§ Quotes from 'Braiding Sweetgrass'
Listening in wild places, we are audience to conversations in a language not our own
Puhpowee, she explained, translates as “the force which causes mushrooms to push up from the earth overnight.” As a biologist, I was stunned that such a word existed. In all its technical vocabulary, Western science has no such term, no words to hold this mystery. You’d think that biologists, of all people, would have words for life. But in scientific language our terminology is used to define the boundaries of our knowing. What lies beyond our grasp remains unnamed.
Only 30 percent of English words are verbs, but in Potawatomi that proportion is 70 percent. Which means that 70 percent of the words have to be conjugated, and 70 percent have different tenses and cases to be mastered..
Our toddlers speak of plants and animals as if they were people, extending to them self and intention and compassion—until we teach them not to. We quickly retrain them and make them forget. When we tell them that the tree is not a who, but an it, we make that maple an object;
We don’t know their names or their faces, but our fingers rest right where theirs had been and we know what they too were doing one morning in April long ago. And we know what they had on their pancakes. Our stories are linked in this run of sap; our trees knew them as they know us today..
I realize that those first homesteaders were not the beneficiaries of that shade, at least not as a young couple. They must have meant for their people to stay here. Surely those two were sleeping up on Cemetery Road long before the shade arched across the road. I am living today in the shady future they imagined, drinking sap from trees planted with their wedding vows. They could not have imagined me, many generations later, and yet I live in the gift of their care. Could they have imagined that when my daughter Linden was married, she would choose leaves of maple sugar for the wedding giveaway?
You should not be able to walk on a pond. It should be an invitation to wildlife, not a snare. The likelihood of making the pond swimmable, even for geese, seemed remote at best. But I am an ecologist, so I was confident that I could at least improve the situation. The word ecology is derived from the Greek oikos, the word for home. I could use ecology to make a good home for goslings and girls.
Our appetite for their fruits leads us to till, prune, irrigate, fertilize, and weed on their behalf. Perhaps they have domesticated us. Wild plants have changed to stand in well-behaved rows and wild humans have changed to settle alongside the fields and care for the plants—a kind of mutual taming.
In that awareness, looking over the objects on my desk—the basket, the candle, the paper—I delight in following their origins back to the ground. I twirl a pencil—a magic wand lathed from incense cedar— between my fingers. The willow bark in the aspirin. Even the metal of my lamp asks me to consider its roots in the strata of the earth.
I smile when I hear my colleagues say “I discovered X.” That’s kind of like Columbus claiming to have discovered America. It was here all along, it’s just that he didn’t know it. Experiments are not about discovery but about listening and translating the knowledge of other beings.
It seems counterintuitive, but when a herd of buffalo grazes down a sward of fresh grass, it actually grows faster in response. This helps the plant recover, but also invites the buffalo back for dinner later in the season. It’s even been discovered that there is an enzyme in the saliva of grazing buffalo that actually stimulates grass growth. To say nothing of the fertilizer produced by a passing herd. Grass gives to buffalo and buffalo give to grass.