November 25, 2022

How Braiding Sweetgrass Became a Surprising and Enduring Bestseller

GETTYSBURG, Pa. — A dozen years ago, Robin Wall Kimmerer submitted an unsolicited manuscript to Milkweed, an independent nonprofit press in Minneapolis. It was a brick of about 750 pages.

“I sent it without any certainty that anyone would want to read such a thing,” says Kimmerer, 69. “I didn’t have an agent. I’m not a professional writer. I’m a botanist. But it was something I felt I really wanted to say.

The submission was “Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and Plant Teachings,” which asks readers to reconsider how they view and treat the natural world.

Kimmerer’s goal was to reach two specific audiences: fellow scientists and students. She achieved much, much more than that. The book is a word-of-mouth publishing marvel, with over 1.4 million print and audio copies, and it has been translated into nearly 20 languages. On Wednesday, Kimmerer was named the MacArthur Fellow, recipient of the “genius grant,” which this year increased to $800,000 paid over five years.

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In February 2020, more than six years after the initial publication, for which the book had been reduced to around 400 pages, the paperback edition of “Braiding Sweetgrass” hit the New York Times bestseller list. He resided there for 129 weeks.

Kimmerer is a member of the Potawatomi Citizen Nation. In “Braiding Sweetgrass,” she weaves Indigenous wisdom with her scientific background. The book is both meditative about the abundance of the natural world and bold in its call to action on the “climate emergency.” Kimmerer asks readers to honor the glories of the Earth, to restore rather than take, and to reject an economy and culture rooted in the acquisition of more. It invites us to learn about plants and other species, masters of nature. “If we use a plant with respect, it will flower. If we ignore it, it will go away,” she wrote.

Her work is “an invitation to reciprocity,” says Kimmerer. “In exchange for these spectacular gifts from the Earth, say to yourself, ‘What am I going to do about this? What is my responsibility in exchange for all that I have received? »

Sales of the book were up when the pandemic began, a time, Kimmerer says, “of values ​​clarification for all of us, of saying what really matters.” It was a time when many people spent more time contemplating and living in nature, opening up to the teachings of other cultures, and seeking guidance in the face of impending climate disasters.

“I felt, as an environmentalist, this great public yearning, a yearning to belong to a place,” Kimmerer says. “I think of the number of people who don’t have a culture, who don’t have an ancestral home. ‘I don’t belong here’, that’s what I heard from people. This feeling of not belonging here contributes to how we treat the land.

The success of the book was sudden, but the time it took to arrive was not. As a single mother, Kimmerer’s primary responsibility has always been to her two daughters, now 40 and 35. Her time for writing was long limited to the hours after they fell asleep or when she took a sabbatical. (She is a professor in the College of Environmental and Forest Sciences at the State University of New York at Syracuse, and founder and director of its Center for Indigenous Peoples and the Environment.) On the book jacket, she lists “mother” first among her accomplishments. As an academic, she needed to publish scientific papers and secure a permanent position, and she was one of the first women on her campus to do so.

“Braiding Sweetgrass” sparked musical collaborations; inspired visual artists like Jenny Holzer; and asked a reader, a textile designer, to create a fabric and a skirt, which Kimmerer wore the day I met her, before a lecture she was giving that evening at Gettysburg College.

She knows how to hold a room. Kimmerer’s voice is soft, seductive and measured. She has the ability to be poetic in depicting nature’s bounty and fiery in her call to protect the Earth and take action. “We have even accepted the banishment of ourselves,” she writes in “Sweetgrass,” “when we spend our utterly singular beautiful lives earning more money, buying more things that nourish but never satisfy .”

Ironically, the book made Kimmerer a tidy sum, and now there’s the hefty MacArthur Fellowship — though, she says, she lives as simply as before, “except it’s allowed me to convert to life.” green energy in my home. My 200 year old house is now carbon neutral, thanks to Braiding Sweetgrass.

Kimmerer tends to speak in prose as transporting as her work, with occasional bursts of exquisite botanic wonder: “I am perhaps well known for my photosynthesis craving.” She refers to the book as if it too were animated, like one of her beloved plants. She mentions its inherent beauty, on recycled paper, and “how it made its way to international audiences without me having to do much with it”. The book changed his life. She is invited to speak everywhere, including at the United Nations, and receives letters and poetry from readers around the world. Her work, she says, has had “an impact in places I never expected”.

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To his readers, Kimmerer is a plant star; his work, transformative. “I was driving across the country listening to him read the audiobook and had to stop several times,” says Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Powers. “My eyes were filled with tears and I couldn’t see the road.” He became a fan of Kimmerer long before she landed on the bestseller list. As a tribute, he named a character after Kimmerer in his 2014 novel, “Orfeo.”

Kimmerer is modest in assessing her talent when she claims she is not “a professional writer”. She won the prestigious John Burroughs Medal for Nature Writing for “Gathering Moss,” a 2003 college press book rooted in academic research that inspired Elizabeth Gilbert’s novel “The Signature of All Things.” On the cover of “Braiding Sweetgrass”, Gilbert touts the book as “a hymn of love to the world”. If Kimmerer hadn’t become a botanist, she says, she would have been a poet.

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When his manuscript arrived at Milkweed, editor Patrick Thomas was immediately delighted. “I guess she was born with that voice,” he says. Together, he and Kimmerer spent a few years whittling the book down to a manageable length.

Being published is one thing, being read is another, as many crestfallen authors know. Of the 3.2 million titles tracked by NPD BookScan last year, only 2% sold more than 5,000 copies, the first run of “Braiding Sweetgrass.”

There was little marketing for the book, Kimmerer says. He was barely seen again. The authors’ initial tour was largely limited to college campuses in Minnesota.

But readers kept buying the book — stacks, thanks in large part to word of mouth and the passionate support of independent bookstores. The reading world split into two groups: Braiding Sweetgrass fanatics and people who hadn’t heard of it before. Sales have doubled each year; Kimmerer compares it to the exponential growth of a forest. Thomas says, “People were craving a message like this, scientific and tied to a tradition they don’t understand.

The book changed the fortunes of its publisher. “Braiding Sweetgrass” is the most popular book in Milkweed’s 42-year history “by a factor of three,” says CEO and publisher Daniel Slager. Its success is “the craziest thing that has happened here, completely unheard of in my experience”. Since the book’s publication, Milkweed’s staff has doubled, as has the number of titles it publishes each year.

In 2016, Kimmerer appeared on Krista Tippett’s “On Being” radio show, an episode that aired again that year. “It struck a chord,” Tippett says. “She names the only limits of science that we rely on in the West.”

Kimmerer receives about 90 speaking invites each month — she accepts about 10% of them, many of which are conducted virtually; she fears leaving too large a carbon footprint and burning out. She still teaches. Her beloved garden in upstate New York is a “weedy mess.”

A life of constant public appearances is not one she would have chosen. “I’m a pretty private and introverted person. I’m happiest at my desk or in the woods,” she says over lunch. “This kingdom has a cost to me. It’s not something I would look for, but it got me. It is important to celebrate this extraordinary moment of opening up Indigenous knowledge,” she says. Last month, the Biden administration appointed a plant and animal diplomat.

Kimmerer feels the weight of his family’s legacy, the imperative to honor the stories. At age 9, her father’s father was sent to Carlisle Indian Industrial School, which Jim Thorpe also attended, less than 30 miles from where she is. It was one of many schools designed to force assimilation of its native students. Kimmerer speaks of his “deep responsibility for our knowledge,” Indigenous knowledge, “which they have tried to eradicate from our people,” she said. “If the world is listening, I have a responsibility to speak.”

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Kimmerer is working on an illustrated children’s book inspired by “Braiding Sweetgrass.” (An illustrated young adult version of the book, adapted by Monique Gray Smith, will be published next month.) She is also writing a third book, which builds on her earlier ones. “It’s about seeing the natural world as full of people. It is meant to enliven the plant world,” she says.

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Powers, who appeared at a Harvard symposium with Kimmerer, says that “she looks at things with a long sense of time. I wanted to hear that wisdom, that clear-eyed, levelheaded, intensely informed voice explains everything. »

Kimmerer loves stories, which she likens to medicine in their healing power. “Braiding Sweetgrass” swells with them. During her lectures, she is prone to asking questions, inviting readers and audiences to seek answers. “Each of us receives gifts from the Earth every day,” she says at Gettysburg College. “We have an economy that is always asking for more. What we should ask now is not what we can take, but what can we give? »

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