In newly announced First-Year Common Text, plants offer lessons

Seminar Director Vantine reveals that incoming St. Mike's students will read "Braiding Sweetgrass" by botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer, who draws wisdom from her indigenous culture

May 19, 2021
Faculty/staff report

This image shows the cover of this year’s Common Text for First Year Seminar students at Saint Michael’s.

As a botanist, Robin Wall Kimmerer, the author of this year’s Saint Michael’s First-Year Seminar common text, has been trained to ask questions of nature with the tools of science. Drawing on her life as an indigenous scientist, a mother, and a woman, she shows how other living beings — asters and goldenrod, strawberries and squash, salamanders, algae, and sweetgrass — offer gifts and lessons, even if we’ve forgotten how to hear their voices.

The 2021-2022 Common Text for incoming Saint Michael’s College students will be Kimmerer’s 2013 work Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, announced Peter Vantine, the College’s First Year Seminar Program director, shortly after Commencement.

As a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, Kimmerer embraces the notion that plants and animals are our oldest teachers. In Braiding Sweetgrass, she brings these two lenses of knowledge together. Said Vantine of this year’s Common Text choice, “We believe this beautifully written book aligns well with multiple dimensions of the curriculum, campus, and institutional mission and aspirations of Saint Michael’s College.”


Peter Vantine

Vantine, who also is chair and associate professor of classical and modern languages and literature/French on the Saint Michael’s faculty, said the book’s focus on ecology and sustainability “resonate with our Center for the Environment, the restoration efforts in the College Natural Area, the Farm at SMC, and our strong programs in biology, environmental studies and environmental science in particular, as well as the sciences more broadly.”

But beyond that, he said, the book’s reflections on indigenous culture and practices are also of direct relevance to the humanities and social sciences, “and this central dimension of the text brings an important voice to the College’s ongoing efforts to engage critically, honestly, and with intellectual curiosity and humility in issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion that cut across all disciplines.” Vantine also announced that, pending final confirmation, “we hope to host a virtual event with the author, Dr. Kimmerer, in late September.”

“Having watched our most recent graduates process down the green, across the steps of the library, and then off toward their futures, we are now actively preparing for the arrival of our new, incoming class of first-year students,” he said.

More about the author and the book:

“In a rich braid of reflections that range from the creation of Turtle Island (the Earth) to the forces that threaten its flourishing today, [Kimmerer in Braiding Sweetgrass] “circles toward a central argument: that the awakening of a wider ecological consciousness requires the acknowledgment and celebration of our reciprocal relationship with the rest of the living world,” according to publicity from her publisher. “For only when we can hear the languages of other beings will we be capable of understanding the generosity of the earth, and learn to give our own gifts in return.”


Robin Wall Kimmerer

The author is a Distinguished Teaching Professor at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, New York; the founding Director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment; the co-founder and past president of the Traditional Ecological Knowledge section of the Ecological Society of America; and a Senior Fellow at the Center for Nature and Humans. Her research interests include the ecology of mosses and the role of traditional ecological knowledge in ecological restoration. She collaborates with tribal partners in the research she pursues with her students and is active in efforts to broaden access to environmental science education for Native students.

Kimmerer “also works to create new models for integration of indigenous philosophy and scientific tools on behalf of land and culture,” according to official background biographical information from the author’s SUNY online profile passed along by Vantine. More from that bio: “She is engaged in programs that introduce the benefits of traditional ecological knowledge to the scientific community in a way that respects and protects indigenous knowledge. As a writer and a scientist, her interests in restoration include not only restoration of ecological communities, but also restoration of our relationships to the land. Kimmerer is the author of numerous scientific papers, while also being active in literary biology, with essays published in Whole Terrain, Adirondack Life, Orion, and several anthologies. Her book Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses (2003) was awarded the John Burroughs Medal for Nature Writing in 2005. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants (2013), her most recent book, was awarded the Sigurd Olson Nature Writing Award. In 2015, addressed the general assembly of the United Nations on the topic of “Healing Our Relationship with Nature.” She lives on an old farm in upstate New York, tending gardens both cultivated and wild.”


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