Anna Wyeth offers Sweetgrass, a grass native to northern North America, where various indigenous communities have used it for hundreds of years in medicine, ritual burning of sacred herbs, and basket weaving. While industrial societies have detached from reciprocal relationships with nature, some indigenous knowledge systems demonstrate a mutual dependence.
Museum of the Anthropocene: Sweetgrass
Sweetgrass wiingaashk (Ojibwe) hierochloe odorata (Latin)
“If we use the plant respectfully it will stay with us and flourish. If we ignore it, it will
go away. If we don’t give it respect it will leave us.” (Braiding Sweetgrass, Kimmerer: 2013
How much do you know about the plants that creep in to your urban or semi-urban surroundings? Which ones could you eat to sustain you? Which ones could you fashion into textiles or weave into baskets? Which ones could settle your stomachache or help disinfect that cut on your knee? Perhaps you know, but I’m guessing you don’t.
It hasn’t always been like this. For millennia, homo sapiens survived by utilising our extensive knowledge of local landscapes, fauna, and flora. Contemporary human societies have largely lost this relationship, save some indigenous peoples that fight to cling on to the fragments of their violently deteriorating knowledge systems.
Sweetgrass is native to northern North America and Eurasia. It is a perennial grass with flat bright green leaves. It grows to be about half a metre tall and has a red-tinted stem at its base. Various indigenous communities in the United States and Canada utilise it for things like medicine, smudging (the burning of sacred herbs), and most commonly, basket weaving.
For at least hundreds of years, knowledge of effective sweetgrass harvesting has been passed from generation to generation, during which the plant has thrived. As explored in Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer, sweetgrass abundance is dependent on indigenous human harvesting practices, likely because of its compensatory growth reaction to foliage loss. A thinned population allows the remaining shoots access to space and light, but only if enough of the source population is left untouched. This mutual dependence is not uncommon in grass populations, and similar relationships have been recorded in buffalo grazing.
Historically, western capitalist-born resource extraction methods leave no room for such relationships. Our industrial world does all it can to distance us from nature; an intentional, unequal, and violent process central to the onset of the Anthropocene. In order to create an economy of exponential growth in a world of finite resources, market systems have been dematerialized. In other words, monetary exchange is increasingly disconnected from the goods and processes it is presumably dependent on. The subjectivities of consumer and producer behaviours often determine the price of a product, rather than the labour and resources required for its production. How often does environmental impact or worker expertise actually influence the price of something? How much was that pair of jeans you were looking at in Primark the other day?
As such, western systems of knowledge externalise nature, with detrimental consequences for the maintenance of the natural processes that we all depend upon. Such a relationship has given way to the belief that our interactions with non-human nature are always damaging. National Parks are the perfect example of this, especially in the United States. Though perhaps heralded as the most significant success of western conservation movements, they require the (sometimes forceful) removal of any human inhabitants, unless, of course, they’re paying for parking and buying a t-shirt in the gift shop before they leave.
Addressing the Anthropocene challenges us to question how these relationships were constructed and how they can be amended or dismantled. How can we make our relationship with nature one of nurturing reciprocity? What, as Kimmerer asks, can the grass teach us?
Sweetgrass was contributed by Anna Wyeth. Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book Braiding Sweetgrass: indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge and the teachings of plants (Milkweed Editions, 2015) discusses how the awakening of a wider ecological consciousness requires the acknowledgment and celebration of our reciprocal relationship with the rest of the living world.