This column was conceived by Rua Lupa, who proposed gathering practical resources for Naturalistic Pagans in one place. This column is dedicated to sharing ideas for religious technologies which we might use or adapt to deepen our Naturalistic Pagan practices. It includes the ideas and experiences of others, as well as some of my own, and I welcome you to send me your ideas for sharing in future posts. If you have discovered a ritual technique which works for you that you would like to add to the Naturalistic Pagan Toolbox, click here to send me an email.
Language and Experience
Language shapes our experience. And this includes our experience of nature.
We tend to think of language as only reflecting your experience, but in reality is that language and experience interact in a cyclical fashion. To a certain extent, our experience is limited by what we can say about it. As Wittgenstein said, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” For example, lacking words for certain colors or hues may limit our ability to see them.
Another example is peculiar to the English language. Although many other languages use gendered pronouns for non-human objects, English only has the gender-neutral “it”. “It” is not a neutral word. Referring to a human person as an “it”, for example, is insulting. Calling someone “it” is a refusal to recognize the subjectivity of the person, reducing them to an object.
What does this mean for how we relate to nature? When we speak of tree or other living fauna, we habitually refer to them as “it” (or sometimes “that”) — either because they are sexless or we do not know their sex. We even refer to animals as “it” when we do not know their sex, and sometimes when we do. And of course, all seemingly “inanimate objects” — rocks, mountains, the wind, the Sun, a river, rain, and so on — are called “it.”
Because of this, we tend to relate to these natural beings — plant, animal, and other — as things, instead of persons — objects, rather than subjects. When natural beings are reduced to objects in this fashion, we feel free to use them, without regard or care or respect, without any sense of mutual obligation or reciprocity.
A New Pronoun for Nature
I actually got the idea of a “Naturalistic Pagan Toolbox” from Rua Lupa in the context of a discussion about what Rua calls the “separation effect,” the objectification of living nature. She introduced me to Robin Wall Kimmerer, a biologist, environmentalist, and author of Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants (2013). Kimmerer also discusses the problem of the objectification of nature through language:
Using “it” absolves us of moral responsibility and opens the door to exploitation. When Sugar Maple is an “it” we give ourselves permission to pick up the saw. “It” means it doesn’t matter. But in Anishinaabe and many other indigenous languages, it’s impossible to speak of Sugar Maple as “it.” We use the same words to address all living beings as we do our family. Because they are our family. (“Nature Needs a New Pronoun”)
Kimmerer argues for changing our language as a way of changing our relationship to nature. She urges us to adopt a “grammar of animacy.” She calls this “a kind of reverse linguistic imperialism, a shift in worldview through the humble work of the pronoun.”
But what word should we use instead of “it”? According to Stewart King, the Anishinaabe word for beings of the living Earth is “Bemaadiziiaaki.” Kimmerer suggests adopting the last syllable, ki, to replace “it”, and using kin to replace “they”.
“Ki” to signify a being of the living Earth. Not “he” or “she,” but “ki.” So that when we speak of Sugar Maple, we say, “Oh that beautiful tree, ki is giving us sap again this spring.” And we’ll need a plural pronoun, too, for those Earth beings. Let’s make that new pronoun “kin.” So we can now refer to birds and trees not as things, but as our earthly relatives. On a crisp October morning we can look up at the geese and say, “Look, kin are flying south for the winter. Come back soon.”
“Ki” resembles the words for for “who” in Spanish and in French, and also sounds like the Chinese “chi”, which is energy of life. The word “kin”, on the other hand, invokes our relationship of kinship with the natural world.
In an interview with Krista Tippett on NPR’s On Being, Kimmerer describes this as a language of reciprocity, which is broader than the language of sustainability. It is a language which recognizes that we human beings are not the only persons on the planet.
Personifying is not Anthropomorphizing
Now, I suspect that some of our naturalistic readers while be having an allergic reaction right about now to the idea of “personifying” nature. Kimmerer is a scientist, a botanist who studies mosses. She acknowledges the taboo against “anthropomorphizing” plants and animals. But, keep in mind that personifying is not the same thing as anthropomorphizing — because humans are not the only kind of persons. (The confusion of personification with anthropomorphication is itself a symptom of our anthropocentrism.)
Kimmerer explains that just as it is wrong to put plants in the same conceptual category with humans, it is wrong to put kin in the same category as paperclips and bulldozers — as if they have no awareness, no value independent of their usefulness to us. This denial of personhood, says Kimmerer, is increasingly being refuted by science itself.
“I can’t think of a single scientific study in the last few decades that has demonstrated that plants or animals are dumber than we think. It’s always the opposite, right? What we’re revealing is the fact that they have a capacity to learn, to have memory, and we’re at the edge of a wonderful revolution in really understanding the sentience of other beings.”
Kimmerer even extends personhood to rocks, which she says are alive, “alive in different ways, but certainly not inanimate.” Consider this excerpt from her book, Gathering Moss:
“The rocks are beyond slow, beyond strong, and yet, yielding to a soft, green breath as powerful as a glacier, the mosses wearing away their surfaces grain by grain, bringing them slowly back to sand. There is an ancient conversation going on between mosses and rocks, poetry to be sure. About light and shadow and the drift of continents.”
Talking to the beings of the world — plants and animals and even rocks — as subjects, rather than always talking about kin as objects can help us begin to see the world in the way Kimmerer does — as suffused with life, with awareness, with animacy.
Putting it into Practice
So, I’ve set the stage. Here’s what I propose we do:
Go outside and find some “thing” — a tree or a bird or even a stone — and try describing ki using the the pronouns ki and kin instead of “it” and “they”. Speak out loud when you do this. It will feel probably awkward at first, but just go with it.
Pay attention to how you feel, especially how you feel about the plant or animal or mineral that is the subject of your attention.
Now, try talking to the subject of your attention, rather than just talking about ki. The point is not to communicate with the plant or animal (which obviously does not understand your language), but to change how you relate to ki.
Later, in conversation with a friend or family member about the natural world, try substituting ki and kin as pronouns for “it” and “they”. Explain why you are doing this. It will be difficult at first. (Even as I wrote this section, I had to go back an replace a few pronouns.) Notice how doing this changes your conversation about nature. As you keep doing it, notice how it changes how you relate with the natural world … with your kin.
Share your experiences in the comments.
About the Author
John Halstead is Editor-At-Large and a contributor at HumanisticPaganism.com. He blogs about Paganism generally at AllergicPagan.com (which is hosted by Patheos) and about Jungian Neo-Paganism at “Dreaming the Myth Onward” (which is hosted by Witches & Pagans). He is also an occasional contributor to GodsandRadicals.org and The Huffington Postand the administrator of the site Neo-Paganism.com. John was the principal facilitator of “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment,” which can be found at ecopagan.com. He is a Shaper of the fledgling Earthseed community, which is described at GodisChange.org. John is also the editor of the anthology, Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans.
To speak with John, contact him on Facebook.
What a great idea! I often cringe at people describing animals as “it”, I tend to try to use personal pronouns, or the singular “they” if needed, but I’ve never thought of applying the same thinking to trees and plants (I know, bad Druid!). I love the idea of using “ki” and especially “kin” which reminds me of the nature spirits or “nature-kin” of ADF Druidry. Let’s make it happen!
Funny story, actually, from just a few days ago–I was sitting outside on a patio with a bunch of people and heard a birdsong I didn’t recognize (I only know a few!). Without thinking I said “who’s that singing…?” and someone said “oh, that’s just the radio over there.” It took me a sec to realize why they’d misunderstood me. 🙂
This is a wonderful challenge! Maybe it just requires experimentation, but there’s one thing that remains on my mind:
I understand the problem with comparing plants to humans and comparing kin to paperclips. But where do we draw the line between kin and value-less objects? Between a raw crystal and a manmade paperweight, it seems like the only arguable difference is that the crystal was made by nature and the paperweight was made by humans from natural materials. They both lack a consciousness like the kind we have but they arguably are also full of energy (the crystal with its ability to grow, the paperweight with its interaction with humans, and both have atoms which are constantly vibrating with life); for both, their value is either in their usefulness to us or just in their inherent existence. Does being man-made/processed/refined take kin so far from nature that ki is no longer kin?
I appreciate your thoughts!
Good point. I don’t think it’s a bright line, and where the line is depends on us, not on kin. I think we can have a non-instrumental relationship with our tools, but not as tools.
I was thinking the same thing. I think Jon makes a good point that we have to decide for ourselves where the line is, if there even is one. Personally, I find value in realizing and reminding myself that humans and human-made things are as natural as any animal. We don’t want to separate artifacts made by other animals off into a separate category of lifeless things (or things totally separate and not connected to anything else). Is a beaver’s dam lifeless? A hermit crab’s shell?
(Of course, paradoxically , it’s that looking away from human made things that makes so clear to me that there is no dividing line.)
Thank you. This not only connects with my Anishinaabe heritage, but also makes a very important point, backed up by evidence. Science has shown us that we are, indeed, all related to every living thing. They are indeed kin.
Reblogged this on Endless Erring and commented:
Why do we speak of animals and plants as “it”? They are our kin, so let’s shift our language and raise our consciousness accordingly.
It’s different in my language.. in English names for species of animals or plants don’t have a gender.. while in Slavic languages they have a gender.. in my language the word for fox is in female gender, wolf is male gender, owl is female, cat is female, bull is male, deer is male.. for example for animals.. for plants as well.. the word for oak is male, birch is female, maple is male.. I have always seen trees as my brothers and sisters, I can always somehow feel what energy a plant or animal individually emits.. but also as a collective consciousness I know they altogether don’t have a gender.. if they do I consider the whole planet energy to be the mother.. female..
And I can say that I don’t really know that many people who don’t feel a sort of connection to nature, if not to the whole, then for a part of it some way.. maybe it really is because in our language we rarely refer to an animal or plant.. or rock or crystal for that matter.. as “it”.. the word for rock is male in our language.. maybe that’s why we are more likely to view them as beings that have a personality.. and we are more open to considering the possibility that there is more to them than we know.. and that humanity has divided itself from nature when in fact we are part of Nature (the word nature in my language is female).. we are all brothers and sisters.. children of the same Mother.. our bodies at least are.. and our consciousness is also connected to the collective.. in reality all beings and celestial bodies of the Universe have consciousness in some form.. at least that’s how I feel.. words really do have power.. but I don’t think that it matters if we use the suggested words in this article or we invent our own.. what matters is that we shift our perspective about everything that surrounds us..
For example.. I haven’t really given much thought about how I refer to objects like everyday things that surround us.. like tools or furniture or this blanket I’m covered with.. do they too have some sort of consciousness.. now that I think about it.. I always felt they do.. like some old buildings have a soul.. or an old piece of furniture, or old pieces of jewelry carry the energy of the beings that used them.. I think we certainly transfer our energy onto them.. bit do these “things” that are man made have any consciousness of their own? Even if a small seemingly insignificant fragment of it..
I’ve often wondered if everything we are surrounded by takes form to us depending on the level of awareness with which we observe it.. and how much of that is learned from society, from our collective.. and how much of that childlike openness to all possibilities remains in us..
And I agree with Lauren.. maybe by surrounding ourselves with objects and materials that are artificially made/processed/refined (vibrating at a lower frequency – containing a smaller fragment of ki if we could say it that way) we more so divide ourselves from nature.. because of course we naturally feel more connected to nature when we are surrounded by naturally formed materials.. it reminds us of our natural form and thus of our true identity.. as part of nature..
In any way spending as much time as we can in nature and interacting woth nature is the best way of renewing that connection.. and treating all beings and things with respect as part of something greater..
Some food for thought.. thank you for this article.. hope I didn’t take it too far.. it was just a string of thoughts that led one to another 🙂
I like the idea of using animated pronouns for other living things. For me, though, it doesn’t make sense to apply those pronouns also to inanimate things that we may have personal feelings about, like a rock.
What is the difference between living and non-living things? Kemmerer seems to want to find intelligence, memory, a capacity to learn, and sentience in even the simplest life forms so they can qualify as beings. But I don’t think that something must have human characteristics in order to be a fully living thing. That’s simply self-flattery; it suggests that human traits are the central definition of all life.
The basic biological definitions are more helpful. A thing is living if it begins its life (is born), gets and uses energy, grows, reproduces, and dies. These are miraculous and powerful attributes that living things share and inanimate things don’t.
If we blur the differences between living and non-living things, I think we grow even further away from nature and just blur it together, instead of seeing it more closely and more clearly. Living things are a special event in nature, and we should appreciate the difference—and even give them a living-thing pronoun.
Yes. Defining life can be tricky. The definition you used “A thing is living if it begins its life (is born), gets and uses energy, grows, reproduces, and dies.” would classify a campfire as alive, etc.. NASA’s astrobiology program uses a very good (IMO) definition a living thing is “a self-sustaining chemical system capable of undergoing Darwinian evolution.”
Even though there is no sharp line between living and non-living (to see that, simply consider abiogenesis), it is true that life is wonderful and very special. As such, I agree that a different pronoun for living things is a good idea.
Wow, that’s a brilliant way to think about it. I have to say that my initial reaction (especially to the bit about rocks) is pretty incredulous, but that might be the best argument I’ve heard in a while.
This makes sense to me. Drawing distinctions between living and non-living seems like an important start to recognizing the diversity in the universe. I think this is true even if those distinctions are slippery at the edges, like Jon noted. I prefer the definition that life undergoes Darwinian natural selection, but does that mean viruses are alive? Clay crystals? It’s messy.
Then there’s the even messier question of which living things have minds and which don’t.
Honestly, for me, contemplating these fuzzy edges and thinking about how they were crossed the first time is fascinating. It leaves me in awe of physical processes and the very special and amazing process that is natural selection.
Of course, none of that means that rocks, rivers, mountains, the sun, etc., aren’t important. I don’t think everything has to be the same to matter to us. I don’t even think that means that we can’t engage with them in some sense. But then, I’m not much of a pantheist. I’m more of a splitter than a lumper.