Book Review: Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer

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I’m actually writing this review before I’ve even finished Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants, because I’m savoring it so slowly it’s taking me forever to finish, and at the same time, I’m so excited about the book I couldn’t wait any longer to tell you all about it.

In her faculty bio, Robin Wall Kimmerer is described as a mother, plant ecologist, writer and SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, New York. She is also an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation.

It’s typical of her that all these descriptors are laid out in the first sentence of her biography, because she does not compartmentalize her different selves (scientist, mom, Potawtomi woman), but rather weaves them together, like sweetgrass basket, to make an integrated whole. In the same way her prose, which takes the form of story telling, will use one unlikely metaphor, like her long fight with pond muck, or tapping maple trees, to bring out moments of unexpected beauty, connection and inspiration.

My first exposure to Dr. Kimmerer came via one of my favorite podcasts, On Being. Here’s a link to that episode: The Intelligence of All Kinds of Life. 

I remember first listening to this podcast while walking around our neighborhood one evening at twilight. As she spoke about the intelligence of all living things and the importance of our relationship with plants, how we are meant to love and live in a respectful, reciprocal relationship with the natural world, tears came to my eyes because the things she was saying were the things I have always believed–always known— but which are not supported by my culture.

As a result, I often feel a little crazy, or unmoored, because trying to live my ideals in this world is like swimming upstream. In fact, it is all but impossible. But hearing an author, a professor, a scientist on a big radio program speaking my truth in a calm, clear voice, as if it were fact, as if it were the most sensible thing in the world, eased my heart. I hope you have a chance to hear this podcast, or read her books, and if you’re like me, I hope it eases your heart, too.

At one point, and I can’t remember if this was in her interview or in the book, maybe both, she tells of asking her grad students a question. She asks them, “Many of us love the natural world. What would it mean if you knew the world loved you back?”

Her students, all being budding scientists, could not accept that proposition (anthropomorphism, sentimentality, etc.). So she tweaked it a little for their comfort and said, “Okay, make it a hypothetical. Hypothetically speaking, what would change if you knew the world loved you back?”

Then they lit up with ideas and possibilities. “Everything would change!” they cried.

I agree with Dr. Kimmerer. The world does love us back. It cannot speak, but it shows its love through selfless acts of giving, like a mother. Plants shower us with abundance. They give us food, medicine, textiles building materials, and less material gifts like beauty and solace. They even give us oxygen: their love for us fills our lungs with every breath. Plants are the basis of the food chain, so at the root of things, our lives are wholly sustained by and dependent on the beneficence of the plant world, and yet we so rarely take a moment say thank you.

Picture Sundays: Memory Castle

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An example of a memory palace or “method of loci.” From the description of this woodcut, which is in the collection of the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford:

The Tower of Wisdom is constructed of a basement supported by 4 buttresses, a first floor with 5 windows and a double door reached by a staircase of 7 steps, above which rises the keep of a castle constructed with 12 courses of 10 stones inscribed with the names of religious virtues and topped by battlements. The reader is guided upwards in a process of edification marked by 22 letters of the alphabet from A to Y. [Germany, c.1475]

Johannes Metensis,Turris sapientiae. Woodcut with Latin inscriptions. [Germany, c.1475]

Saturday Tweets: Apartment Solar, Living in a Greenhouse and Ag in LA

Front Yard Update: Welcome to Crazy Town

front sunflowers

I’ve been avoiding writing about the front yard project’s developments because, frankly, I’m not sure what is going on out there. It’s a little crazy.

The first flush of spring color, the wildflowers and other annuals which bloom with the winter rains, is almost gone now, while the summer bloomers haven’t kicked in. This is what I see if I go out and peer at my slope–a tangle of plants, some of which are doing better than others. What everyone else sees are the sunflowers.

The reign of the wild sunflowers

We have sunflowers. Lots of them. They’re wild sunflowers–not the kind that produce the big seeds, but the kind that grow along the freeway. I suspect these come from that big sunflower that I let grow up at the top of the hill last year which was, most likely, a hybridized descendant of an ornamental sunflower, “Lemon Queen” that Erik planted for the Great Sunflower Project several years ago. I pulled many, many seedlings but decided to let a few grow (four, I think?) on the slope, just to see what would happen.

Ha!

First, I believe in the power of volunteers. They want to be exactly where they’ve sprouted, so they tend to do very well. Why pull a happy volunteer and hope the transplant you’re trying to coerce to live in that spot will do just as well? Most likely it won’t.

Also, sunflowers are very popular with the birds and the bees, and this yard is supposed to be about feeding those guys. And finally, I had this notion that they might provide some shade from the harsh sun for young plants. That they do, but of course they’re also causing chaos.

This is a perpetual problem for me, balancing the exuberance of annual volunteers, such as Nasturtiums, California poppies and sunflowers with the needs of the the less showy perennial plants. I love the seasonal color brought by the spring annuals, but I also have to patrol to make sure they’re not smothering any of my perennials. Inevitably, I miss a few.

Out on the front slope right now, the perennials are holding on beneath the sunflowers. Some are doing fine, some may be a little stunted. The risk I’m running is that the whole center of the slope will look terrible when the sunflowers go. For this reason, I should take them out now. This is what I think every day, but I just can’t do it.  I like them, and as I said, they’re feeding lots of creatures.

These sunflowers are not native sunflowers. The native sunflower is shorter and better behaved. I might try to swap those out for these guys next year, though these guys may be hard to dissuade.

front wildflowers

Some of the wildflowers earlier this spring: The pink are clarkia, the white is yarrow, the orange are Nasturtium (not wildflowers), the purple are Phacelia tanacetifolia.

Other wildflowers

I threw down a good deal of native California wildflower seed last fall, hoping to fill my barren slope come spring with lots of amazing wildflower action. That did not pan out.

I figure birds might have nabbed the seed, although wildflowers are fussy things, so maybe just decided they didn’t like the conditions. In terms of the birds, I did mix about half of the seeds with clay before seeding to protect them from the birds. Maybe the clay coated seeds were the only ones that sprouted? Or maybe that didn’t work at all? Who can tell?

Surprises

I knew this planting would be full of surprises, because I’m unfamiliar with many of the plants I used. So I’m figuring out how they grow and what they like and how they get along. It’s all an ongoing experiment.

front sunflowers close

The golden yarrow is the small yellow flower in this picture.

Surprise number one is Golden Yarrow (Eriophyllum confertiflorum) which is not a true yarrow at all. This was supposed to be a relatively small plant, maybe one foot high by two feet wide. I planted 3, and they’ve taken over the left side of the slope. Obviously, they like sunny hillsides! But you know, that side of the slope gets some shade, too, and the shade patches aren’t putting them off, either. Nor are the sunflowers. Really, between the Golden Yarrow and the sunflowers its a miracle that anything else has room to grow.

I give the Eriophyllum confertiflorum a big thumbs up for being an attractive, fast-growing plant. It’s also supposed to be good for butterflies, though I haven’t noticed any butterfly interest in the blooms yet. It’s been blooming since early spring, and it’s categorized as a spring/summer bloomer, so it will be interesting to see how long the bloom lasts.

I like this plant, but I didn’t really intend to cover the entire hillside with it, so I may need to take some action to make it play nice with others. Or, I could just let it take over the whole slope, pour myself a cocktail and call it quits on the landscaping. It wouldn’t be the worse solution in the world.

front grasses

Surprise #2 is how hard it is to get grass to grow.  Native grasses remain a mystery to me. I lost many of the grasses I planted this winter and others are growing slowly. I bought new grass to replace the lost ones, and it’s doing okay, but is a little lost in the crowd on the slope. I’m hoping that it will start reseeding itself, because I don’t want to buy any more of it. I’m figuring that getting a meadow situation started will take time –and the cooperation of the grass. If it likes the slope, I’ll get a grassy meadow in coming years, but not this year. If grass is not to be, I’ll have to punt.

And yes, it may have been more sensible (certainly more affordable) to scatter native grass seed instead of buying plants, but considering how well my wildflower seed did, I suspect it would have all gone into bird bellies as well.

blue eyed grass

A pleasant surprise: blue-eyed grass. What a pretty plant it is! Unfortunately it is summer deciduous, so it’s on its way out. On the upside, it reseeds itself.

Rampant sentimentality getting in the way of design principles

The sunflowers are the most obvious example, but I also have a patch of Mexican sage left over from the old days which I didn’t take out because the hummingbirds love it, and it feeds them during periods when bloom is low everywhere else, and because it is completely naturalized on the slope. It’s so happy and carefree, it seem a shame to take it out. I’m not sure if I could get rid of it, even if I tried! As it is, I keep digging it up as it tries to pop up everywhere, only allowing one stand to grow. But that stand is oppressing some of my other plantings.

I suspect Piet Oudolf does not think like this. This is why he is Piet Oudolf and I’m the Crazy Sunflower Lady.

On similar lines, I have a native sage on the slope as well, also leftover from the old days. It’s a great plant, but it wants to be large, and doesn’t really match my small scale meadow scheme, so I keep it, but I keep it trimmed back. Generally I don’t like “make work” schemes like that. Stuff should just be the right size for the space. Trimming is just a waste of energy for you and the plant. But I’ll leave it for now, and if I decide to give the slope over to the golden yarrow, I’ll let the Mexican sage and the purple sage go, too, and see who comes out on top. It would be like botanical cage fighting.

Speaking of cage fighting, at the very top of the slope we have a cardoon plant. You can see it in the top left of the top picture. Cardoons are technically invasive plants and one of the bêtes noires of the native plant folks. I doubt we’ll ever be on a native plant garden tour with this monster crowning our so-called native landscape, but Erik loves, loves, loves this plant for inexplicable reasons, so I can’t take it out.

The cardoon’s huge leaves are perpetually reaching out to overshade my natives, so I keep hacking them back (more make-work activity). However, I learned to like the cardoon much more this spring when I discovered it had become a ladybug nursery. I’ve never seen so many pupating lady bugs in one place. It was amazing. It probably housed more than 100 developing ladybugs at one point. And birds like that plant, too. They’re eating something off it–not the ladybugs, I think. So I guess it’s earning its keep.

The mystery of the front terrace

The first, front or bottom-most terrace on the slope turns out to have remarkably bad soil. The whole slope has variable soil, due to construction digging, but the front terrace is really distinct: distinctly crappy, that is. Its main problem is that it’s hydrophobic, and no other part of the slope is like that. Hydrophobic means that water doesn’t really sink into the soil very easily, and even after it seems to sink in, it sort of vanishes into the void, as if I never watered. It really is like a magic trick.

The plants down there are alive, but much smaller than their peers above. And no wonder–they’re underwatered.

The cure for bad soil is, as always, compost and mulch and worm poo. I need to add a lot of that stuff to this poor terrace, but I have a problem. The soil is already up to the top of the retaining wall–if I add more, it will spill all over the sidewalk. So I have a choice. I can add edging to give me a few more inches of depth for amendments, or I can dig up that terrace, pulling up the plants in the process, and hope they don’t mind being transplanted. Or I could leave it be, do small interventions like teas and hope the plants make it.

Plans

These days I’m pretty much battening down the hatches for the long dry summer. Erik and I have installed a “smart” irrigation system to make watering easier (we’ll blog about that after testing it). I’m going to do a heavy mulching soon as the wildflowers and other spring annuals finish up. At that time I might have to make some decisions about the sunflowers.

It will be interesting to see what the slope looks like without the sunflowers hogging all the attention. There are also summer and fall bloomers hidden in there, who will hopefully come to the foreground later this year.

Overall, I’m happy enough to wait and see how this system stabilizes over time. It’s not perfect, but it’s not bad. It’s a little crazy, but it’s feeding critters, which is what it’s supposed to do, so I’m not complaining. I have the feeling it will look much different next year. We’ll find out!

I’ll do a late summer/fall update to see how this thing looks in the dog days of the year.

Take a Look Bike Mirror

511SR6oUfgL._SL1200_In honor of bike to work week which, in the case of a work-at-home blogger such as myself should be called bike from work week, I thought I’d discuss one of my favorite bike commuting tools: my “dork mirror.”

This little mirror attaches to a pair of glasses so that you can watch motorists behind you updating their Facebook profiles, texting and Snapchatting while they “drive.” Combined with middle age, this accessory marks you as a serious bike dork. Add some Lycra and you’re a full fledged MAMIL (middle aged man in Lycra). Of course, I ditched the Lycra a long time ago and bike commute in this outfit:

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All it takes is a little saber rattling to disrupt those Snapchat sessions! But I digress.

What I really like about the Take a Look mirror is its durability. There’s a lot of poorly made plastic crap on the market these days. The Take a Look mirror is oddly, almost supernaturally, indestructible. I’ve sat on it so many times that I’ve lost count. It’s lasted for many years.

A mirror like this makes changing lanes a lot easier and gives you an awareness of what’s going on behind you. The mirror attaches to a pair of glasses and is fully adjustable. There’s an adapter kit if you want to attach it to a helmet.

The one caveat I’d add is that you need to be careful not to check the mirror too much. It’s more likely that something bad will happen in front of you: someone turning, a pedestrian jumping out from the curb, someone opening a car door. And you should be able to ride without using the mirror. That said, I never leave home without it.