Posts tagged ‘Braiding Sweetgrass’

January 16, 2022

Islands of Abandonment – Life in the Post-Human Landscape by Cal Flyn

by Team Riverside
Islands of Abandonment book cover.  A house on stilts stands in the sea

Paperback, William Collins, £9.99, out now

I read Islands of Abandonment in hardback during one of the lockdowns last year.  I was transported to wildly different newly-wild places around the world, even as I couldn’t stir much from home: a former military base on a Scottish island; an abandoned agricultural institute in the Tanzanian mountains; the drowned homes and fields of the Salton Sea in California.  Flyn explores what the natural world can do when left mostly alone by humans.  She focuses on places that were once hubs of human activity, where decaying buildings and landscape changes are the inheritance of the land. 

The book features evocative colour photos, including a series of four Google Earth shots showing the transformation of a regular suburban home in Detroit into a ruin with trees growing through it alongside disappearing sidewalks.  It made me think of the loss of people’s homes and communities, alongside the resurgence of other kinds of lives.  Flyn’s descriptions are as vivid as the photos.  She visits an abandoned canteen near Chernobyl: “The whole room is dominated by an enormous stained-glass scene that takes up the entire far wall: a moon rising in the west, into a sky of electric blue and crimson; and in the east, a burning sun, haloed in purple and orange and gold.  Around and between, four godlike women rise, in simple robes, cups over each breast: the seasons”.

The attention and respect Flyn gives to non-human life reminds me of Robin Wall Kimmerer’s transformatory book Braiding Sweetgrass (see https://riversidebookshop.co.uk/2020/07/14/braiding-sweetgrass-indigenous-wisdom-scientific-knowledge-and-the-teachings-of-plants-by-robin-wall-kimmerer/).  Flyn’s attempts to see the whole of the life, both non-human and human, in the places she visits echoes Robin Wall Kimmerer’s approach.

Often in these ostensibly abandoned places, some people remain.  They might be caretakers, witnesses, those in search of a different way of being on earth.  For example, former lab technician and current informal caretaker Martin Kimweri attends the former science facility in Tanzania, and looks after the many white and black mice whose ancestors were kept by the scientists.  Flyn also comes across those who have stayed in their homes as other people left and the world changed utterly around them, as well as people who travel out into these spaces looking for something new.  She is sensitive to these stories, which are necessarily those of outsiders.

As a woman who likes exploring places on her own, I appreciate Flyn’s solo venturing.  Islands of Abandonment can be read as nature writing, adventurous travel, conservation literature or reflections on how cultures deal with the end of civilisations.  It’s no wonder that authors including Kathleen Jamie and Adam Nicolson have praised Islands of Abandonment (the hard to classify nature of the work reminded me of both these authors, see https://riversidebookshop.co.uk/2020/08/24/surfacing-by-kathleen-jamie/).  Flyn’s thoughtful responses to what and who she sees make this a thoughtful and strangely positive read. 

Review by Bethan

July 14, 2020

Braiding Sweetgrass – Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Penguin, £9.99, out now Robin Wall Kimmerer BRAIDING SWEETGRASS.jpg

“Even a wounded world is feeding us.  Even a wounded world holds us, giving us moments of wonder and joy.  I choose joy over despair.  Not because I have my head in the sand, but because joy is what the earth gives me daily and I must return the gift” (p. 327).  I came across Robin Wall Kimmerer, botanist and popular science and nature writer, through references to her earlier work Gathering Moss.  She is the Distinguished Teaching Professor of Environmental Biology at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, New York.  Gathering Moss has been mentioned in literary reviews, in nature writing, in science writing, and on the thoughtful blog Brain Pickings (https://www.brainpickings.org/2015/05/13/gathering-moss-robin-wall-kimmerer/).  Anything so niche, which appeals across such broad spectrum of readers, intrigued me.

I still haven’t managed to read Gathering Moss, mainly as it’s hard to find in the UK, but I am completely bowled over by her latest work, Braiding Sweetgrass.  Wall Kimmerer shares her vast knowledge and wisdom about plants and the natural world and introduces a completely new (and yet also ancient) way of thinking about nature.  She draws on her many roles: as a Native American, a mother, an observer, a scientist and a joyful activist.

She provides a refreshing and vital alternative approach to thinking about human and non-human life.  Language is key here: for her, and the indigenous cultures she describes, every living thing is a who, not a what.

Her writing about specific engagements with nature is as engrossing as her big picture analysis, and often the two meet. As she and other volunteers gather to help salamanders across a busy road, so they will not be killed by passing cars, the second Gulf War begins.  “Somewhere another woman looks out her window, but the formation of dark shapes in her sky is not a skein of spring geese returning” (p.349).

There is nothing fluffy or foolish about her coherent and radical ecology.  “… it seems to me we humans have gifts in addition to gratitude that we might offer in return.  The philosophy of reciprocity is beautiful in the abstract, but the practical is harder” (p. 238).  She is ready to engage with the practical questions of how we live now, as a planet, as a species, as nations and as individuals.

Review by Bethan