Wednesday, April 14, 2021

An experiment in nature writing – changing a two-letter word

I recently attended a one-hour online writing workshop with Rebecca Rolnick, where she led us in an exploration of “the grammar of animacy."  This phrase shows up in a book called Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer, which I’ve been reading off and on for the past few months.  It’s taking me a while to read because every page requires a day of reflection!  The full title is Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, so that gives you an idea of the scope.

Nature journal sketch
Nature journal sketch and poem.
Click to view larger.

What is animacy?

Animacy refers to a feature of language that expresses the “aliveness” or sentience of something.   For me, the word sentience represents awareness and a capacity for feelings and conscious action.   We tend to think of a thing as either animate or inanimate, but there are gray areas involved when it comes to personal meaning.  Reflect for a moment on how you think about the natural world, and how you relate to the essence of something within it.  Do birds have feelings?  How aware are bees?  Can trees communicate? 

The old two-letter word

There is a degree of scale involved here, and a built-in order of importance when it comes to pronouns.  The idea of “it” vs “he” or “she” is an expression of the degree of animacy.  Things in nature are typically an “it”.  We typically use the pronoun “it” to refer to rocks, trees, birds, panthers and porcupines.  People are seldom referred to this way, and when they are it has a negative meaning. 

It seems that animacy used in everyday language in my culture is based not so much on how sentient a thing is, but on its relevance to the speaker.  For example, someone may refer to a cat as “it” but a dearly loved pet is nearly always a she or he.  They are important to us, they are relevant – they are family.

I too speak and write like this, in spite of a feeling of kinship with living things (which include a deep-seated feeling that rocks have awareness).  “It” is what I’ve been taught – the good grammar of communication.  Not to mention that the word “it” is a useful, multi-meaning and functional term. 

The new two-letter word

Sketch of an unknown bird - sparrow?

After a conversation on the idea of animacy, the words we use, and the meanings we give them, Rebecca spoke of a new pronoun for nature proposed by Robin Wall Kimmerer to replace the “it” pronoun when referring to things of nature.  We needed a word that signifies animacy. 

In a 2015 essay for Yes! Magazine, Robin relates how Stewart King suggested to her that the proper Anishinaabe word for “beings of the living Earth” would be Bemaadiziiaaki.  Stewart was a Potawatomi elder and spiritual teacher who mentored Robin’s return to her Native American roots and ancestral language.  Robin shortens Bemaadiziiaaki to two new pronouns “ki” and “kin”.   Ki takes the place of it, he, or she.  Kin replaces the plural pronoun they.  

As part of our writing exploration last week, Rebecca challenged us to try using these pronouns.

I tried using ki as a nature pronoun instead of “it”.  Not to humanize nature, or to drape my subject with an anthropomorphic cloak, but to see if there was a difference.  I had been thinking about a poem to go with a recent nature sketch, but the pronoun for my imagined birdling showed up only once.  I went ahead anyway and substituted ki for it.

Was there a difference in how I felt?  Yes.

What happened? 

No trumpets sounded, but somewhere in the sub-basement of my consciousness, I felt a tremor.  Something shifted (in a positive way).  Because it’s still dark down there, I’m not sure what happened.  As I’ve gotten older, I realize that I tend to process profound emotional changes through my physical body, and this was a core body feeling. 

So… something did change, felt in heart and body.  I feel a new closeness, a deeper link that’s hard to describe.  I’m already reevaluating my relationship to nature and the responsibilities that emerge when kinship ties deepen.  Every rock I’ve collected, every plant transplanted and seeds sown where kin have no business living.  

I have to stop thinking at some point because I am overwhelmed. 

Will changing my nature pronouns change how I think and speak and write and live?  I hope so.  Using ki and kin signifies something – connections strengthened, a sense of family instilled.  We treat friends differently than strangers.  But habits are persistent, and the old ways tend to creep back in.  Perhaps with this bit of awareness, I’m making a place for ki and kin until they become old friends.

Want to explore more?  Here are some links for you:

The workshop

The title of the online workshop is Nature Journal Writing Workshop Wednesdays, led by Rebecca Rolnick, a biologist, writer, and environmental educator.  The workshop is open to anyone and free, with a donation option.  During the one I attended last week, an idea was discussed, then we explored the concept with a short writing time, and ended the hour by sharing our words. 

https://www.rebeccarolnick.com/nature-journal-writing-workshop?fbclid=IwAR3QF6y-X4glB0JcL-mbmd1NOQaLUz0EPaJ8-8dmP3CejQUoWLwTJJBGi60

The book

Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Braiding_Sweetgrass

 Essays by Robin Wall Kimmerer

“Nature Needs a New Pronoun: To Stop the Age of Extinction, Let’s Start by Ditching ‘It”’

Yes! Magazine, March 30, 2015.  https://www.yesmagazine.org/issue/together-earth/2015/03/30/alternative-grammar-a-new-language-of-kinship

 “Speaking of Nature.”  Orion Magazine, June 12, 2017.  https://orionmagazine.org/article/speaking-of-nature/

 I’d love to know your thoughts on animacy.  What do you feel or think or have experienced?  

Sunday, May 31, 2020

International Nature Journal Week starts June 1st!

 Isn't this exciting?!  A whole week of nature journal inspiration as journalers celebrate International Nature Journal Week June 1 through 7!

Common violet, click to view larger.
Each day has a theme, with live workshops and how-tos.  Visit the International Nature Journal Week website to find out schedules, read blog posts, or learn how to participate yourself.  You do not have to be an artist or a naturalist to keep a nature journal!

The process of keeping a visual nature journal is a path.  It’s not about creating a finished product or a pretty picture.  My journals are a reflection of curiosity and discovery.  

 Every time I sketch something, I deepen my relationship with my subject by experiencing it differently.  I find myself asking questions and thinking more deeply.  I get to know my subject on a personal level.

My journals might be filled with quick sketches, detailed studies, photos, maps, poetry, or notes on observations.  We can record the progress of our garden, explorations of nearby habitats, or emotional responses to the beauty and diversity of the natural world.

Coral honeysuckle - loved by butterflies and hummingbirds!
Here’s what I’ve discovered that makes these journals valuable to me:  my drawing and painting skills have sharpened, especially when I draw on a weekly basis.  My observation has improved – I find myself specifically seeking out details in order to capture them on the fly or to write them down later.  My knowledge base is more dimensional; not only have I learned more, my emotional connection to nature has become more specific and I have a deeper sense of how individual parts fit into the whole.

Keep in mind the process, and don’t get over-involved with the outcome of each page.  As you practice, you’ll find your skills improving in every area!  Don’t be discouraged if you start and then stop.  When you’re ready, you’ll pick up your journal again and the words and pictures will flow onto the page.  Remember that it all “begins at the beginning” with that first step.  This is your exploration of the natural world around you!  This is your story to tell!

Here is some inspiration to get you and your family started!

Getting started PDF - quick ideas Fun ideas for kids - PDF







Friday, April 10, 2020

April 10th is Florida Gopher Tortoise Day!

A typical gopher tortoise burrow at The Naples Preserve.

In honor of Florida's Gopher Tortoise Day, I am re-posting an updated version of a post  created 9 years ago.

Way back in 2011, I visited the Naples Preserve and sketched a gopher tortoise burrow as part of my nature journal entry about the coastal plain honeycomb head wildflower.  It’s funny how a drawing can start trains of thought and exploration.  Although I didn’t see any tortoises that day, the burrow opening itself led me to wonder about the gopher tortoise: what they eat and how they live.  I've since seen several in various locations in Collier County, mainly in coastal and scrub locations (think SANDY soil!).

Gopher tortoises are a keystone species.  A keystone is the wedge-shaped piece at the top of an arch that supports the other parts. If a keystone is removed, the arch collapses.  A keystone species has a disproportionately large effect on its environment relative to its quantity.  These amazing creatures are very important to the survival of other species that share their habitat.
Click on image to see a larger size.

For example, it’s been estimated that gopher tortoise burrows (both active and abandoned) provide support for over 300 types of animals, birds, and insects – which use them for shelter, hiding places, or protection from the elements.  These are commensal relationships, relationships in which one organism benefits while the other is neither harmed nor helped.

Gopher tortoise burrows average 15 ft. in length and may be as deep as 6 feet. The longest estimate is up to 48 ft. in length! The burrows have one entrance (that is also the exit), and eventually open up into a larger “bedroom.”  Species using these burrows range from burrowing owls and scrub jays, to Florida mice, gopher frogs, opossums, scorpions, and indigo snakes.

Gopher tortoises are found all over Florida, but only in certain types of habitats.  They range into Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and the southernmost tip of South Carolina.  Although once common, numbers have dwindled because of habitat destruction In Florida.  On the state's Endangered and Threatened Species List they are listed as Threatened. 

Some other interesting things I learned about gopher tortoises:

• They first appeared during the Pleistocene Epoch, and are one of our oldest living species.

• Gopher tortoises are land reptiles – they do not live in or near the water!  In fact, they rarely drink water, getting fluids from the plants they eat.  If you find one, please do NOT place them in water, and help educate others to their needs!  Well-meaning people often try to "help" these tortoises by placing them  in a nearby lake or canal.  They are better off left alone!


• They live in areas with easy to dig sand, such as pine flatwoods and scrub habitats.

• The size of the burrow opening corresponds to the size of the tortoise using it.

• They are herbivore scavengers, eating grasses, legumes, mushrooms, fruits, berries, and even flowers.

• Biologists believe that they have a 40 to 60 year life span in the wild; they live much longer in captivity.
https://drive.google.com/open?id=1NTlRJ5SxzQFX-HAv9CvOYU-d38uaqciA

Some websites on gopher tortoises for further exploration:

All about Florida Gopher Tortoise Day with educational resources, including a coloring book to download (scroll down).


Ginny Stibolt's account of finding a gopher tortoise in her Florida backyard, with in-depth facts.

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission page

Free coloring page!  you can click HERE to download a free gopher tortoise coloring page in PDF format (right).



Thursday, March 19, 2020

A Sanibel Island Workshop



“The sun shines not on us, but in us.”
  ~ John Muir
The back of the Bailey Homestead and the native nursery.
Any wacky angles are the artist's, not the construction!


A workshop
Last Wednesday (March 11, 2020), I facilitated an introduction to nature journaling workshop.  We spent a sunny and serene tropical afternoon in the pavilion behind the Bailey Homestead Preserve at the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation (SCCF), on Sanibel Island, Florida.

It’s a good memory today, because of increasing concerns about the spread of COVID-19.    Rather than dwell on a subject that’s over-done and everywhere, let’s share something far more pleasant.   It will be so much better for our immune systems.  :- )

A group of us met for three hours under the pavilion behind the native plant nursery, the light breeze bringing the promise of ocean air, and that soft, yet bright sun’s heat that I associate with mid-March in Florida.  The light is clear and clean, with none of summer’s dusty tiredness and intense heat and humidity.  The sky still has traces of winter’s cool blue, with puffy clouds that don’t yet build into summer’s cumulus towers.  Greens are still fresh, with that particular color of crisp spring green emerging here and there.  

Starting off
We are in just a small part of the Bailey Homestead Preserve, which is just a small part of the overall conservation foundation.  To the front of the preserve is a restored Florida house, to the back are trails and wilder areas.  There is a wide open lawn for events, the native plant nursery and retail sales, and an open-air pavilion with chickee-hut-style roofing. you can see us in the pavilion in the photo below.  I'm standing behind the table while Jenny Evans, Native Landscapes and Garden Center Manager, is starting us off.

The breezy open air pavilion - with nature everywhere!
 At break, we get to chat and to browse through the many reference books I like to bring along (yes, I have way too many books!), plus a collection of my past nature journals.  Some of my sketchbooks are over ten years old, but have held up remarkably well – so I can tell the care that others use when handling them.  Thank you.

Drawing time
After our break, we choose a spot and draw individually.  This is the time when I try to visit each person privately, to help with a challenge or to admire their progress. 

A group of twelve is about my maximum, but even then it can be hard to find the artists once they scatter.  I apologize to those who found secure hiding places from me!  We typically spend the first part of our time together on introductions and a presentation on the large screen of different ways to create a nature journal. 

Bright lemon- and buttery-yellow sunflowers and daisy-like flowers abound.  Beach sunflower, coreopsis (tickseed), and gaillardia (blanket flower) are all blooming.  Vibrant shades of pink-to-lavender-to-violet:  verbena, railroad vine, and iris.   And a dash of bright scarlet – tropical sage.  Mmmmmmm… heaven for the artist within.  These are just a few of the flowers along the brick walkways of the native garden center and preserve!  I found myself longing for the entire week to explore this magical place.  However, fledging nature journalers  await.

And time to share
Our next step is to group back in the pavilion to share our experiences,  This (to me) is where a lot of our very real learning takes place!  Sharing our work is always optional.  Our group is here to provide a safe and supportive place with like-minded folks. 

Taking time to share, to learn, to grow.
We see our work through their eyes, and suddenly (!) the parts we felt were failures become successes.   This is not about comparing and competing - we ALL start at the beginning of this journey.  We all have good days and bad.  The important thing is that we're DOING.  So... let the judgements go.  Use those powers of discernment to get to where you want to go.  When we change our internal dialogue, we do much better, plus we're happier.  :-)

When we share, we experience the joy of someone’s new paint color, we thrill to a sketchbook of exotic paper, we learn the name of an unidentified species.  I always learn something new.  It’s exciting to me to see our natural world through the eyes of architects, nurses, or accountants.  Each of us has a different lens of experience that informs our work as an artist.  How cool is that!

Thanks for letting me share my Sanibel adventure – I hope you get to feel a bit of the tropical sun and the breeze feathering your hair... 
And remember to let yourself shine.

Watercolor sketch media:
Canson CP watercolor paper 140 lb.
Mechanical pencil .7mm
Sakura Micron Pigma black artist’s ink pen 01
Molotow making fluid pump pen 2 mm
Daniel Smith watercolors
Round WC brushes #8, 12