With the goal of continuing conversations about diversity and environmental justice, the UO Common Reading program has chosen its focus for the 2021-22 academic year.
The selection committee, along with additional advice from faculty members in science, the Clark Honors College and composition, chose “Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants.” The memoir was written by Robin Wall Kimmerer, a distinguished professor, botanist and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation.
Kimmerer blends her scientific background, Indigenous insight and personal experiences to explore the relationship between humans and the land in a series of ecological essays.
The Common Reading project was first developed within the Clark Honors College in 2009, but it expanded to include all first-year students in 2014 with the goal of building community and enriching curriculum. All members of campus, including faculty and staff, are invited and urged to participate in the program.
Julie Voelker-Morris, director of UO Common Reading, anticipates many campus discussions and classes to be focused around the book’s contents.
“Kimmerer asks contemporary readers to reframe their thinking about the natural world by focusing on stories of growth in self-knowledge, natural knowledge and relational knowledge through understandings of stories of place, motherhood and teaching practice,” Voelker-Morris said.
Focused on restoring both ecological communities and human relationships with land, self and people, Kimmerer asks readers to go beyond sustainability.
“It’s merely the first step of returning humans to relationship with creation based in regeneration and reciprocity,” Voelker-Morris said.
Kimmerer sees natural resources, such as water and timber, not as human property, but as “gifts of the earth.” In her writing, she emphasizes ecosystem restoration and the importance of expressing gratitude for such elements while living in a society based on consumerism.
“Braiding Sweetgrass” also asks questions about people’s relationship to places, how to handle difficult histories, being honest and vulnerable in addressing differences of stories, and where science and Indigenous knowledge overlap and differ.
Published in 2013, Kimmerer’s second nonfiction book has made the bestseller list in The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times, and was named “Best Essay Collection of the Decade” by Literary Hub, a daily literary website.
Common Reading is back to its regular schedule after taking a different direction last year in response to the Black Lives Matter movement. The 2020-21 academic year was assigned the theme, “Listen. Learn. Act.,” which focused on a different body of work regarding the Black experience each term. While program staff said the change was successful, they decided to resume its focus on one piece of work for the upcoming year.
In a change from past years, UO Common Reading is encouraging readers to use the electronic version of the book, which UO Libraries will provide without limits. Print copies of the book will be given away on a first-come, first-serve basis at pop-up events leading up to Kimmerer’s in-person and virtual campus events Jan. 24-25, 2022.
The program hopes to partner with other campus groups around the events as a way to help students navigate various campus resources that support their learning. To discuss partnering around pop-up events, campus groups can email firstname.lastname@example.org.
—By Kaitlyn Jimenez, University Communications