Environmental Reads Reviews

Uncommonly Bound

Making Connections between Braiding Sweetgrass and Exposure

This semester I read no less than 5 novels for my classes. Which, when viewed in addition to the mountains of pages of reading from textbooks that comes from taking 5 classes online during a pandemic, is a lot. Throughout the semester, in all of those words flowing from the page, connections were forged between works in my different classes that reinforced the topics we were covering. Most of the time they were easy to spot, but in the case of Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer and Exposure by Robert Bilott, the connections were murkier.

Finally making good use of my yarn.

In Braiding Sweetgrass, scientist and professor Robin Wall Kimmerer recounts her experiences intertwining her indigenous heritage with a love of ecology. From early in the book we learn that she struggled to study at school in a manner that was consistent with her roots and to be taken seriously when she when she wanted to study the beauty of nature, like in different species of flowers that grow together. Wall Kimmerer reflects on the ways her incorporation of indigenous teachings into her scientific work was scrutinized in her education and professional career, as “that is not science”. But thankfully, Wall Kimmerer spends the remainder of her book proving the opposite. In every example she gives us, she talks about how the natural beauty of nature is just as important to science as answering the questions of why and how, and is even sometimes the answer.

In Exposure, lawyer Robert Bilott recounts his twenty year battle to take major chemical manufacturing company DuPont to task for their systematic pollution of the global water system with PFAS–a chemical that is bioaccumulative and a known carcinogen. Throughout the book, we learn of the herculean task that fighting a major corporation is given the length they’ll go to in order to avoid blame. The moment the company hired scientists to blame Earl Tennant, a farmer who’s cattle were dying from PFAS poisoning, for the death of his cattle, I was floored. Little did I know that Earl’s experience was just a drop in the ocean of bad coming out of the DuPont waste water pipe. When Dupont was eventually found to have committed actual malice in a class action case, I could not even be excited. The damage was still done: Earl did not live to see them held accountable; hundreds of thousands of people are experiencing deleterious health effects, and DuPont is still fighting to overturn ruling after ruling and dragging out their mitigation requirements.

So how are these books connected? On the surface, they seem fairly different. One is about an ecology professor exploring her heritage through her scientific lens and the other is about a lawyer fighting to bring awareness to a major environmental issue. Then, as you read, you begin to see that there are several connections. Both talk about devastating environmental issues. Both talk about the corporate manipulation of minority groups for financial gain. Both describe the long, difficult path that each author takes in order to achieve their goals. But the biggest connection I observed is implied rather than overt.

In Braiding Sweetgrass, Wall Kimmerer repeatedly reinforces the idea that an increased respect for nature and the indigenous methods of caring for the Earth are essential to living harmoniously with nature (and each other) while restoring centuries worth of damage. Bilott’s Exposure exemplifies exactly why this method is so sorely needed. Without a healthy respect for nature, companies will continue to exploit Earth’s resources wantonly. Without embracing indigenous teachings, repairing the damage that corporations have already caused is impossible. Without recognizing the natural equal rights of all humans, no progress towards sustainability can be made.

It does not take much to foster a respect for nature. Though I admittedly have a lot of science knowledge about the deleterious effects humans are having on the planet, anyone could learn a great deal from reading these two books in tandem. By learning about the ways in which we can foster a greater respect for nature alongside evidence of what can, will, and does happen without it, anyone can be radicalized to be Earth’s advocate.

Now, more than ever, remember:

It’s the only home we’ve got.

This post meets the requirement for assignment 14 for the Fall2020 semester of ESS210 at Drew University.

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