Speaking of Nature

© Simen Johan, Courtesy Yossi Milo Gallery, New York

A CEMETERY SEEMED AN ODD PLACE to contemplate the boundaries of being. Sandwiched between the campus and the interstate, this old burial ground is our cherished slice of nearby nature where the long dead are silent companions to college students wandering the hilly paths beneath rewilding oaks. The engraved names on overgrown headstones are upholstered in moss and crows congregate in the bare branches of an old beech, which is also carved with names. Reading the messages of a graveyard you understand the deep human longing for the enduring respect that comes with personhood. Names, names, names: the stones seem to say, “I am. You are. He was.” Grammar, especially our use of pronouns, is the way we chart relationships in language and, as it happens, how we relate to each other and to the natural world.

Tiptoeing in her mud boots, Caroline skirts around a crumbling family plot to veer into the barberry hedge where a plastic bag is caught in the thorns. “Isn’t it funny,” she says, “that we think it’s disrespectful to walk over the dead, but it’s perfectly okay to disrespect the other species who actually live here?”

We have a special grammar for personhood. We would never say of our late neighbor, “It is buried in Oakwood Cemetery.” Such language would be deeply disrespectful and would rob him of his humanity. We use instead a special grammar for humans: we distinguish them with the use of he or she, a grammar of personhood for both living and dead Homo sapiens. Yet we say of the oriole warbling comfort to mourners from the treetops or the oak tree herself beneath whom we stand, “It lives in Oakwood Cemetery.” In the English language, a human alone has distinction while all other living beings are lumped with the nonliving “its.”

As a botany professor, I am as interested in the pale-green lichens slowly dissolving the words on the gravestones as in the almost-forgotten names, and the students, too, look past the stones for inky cap mushrooms in the grass or a glimpse of an urban fox. The students out for a walk on this late fall day are freshmen in Janine DeBaise’s environmental writing class at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry where we both teach. I’ve invited them on a mission to experiment with the nature of language and the language of personhood. Janine would correct me: she would not refer to her students as “freshmen” since they are neither fresh nor all men. We call them “first-year students.” Words matter. She has collected their assignment, a written reflection on a cemetery walk last week, as baseline data. Now we revisit the same place, but with new ideas about grammar bouncing around in the students’ heads. New to them, perhaps, but in fact ancient—the grammar of animacy.

For me, this story began in another classroom, in another century, at the Carlisle Indian School where my Potawatomi grandfather was taken as a small boy. My chance of knowing my native language and your chance of ever hearing it were stolen in the Indian boarding schools where native children were forbidden to speak their own language. Within the walls of that school, the clipped syllables of English replaced the lush Potawatomi sounds of water splashing on rocks and wind in the trees, a language that emerged from the lands of the Great Lakes. Our language hovers at the edge of extinction, an endangered species of knowledge and wisdom dwindling away with the loss of every elder.

So, bit by bit, I have been trying to learn my lost language. My house is spangled with Post-it notes labeling wiisgaak, gokpenagen, and ishkodenhs. It’s a very difficult language to learn, but what keeps me going is the pulse of animacy in every sentence. There are words for states of being that have no equivalent in English. The language that my grandfather was forbidden to speak is composed primarily of verbs, ways to describe the vital beingness of the world. Both nouns and verbs come in two forms, the animate and the inanimate. You hear a blue jay with a different verb than you hear an airplane, distinguishing that which possesses the quality of life from that which is merely an object. Birds, bugs, and berries are spoken of with the same respectful grammar as humans are, as if we were all members of the same family. Because we are. There is no it for nature. Living beings are referred to as subjects, never as objects, and personhood is extended to all who breathe and some who don’t. I greet the silent boulder people with the same respect as I do the talkative chickadees.

It’s no wonder that our language was forbidden. The language we speak is an affront to the ears of the colonist in every way, because it is a language that challenges the fundamental tenets of Western thinking—that humans alone are possessed of rights and all the rest of the living world exists for human use. Those whom my ancestors called relatives were renamed natural resources. In contrast to verb-based Potawatomi, the English language is made up primarily of nouns, somehow appropriate for a culture so obsessed with things.

At the same time that the language of the land was being suppressed, the land itself was being converted from the communal responsibility of native people to the private property of settlers, in a one-two punch of colonization. Replacing the aboriginal idea of land as a revered living being with the colonial understanding of land as a warehouse of natural resources was essential to Manifest Destiny, so languages that told a different story were an enemy. Indigenous languages and thought were as much an impediment to land-taking as were the vast herds of buffalo, and so were likewise targeted for extermination.

Linguistic imperialism has always been a tool of colonization, meant to obliterate history and the visibility of the people who were displaced along with their languages. But five hundred years later, in a renamed landscape, it has become a nearly invisible tool. We forget the original names, that the Hudson River was “the river that runs both ways,” that Devils Tower was the sacred Bear Butte of the Lakota. Beyond the renaming of places, I think the most profound act of linguistic imperialism was the replacement of a language of animacy with one of objectification of nature, which renders the beloved land as lifeless object, the forest as board feet of timber. Because we speak and live with this language every day, our minds have also been colonized by this notion that the nonhuman living world and the world of inanimate objects have equal status. Bulldozers, buttons, berries, and butterflies are all referred to as it, as things, whether they are inanimate industrial products or living beings.

English has come to be the dominant language of commerce, in which contracts to convert a forest to a copper mine are written. It’s just the right language for the purpose, because the forest and the copper ore are equivalent “its.” English encodes human exceptionalism, which privileges the needs and wants of humans above all others and understands us as detached from the commonwealth of life. But I wonder if it was always that way. I can’t help but think that the land spoke clearly to early Anglo-Saxons, just as it did to the Potawatomi. Robert Macfarlane’s wonderful book Landmarks, about land and language, documents myriad place names of great particularity that illuminate an ancient Anglo-Saxon intimacy with the land and her beings. It is said that we are known by the company we keep, and I wonder if English sharpened its verbal ax and lost the companionship of oaks and primroses when it began to keep company with capitalism. I want to suggest that we can begin to mend that rift—with pronouns. As a reluctant student of the formalities of writing, I never would have imagined that I would one day be advocating for grammar as a tool of the revolution.

***

SOME OF THE STUDENTS in the cemetery have read the chapter in my book Braiding Sweetgrass that invokes the grammar of animacy. They are taken aback by the implicit assumption of the hierarchy of being on which English grammar is built, something they had not considered before. They dive headfirst into the philosophical implications of English-language pronouns.

One student, Carson, writes in his essay that it is a numbing word: “It numbs us to the consequences of what we do and allows us to take advantage of nature, to harm it even, free of guilt, because we declare other beings to be less than ourselves, just things.” He echoes the words of Wendell Berry who writes, “People exploit what they have merely concluded to be of value, but they defend what they love, and to defend what we love we need a particularizing language, for we love what we particularly know.”

While it’s true that words are simply vessels for meaning, without meaning of their own, many cultures imbue the utterance of words with spirit because they originate with the breath, with the mystery of life itself. In her book Becoming Wise, Krista Tippett writes, “The words we use shape how we understand ourselves, how we interpret the world, how we treat others. Words make worlds.”

I don’t mean to say that we are constrained to act in a certain way because of our grammar. I’ve been saying it for most of my life and so far I have not clearcut a forest. (I can’t even bring myself to litter, although I tried once, just to see what it would feel like.) Nor does a language of animacy dictate that its speakers will behave with respect toward nonhumans. After all, there are leaders of indigenous nations, raised speaking a grammar of animacy, who willingly surrender their homelands to the use of mining or timber companies. And the Russian language, while embracing animacy in its structure, has not exactly led to a flowering of sustainability there. The relationship between the structure of a language and the behavior characteristic of a culture, is not a causal one, but many linguists and psychologists agree that language reveals unconscious cultural assumptions and exerts some influence over patterns of thought.

As we talk beneath the oaks, one of the students emphatically disagrees: “Just because I say it doesn’t mean I disrespect nature. I grew up on a farm and we called all of our animals it, but we took great care of them. We just said it because everyone knows that you don’t give a name to the thing that you’re going to eat.” Exactly! We use it to distance ourselves, to set others outside our circle of moral consideration, creating hierarchies of difference that justify our actions—so we don’t feel.

In contrast, indigenous philosophy recognizes other beings as our relatives, including the ones we intend to eat. Sadly, since we cannot photosynthesize, we humans must take other lives in order to live. We have no choice but to consume, but we can choose to consume a plant or animal in a way that honors the life that is given and the life that flourishes as a consequence. Instead of avoiding ethical jeopardy by creating distance, we can embrace and reconcile that tension. We can acknowledge food plants and animals as fellow beings and through sophisticated practices of reciprocity demonstrate respect for the sacred exchange of life among relatives.

The students we walk with in the cemetery are primarily environmental scientists in training. The practice of it-ing everything in nature is not only prevalent, but is required in scientific writing. Rachel points out that in her biology class, there are “strict taboos governing personification of nature, and even a whisper of anthropomorphism will lose you a grade on a paper.”

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 a 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?

Inspired by the grammar of animacy in Potawatomi that feels so right and true, I’ve been searching for a new expression that could be slipped into the English language in place of it when we are speaking of living beings. Mumbling to myself through the woods and fields, I’ve tried many different words, hoping that one would sound right to my leafy or feathered companions. There was one that kept rising through my musings. So I sought the counsel of my elder and language guide, Stewart King, and explained my purpose in seeking a word to instill animacy in English grammar, to heal disrespect. He rightly cautioned that “our language holds no responsibility to heal the society that sought to exterminate it.” With deep respect for his response, I thought also of how the teachings of our traditional wisdom might one day be needed as medicine for a broken world. So I asked him if there was a word in our language that captured the simple but miraculous state of just being. And of course there is. “Aakibmaadiziiwin,” he said, “means ‘a being of the earth.’” I sighed with relief and gratitude for the existence of that word. However, those beautiful syllables would not slide easily into English to take the place of the pronoun it. But I wondered about that first sound, the one that came to me as I walked over the land. With full recognition and celebration of its Potawatomi roots, might we hear a new pronoun at the beginning of the word, from the “aaki” part that means land? Ki to signify a being of the living earth. Not he or she, but ki. So that when the robin warbles on a summer morning, we can say, “Ki is singing up the sun.” Ki runs through the branches on squirrel feet, ki howls at the moon, ki’s branches sway in the pine-scented breeze, all alive in our language as in our world.

We’ll need a plural form of course, to speak of these many beings with whom we share the planet. We don’t need to borrow from Potawatomi since—lo and behold—we already have the perfect English word for them: kin. Kin are ripening in the fields; kin are nesting under the eaves; kin are flying south for the winter, come back soon. Our words can be an antidote to human exceptionalism, to unthinking exploitation, an antidote to loneliness, an opening to kinship. If words can make the world, can these two little sounds call back the grammar of animacy that was scrubbed from the mouths of children at Carlisle?

I have no illusions that we can suddenly change language and, with it, our worldview, but in fact English evolves all the time. We drop words we don’t need anymore and invent words that we do. The Oxford Children’s Dictionary notoriously dropped the words acorn and buttercup in favor of bandwidth and chatroom, but restored them after public pressure. I don’t think that we need words that distance us from nature; we need words that heal that relationship, that invite us into an inclusive worldview of personhood for all beings.

As I’ve sent these two little words out into the world like seeds on the wind, they have fallen here and there on fertile ground. Several writers have incorporated them into children’s books and into music. Readers have reported that the very sound, the phoneme pronounced “kee,” has resonance with other words of similar meaning. Ki is a parallel spelling of chi—the word for the inherent life energy that flows through all things. It finds harmony with qui or “who” in Latinate languages. I’ve been told it is the name of a Sumerian Earth goddess and the root of Turkic words for tree. Could ki be a key to unlocking a new way of thinking, or remembering an ancient one?

But these responses are from nature writers, artists, teachers, and philosophers; I want to know how young people, the language makers among us, react. Our little environmental college is dominated by tree huggers, so if there were ever an audience open to ki, they would be it.

***

WITH ki and kin rattling around in their heads, the students walk together in the cemetery again, playing with using the words and seeing how they feel on their tongues and in their heads.

Steeped in the formalities of syntax, a fair number of student questions revolve around wanting “rules” for the use of the new words, rules that we don’t have. Is there a possessive case? Where are the boundaries? “I could say ‘ki’ about this shrub,” Renee says, “but what about the wind?”

“Yes,” I tell her, “in my language, the wind is understood as animate.”

As we stand beneath the stoutly branched oak, the students debate how to use the words. If the tree is ki, what about the acorns? They agree that the acorns are kin, a whole family of little beings. The ground is also littered, in this unkempt portion of the cemetery, with fallen branches. “Are these dead limbs considered kin too? Even though they’re dead?” Evelyn asks. “Looking at the dead branches on the ground, I found myself thinking a lot about firewood,” she says. “I’ve always spoken—and thought—as if I was the one who made firewood. But when I thought of that tree as ki, as a being, I suddenly saw how preposterous that was. I didn’t make the firewood. The tree did. I only picked it up from the ground.” In just one sentence Evelyn experiences a transfer of agency or capacity for action from humankind to the tree itself. The grammar of animacy is an antidote to arrogance; it reminds us that we are not alone. Evelyn later writes, “Using ki made me see everything differently, like all these persons were giving gifts—and I couldn’t help but feel grateful. We call that kind of firewood kindling, and for me it has kindled a new understanding. And look—that word kin is right there in kindling.”

Another student, Amanda, adds, “Having this word makes me regard the trees more as individuals. Before, I would just call them all ‘oak’ as if they were a species and not individuals. That’s how we learn it in dendrology, but using ki makes me think of them each, as not just ‘oak,’ but as that particular oak, the one with the broken branch and the brown leaves.”

Despite their very brief introduction to ki and kin, the students get right to the heart of the words’ implications: “I imagine that this would be a challenge for most religious people,” Paul says. “It kind of knocks humans off the pedestal of being the only ones with souls.” Indeed, Christian missionaries were the spearhead of language suppression in indigenous cultures and were among the prime architects of the Indian-boarding-school movement. War on a language of animacy and relationship to the natural world was essential to the dual mission of religious and economic conversion. Certainly the biblical mandate for human subjugation of the creation was incompatible with indigenous languages.

Another student, Kieran, observes, “Using these words as I walk around opened my eyes to how we are all connected. When you start using ki and kin, you will feel remorseful that all of your life you took them for granted.”

Ecopsychologists have suggested that our conceptions of self as inherently separate from the natural world have negative outcomes on the well-being of humans and ecosystems. Perhaps these words can be medicine for them both, so that every time we speak of the living world we breathe out respect and inhale kinship, turning the very atmosphere into a medium of relatedness. If pronouns can kindle empathy, I want to shower the world with their sound.

The most outspoken students voice some enthusiasm for the new pronouns, but the quiet skeptics save their reservations for the writing assignment when we are back in class. One student puts it this way: “This is a warm-hearted and generous idea, but it will never work. People don’t like change and they will be pissed off if you try and tell them how to talk. Most people don’t want to think of nature as being as good as them.” One student writes in a scrawl that carries his impatience in every half-formed letter: “If changing the world is what you’re after, do something real. Volunteer at the food bank, plant a tree. Dreaming up pronouns is a major waste of time.”

This is why I love teaching, the way we are forced to be accountable.

The abstraction of “dreaming up pronouns” does seem fruitless during a time in our nation’s history when the language of disrespect is the currency of political discourse. American nationalism, to say nothing of human exceptionalism, is being elevated as a lofty goal, which leaves little room for humility and ecological compassion. It seems quixotic to argue for respect for nonhuman beings when we refuse to extend it to human refugees. But I think this student is wrong. Words do matter, and they can ripple out to make waves in the “real” world.

The ecological compassion that resides in our indigenous languages is dangerous once again to the enterprise of domination, as political and economic forces are arrayed against the natural world and extractive colonialism is reborn under the gospel of prosperity. The contrast in worldview is as stark today as it was in my grandfather’s time, and once again it is land and native peoples who are made to pay the price.

If you think this is only an arcane linguistic matter, just look to the North Dakota prairie where, as I write this, there are hundreds of people camping out in a blizzard enduring bitter cold to continue the protective vigil for their river, which is threatened by the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline and the pipeline’s inevitable oil spills. The river is not an it for them—the river lies within their circle of moral responsibility and compassion and so they protect ki fiercely, as if the river were their relative, because ki is. But the ones they are protecting ki from speak of the river and the oil and the pipe all with the same term, as if “it” were their property, as if “it” were nothing more than resources for them to use. As if it were dead.

At Standing Rock, between the ones armed with water cannons and the ones armed with prayer, exist two different languages for the world, and that is where the battle lines are being drawn. Do we treat the earth as if ki is our relative—as if the earth were animated by being—with reciprocity and reverence, or as stuff that we may treat with or without respect, as we choose? The language and worldview of the colonizer are once again in a showdown with the indigenous worldview. Knowing this, the water protectors at Standing Rock were joined by thousands of non-native allies, who also speak with the voice of resistance, who speak for the living world, for the grammar of animacy.

Thankfully, human history is marked by an ever-expanding recognition of personhood, from the time when aboriginals were not seen as human, when slaves were counted as three-fifths of a person, and when a woman was worth less than a man. Language, personhood, and politics have always been linked to human rights. Will we have the wisdom to expand the circle yet again? Naming is the beginning of justice.

Around the world, ideas of justice for nature are emerging in political and legal arenas. In New Zealand, when the Whanganui River was threatened, indigenous Maori leadership earned protection for the sacred waters by getting the river declared a legal “person” with rights to its own well-being. The constitutions of indigenous-led Ecuador and Bolivia enshrine the rights of Mother Nature. The Swiss amended their constitution to define animals as beings instead of objects. Just last year, the Ho-Chunk Nation in Wisconsin amended its tribal constitution, recognizing that “ecosystems and natural communities within the Ho-Chunk territory possess an inherent, fundamental, and inalienable right to exist and thrive.” This legal structure will allow the tribe to protect its homelands from mining for fracking sand and fossil fuel extraction because the land will have legal standing as a person. Supported by the revolutionary initiatives of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, the burgeoning Rights of Nature movement is flowering from the roots of animacy, from the personhood of all beings. We’ll need a new pronoun for that.

***

THE STUDENTS COMMENT that they’d like to use ki and kin, but stumble over the changes in phrasing. “This would be much easier if I’d learned it as a child,” they say. They’re right of course. Not only because language patterns are established early in development, but because children quite naturally speak of other beings as persons. I delight in listening to my grandson, who like most toddlers watching a butterfly flit across the yard says, “He is flying,” or “She sits on a flower.” Children speak at first with a universal grammar of animacy, until we teach them not to. My grandson is also completely smitten with bulldozers and will watch them endlessly, but despite their motion and their roar he is not confused as to their nature: he calls them “it.”

I am also introducing him to Potawatomi words. In honor of the language that was taken from his great-grandfather, I want to give that language back to my grandson, so he will never be alone in the world and live surrounded by kin. He already has the basics of animacy; he hugs trees and kisses moss. My heart cracked with happiness when he looked up from the blueberries in his oatmeal and said, “Nokomis, are these minan?”

He’s growing up in a time when respect among peoples has grown threadbare and there are gaping holes in the fabric of life. The mending we need will require reweaving the relationship between humans and our more-than-human kin. Maybe now, in this time when the myth of human exceptionalism has proven illusory, we will listen to intelligences other than our own, to kin. To get there, we may all need a new language to help us honor and be open to the beings who will teach us. I hope my grandson will always know the other beings as a source of counsel and inspiration, and listen more to butterflies than to bulldozers.

This article was made possible through the support of the Kalliopeia Foundation. Listen to an interview with Robin Wall Kimmerer here.

Robin Wall Kimmerer is Professor of Environmental and Forest Biology at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF). She is the author of numerous scientific articles, the book Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses (2003), and her latest publication Braiding Sweetgrass (Milkweed Editions 2014) has received praise from authors such as Jane Goodall and Elizabeth Gilbert. She is an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, and combines her heritage with her scientific and environmental passions.

Comments

  1. This is a brilliant, elegantly written piece, which I will share widely — and have already posted to the Rethinking Schools Facebook page. Thanks to Robin Wall Kimmerer for writing it and to Orion for publishing it.

  2. Re: As we talk beneath the oaks, one of the students emphatically disagrees: “Just because I say it doesn’t mean I disrespect nature. I grew up on a farm and we called all of our animals it, but we took great care of them. We just said it because everyone knows that you don’t give a name to the thing that you’re going to eat.” We are raising a beautiful Dexter steer; HIS name is Albertus. When we eat HIM, we will remember HIM and be grateful for HIM.

    Thank you for the essay. Pronouns are, as you note, revelatory. We can learn from other languages. For example, there are no gender indications for pronouns in Magyar. So the English (and other language) debate on whether GOD is He or She is impossible to arise.

  3. Thank you for this thoughtful, beautiful, and spacious essay. There is a lot to think about here for me, and for many of us.

    I’d add another observation of using languages with genderless pronouns–to understand the meaning of the language and the subject of conversation, you have to take in the context. You cannot know what ki is referring to without the company of description and relation.

    My experience as a learner of Ndjoeka (in Suriname) is that the structure of the grammar is simple, but the language is not. Learning to hear and speak within a richness of context and relation is beautiful complex and subtle, and makes meaning poetic.

    Perhaps this is another support of how language can help us consider repositioning our speakers within a more equal world.

    Thank you again.

  4. As an activist working on the Willamette River superfund site, participating in a cleanup
    narrative that treats the river as an it to be fixed rather than healing with, in collaboration
    with the river has always been painful for me. What a huge relief and inspiration to hear
    someone decry the use of “it” and begin to create a language of animacy!

  5. I am thankful for Robin’s clear writing and vital advocacy on behalf of language. This is an important topic that seems to be gaining momentum thanks to writers like Robin and Robert Macfarlane. However, gender of animacy is simply one of many tools that we can use to open up language and our relationship with the natural world, and this is the topic of my recent book “Language Making Nature.”

  6. This was so beautiful- Thank you for this.

  7. There is alienating language, and there is wanton destruction of animate beings. Both matter. And they shape each other. May we learn how to re-join the wholeness that has been broken, in how we think and in what we do.

  8. In Malay language, there is no distinction of he and she. They use ‘dia’ meaning person for both. Try discussing gender issues with them. 🙂
    And in Hindi, the verb takes different forms depending on whether the act is done by a female or a male. Now, try discussing gender issues with them. 🙁

  9. Language matters and we (all living beings, kin) are connected genetically and spiritually. Thank you for this lovely article. I think many young people will embrace the change of language! There are many of us, young and older, who love and appreciate all of life.

  10. Thank You, Thank you, Thank you,

    I have been at a loss for words in my English language vocabulary. It misses so much of what I feel in nature, in love, in true living.

  11. As an old man who escaped to the forest as a young man and spent most of my life here, thanks for the good work. May you alway teach in the shade of a tree as the ancient Greeks did.

  12. Thank you to Orion for publishing this piece. Thank you to Robin for raising our consciousness about these important ideas

  13. Thank you so much for this brilliant perspective and writing. And thank you, Orion, for featuring this piece.

    As someone who works with people to (re-)connect with their Spirit Helpers and spirits of Nature, to hear their wisdom and guidance in order to live more authentic, joyful, transformative and effective lives of service, I feel limited by English on a daily basis. I often find myself saying, “it’s hard to translate what your Helper is saying into English” – and then I muddle along, doing the best I can, often having to try a few times before the Spirit Helper is satisfied. And then – by what pronouns do I call Spirit Helpers such as Wolf, Bear, Eagle, Deer, Magpie, Tree Spirit? I often revert to “he” but it doesn’t feel right.

    I agree with you that the English language holds a great deal of power, and that it has shaped the mindset of people responsible for colonialism, racism, environmental destruction, and in general the culture of domination. My hope is that all of us – including white people – can come home and reconnect with Nature as mother, father, teacher and friend. Your work is so helpful in this.

    Lastly, as we spread the seeds of “ki” and “kin,” I wonder if the gender queer and trans rights movement might provide fertile ground. Many of us who have never identified strongly with the male or female gender have been deeply hurt by the definitive and limiting binary pronouns of she/her/hers and he/him/his. Many people now request to be referred to as they/them/theirs, or even “ze” (pronounced “zee”). Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could add the pronouns ki and kin to our lexicon for gender queer folks as well? And wouldn’t it be wonderful if the LGBTQ and rights of nature movements could join in common cause?

    Thank you so much for your work!

  14. Thank you for your insights and your courage in articulating them so beautifully. English is my native tongue, and it often fails me. Our culture shuns wildness and intimacy, both essential to our evolution. Words do build worlds. They can also tear them down as we are seeing everyday. Let’s continue to rediscover the rich, root words and bring them into daily use to remind us all of our place of responsibility alongside all of our kin in this magnificent world.

  15. This article was very interesting. It led me back to other questions that have been recently discussed in political discourse regarding the use of gender-neutral pronouns. The use of the singular ‘they’ as a way of designating a person without designating a gender. I wonder if another possible solution would be to expand the singular use of ‘they’ from being a way of designating a gender-neutral singular person to being a species-neutral animate singular and plural.

  16. What a beautiful, compassionate essay. As a high school English teacher, there is so much here to reflect on. As someone who writes regularly about the relationship between humans and creatures (mainly through the lens of bird hunting), I’m fascinated by the potential impact on prose as well as concept. For example, one question that comes to mind regarding the pronoun “its” has to do with human ignorance (mine included) about the sex of animals. Most of us can’t tell at a glance if the tree swallow fledgling is a male or female, and we want to be accurate, right? So it seems “it” is a catch-all in that sense. I wonder if “ki” can accommodate a regard for the biological sex of a bird or if that’s not a concern, if it’s a catch-all like “it” but more of a de-hierarchical linguistic move.

  17. This is a beautiful piece of writing on language and nature. I never refer to an animal as an “it.” Words matter indeed, in our customs, our culture, our language, our thoughts, our values.

  18. Yes, beautiful thoughts beautifully expressed. I wonder about domesticity? Most pet owners refer to their cats and dogs as he or she. I was scolded once for speaking of a friend’s dog as “he,” and was informed that SHE had produced two litters of pups and SHE had more than earned her rightful gender. I think it must be, as Robin writes, a case of relationship. We feel our pets are family. Why not the trees all around us and the garden plants I spend my summer days with and the water I swim in? So much to think on here. Thank you!

  19. I make no claims at being a trained environmentalist, yet I happily claim to be an amateur environmentalist in the context of being an agrarian working to make my homestead regenerative. As Wendell Berry has reminded us, being an amateur means you are a lover, in the entomological sense. As an agrarian, one of the most important ecosystems I “love” is the rhizosphere – something Occidental industrial agriculture has abandoned since the “Green Revolution” and reinforced by the misguided policies of Earl Butz.

    Once I became aware of the extensive universe of life in and near the rhizosphere I immediately adopted an approach to agriculture and gardening that abandoned tillage. The kin of the soil are as mandatory for healthy life and salubrious food as is the oxygen we breathe. Using tillage and pulverizing the soil to create a specific germination or growing condition can be a sign of one of two things: simple ignorance of (or about) the life beneath our feet, or, arrogance of high order motivated by avarice.

    Whether ignorance or arrogance the result is the same: billions of destroyed kin that are the mechanism of botanical flourishing. If yield is our objective as growers of food, we have selected the wrong goal. Yield is a biproduct of fertile soil. Fertile soil is the biproduct of abundant and integrated life within the soil. Instead of yield, our goal as growers of food should be to create an environment, to create conditions, whereby the residents of the rhizosphere prosper and thrive. When we do this, our photosynthesizing neighbors will blossom, both figuratively and literally. This isn’t just sustainability, this is regenerative because the natural process is perpetual or at least cyclical.

    The biota (the kin) of the soil should command the same level of respect as any other species on the Earth. Some people, such as myself, claim this group of neighbors needs even more attention. Without humans raising their respect for the kin of the soil, we are not likely to survive as a species in this amazing geosphere.

  20. Excellent piece, on a subject I have thought a lot about over the years. While in London last month I happened across an old cemetery a couple blocks from the hotel. There were many moss encrusted, nearly illegible grave markers tilting at precarious angles under large old oaks. At the center of the cemetery was the larger grave of John Bunyon, author of “Pilgrims Progress”, one of the earliest examples of an invading alien language to the Americas. Nearby was also a marker for William Blake, someone who would probably sympathize greatly with Ms. Kimmerer’s essay and thoughts. I’ll see if I can post photographs.

  21. Wonderful paradigm shifting work. I really loved the realization that our language shapes the way we approach the world. Migwetch

  22. Our industrialized and environmentally unsound system of animal-for-food production treats animals as objects and commodities for profit. Big Ag raises and kills animals in cruel and inhumane ways and their short lives inevitably end in slaughter as they are transformed into an entree for one’s dinner plate. Their deaths serve as another example of how our language debases and controls the animate world. If we can see animals as Ki and Kin, as individuals with their own lives to live, perhaps we can also see that eating them is an affront to their rights too. As Alice Walker states, ““The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for whites, or women created for men.”

  23. Wonderful article. I’ve always hated using the pronoun “it” for non-human animals, but never thought to extend the “personhood” further–toward rivers, forests, etc. This reminds me, too, of the film by Akira Kurosawa–Dersu Uzala. Dersu, the main character, a Nanai hunter who lives in the Russian Far East. He refers to the sun, the forest, everything–as “persons”, which makes the Russian explorers laugh (but they get it after a while–Kurosawa is good at showing empathetic moments.)
    Again, this is beautiful, and beautifully written. Thank you!

  24. Yes! I love the idea and etymological family of “ki” and “kin,” despite the worrisome lack of a syntax that clarifies subject/object, etc. I use “he” and “she” for animals, as more and more “animal people” seem to be doing. Of course, that usage has the same problems as it does in English for the unknown or nonspecified sex and the other complications. But “it”? No way! My “Ask Me, Says the Turtle” (Turtles All the Way: Poems. Finishing Line Press, 2016), expresses that lack of respect in a persona poem written in box turtle Diode’s voice. (Diode has been involved in communication and cognition exploration since 1979.)

    “You meet me steering down the woodland trail,
    secure in the hand of my tutor. You look
    in her eyes and ask her what I always hear,
    Does it know you? And what does it eat?

    I say, ask ME. I am not an it. . . .”

  25. I would love to see these concepts published as a children’s book, with lovely illustrations. This is a perspective that ideally should be learned at a young age and the material lends itself to illustration. Hoping to see this happen before my little grandchild gets too much older.

  26. author says, “Sadly, since we cannot photosynthesize, we humans must take other lives in order to live. We have no choice but to consume, but we can choose to consume a plant or animal in a way that honors the life that is given and the life that flourishes as a consequence. Instead of avoiding ethical jeopardy by creating distance, we can embrace and reconcile that tension. We can acknowledge food plants and animals as fellow beings and through sophisticated practices of reciprocity demonstrate respect for the sacred exchange of life among relatives.”

    This is a crap excuse for killing and eating non-human beings. Really? You would eat your cousin? your mother? If you really saw non-human beings as your relatives, you wouldn’t eat them.

    There is a qualitative difference between eating plants and eating non-human animals which the author conveniently drifts over. Eat animals, if you wish, but with honesty, not with hypocrisy.

  27. This is a powerful article that illustrates how western thought and language centers objectification and thus separates human species from all other corporeal, material, and spiritual phenomena. But language is alive and fluid. Robin Kimmerer gracefully leads us along a spiritual path of reconnection. As a psychoanalyst, I seek ways to breach the barriers of our language so that we can more fully experience the miracle of the cycles of life.

  28. I was fortunate enough to hear Robin Kimmerer speak at the University of Oregon on this very topic. This is just what a nature essay should do – make us think differently. Force us to sit down and say, “ahh, I never thought of it that way before.” I hope this idea sprouts wings and that we can go to court and speak for the unnamed, the “it” of nature. That we can defend rivers and trees, not for their usefulness to humans but for what they are. #earthtoo

  29. I found refuge in the oasis of that cemetery while a law student at Syracuse, and well remember the acorns, squirrels and peace it offered. Ms. Kimmerer’s essay calls to mind the dissent of Justice William O. Douglas in Sierra Club v. Morton, in which Douglas opined that any natural being — e.g., a river, a grove of trees, or an animal — should have “standing” to be heard, and its (ki?) voice considered. “So it should be as respects valleys, alpine meadows, rivers, lakes, estuaries, beaches, ridges, groves of trees, swampland, or even air that feels the destructive pressures of modern technology and modern life. The river, for example, is the living symbol of all the life it sustains or nourishes — fish, aquatic insects, water ouzels, otter, fisher, deer, elk, bear, and all other animals, including man, who are dependent on it or who enjoy it for its sight, its sound, or its life. The river as plaintiff speaks for the ecological unit of life that is part of it.”

  30. This essay made me thinking of all the times I have tried to explain to people surrounding me about the differences that different language provoke your ways of thinking. Or how it limitates it.

    Born in Argentina and living more than 30 years in Israel, came as a child when my parents decided this will be the best place for us, every single day in my life goes by with thoughts about this issues. Different thinking options that evoke the ways we think.

    As a nurse giving service it a community care clinic, I have lately started working with ultra religious people. Every interaction became an act of learning. Even though we speak the same language, Hebrew , we use the same language in such different ways. While interacting I discover many ways of speech used by them which I do not no at all. So the context, of course, produces the meaning.

    I enjoyed reading!
    Thank you

  31. I identify with so many elements in this reading. I grew up in a marvelous old cemetery and I loved to read tombstones to try to learn about the people who rested there. I have also always loved Native American cultures and history and often work with and write about Pawnee and other Native people whom I know and love. I have learned much from them and feel very akin to them. In this piece, Robin Kimmer writes about the very “person”-al kinship that Native Americcns feel for each other, the earth, the animals, their environment, and more. That is so true and so worth remembering. When Native American hunters kill an animal, they do so in ritualistic ways and with great respect. They address the animal as brother or sister and thank him or her for giving up his/her own life so that the hunter might live. When their women harvest Mother Corn, squash, pumpkins, beans, or even wild foods, those women always offer thanks and prayers directly to those plants and spirits as if they were people. In so doing, they also honor the gods and spirits of their ancestors. When I talk to or about my animals (horses, dogs, cats) or other animals I usually use he or she pronouns and seldom use it, unless the gender is unknown, but I am less personal with plants and places. Perhaps I need to revisit my own way of looking at places. Thinking that way, I can easily see that my land is a she, for she brings forth grass and shelters my animals with her tree limbs. It is amazing to see how just ascribing a he/she pronoun to a subject can make it far more personal, but it certainly does make a positive difference.

  32. I work as a substitute teacher at a native village nearby my home. It saddens me that capitalistic culture has made its way into the school curriculum. The forest is taught as a renewable resource to be used for the benefit of the economy. We live in a forested area and I am sad to see the pine disappearing and being replaced by a mostly disiduas forest. The DNR says with rising temperatures the forest will soon change permanently, but no responsibility is being taken for the way we manage our forests and how this relates to climate change. In college I was taking botany, and many of my friends were studying forestry. It was interesting to see that we were learning completely different things from our intructors. Botany would teach of the importance of root systems and how the leaves of old growth trees would pull in moisture, while the forestry students were being taught that clear cuts were good because that way the deer would have plenty to eat. In saddens me to see that native children are being taught that clear cuts are necessary and and easily renewable, and that trees only took a short time to grow. I wonder how soon the native children will lose the old way of thinking and forget that the ancient white pine are indeed there “kin”. Teddy Roosevelt is a good example of someone who was able to keep a balance between the economy and preserving the natural world in which we live, so I know it is possible. One thing I did disagree with regarding the essay is the idea of being heartless when you do not take in refugees. I think one has to be careful of taking in mass immigrants from places that have already experienced environmental collapse due to high birth rates and cultural separation from nature. The Native Americans learned a hard lesson when they let Europeans immigrate in in mass. To invite many people into your nation that do not respect your way of life or the natural world will forever be a thorn in your side. Just as the white settlers did not respect the native cosmology, so is it with many refugees and immigrants that come to our country for economic benefit. I do think we as nation should help them, but it is dangerous to make them citizens and allow them to vote. We can help in other ways that do not include sacrificing our own way of life and making America unlivable for our grandchildren to come.

  33. Fascinating account of how language differences change our perceptions–of us and other entities in our world, and beyond. As a text linguist, I have always been interested in how language shapes and to an extent explains a culture, by providing quite detailed terms for some areas of life, and hardly anything in others. One example of language and thinking differences in two cultures is found in the 1992 novel, Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow, by Danish author Peter Høeg.

  34. Fascinating.
    I wonder if there is something about boundaries, related to colonising cultures.
    A while back I went to the Koorie (Australian Indigenous People) Heritage Trust to enquire about their stories of the afterlife. Two of the elders tried to explain to me. Let me be clear that I may have only poorly understood. This is their story, not mine to tell, and I’m only trying to comprehend from my side of the cultural border.
    The gist was, I think, that their stories were all about country, the place of all things, animate, inanimate, human, in country – ”Beings of the earth’? All things were always part of country. So the moment of one human being moving from life to death, was not crossing a border of any consequence.
    The two Koorie women were very kind to me, gave me a lot of their time, but finally looked at one another and sighed, as if they felt I was just never really going to be able to get it.

  35. “The language speaks us” according to de Saussure. Hence, the reason why Robin Kimmerer invites us to change the way we speak about other beings so as to acknowledge them as our kin.
    Just like the Native Americans, the indigenous peoples of the Malay Peninsula and Borneo used to be close to Nature. They treated living and non-living beings in their cosmos as if they were their ancestors or relatives. When I was a child living in a village, my mother taught me to seek permission from the guardians of the trees, and even anthills, when we passed through groves, shrubs and bushes in the dark.
    With urbanization, and electricity, we began to dismiss such practices as superstitions and illogical.

  36. I think we are a world waiting for ki. In this post- Bruce Jenner world gender has been redefined. Labels Men and Women do not begin to cover the diversity lived and experienced by some. We trip over he and she pronouns. I often lament that the America’s would be so different if settled and conquered by Asians and not Europeans. We would have welcomed ki a long time ago. And then I wake to the thought- but we were. The tribal peoples who were present at the conquest could have taught all those who came a language and philosophy of your people. Humans are not separate from nature. We are part of that web of life and must develop a vision of how we protect that web that provides for the continuance of ki. Not as objects to objectify and commercialize.
    It does all start with language and in middle school we used to invent words and attribute meaning to kin. I share your vision.

  37. A beautifully written eye opener. The change in pronouns did work a kind of magic though it remains to be seen whether I will succeed in my intention to use ki instead of it.
    But then in languages that assigns male and female gender (french, hindi)even to inanimate things like table there is no particular intimacy. Or is there?
    The world is a better place due such passionate lovers of nature who can love the lichen on a tomb and the birds on a bough

  38. A beautifully written eye opener. The change in pronouns did work a kind of magic though it remains to be seen whether I will succeed in my intention to use ki instead of it.
    But then in languages that assigns male and female gender (french, hindi)even to inanimate things like table there is no particular intimacy. Or is there?
    The world is a better place due to such passionate lovers of nature who can love the lichen on a tomb and the birds on a bough

  39. The change in pronouns did work a kind of magic though it remains to be seen whether I will succeed in my intention to use ki instead of it.
    But then in languages that assigns male and female gender (french, hindi)even to inanimate things like table there is no particular intimacy. Or is there?
    The world is a better place due to such passionate lovers of nature who can love the lichen on a tomb and the birds on a bough.
    poignant

  40. I liked that you started out with human interest. It helped bring me into the subject. I also love how you compare human death rites with animals. Beautifully written.

  41. I have read your book, Braiding Sweetgrass and portions of Gathering Moss. It was only while reading this essay though that I was reminded of St. Francis and his lovely poem, “The Canticle of Brother Sun.” In this work, he refers not only to Brother Sun, but also to Brother Fire and Brother Wind. He refers to Sister Moon, Sister Water, and our sister, Mother Earth. Perhaps this is another pat to wholeness.
    After reading your book, i began to experiment with forms by referring to trees, birds, rivers, etc as someone. Someone flows between to banks and carries boats along. It felt a bit stilted when I read the poems aloud, and I got strange looks from the audience. My heritage is European and not Indian, so I may try using the vocabulary of St. Francis. Sister Water, Brother River, etc. It will be another attempt.

  42. Delightful. Moving. Needed in our times. For a linguist (German, Spanish, English French; international conference interpreter) deeply troubling and enlightening. In German, I remember a horrible book: “The Dictionary of the Inhuman.” Made up almost entirely of nouns. Composite nouns. Very long, complicated, composte nouns. I am a poet. Poems, to be poetic, flutter on words. It’ their key, their life force, their sparkle
    Thank you for a timely, beautifully argued appeal!

  43. Fascinating article about changing out mindset through deliberate use of language.

  44. Thoughtful essay about how different languages provide us with different world-views and values.

  45. Yes I do think the words we use affect the way we think. When we refer to an animal as “it” instead of “he” or “she” we are more inclined to treat it as an object instead of a sentient being. like ourselves. A new pronoun would be useful, but have I the courage to be a pioneer in this regard?

  46. An intriguing argument for the power of language – even a harmless pronoun – to shape our world view and our morality. And the proposed new pronouns – ‘ki’ and ‘kin’ – even evoke linguistic associations with existing words, like ‘kindred’ and perhaps even ‘kind’.
    I found the argument compelling, although in some places it verges on religious fervour. Here are some quotes I found particularly significant:
    ‘I wonder if English sharpened its verbal ax and lost the companionship of oaks and primroses when it began to keep company with capitalism.’
    ‘Wendell Berry writes, “People exploit what they have merely concluded to be of value, but they defend what they love, and to defend what we love we need a particularizing language, for we love what we particularly know.”’
    ‘I am always in awe, and always in relationship. In both cases the plants provide for me, teach me, and inspire me.’
    ‘An indigenous plant woman might say, “My plant relatives have shared healing knowledge with me and given me a root medicine.”’
    ‘I want a word for beingness. Can we unlearn the language of objectification and throw off colonized thought?’
    ‘War on a language of animacy and relationship to the natural world was essential to the dual mission of religious and economic conversion. Certainly the biblical mandate for human subjugation of the creation was incompatible with indigenous languages.’
    ‘If pronouns can kindle empathy, I want to shower the world with their sound.’
    We should not forget, however, that English is not the only language! Latin languages and German, for example, genderize, and thus in some sense personalize, all nouns; we anglophiles struggle with the articles and declensions. Finnish, on the other hand, abolishes the gender of nouns but distinguishes between person of any gender and things.

  47. I found this story educational as well as startling. I agree with all of the students mention ed in this story. I am concerned about how we as humans treat each other and how we treat each other. I also struggled with changing the way we refer to nature and animals. I me have a problem with changing the way it is used.

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