Margin Notes



What I Was Reading:

In Speaking of Nature: Finding language that affirms our kinship with the natural world, Robin Wall Kimmerer (author of Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teaching of Plants) reflects on the grammar of animacy and how the language we use to describe nature reflects our relationship with it. In this passage, Kimmerer contrasts her roles as a scientist and an Indigenous woman:

I have had the privilege of spending my life kneeling before plants. As a plant scientist, sometimes I am collecting data. As an indigenous plant woman, sometimes I am gathering medicine. These two roles offer a sharp contrast in ways of thinking, but I am always in awe, and always in relationship. In both cases the plants provide for me, teach me, and inspire me. When I write as a scientist, I must say, “An 8 cm root was extracted from the soil,” as if the leafy beings were objects, and, for that matter, as if I were too. Scientific writing prefers passive voice to subject pronouns of any kind. And yet its technical language, which is designed to be highly accurate, obscures the greater truth.

Writing as an indigenous plant woman I might say, “My plant relatives have shared healing knowledge with me and given me root medicine.” Instead of ignoring our mutual relationship, I celebrate it. Yet English grammar demands that I refer to my esteemed healer as it, not as a respected teacher, as all plants are understood to be in Potawatomi. That has always made me uncomfortable. I want a word for beingness. Can we unlearn the language of objectification and throw off colonized thought? Can we make a new world with new words?

What Moves I Notice the Writer Making:

I was particularly drawn to this passage because of the way Kimmerer uses repetition to contrast her experiences as a scientist and an Indigenous plant woman.

  • The second and third sentences follow the exact same structure but with a slight variation in the wording: “As a plant scientist, sometimes I am collecting data. As an indigenous plant woman, sometimes I am gathering medicine.” This is an effective and efficient way to demonstrate how these two roles differ in their relationship to plants.
  • Juxtaposing examples of the difference in the way she would write about plants in each of these roles further clarifies the different relationships each one entails: “When I write as a scientist, I must say…” and “Writing as an indigenous plant woman I might say…”.
  • Kimmerer continues the repetition in structure by following both quotations with a sentence or two of analysis to further highlight the contrasting views of plants encompassed within each role.

Possibilities for Writers:

  • Read this text as a writer to notice and name other interesting craft moves and discuss how they impact you as a reader.
  • Model a pair of sentences of your own after Kimmerer’s by repeating the structure and changing a few words to compare or contrast.
  • Experiment with repetition for effect in your own writing. Where can you incorporate repetition of wording or structure to show your reader how something is alike or different?

Here’s my example:

I have had the joy of spending my life exploring books. As a teacher, sometimes I am thinking of the booktalk I will give when I finish reading. As a writer, sometimes I am thinking about what I can use in my own writing as I savor the author’s words.

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