Braiding Sweetgrass … with Jesus – #3
David R. Weiss – July 1, 2021
Third in a series of occasional reflections as I make my way through Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass (Milkweed Editions, 2013). Kimmerer, a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and a botanist—not to mention a wonderful writer—weaves together story and wisdom and science, braiding them … like sweetgrass. As I explained in my first piece, my intent is neither to critique nor to co-opt her work, but to place it in fruitful conversation with my own Christian tradition—hence, one more strand in the braid. So this is me … braiding sweetgrass … with Jesus.
(The Gospel of Pecans – Braiding, pages 11-21). “Mast fruiting” is when trees (like pecan trees), rather than produce annually, save up and only produce nuts every few years. It seems to rely in part on the arboreal wisdom that by waiting to fruit until you can flood the ground with nuts, you make sure to produce so many nuts that even the eager predators that gobble them up, can’t eat them all. Hence, by dropping enough nuts to satiate all the appetites and then some, the extra nuts end up on the ground, in the ground, as the next generation of trees.
But wait, there’s more. As Kimmerer explains, somehow all the trees in an area sync their fruiting, recognizing as Paul Wellstone liked to say, “We all do better when we all do better.” It seems a mere truism … except we dwell beneath a cultural canopy where competition and individualism hold sway. Pecans preach otherwise.
So did Jesus. And Paul. And the entire early church. My fear—which in part drives me to write these pieces—is that we Christians will encounter Kimmerer’s Sweetgrass reflections and find their wisdom wonderfully evocative and poignantly insightful (which they are!) without recognizing how MUCH of this wisdom lies hidden and neglected in our own tradition. This is NOT to discount the beauty of her words or the depth of the wisdom they hold. But there is a danger in doing “wisdom tourism” in other traditions: it easily offers an appreciation of wisdom “out there,” where we can admire it, without it making active claim on our lives.
But Jesus actively calls us to “sync our fruiting.” He blessed children, taught women, engaged outcasts. He instructs us to meet the needs of the least in our community as though offering holy care to Jesus himself. Paul’s powerful metaphor of the body, where every member has value—and his outrage at Eucharistic practices that heighten division rather than rehearse unity—are also intended to “sync our fruiting.” Drinking deeply from Israel’s prophetic stream, where knowing God IS doing justice, Jesus’ ministry modeled salvation, healing, and wholing, as always communal.
The dominant Western cultural canopy of individualism is so strong by now that we Christians read our own wisdom tradition as addressing ME rather than US. But the truth is that Christian socialism is not an oxymoron, it’s a redundancy! Whenever there is a church that is hostile to the radical, extravagant, gracious, political, systemic pursuit of the well-being of all, that church has betrayed Jesus all over again.
Kimmerer recounts how U.S. policy expressly used residential schools to fracture the spiritual-linguistic-cultural worldview of indigenous people—“to make them forget who they were.” Ultimately, after removing the Potawatomi from land after land after land, the U.S. offered them a (largely illusory) measure of relief from this relentless encroachment—if the Potawatomi would surrender their relationship to the land as commonly held (an embodied expression of the wisdom of pecans) for individual, privately owned tracts. Offered as an olive branch of sorts, it served to sever the people from generations of wisdom. Dragging them from a worldview of cross-creational unity and radical communal care into a hellscape of alienation and individualism. It was a deadly lie.
In Potawatomi wisdom-myth the pecan trees spoke to one another to align themselves in concerted action. Initially science presumed that environmental factors alone were sufficient to do this, and that the ancient myths were mere fanciful tales. Today science recognizes that trees DO “speak” to one another, sending messages across the expanses between them via pheromones in the air and fungal strands beneath the ground. And to the people through myth.
Kimmerer declares—not as argument to be proven, but as wisdom to be embraced … and lived: “All flourishing is mutual.” That’s the gospel of pecans, the truth held at the heart of indigenous wisdom, both plant-bound and story-bound. She hopes it can be recovered by her people.
It is Christian truth as well. Although, from Constantine onward, we also have been sold a lie. A tale where imperial power supplants humble compassion, where individualism entreats us to dismiss the least of these as distractions to progress, and where alienation from the earth anchors an ecocidal cosmology that threatens planetary well-being itself.
Is it too late for us to remember that the water, bread, and wine that we mistake for mere “symbols” (or even revere as “sacraments” of some otherworldly transaction) might actually be speaking to us as well? I hope not.
Water is one; water is life; water is birth into family. Bread is one body. Wine is the lifeblood of all of us. Grace, the word we use to name the “power” at work in our rituals is not fundamentally about saving us from this finite, fragile world. It is about wrapping us so deeply in awe and love and sense-of-place that we know ourselves to be HOME. Here. Together.
May the pecans point us back to truth as well.
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David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community Supported Theology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.