All of us here are on a journey of rewilding and reconnecting to the natural world -through hiking, tracking, birding, learning to wild craft, spending time on the water or doing our own favorite outdoor activities. But… what is more intimate or more a part of us than our language and our very own mind? And what could be more profound than rewilding our minds through our language?
Language has incredible power to shape our experiences of connection and relationship with others. It is at once a frame and a lens through which we see and think about everything. It can also really stand in our way of deepening our relationships with the wild and our own wild mind. Our tendency is to be very focused on ourselves, as individuals and as a species. So much time talking to ourselves about ourselves and our human-centered affairs. Here I am suggesting a tool to help pull us out of that never ending loop of talking to ourselves and about ourselves as the most important beings.
First, we must acknowledge that there are other life-forms around us with their own inherent importance outside of simply how they serve us.
Let’s assume that part of the magic of the wild is to be surrounded by other beings, who are also experiencing life all around us.
“Magic, then, in its perhaps most primordial sense, is the experience of existing in a world made up of multiple intelligences, the intuition that every form one perceives – from the swallow swooping overhead to the fly on a blade of grass, and indeed the blade of grass itself – is an experiencing form, an entity with its own predilections and sensations, albeit sensations that are very different from our own.” – David Abram, Spell of the Sensuous
The trouble with sensing and staying in relationship with this natural and alive magic, is that our languages often abstract us away from relationships with the other-than-human beings surrounding us. In English, our overwhelming tendency is to use words such as “it” to describe other life forms. If we are generous, we might say “he” or “she” to a select few creatures such as our personal pets. We might at times think of them as furry people, because after all they are parts of our family.
But, when we refer to a tree, or a bird just outside our windows we will choose to say “it” more often than not. This seemingly insignificant difference demonstrates an interesting tendency for us to turn other life around us into objects. The real power of this change is best experienced when you experiment for a day or an extended period in using language that acknowledges the personhood of other life-forms.
This might feel strange at first, like learning new pronouns for those who consider themselves gender queer or gender neutral (saying “they/them” or whatever preferred pronoun feels appropriate for the individual). With a little effort, however, this change in language is powerfully transformative.
Many of us will admit that we can sense an aliveness and an awareness in the living landscapes around us. Some would call it a “presence,” an “awareness” or even an “intelligence.” In many Traditional cultures around the world, this way of seeing the world is a given. It is a part of many Native languages, that the living beings around us such as plants, animals (also for many cultures this includes rivers, wind, stars, rocks, mountains, etc.) are alive, aware and in some capacity have personhood, have agency unto themselves. Some have argued these are merely primitive ways of speaking and perceiving, mere anachronistic relics reflecting primitive minds. I am not alone in saying that this kind of colonial judgement misses that this way of experiencing and speaking is in fact far more sophisticated and aware of the life all around us.
Our language – English – allows us to easily commodify and extract/sell just about anything, including people. If you can call someone an it, then you feel one step removed emotionally from them. Same is true for the natural world in general, and all its separate lives in particular. This matters immensely and I think this is part of what is at the root of our world crisis at this time. The inborn arrogance of English is that it makes us assume that the only way to be really worthy of concern and respect, is to be a human being.
But before we join together in a condemnation of English and abandon all hope, I suggest something different entirely: use the flexibility of the English language to encourage the grammar of animacy. Animacy is the awareness, aliveness and agency of all features of the natural landscape you can see and experience. That includes animals, plants, water, rocks, wind and other natural phenomena.
“The animacy of the world is something we already know, but the language of animacy teeters on extinction – not just for Native peoples, but for everyone. Our toddlers speak of plants and animals as if they were people, extending to them self and intention and compassion – until we teach them not to. We quickly retrain them and make them forget. When we tell them that the tree is not a who, but an it, we make that maple an object; we put a barrier between us, absolving ourselves of moral responsibility and opening the door to exploitation. Saying it makes a living land into “natural resources.” If a maple is an it, we can take up a chain saw. If a maple is a her, we think twice.”– Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass
So where to start?
To begin with, consider for a moment that any being or force of nature you encounter has personhood. Now, I don’t mean imagine them as humans, but rather, be open to them having experiences, awareness and a sense of self. Also, be open to each being you encounter as having its own particular culture and language. Now, give them the kind of keen attention and careful consideration you would give visiting a foreign country and new culture, where you are trying to respectfully learn the local customs and pick up some of the language of that place.
Now, take a day when you are out among other life, such as on a hike, a walk in a park or while working in your garden, and practice giving those living beings you encounter labels that acknowledge their personhood. When you encounter a tree, you can say “this lovely cedar, she is swaying so beautifully in the breeze today.” You can also try out the words “ki” and “kin” to describe singular and plural living beings, as Robin Wall Kimmerer suggests. In other words, when I encounter a single jay I might say “ki is calling loudly.” If I encounter a stand of swaying trees, I might say “Kin are swaying with the wind.” Kin has an obvious implication of kinship, and the word ki comes from a similar root.
If you feel like this will be awkward, try it with someone who is joining you in the exercise or simply practice it by yourself. The best time to practice is right where you are, silently in your own stream of thoughts. Give your inner voice a chance to play with these new ways of describing the world. After all, the language we use in our own thoughts has the most powerful influence on our daily experience.
In my own experiences with this practice, I found myself frequently saying “Someone is upsetting the birds” when there are bird alarms in the woods, or “someone left us beautiful tracks” when I am examining tracks. When I am talking about the being directly, I practice saying its name, such as “coyote left us lovely tracks today,” rather than using “it left lovely tracks today.” This might seem like a small, even slightly irritating way of simply nitt-picking language use, but it is not. This label of “it” stands between you and the living world. As with learning any new skill, it simply takes a little practice to use other words.
This way of talking and thinking has tremendously transformed my experience of intimacy with the many wild forms I encounter on a daily basis. I knew I was having success with this different way of speaking and thinking when I felt little or no need to consider the life around me as objects or merely resources for me to use. When I started listening, watching and feeling the life in another being, I found myself stopping on a trail and watching that feeding bird, rather than just startling it carelessly on my way to some destination. Within me grew a deepening and expanding appreciation for the complexity in animal sounds and behaviors; in the pattern of flowing water and blowing leaves. The world became a richer place of experiences and my assumptions regarding knowing how things worked were stretched, or sometimes even put aside to allow room for some mystery. The power of the present moment began to permeate through my senses and into my mind.
This practice encouraged and still encourages in me a greater feeling of compassion, consideration and awareness of other life. It stays my hand and makes me consider seriously before I harvest a life or part of one. It acknowledges a truth I already feel in my body and brings my mind and senses into greater focus on the living land.
Try it out for a day, a week or a month and see what happens to you and your relationships with the wild. Let us know how it has changed the way you live, play, learn and connect!
Photos by Filip Tkaczyk