It was the verb in this sentence in “Braiding Sweetgrass,” a reissued book of nature essays by Robin Wall Kimmerer, that captivated me. It’s a strong, active verb, so the sentence leaps where similar descriptions stroll. The metaphor is baked right in to the unusual verb “sauce.” One word does the work of an entire clause:
“His conversation is so delightfully sauced with ‘Oui, oui, madame’ that I imagine he will kiss my hand at any moment.”
“Elements of Style” purists may object to “so delightfully” as piling on the adverbs. I see the point. But those two words signal Kimmerer’s pleasure in the moment. They do necessary work in a description of a situation that could be creepy instead of charming.
This sentence is even more powerful in context. It is preceded by a page–and–a–half journey through the life of a man, whose name Kimmerer gives only as Lionel, from trapper, to logger, to nickel miner, back to trapper. It is followed by a description of Lionel’s strong, broad hands. With simple exposition, Kimmerer writes that Lionel is of the Metis Nation and lives in northern Quebec.
In his screenwriting book “Story,” Robert McKee complains about an acting role he was offered where the character he was asked to play is not a character at all, but a long list of quirks and characteristics. It’s not a cluster of hobbies that give a character dimension, McKee writes, but their contradictions.
Kimmerer illustrates this same point by showing how a man who has held some of the most dangerous jobs on the North American continent has the manners of a French courtier.
In this portrait of a man whose rough-hewn labors haven’t calloused his courtly manners, I feel like I’ve glimpsed something of the spirit of northern Quebec. The surrounding paragraphs form a jeweler’s sturdy setting, with this one sentence as the gem that refracts the light, creating new depth.
(Editor’s note: “Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teaching of Plants,” is being reissued in a special edition hardcover, with a new introduction from the author, due out this October in honor of the 40th anniversary of its publisher, Milkweed Editions.)
Madeline Bodin is a freelance environmental and science journalist based in Vermont.