Braiding Sweetgrass: The Three Sisters

I thought this chapter was a really nice depiction of the symbiotic relationship between corn, squash, and beans. Kimmerer emphasizes that this relationship is not borne out of intentional collaboration, but instead each species acting in a way that is most beneficial to itself. Of course, it’s also important to remember that this relationship depends on interventions and management by the human farmer.

I thought the following quote was an interesting concept/metaphor:

The Three Sisters offer us a new metaphor for an emerging rela-tionship between indigenous knowledge and Western science, both of which are rooted in the earth. I think of the corn as traditional ecological knowledge, the physical and spiritual framework that can guide the curious bean of science, which twines like a double helix. The squash creates the ethical habitat for coexistence and mutual flourishing. I envision a time when the intellectual monoculture of science will be replaced with a polyculture of complementary knowledges. And so all may be fed. (Kimmerer 2015, 139).

What would a world guided by traditional/ecological knowledge instead of hard Western science look like? Is such a world even possible? I feel like sometimes the manmade science-y way and the “natural” way are at odds with each other (e.g. medicine, technology vs. natural processes), with science being seen as more beneficial to humans and prevailing. Like the corn, beans, and squash, most species do not consider the bigger picture of things when deciding what to do and act purely in self interest (although humans are arguably not like other species due to our level of impact and control…)


Audrey, that’s an interesting question about what the world would look like. I think we have to go back some centuries and look at early philosophies around the world before we came to the globalized place we are now (and centuries of different societies battling and colonizing and taking over one another). I would invite the philosophers in the room to give a better perspective on this than I can! But I would say that it could be beneficial to compare how different philosophies have tried to make sense of the world, and how this in turn shaped cultural values. The pursuit and development of the scientific method, as one example way of thinking, is not so much good or bad. It is just one way to try to bring order, sense, and meaning to our surroundings and understand the world. It has shaped what is now Westernized culture, but what if a different philosophy had prevailed? That’s interesting!

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What stood out to me in this piece is the place and meaning of language. What does language encompass, and what does it mean for our identity? Our conversations and readings the last couple weeks have made me think a lot about identity. What are our options for defining it for ourselves, how does it arise, what are the elements to shape it?

When we think about language as a means of communication and connection in a broad sense, language widens our perspective of our identity and our place in the world.

The centrality of language in this piece begins with the origin of the word pecan on page 12. Nut! The meaning of a pecan changes for me now that I know more about its history and etymology. What about when we think of what a nut is? Again, reflecting on the centrality of language in this piece, Kimmerer uses vivid language to describe the structure of a nut as a protected vault, an embryo, the origin of new life (page 13 and 14).

What does language entail? It could be as Kimmerer describes (page 16) a way of reading the land, cultural practice. The land itself contains words to interpret, as much --or more-- as we may think about a printed page conveying information in a certain way we have learned to interpret and understand. Trees speak (page 19). But, as the author says, “scientists decided long ago that plants were deaf and mute, locked in isolation without communication.” This sentence highlights how we can think about language openly, broadly, and in different ways. Human speech is not the only language.

I thought it was interesting to think about gifts as language as well. What is the meaning of a gift? Gifts establish relationships (page 25). They speak as well, carry meaning. Gardens also have language (page 122), an ability to teach and convey information and love. Finally, this chapter ends with the question, “What if you had no language at all and yet there was something you needed to say?” It drives home the point that we can think of language as more than just words spoken between human beings. Plants and gardens, dancing, acting it out, food, rocks, land – all language. I really enjoyed the selections from this book.


Audrey, you’re definitely not alone in your struggle to reconcile traditional and Western knowledge. I found it interesting that the author herself seems to compartmentalize these modes of thinking to a certain extent. During her discussion of the reciprocal love between gardens and gardeners, she puts her empirical, materialist plant scientist self in conflict with the version of herself that is narrating this book.

Now, the plant scientist who sits at my desk and wears my clothes and sometimes borrows my car—she might cringe to hear me assert that a garden is a way that the land says, “I love you.” (p. 123)

What would a world guided by the latter version look like? The author might be offering a microcosm of that potential reality in the paragraph immediately after she sets up these warring voices.

I have to explain things to her sometimes. (p.123)

It goes without saying that there is value in both Western and traditional schools of thought. We should not renounce one for the other, but instead get used to deferring to the wisdom of ecological knowledge when disagreements arise. If individuals and greater societies were able to cultivate traditional ecological consciences, that part of us might be able to guide and restrain our actions. Similar to the way the principles of the gift economy produce healthy community relations, that guiding voice could help mold a more sustainable, just world.

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