Acclaimed author and scholar Robin Wall Kimmerer explores the dominant themes of her book Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, which include cultivation of a reciprocal relationship with the living world. Consider what we might learn if we understood plants as our teachers, from both a scientific and an indigenous perspective.
Robin Wall Kimmerer is a mother, scientist, decorated professor, and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. Her first book, Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses, was awarded the John Burroughs Medal for outstanding nature writing, and her other work has appeared in Orion, Whole Terrain, and numerous scientific journals. She tours widely and has been featured on NPR’s On Being with Krista Tippett and in 2015 addressed the general assembly of the United Nations on the topic of “Healing Our Relationship with Nature.” Kimmerer is a SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor of Environmental Biology, and the founder and director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment, whose mission is to create programs which draw on the wisdom of both indigenous and scientific knowledge for our shared goals of sustainability.
As a writer and a scientist, her interests in restoration include not only restoration of ecological communities, but restoration of our relationships to land. She holds a B.S. in Botany from SUNY ESF, an M.S. and Ph.D. in Botany from the University of Wisconsin and is the author of numerous scientific papers on plant ecology, bryophyte ecology, traditional knowledge and restoration ecology. She lives on an old farm in upstate New York, tending gardens both cultivated and wild.
Braiding Sweetgrass is available to borrow in print, e-book, and e-audiobook, or you can purchase online from The Last Word Bookstore.
The event is part of the “Guide to Indigenous Maryland” project. This program is supported in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, through the Library Services and Technology Act, administered by the Maryland State Library, as well as by the Prince George’s County Memorial Library System. Maryland Libraries Together is a collaboration of Maryland libraries to engage communities in enriching educational experiences that advance an understanding of the issues of our time. Learn more at bit.ly/indigenousmd
Losing Eden is informative, thought-provoking, and well researched. I found inspiration in its pages. I found it comforting and distressing. Sometimes it’s comforting to read a whole book about how the world is hurtling toward disaster instead of dozens of headlines, short articles, op-eds, and social media posts. Reading Losing Eden made me feel like Ethan Hawke in First Reformed, except I have a daughter and I don’t pour Pepto-Bismol in my whiskey.
Losing Eden is glued together with memoir paste, but it’s mostly an academic, research-based treatise on the importance of time spent outdoors, the immense value of plants and animals, and the urgent need to protect the natural world. Jones uses climate change, mental health, socio-economics, and racial equity as reasons to care about this green world. She also references dozens, if not hundreds, of studies, books, and research projects running the gamut from the social effects of green space in Chicago to the importance of the Białowieża Forest, a primeval area in Poland and Belarus.
She cites Robert Pyle’s theory of the extinction of experience. Pyle’s general idea is that the less we interact with nature, the less we will care about it. Extinction leads to extinction of experience and then to more extinction. Jones writes, “Over the past fifty years the populations of mammals, birds, reptiles, and fish have fallen by 60 percent worldwide.” Passages like that are distressing.
Jones explores the possible emotional impact of spending time outdoors. The answer might be in the dirt. A bacteria found in dirt, mycobacterium vaccae, has been linked to increased happiness. In 2004, oncologist Mary O’Brien created, “a serum that contained M. vaccae, a species of bacteria found in soil.” It did not have the desired effect, a cure for cancer, “but, strangely, those who received the immunization reported feeling happier.” Dr. Christopher Lowry was separately working on a similar research project and found that ,“mice injected with the bacterium exhibited fewer anxiety- or fear-like behaviour and were 50 percent less likely to have stress-induced colitis.” It’s dangerous to label nature as a panacea for mental health issues, but I think Jones makes a compelling argument, while being careful not to stray into an irresponsible reliance on nature as a magical cure.
Jones also mentions chronic inflammation and its connection with mental health. She writes, “people with depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, and other neuropsychiatric disorders have been found to have higher levels of inflammation biomarkers.” Cytokines are a biomarker for inflammation, and “studies show that just two hours In a forest can significantly lower cytokine levels in the blood, soothing inflammation. This could partly be caused by exposure to important microorganisms.” If you’ve never heard of shinrin-yoku, this book is for you.
She also approaches the topic from a socioeconomic angle. She writes that “people in lower socio-economic groups or from racial and ethnic minorities usually have less access to green space and parks than those who are white and affluent.” She traces this issue back to the 17th century and the enclosure acts in England: “the practice of enclosing land from the British people began in earnest with the passing of over 5,200 Enclosure Acts between 1604 and 1914, which fenced off 6.8 million acres of previously common land.” I particularly loved this part of her book because the enclosure acts were an integral part of my thesis on pastoral poetry. If you’re ever in the UMBC library, check out: “Borrowed Weeds: Courtiers in Disguise in Renaissance Pastoral.” I guarantee you’ll be the first person to ever check it out.
Jones saved one of her most compelling arguments for last. She cites the research of Professor Rich Mitchell from the University of Glasgow. His idea of “equigenesis” is full of real-world applications. The basic idea is that “If an environment is equigenic, it may reduce the gap between the rich and the poor by weakening the link between socio-economic inequality and health inequality.” Prof. Mitchell realized that the massive changes needed to address inequity weren’t going to happen, so he searched for other solutions. A 2015 study looking at more than 20,000 people in 34 European countries showed that, “access to nature was the one characteristic that reduced socio-economic inequality in mental well-being (by 40 percent).”
Her evidence is compelling. Jones accumulated loads of research and attacked the question from many angles. I had a lot of takeaways from her book. I should definitely encourage my daughter to play in the dirt. I should garden. I should spend time outdoors. Should I buy a chicken to diversify my microbiota like Jones did? Maybe?
I’ll definitely encourage my daughter to continue to watch squirrels, look for the moon during the day, and watch for chubby hawks in the trees.
Ben Hamilton works at Project Literacy, Howard County Library’s adult basic education initiative, based at HCLS Central Branch. He loves reading, writing, walking, and talking (all the basics).
Spring is here! Temperatures are warming, plants are budding and blooming, and animals are reemerging – including creepy crawlies that we might be less than enthusiastic to greet. As you welcome the change of seasons, here are some reads that celebrate the natural world. Take a look below to find titles for all ages, and keep an eye on our social media to see additional suggestions for each age group.
Join your little one in discovering all the amazing creatures that live in the unique ecosystem of a mountain pond. As a boy and his mother paddle across the pond, they discover the interconnected nature of the creatures that call the pond home. Turn the pages to the end of the story to read facts about all the animals you see.
Come balance, sway, sing, and stretch along with children imagining what it’s like to be a tree. Bright, colorful pictures show children of different backgrounds learning to embrace nature, each other, and themselves. The fun, singsong text is full of sweet affirmations written in both Spanish and English.
Explore the gorgeous illustrations in this volume filled with information about the species that have vanished over the last century. Along with the tragic stories of how many of these species have been lost to the world, this book also shares inspiring tales of species that were rediscovered and some that were successfully reintroduced into the wild.
A vacant lot in inner-city Cleveland, Ohio brings together a community in unexpected ways in this classic tale. Follow the stories of 13 diverse residents as they discover the power of gardening and working together to heal and make change.
This richly illustrated book combines poems with the fascinating backstories of 20 animals who’ve figured out how to thrive in cities. From reticulated pythons in Singapore’s sewer system to coyotes in Chicago, discover why these animals came to be such close neighbors with humans. At the end of the book, enjoy bonus pages on poetry forms and resources to learn more about these clever creatures.
This beautiful nonfiction volume explores some of the quirkiest creatures you can find, along with more common animal companions and friends. Beginning with Darwin’s theory of evolution, the author also explains how advances in scientific knowledge, especially genetics, have expanded our understanding of how animals became their current selves.
This multi-authored novel tells the story of ten teens left alone in the wilderness for a three-day survival test. The diverse group of troubled teens have to overcome their vast differences to survive in the wild with no readily available food or water, just the packs on their backs.
When Oliver takes a summer trip from the bustling city of Chicago to Boulder, Colorado, he experiences a bit of a culture shock. There he meets Essa, a nature-loving girl who plays wilderness survival games with her friends. The two begin to explore Buddhism and meditation at the local Zendo. When one of their survival games goes wrong, the two have to rely on their newfound spiritual strength if they are to save Essa’s sister, Puck, and survive the trip themselves.
In Montana’s Mission mountains, conservationist and rancher Bryce Andrews watches a young grizzly bear be tagged with a GPS collar. As the seasons pass, he tracks her through forests, cornfields, and cattle ranches as she struggles to feed herself (and later her two cubs) from a wilderness increasingly fractured by human use, while he works with farmers, hunters, and Native organizations to protect the bears. Tensions rise as bear encounters with humans and their property become more frequent and destructive, and, as a series of tragic events unfolds, Andrews eloquently wonders what can be done to find balance between these two species. While deeply personal and rooted firmly in the landscapes and culture of the American West, this story is also emblematic of global struggles where habitat loss is pushing wildlife into ever closer proximity with human settlements.
Spring is upon us, and maybe you want to venture into the yard and get ready for outdoor living! In Garden Renovation, you’ll find practical do-it-yourself plans to build or re-build your garden environment. Like many gardening and outdoor project books, the beautiful pictures are just as much fun to look at and dream over as they are instructive. If you decide to take on a project, don’t forget the DIY Education Center can help!
If you’re not familiar with this humorous author, you are in luck, because we own many of his fantastic books. In A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson recounts his discovery of and attempts to hike the Appalachian Trail. In this book, you are not inspired by the story of a very fit hiker doing the entire trail from Maine to Georgia in record time, but rather laugh along with the story of an average middle-aged person and his old friend hiking and discovering together. While very funny, Bryson also weaves interesting trail history and social commentary into his tale. I always recall his comments on how few people walk in the woods, and how, after days in the woods, the modern world seems harsh, especially for those on foot. Robert Redford produced and starred as Bryson in the film adaptation, available on DVD.
The Elkridge Branch + DIY Education Center opened the doors of its new building in March 2018. Our staff are always happy to help you with your questions about books, tools, technology, and more!
Finding ways to increase our well-being during the pandemic has taken on greater significance than ever. Spending time outdoors, one of the few pastimes still available to us, may actually have greater benefits than we realize, according to The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative. Author Florence Wiliams, a contributing editor to Outside magazine and transplant to Washington, DC from Boulder, CO, felt depressed, irritable, and unable to focus after the move. Realizing that she missed the mountains and easy access to nature, Williams began asking, “…how much nature do we need to fix ourselves?” and, “What is it about nature that people seem to need?” Williams embarked on a two-year research project to learn the answers from scientists around the world.
Williams buoys up the factual and data-heavy text with sprinkles of humor evident in chapters titled, “How Many Neuro-Specialists Does It Take to Find the Stinking Milk Vetch?” and, “Squat Down and Touch the Plant.” She subjected herself to wearing an EEG device strapped around her head while viewing the San Juan River, went on a kayaking trip with veterans suffering from PTSD, and visited countries including Japan, South Korea, Scotland, and Finland to understand what we can learn from other nations.
Many countries make access to and immersion in nature a national priority. In Japan, the practice of forest-bathing, or shinrin yoku, has been found to have quantifiable effects on health. The practice involves slowing down in order to open up to the sights, scents, textures, sounds, and even tastes of nature. Williams’ initiation into forest-bathing started with a warm cup of “mountain-grown, wasabi-root and bark flavored tea.” Later in the day she inhaled the scent of sugi pines, stretched out on a mossy boulder, and listened to the quacking of ducks. Afterwards, not surprisingly, her blood pressure measured several points lower.
Subsequent chapters fully explore the individual senses of smell, hearing, and sight. The hinoki cypress forests found in South Korea are full of beneficial phytoncides, a chemical released by plants. Beyond just smelling good, phytoncides boost the immune system, reduce blood pressure, lower cortisol, and improve concentration. The Korean Forest Agency offers guided trips through the forests to help cancer patients, children with allergies, and prenatal women, among others.
Similarly, just listening to a trickling stream can have a positive impact on our brain. Even as we tune them out, industrial sounds affect us negatively — traffic, planes, electric saws, and leaf blowers can all raise stress levels and deter alpha waves, while the opposite holds true of the sounds of nature. Enjoying beautiful scenery also activates “happy molecules.” Visual artist and physicist, Richard Taylor, studies fractal patterns found in nature such as in clouds, coastlines, and plant leaves. Exposure to fractal patterns activates brain regions that regulate emotions and reduces stress up to 60 percent by increasing alpha waves.
The Finns have found that a mere five hours a month spent in nature improves physical and emotional health. Recommendations for time outdoors can be compared to the food pyramid: short walks during the week, a weekend away once a month, and every year or two aspiring to spend a few weeks in a natural setting. Beyond benefits on an individual level, the increasing scientific evidence of how nature improves health can shape public policy decisions, such as how educators approach school recess, city planners provide urban green space, and architects design hospitals.
The wealth of evidence in The Nature Fix supports what many of us already know, that nature is good for us. Yet taking a deep dive into understanding the scientific research helped me override the temptation to stay on the couch and choose instead to find time in my day, even if just a little, to enjoy the rich and renewing effects of nature.