“Ponds age, and while I will too, I like the ecological idea of aging
as progressive enrichment,
instead of progressive loss.”
Robin Wall Kimmerer Braiding Sweetgrass
Robin Wall Kimmerers braid sweet grass is the book I’m reading right now at my desk early in the morning. It’s popular these days, featured in local bookstores and discussed in conversation. The author, Professor of Botany, lives in upstate New York; She is also a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation.
It was sluggish for me at first. Kimmerer’s efforts to learn the language of her heritage, Potawatomi, were difficult to fathom at first. Her tribal tales of Skywoman and the importance of sweet grass in making baskets were historically interesting but far from my world. However, we bonded as she descended into the rich stories of her life, particularly as a mother of two daughters.
I also have two daughters. I became a devoted reader with the chapter A Mother’s Work braid sweet grass. “I wanted to be a good mother,” begins Robin Kimmerer in this part of the book. Me too, I thought.
At the beginning of the book, she focuses on her intense desire to provide her girls with wonderful and lasting homes after moving to rural New York. Once there, she worked hard and even hand dredged a pond to make it buoyant. The power and ingenuity she conveyed was life-affirming for her, her daughters and now for me as a reader. In this regard, she remarked, “Transformation is not achieved by cautiously wading at the edge.”
Like Kimmerer, I valued strength and resourcefulness, along with the other qualities I brought to the dynamic of motherhood. And like her, I insisted on taking risks, for myself and my daughters. We all, I believed, needed the space to explore the promises that lie within ourselves.
Looking back, I remember our daughters growing up near New York City; our settling into the first home we owned as a family, where we tended a pond and flower gardens and grew vegetables; have a cat and several dogs; Breeding litters of purebred puppies from our first West Highland White Terrier; Moving to a neighboring town for a larger and more eclectic school, where both girls also had jobs and an easy train ride to Manhattan. I remember buying a log cabin in Maine, a place that is still the center of our lives as a far-flung family. I remember her leaving for college – or first, for the younger ones, a gap year in South Korea that led us all to visit there after the year. Having little girls, teenagers, college students, young married couples, and daughters who are now mothers themselves has been one of my greatest joys.
But over time – my children are in their 50s – a lot has changed. My early duties of birthing, nurturing, anticipating, managing, planning, teaching, and engaging in the task of motherhood are over. Intensive commitment is no longer required. Or wanted. Her life is active, fulfilling, passionate, inside and outside of her work world and with her own families. They meet their challenges with or without my help and include me – and my husband – in their activities and celebrations when possible, and in ordinary things when they can.
But one of my favorite chapters of braid sweet grass gave me a broader perspective. In the story of The Three Sisters, the author explains the importance of corn, beans and squash to our Native American neighbors. Throughout history, the Potawatomi have ritually planted one seed of each vegetable in the ground, on the same square foot of soil, and let them grow three, as they always will, to support one another. Ultimately, she says, “these plants feed the people, feed the land, and feed our imaginations by telling us how we might live.” All of the “Three Sisters” stories, according to Kimmerer, share the understanding that these plants are women, and they emphasize the notion of reciprocity.
When I think about the story and my connections to my daughters, I recognize the three of us, my daughters and me. We are and always have been in a mutually dependent relationship. We share a long history. In addition, we also draw from everything that we do independently. And as I move on with my life here in Vermont, and as you live your life too, you’re becoming more and more clearly my teachers. For example, I learn from my daughter Libby how to travel the world; and from my daughter Susan, the opposite, about putting down roots in a place you love and staying there. And so much more.
My daughters have expanded and deepened my world. Through them I am enriched beyond measure.
Mary Otto, formerly of Norwich, now lives in Shelburne. She can be reached at [email protected].