This September, the Rural Cause, a club that aims to connect Kenyon students to the rural surroundings of Knox County, began hosting a virtual book club every other week. Each meeting this semester covers a section of Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer.
In the past, the club has hosted in-person educational events such as film screenings and information sessions about Knox County. As managers of the club, Rural Cause Fellows Liv Kane ’22 and Cubbie Woollen ’22 decided to start the virtual book club in July after they learned that many Kenyon students would be studying remotely this fall.
Braiding Sweetgrass integrates Kimmerer’s background as a member of one of the Potawatomi Nations with her discipline as an environmental biologist to create 400 pages on “asters and goldenrod, strawberries and squash, salamanders, algae, and sweetgrass,” according to the publisher. Kane suggested that Braiding Sweetgrass would be a good fit for the club because it addresses the intersection between native communities and ecology. Woollen, having previously read Braiding Sweetgrass while working on a farm in the Potawatomi Nation, agreed that the selection was fitting.
“We wanted a more optimistic book,” Kane said. “With new conversations about indigenous land sovereignty and land rights, I thought it would be an awesome opportunity to start the conversation [on indigenous rights] that Kenyon has been trying to have for a few years.”
Woollen began promoting the book club through emails to the Kenyon community in late August, and the group met for the first time in mid-September. Though they received 40 emails demonstrating interest in the club, only eight on average are attending the meetings. Those who have come are engaged; Woollen reports that “a lot of the same people are showing up, which is exciting because you can keep building off of what we’ve talked about.”
“Every person who has come in has a real connection with the book, which is remarkably lucky for us,” Kane said. Though the first meetings were freeform, Kane and Woollen asked participants to prepare questions before their future meetings. “We want it to be self-sufficient,” Kane said.
Book club member Sarah Ganz ’23 said one of the main reasons she loves the club is the other participants. “The book is incredibly engaging and it is very interesting to hear interpretations from people coming from different perspectives and academic interests,” Ganz said.
The two agreed that the theme of connecting to the Earth has resonated with the group. Kane says that scientific topics and the indigenous perspective “aren’t incredibly accessible in terms of being able to relate to the specifics, but everyone has a connection with a special, natural place,” Kane said. “[Braiding Sweetgrass] reminds them of this connection that they have.”
In the future, Woollen and Kane hope to invite Kenyon professors that specialize in fields related to Braiding Sweetgrass to speak on their expertise, potentially broadening the book’s meaning for participants.