalt belting of the superhighways, beyond the cemented banksides of our temporarily stopped and mutilated rivers, beyond the rage of lies that poisons the air, there is another world waiting for you. It is the old true world of the deserts, the mountains, the forests, the islands, the shores, the open plains. Go there. Be there. Walk gently and quietly deep within it. And then—

(p. xvi)

Like Abbey, I love to hike, and he points out what it is about hiking which is so amazing: it is an authentic and spiritual experience.

Why do I do this? (My feet hurt.)Why? Well, it’s the need, I guess, for some sort of authentic experience. (My hip joint hurts.) As opposed to the merely synthetic experience of books, movies, TV, regular urban living. (My neck hurts.) To meet my God, my Maker once again, face to face, beneath my feet, beyond my arms, above my head.

(p. 14)

I firmly believe that the root of our environmental problems is human overpopulation, and Abbey shares this sentiment in very strong terms.

To aid and abet in the destruction of a single species or in the extermination of a single tribe is to commit a crime against God, a mortal sin against Mother Nature. Better by far to sacrifice in some degree the interests in mechanical civilization, curtail our gluttonous appetite for things, ever more things, learn to moderate our needs, and most important, and not difficult, learn to control, limit and gradually reduce our human numbers. We humans swarm over the planet like a plague of locusts, multiplying and devouring. There is no justice, sense of decency in this mindless global breeding spree, this obscene anthropoid fecundity, this industrialized mass production of babies and bodies, ever more bodies and babies. The man-centered view of the world is anti-Christian, anti-Buddhist, antinature, antilife and—antihuman.

(p. 40)

In Desert Solitaire, Abbey criticizes the development of access roads in wilderness areas so that anyone can visit these remote “natural” settings. He reiterates these thoughts in Beyond the Wall, asserting that once an area is made accessible, it is no longer the same and loses its magical essence.

Today the old North Wash trail road is partly submerged by the reservoir, the rest obliterated. The state has ripped and blasted and laid asphalt highway through and around the area to link the new tin bridges with the outside world. The river is gone, the ferry is gone, Dandy Crossing is gone. Most of the formerly primitive road from Blanding west has been improved beyond recognition. All of this, the engineers and politicians and bankers will tell you, makes the region easily accessible for everybody, no matter how fat, feeble or flaccid. That is a lie.

It is a lie. For those who go there now, smooth, comfortable, quick and easy, sliding through as slick as grease, will never see what we saw. They will never feel what we felt. They will never know what we knew, or understand what we cannot forget.

(p. 67)

I feel that as a global society, we are getting more and more distracted by the trappings of modern technology, and we are losing our connection to the wonders, beauty, and mystery which is our world. There is so much still out there, waiting to inspire us. With that, I want to close this post with one more quote about the ability of our amazing planet to stretch the boundaries of our consciousness and our imagination.

What can I say except confess that I have seen but little of the real North, and of that little understood less. The planet is bigger than we ever imagined. The world is colder, more ancient, more strange and more mysterious than we had dreamed. And we puny human creatures with our many tools and toys and fears and hopes make only one small leaf on the great efflorescing tree of life.

Too much. No equation however organic, no prose however royally purple, can bracket our world within the boundaries of mind.

(p. 203)

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